Fermentation and pickling has long been viewed as an effective and healthy way to preserve certain foods. Our ancestors fermented cabbage and other vegetables to make delicious and easy-to-store foods that would see their families through the winter and early spring. These pickled and fermented foods were most commonly prepared in large stoneware crocks – an historic homesteading tool that is often forgotten.
Stoneware is made of a fine quality clay which is semi-vitrified, or fired until it is hard and non-porous, but not to the point where silicates inside the clay body fuse into glass. Industrial ceramics, china and other such items are fully vitrified and are made with clay and other ingredients that form an extra-strong ceramic, while stoneware is not as chemically complex.
Our ancestors knew there was no need to make a high-grade porcelain body for their stoneware crocks, which allowed them to make functional and sometimes highly artistic crockery using less fuel to fire the clay body. The fired stoneware body was then glazed, fired a second time to fix the glaze, and then was ready for use. Over time, stoneware-preserving crocks took on several common forms, but most always with a large, wide mouth and big enough to hold multiple gallons of produce.
What is exciting is that even today, you can buy the same kind of stoneware that your grandparents or great grandparents used, as there is still a thriving stoneware industry in Ohio. In size, shape, appearance and sometimes even marking, these crocks are unchanged from the days when there was no power grid. These crocks are either open crocks or water-sealed, and the difference is important depending on what you are making.
Sauerkraut and other fermented foods are made in an anaerobic (air-free) environment, and in the days before modern airtight seals, the best way to seal a crock was with a lid that sat in a water-filled trough on the top of the crock, making a simple, and effective seal that kept out the air and allowed for fermentation to take place.
Open crocks are more commonly used for pickling, but also can be used for fermenting if you have the right types of lids and weights. Their primary disadvantage is that you are more likely to get one of several common kinds of harmless mold growing on your food, which had to be removed regularly during the pickling or fermentation process. Whichever method you choose to use, you should take care to select the right kind of crock.
It’s tempting to want to use Grandma’s old stoneware down in the basement, or maybe take advantage of an affordably priced crock from Mexico, but is it safe?
Imported stoneware may not be intended for actual use and may be more decorative than functional. They may have lead glazes, or may not be made to stand up to regular use. Nobody loves lead in their food, and no one wants a crock that fails and destroys their hard work and precious food supplies. As cliché as it sounds, buy American. The stoneware business isn’t what it used to be, and the small price difference for a good American crock keeps your money at home and keeps Americans working – and keeps you safe.
Now, it may be tempting to use an old crock, but first you need to inspect it. Is it chipped or cracked? A small chip on the top of an open crock shouldn’t be a problem, but a water sealer that won’t hold water is a deal-breaker. Cracks can weaken the body of the crock and serve as a place for bacteria to grow unless it is very carefully cleaned. While the stoneware body isn’t porous, a crack can lead to more problems down the road. Replace a cracked crock unless you badly need to use it. Honestly, unless you have good used crocks on hand, you are better off buying new ones, which leads us to the last little bit you will need before you start preserving food in crocks.
Assuming you are using an open top crock, you will need lids and possibly weights. Lids are made of either stoneware (and fit loosely on the top) or wood (and designed to be used with weights). The weights are traditionally matching stoneware, although most any weight can be used. Weight lids are used in fermenting in place of a water-sealed crock, and are perhaps the most traditionally American way to make sauerkraut and other fermented foods.
For a modest investment of about $100 or so, you can start making your own pickled and fermented foods. It is strongly advised that you do not use a plastic bucket for fermentation, as the chemicals formed during fermentation can interact with the plastic and leach BPA and other toxic chemicals into your food. Fermenting and pickling your own food is a rewarding and traditional way of food preservation, but as with all endeavors, you need to have the right tools for the job at hand. Clean, undamaged and modern stoneware crockery will serve you and your children and grandchildren for years to come, and can be a constant source of healthy, homemade foodstuffs free of the artificial colors, flavors and even corn syrup that infest modern commercial food. Preserving in stoneware is a direct link back to our pioneer ancestors and a path forward to off-grid freedom.