Pros: their "waterlock" system makes fermenting foods almost fool proof
Cons: heavy for its size and not real easy to clean
In recent years people have been rediscovering the joys of home food preservation. Not only can people purchase local foods, at their peak of ripeness, but by preserving their own foods, people know exactly what is in it, and more importantly, what is not in it, i. e. no chemical preservatives. Along with this new found love of preserving has come renewed interest in fermented foods, one of the oldest forms of food preservation. In the fermentation process, food is submerged in a brine, which allows beneficial bacteria to produce lactic acid, souring the food, while harmful bacteria, molds and fungi, are kept at bay. This is the method in which both sauerkraut and kosher pickles were traditionally made.
I can remember watching my Dad make fermented pickles in an old earthenware crock (let's not even get into whether it was made with lead free glaze or not-highly doubtful that it was). He would basically prep a bunch of cucumbers, toss them into the crock with fresh dill, fresh garlic and a few other spices, pour a brine solution over the whole mess and weight it down with a plate and brick, and cover the whole thing with a towel to keep out dust and debris. Every few days he would have to skim off any mold that developed, and occasionally something would go wrong and the whole batch would end up ruined by rampant molds or yeasts, causing soft, mushy pickles that tasted nasty.
In recent years, I've been trying my own hand at making sauerkraut and pickles, with some great successes, but I still had an occasional problem with a bad ferment here and there. That is until I got my own Harsch Gairtopf fermenting crock. I have my brother to thank for turning me on to these wonders as he has been using one for the last few years. These crocks are fantastic for making fermented foods. Just like traditional crocks they are made from heavy earthenware, which means they are great at controlling temperature fluctuations, and their lead free glaze keeps them from harboring aromas or giving bacteria a place to hide between uses. But the greatest thing about their design is the built-in "fermentation lock" that keeps your food in a sterile, oxygen free environment that promotes the formation of lactic acid while discouraging other micro organisms. This is accomplished by the large groove around the raised lip of the crock. Once your food is placed in the crock and submerged in brine, you add the 2 stone weights, that fight snugly against the sides of the crock, to ensure your food stays submerged. Next you place the lid on the crock and then fill the groove with plain water until it covers the 2 holes on the side of the lid. These holes allow carbon dioxide to escape, once a bit of pressure builds up, but the water prevents oxygen from entering the crock, ensuring a completely oxygen free, anaerobic environment in which the fermentation can take place. Just make sure to check the water level every few days to make sure that it remains above the holes in the lid.
Harsch Gairtopf makes it fermentation crocks in a variety of sizes, including 5, 7.5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 40 and 50 liter crocks. I currently own the 10 liter and am seriously considering a 7.5 and a 15 liter crock to expand my production for family use. Seeing as you can only fill the crocks about 80% full (you need room for the stone weights and the brine to cover everything) I, personally, think the 5 liter would just be too small. The 20 liter, and up, seem like they would be too large for the amount of food we would go through, but if your family is big on home preservation and eat a lot of fermented foods then these sizes might just be for you. They are made in Germany, so you know the production quality is high. I know numerous people who own a Harsch and none of them have ever had issues with cracking or chipping, unless they dropped it.
These crocks don't come cheap, but earthenware crocks are not cheap nowadays. A 10 liter Harsch crock will set you back anywhere from $150-200, while the 50 liter can cost from $400-500. Are they expensive? Yes. But, they are well worth it, if you do, or are planning on doing a lot of your own fermenting, and believe me, once you get started in fermenting it is pretty hard to stop.
When not writing product reviews for ChefTalk, you can find me blogging about food over at my website, www.onceachef.com.