Sunday, June 15, 2008

fermented things — no. 1 {beet rossl}

before refrigeration, food was mainly preserved in one of three ways: it was either salted, dried or fermented — the exception to this being those who lived in extreme northern climates who were able to keep items frozen. that method, however, was not as stable as the aforementioned. as refrigeration became commonplace, the need for some of these practices of food preservation decreased or become unnecessary. on the other hand, many of the foods we love can only be prepared by those methods — the most important being fermentation.

fermentation, the complex chemical conversion of carbohydrates involving temperature and microorganisms, can be either intentional or accidental (ummm, what's that growing in the jar in the back of the fridge??), turning sugars into acids. some cultures seem to have more forms of (everyday) fermented foods than others; the most obvious seen in both chinese and japanese cuisines. there is also the belief, by some, that fermented foods are good for us.

in jewish cuisine, one of the oldest and most ubiquitous forms of fermentation is done with vegetables. besides pickling cucumbers, east european jews, like the people in the countries in which they lived, also fermented beets which resulted in something called rossl. in eastern europe, this was always prepared in homes around the holiday of purim, exactly four weeks before passover. the resulting beet rossl, a dark red and sour mixture of beet and beet juice, was (and still is) used to make soups, in addition to other things.

after 4 weeks of fermenting, the beets and its juice is ready to make (passover) borshcht. this is the real {i.e. authentic} ingredient used in this soup; those who didn't have it just added either sour salt (citric acid crystals) or lemon juice. at the moment, i'm not posting a recipe here for borshcht (see here for something similar) — i'm just showing you the easy way to prepare this beet rossl which some people still make today. though not nearly as popular as it used to be in years gone by, people do really annually prepare it as they have for centuries to this day. it's really no work at all; the fermentation does it all for you!

beet rossl

after a few weeks of slow fermentation, the result is a tangy deep magenta liquid and its pickled pieces of beetroot. both the liquid and the beets are used in a variety of ways — mostly, however, for soups like borshcht, be it a vegetarian or meat version.

makes enough for 2 or 3 soups


3 very LARGE beets or 4 to 5 medium ones
9 c cold water (little more than 2L)


*you need an impeccably clean glass jar and lid; make sure it's dry before using.

peel the beets under running water, taking care not to get splashed as the beet juices stain terribly. remove each end first.

cut the beets into chunks.

place them in a sterilized and immaculately clean glass jar (~ 10 c / 2L + size).

fill the jar with water to cover. i usually fill it up so i will have quite a bit of liquid. the water must, at the very least, cover the beets by 2 inches (5 cm).

let the beets sit on a kitchen counter with the lid just sitting on top of the jar. DO NOT SCREW IT ON as the gases that form have no place to go. within a day, there should be foam on the surface. this is the fermentation process in progress. if you have a very warm kitchen, it could start as early as 8 to 12 hours.

remove this and discard it. you MUST use a completely clean spoon to do this each and every time so as not to contaminate (the fermentation of) the beets.

keep removing anything that you see on the surface on a daily basis.

eventually the fermentation will stop after a few days.

usually within 2 weeks, the beets and the juice will start to taste noticeably more sour. this is what you are aiming for — it should be sour (in a good way!). you can taste it to see, it's perfectly safe.

the juice and the beets will be ready to use after four weeks.

to use the results:

for the beets:

grate the beets by hand or do it in a food processor. you can just dice them up too — follow the directions of your recipe. be careful, it stains!

for the beet juice:

this is used in place of some, or all, of the liquid content of the recipe. because the liquid is soured already, you won't need to add lemon juice ..... unless, of course, the results are not sour enough for your taste.

most likely, you will not find any recipes which call for "rossl" specifically unless you are using a very old cookbook or a family recipe. this shouldn't deter you from making this and using it!



Callipygia said...

Alright, first you intice me with a photo that looks like beef stew...and then you intice me even more with fermented beets! I'm to the market soon to find one of those giant glass jars. 4 weeks huh? and just to make sure all 4 weeks on the counter? Thanks for another inspiring recipe.

burekaboy — said...

calli - hehe, sorry about that! i put a link for the soup; all you have to do is replace the regular beets and some of the liquid content with the beet rossl and its juice.

you can put the beets and water in several smaller glass (recycled) jars but it's more work to skim all of them (daily in the beginning).

yup, 4 weeks, on the counter. don't refrigerate it during the fermentation period; it needs the ambient heat. also, just keep the lid on top and don't screw it down for the whole period. it may even only take 3 weeks. you'll know it is right by the taste (sour-ish). i prefer it after 4 weeks. then, just store in the fridge after it's ready.

TopChamp said...

mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. I used to grow beetroot.

So it's fermented.... as in alcoholic??

burekaboy — said...

tc - i gather you like beets! LOL.

nah, no such luck -- fermented in the sour (i.e. vinegary) non-alcoholic way!!

sara said...

this is a new thing for me. i had read about fermented borshcht for passover but thought it was made with fresh beets and meat and then left to ferment hanging from the kitchen ceiling, once the soup was cooked. i'm not a big fan of beets but i feel i'll love this soured ones. i'll make some rossl for sure but'll wait until autumn for the soup!

burekaboy — said...

sari - LOL, what?! what book were you reading?!! hanging from the ceiling?? :(o) no no no -- unless you know something i don't!

you don't have to wait for the autumn; you can eat a meatless version cold; muy ashkenazi. it's very good, especially for the summer months when it's boiling hot. look here.