Category Archives: Fermentation

Busy-ness

I had set a goal to try to write a new blog post at least once a week, but I honestly have not had the time to devote to it this past week or so. I have been absorbed by the process of writing a business plan so that we can go to a lender and get a loan to go into business for real.

Teaching is something that I love and am good at, so if this takes off fear not! I will continue to spread the word about the wonderfulness of fermentation in its many forms. So keep your fingers crossed for us! I will let you know more as this develops.

The World’s Oldest Cheese

Eight years ago I was cloistered away in my little apartment working on my master’s thesis in Late Antiquity and Early Medieval History. I spent months obsessively documenting silk trade, technology, and fashion as it moved both west and east throughout the Eurasian continent. Now you may be asking yourself what in the world does ancient silk trade and fashion have to do with the world’s oldest cheese? I beg your patience, dear reader. I will get to the cheese, but first let me tell you about one of the peoples I researched and wrote about in my sleep-deprived, madness-inducing, thesis writing experience. Some of what follows will be directly from my thesis, The Emperor’s New Clothes: Sericulture, Silk Trade, and Sartorial Exchange Along the Silk Road Prior to the First Crusade (Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas, 2006), while some is new research. Since I have no personal pictures of the mummies, I will link to websites that do have pictures (let them worry about copyright infringement!). Unfortunately, I seem to find the best pictures on some of what I as a scholar deem to be less than reputable sites. I know that the pictures and maps are accurate because of all the actual reputable sources I’ve seen the same pictures in over the years, but I suppose that many academics use their photos to publish in peer-reviewed journals and books rather than websites.

Modern Day

In the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, the westernmost part of the country, many well preserved mummies were unearthed between the late 1930’s and 2009. The mummies had been buried near various settlements around the edge of the Taklamakan Desert of the Tarim Basin over a thousand year period between 2000 BCE and 400 BCE. Some burial locations seem to have been chosen because the soil was infertile. This infertility was caused by geological formations of salt beds. Once buried, these bodies dried out in the desert heat and were freeze-dried during the winter. The salt beds also acted to preserve the bodies in them so well that thousands of years later their face paint is still visible and their clothing remains vibrant and whole. One of the most surprising things about these mummies, who had lived and died in the very heart of Central Asia, is that the oldest ones were Caucasian. It has not been definitively established why these people were so far east, though it is likely that they had followed their herds grazing their way along the steppe.

The textiles found on and around the mummies were analyzed by Dr. Elizabeth Wayland Barber, an expert in ancient textiles and a professor of linguistics and archeology at Occidental College in California, and Dr. Irene Good, a specialist in the laboratory analysis of ancient fibers and textiles from the University of Pennsylvania. During their research, many similarities were found between the textiles buried with the Tarim mummies and those uncovered in the Celtic Hallstatt civilization, a culture that prospered in what are now southern Germany, western Hungary, and Austria, between 900 BCE and 500 BCE. The Hallstatt civilization is named for the area in Austria where the first discoveries of this culture were found buried in salt mines (not unlike the salt beds in which the Tarim mummies were interred).

These far-flung burial finds may seem unrelated, however they actually demonstrate an ancient trade network had formed, or had begun to form, several centuries before the Silk Road was officially established during the Han Dynasty (205 BCE to 220 CE).

The Small River Cemetery, or Xiaohe Mudi, was originally excavated in 1934 by the Swedish archaeologist Folke Bergman, but its location was forgotten for nearly 70 years. In 2000, the cemetery was rediscovered and archeologists and looters raced to uncover its secrets. Between 2003 – 2005, a group of Chinese archaeologists completed the excavation of the entire necropolis at Xiaohe.

The bodies were buried in coffins shaped like overturned boats. The body was placed on the ground and the two sides of the coffin were fitted around the corpse. Next, planks that were made to fit the boat-shaped coffin were laid across the top. Then a few oxen were slaughtered, perhaps as part of a sacrificial funeral rite, and skinned at the cemetery. The coffin was then covered with the ox hides which shrunk to fit the coffin in the desert heat, like shrink wrap. Because of this, the coffins and the bodies inside were pristine. Not even a grain of sand managed to get into the sealed coffins until they were opened, either by the archaeologists or looters. The Xiaohe people were buried dressed in lovely wool clothing, leather boots, with ephedra twigs, tamarisk branches, jade beads (the nearest contemporary jade production was 300 miles away!), feathers, well-crafted baskets, wheat and barley grains, and cow and sheep/goat ears. In addition, on some of the mummies they discovered an organic compound placed in lumps around the mummies’ necks. A few also had an organic substance in baskets near their waists.

Okay, so what about the cheese? No one knows for sure when cheese was first made. There have been sieve-like vessels discovered in Eastern Europe that have been tested and found to contain traces of milk proteins. Some of these specimens are 7,000 years old! Despite this, no examples of intact ancient cheese have been found until the lumps of organic compounds on the Xiaohe mummies.

Ancient Times

To figure out how cheese got that far east we have to go back pretty far in our pre-history, to where dairy production began. On what we now know as the Eurasian or Russian steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas, there was a group of people who spoke a common language that we call Proto-Indo-European. Now we have no written records from this era in this region, writing hadn’t been invented yet, so we have to look at the archaeological record and at the common language that modern scholars have been able to piece together.

Indo-European is the language family that includes English, German, Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Swedish, Hindi, Persian, Celtic, and Tocharian, to name a few. The ancestors to all the speakers of the Indo-European languages today, the Proto-Indo-European speaking peoples, began as foragers in the river valleys north of the Black and Caspian Seas around 5200 -5000 BCE. Apart from the river valleys most of the steppes were not a good place for farming, so they relied on the foods they could hunt and gather, like wild plants and nuts, wild boar, fish, wild horses and sheep, and the wild aurochs (the largest bovine to walk the earth).

The grasslands of the Russian steppe are much like our American plains, but these early ancestors did not have the agricultural advancements that the American settlers had (and a great many of those American settlers still died of starvation). There are no plants that grow there that are edible for humans, but there are 3,000 miles of open grasslands. What they could grow on the grasslands were animals: cattle, sheep, goats, and horses.

Cattle, goat, and sheep domestication was revolutionary! People went from a communal, hunter-gatherer society where social status would have been dictated according to who the best hunter was or who could always find the best berries to one where social status depended on how many cattle or sheep one owned. These animals not only produced meat, but hides and wool for clothing and tents, and milk.

The next important animal to have been domesticated was the horse. Horses were originally kept as food, but eventually people learned that they could ride them. Soon after the horse was domesticated the wheeled cart was invented around 3300 – 3100 BCE. This allowed the Proto-Indo-Europeans to move not only their herds when they had exhausted their food supply, but whole tribes – they became nomads.

At this point in human evolution no one was able to tolerate lactose (milk sugar). The first cheese was probably a happy accident: something acidic curdled the milk (possibly stored in a bag made from an animal stomach), the lactose-heavy whey drained away and left lovely curds. The discovery of milk fermentation was just as revolutionary as the domestication of animals. Now the Indo-Europeans had access to a steady and prolific supply of protein that did not require the death of an animal. This nutritional increase resulted in these ancient people becoming physically larger than their contemporaries without access to dairy protein. This would have led to increased population growth. And as populations grow, eventually parts of those populations break off and find new herding lands – thus we have the beginnings of the Indo-European diaspora. It was one of these nomadic Indo-European peoples, the Tocharians, who traveled east with their herds.

The scholars who study languages, etymologists and philologists, were able to determine approximately when certain languages, and the peoples who spoke them, left the original Indo-European group due to how much the languages changed over time. According to David Anthony’s The Horse, The Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, it is quite likely that the Tocharians were the second group to leave the Proto-Indo-European homeland (the first to leave home were the Hittites). The descendants of these early explorers left written records in their abandoned settlements in the Tarim Basin. When analyzed the languages, Tocharian A and B, were closely linked to the Celtic language.

The Science

[DISCLAIMER: I am not a scientist. I have done my best to interpret the science for those, like me, who did not take chemistry or microbiology in college. To get serious details please see the Proteomics Evidence article cited below.]

So let’s look again at the organic compounds found on the Xiaohe mummies. The lumps were approximately 1 – 2 cm in diameter with a chunky texture. The scientists took 5 – 15 mg samples from 12 organic lumps found in ten different graves. They took each sample, ground it down to powder, added a bunch of chemicals I’ve never heard of to them and eventually got them to where they could analyze them. The proteomic (protein) analysis, Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometry (FTIR) characterization, ion chromatography, and elemental composition analyses led them to believe that what they were looking at cheese made mostly from cows’ milk, though there were some goat or sheep milk mixed in some samples. Due to the differences in exactly which caseins and proteins remained in the ancient samples, the scientists realized that the cheese was not made with rennet nor by acidification. Therefore, they looked at milk fermentation and found that the Xiaohe samples contained proteins from lactic acid bacteria (LAB) which included Lactobacillus kefiranofaciens and various Saccharomycetaceae yeasts which are commonly found in kefir.

Commercial raw milk and kefir grains (Caucasian and Tibetan) were obtained and the scientists made kefir cheese by pouring pasteurized, non-homogenated cow milk over the kefir grains and letting them sit at room temperature for 72 hours. Then the whey was strained off the curds resulting in yummy cheese. The milk, kefir grains, and kefir cheese were each dried in a vacuum centrifuge and processed the same way the organic compounds from the graves were.

When the compositions of the modern samples and the ancient samples were compared it was determined that L. kefiranofaciens was the predominant source of LAB proteins in ten of the twelve Xiaohe samples. The yeast proteins were from Candida kefir (aka Kluyveromyces marxianus) and Saccharomyces cerevisiae. These yeasts are the ones found in modern Tibetan kefir. The scientists concluded that ten of the twelve ancient samples were kefir cheese.

The two Xiaohe samples that were not kefir cheese were found in the same grave, M13. The M13 samples were placed like the others, around the neck and in a basket near the waist. The samples were both dairy products made of raw milk, but did not contain LAB. They did, however, contain mold. Whether the M13 samples were another type of cheese, the article did not say. The scientists “concluded that the protein composition that we attributed to Xiaohe kefir cheeses is a bona fide dairy practice hallmark and that it did not arise spontaneously from unprocessed milk over thousands of years.”

Due to the low salt content of the Xiaohe kefir cheeses, the scientists also speculated that the cheeses were made to be eaten relatively quickly, rather than being stored long term or traded across long distances. The low levels of lipids seem to indicate that the raw milk may have been skimmed. Although there was no evidence of butter production (butter is made from cream) at Xiaohe, that does not mean anything. The cemetery is many miles away from the nearest known contemporary human settlements.

Conclusion

Due to the linguistic, textile, and DNA evidence of the early Tarim Basin mummies, we know that these ancient Tocharians were the easternmost branch of the Indo-European family tree, long-lost cousins to the Celts. They participated in dairy herding and long-distance trade. They had sophisticated textile and basket weaving techniques. And they had a rich funerary practice. The food they preferred, perhaps the food that enabled them to live in one of the most inhospitable climates that humans have ever continuously survived in, that let them cross thousands of miles of grasslands, and that accompanied the dead on their final journey was simple, delicious kefir cheese.

We still don’t know exactly where kefir grains originated but since the ancient Tocharians had the kind that we know as Tibetan kefir grains, we can only speculate that they perhaps traded for them somewhere in their wanderings. Since they were trading with peoples in every direction (for evidence of that you probably need to read all the sources in the bibliography below), it may have been the Tocharians or some of their Indo-European cousins on the steppes that brought the knowledge of kefir to the west. Perhaps in time the desert will reveal more of its secrets.

Bibliography

Anthony, David W. The Horse, The Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. The Mummies of Ürümchi. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999. Reprinted, London: Pan Books, 2000.

Hansen, Stephanie D., The Emperor’s New Clothes: Sericulture, Silk Trade, and Sartorial Exchange Along the Silk Road Prior to the First Crusade. Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas, 2006.

Mair, Victor H. “Mummies of the Tarim Basin.” Archaeology, 48:2 (Mar/Apr 1995), 28 – 35.

Mair, Victor. “The Rediscovery and Complete Excavation of Ördek’s Necropolis.” The Journal of Indo-European Studies. Vol 34, No 3 & 4 (Fall/Winter 2006), 273 – 318.

Shavit, Elinoar. “Medicinal Mushrooms: Renewed Interest in Kefir, the Ancient Elixir of Longevity.” Fungi Vol 1:2 (Summer 2008), 14 – 18.

Stroud, Kevin. The History of English Podcast. http://historyofenglishpodcast.com, 2014.

Thomson, Helen and Adam Cole. “Archaeologists Find Ancient Evidence Of Cheese-Making” on National Public Radio. December 13, 2012. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/12/13/167034734/archaeologists-find-ancient-evidence-of-cheese-making, 2014.

Yang, Yimin, et al. “Proteomics evidence for kefir dairy in Early Bronze Age China.” Journal of Archaeological Science 45 (2014), 178 – 186.

Apples & Cider & Pears, Oh My!

Okay,  that may be a bit cheezy, but I don’t care. Fall has finally arrived in southern South Carolina! Fall is my favorite time of year not only because of the gorgeous fall colors, but also for the wonderful variety of fresh produce coming into season. The farmers markets are filled with beautiful pumpkins, root vegetables, greens, apples, and pears. I had never pressed apples or pears before, but I’ve been dying to try it.  A friend recently made me an apple press, so last weekend I decided to take it for a spin (pun intended).

Homemade Apple Press
Homemade Apple Press

 

Apples in Mesh Bag
Apples in Mesh Bag

I washed my apples under running water and ground them up in my food processor. Then I scooped them into a mesh straining bag and placed it in the press’s tub. Luckily a friend was visiting because it took three of us to wrestle that darned machine to barely squeeze a quart of juice out of nine pounds of apples! I took the pulp and cooked it down into apple butter, so it wasn’t a complete waste. I took my little bit of juice and let it ferment on its own with wild yeast. It took nearly a week before I saw the first bit of activity, but it seems to be fermenting well now. I’m anxious to see how it tastes with wild yeast instead of using commercially produced yeast.

 

A couple of days after our failed experiment I came across this awesome idea on YouTube.  I decided to try making pear cider, also known as perry.  I first tried perry many years ago in Sweden. It is light and refreshing and luscious! There’s nothing quite like a good perry. I’ve not really found anything comparable here in the States. I figured I would try making it myself.

In the video, the gentleman has some kind of hard plastic boards with slots cut out that he stacks in between his wrapped packages of apple pulp. I know I’ve seen those kinds of boards before, but for the life of me I can’t remember where or even what they are really called. That’s okay, I do well at improvising. I bought a package of thin, yet sturdy, plastic cutting boards (3 boards were in the package). Two of the boards I drilled large holes in to allow the juice to flow during the pressing process. The guy in the video also has built a sturdy frame in which he layers several packages of wrapped pulp. Since I wanted to try this process out without going to a lot of expense or effort, I used what I had on hand – my deck.

The deck has built in benches that are just high enough to work. I didn’t want to put too much pressure on the bench boards themselves, so I decided to use the supporting studs under the bench. I also decided to modify one of my good baking sheets, rather than trying to find a new cheap one. I don’t think I’ve ever made anything runny in this pan so I punched a couple of holes in one corner for the pear juice to run out. With everything scavenged or modified from around my house, it was time to try this new experiment.

Ground Pears
Ground Pears

 

I started by grinding up about 15 lbs of pears. I had gotten  a small bag of pears at the farmers market. The a friend (the same lady who helped wrestle the apple press) was given a large amount of pears by a neighbor and she in turn gave me a large bag of the fruit. It took a little while, but I got them all ground down. It was enough to fill two very large stainless steel bowls.

 

Filling Pan with Pear Pulp
Filling Pan with Pear Pulp

 

Next, I filled a small pan with the pear pulp. I lined the bottom of the pan with parchment paper to make sure the pulp would come out easily. I don’t know if it actually made any difference, but the pears did come out easily.

 

Pear Pulp Turned Out Fine
Pear Pulp Turned Out Fine

 

Then I positioned my pan, a bucket to catch the juice, and an unbleached linen napkin (cotton muslin would work as well, but commercial cheesecloth is not sturdy enough), and then flipped the pear pulp onto the center of the napkin.

 

 

Fold Fabric Tightly Around Pulp
Fold Fabric Tightly Around Pulp

 

 

 

Next, I wrapped the fabric tightly around the pear pulp, creating a little rectangular packet.

 

 

Second Layer
Second Layer

 

 

Then I stacked another drilled cutting board, napkin, and fruit pulp to make a second layer. You can keep going higher, but I only had two of those drilled cutting boards, plus my “frame” wasn’t tall enough for more than that.

 

 

Top With Whole Cutting Board and Car Jack
Top With Cutting Board and Car Jack

 

 

 

Next, just top the layers off with a whole cutting board and a small car jack.

 

 

 

Pressing Cider
Pressing Cider

 

Finally, you just pump up the jack to press the juice from the fruit. Soooooo much more efficient than that old fashioned press! I had about 15 lbs of pear pulp, so I had to do this a few times.  I ended up with a gallon and a half  of juice! The pulp was darn near dry – too dry to cook down, so my chickens were very happy to eat the dehydrated pulp.

Okay, so the set up is a little more involved, but honestly it was a lot better all the way round. I don’t mind a bit more work upfront if it has better results.

I strained the juice into a  gallon glass carboy and a 32 oz growler, added a smidge of yeast nutrient to each,  added about a tsp of cider yeast to the one gallon carboy and 1/2 tsp of cider yeast to the growler, and topped them both off with a bung and an airlock. I’m happy to report that my perry is bubbling away next to the small amount of apple cider fermenting with wild yeast. I’m so anxious to try them both, the wild cider and the perry! I sure hope my perry will taste as amazing as the Swedish perry I drank all those years ago….

 

Making Mead

I am on a quest to make a mead that my husband will like…. and that I will like too. I know a lot of mead makers, but the sad truth is that most meads are too hot, meaning that there are too many phenols and they overpower the subtilties of the honey resulting in drinks that taste more like fingernail polish remover than the drink of the gods. If you are a mead maker and you are insulted, I mean no disrespect – I’m just being honest. Now let’s talk about the happiness that is mead.

I made my first mead last January in honor of a dear friend who had passed away last year. Ken Stout made some of the most amazing meads I have ever had the pleasure of tasting. Ken was like a mad scientist in the kitchen on brew days, throwing random amounts of various spices or fruits in his mead must. Nothing was ever measured nor written down, and no two batches ever came out the same. Once he gave me his basic recipe. I took that recipe and made a gallon of mead from a random wildflower honey I got at the grocery store. The mead came out tasting like fingernail polish remover. It is sitting in a wine rack aging now. I don’t know what Ken the Meadmeister did that made his mead so darned good and I guess I never will. Hopefully after a year or so of aging the phenols will dissipate and it will taste nice, but in the meantime I decided to try something different.

Some friends of mine up in North Carolina make lovely, sweet mead in large quantities that they share at various events we go to sometimes. I called my buddies to get some advice. The first thing they told me was to not bother boiling the must – just mix your honey and water then toss in the rest of the ingredients. The second thing that makes their mead special is that they add tea leaves to the must – it helps clear the mead. And finally, they stop the fermentation after six weeks by adding crushed Campden tablets. By leaving many of the fermentable sugars in their mead it results in the delicate sweetness of their meads.

I tried their method with a local wildflower honey from a source I trust. While that was fermenting I heard Ken Shramm, champion mead maker extraordinaire, interviewed on the Basic Brewing podcast. He had lots of great advice and so I decided to read his book The Compleat Meadmaker in an effort to make the elusive great mead. I learned that two of the things I had read in recipes and had seen people do can have negative effects on the overall flavor of mead: boiling the must and using the wrong type of yeast.  There are lots of other little things he talks about in the book and if you are seriously interested in mead making you really must read it yourself.

My second batch, the unboiled, wildflower mead, came out tasting okay. It was ready to bottle by six weeks without using Campden tablets to stop the fermentation. It still had a bit of a phenol flavor, but was much better than my first attempt. One of the things that Mr. Schramm recommended to make a good wine great was to oak it. I happend to have some untoasted French oak chips, so I put 1/4 cup of them in a muslin bag and let it sit in the mead a few days. Since the chips have more surface area touching the mead than a barrel would have, it only took a few days for the mead to take on a slight oak flavor. I am happy with that mead, but I still wanted something better.

My hubby and I decided to up our yeast game. Until around May of this year we had been using relatively cheap, dry yeasts for our beer, wine, cider, and mead. So we did some research and went to our local home brew store with a laundry list of yeasts we wanted to try, mostly from White Labs or Wyeast. For mead and wine I ended up with White Labs WLP720 Sweet Mead/Wine yeast.  The main difference between the dry yeasts and the liquid yeasts is that the liquid ones are live, active cultures.

For all my little experiments I only brew one gallon at a time. I really don’t want to spend a tremendous amount of money on something that ends up tasting nasty, so one gallon batches suit me fine, at least until I figure out what works best. I didn’t want to use the whole tube of my fancy new yeast on one gallon of mead (it can ferment up to five gallons), so I split it between a single variety mead must (using purple starthistle honey) and a gallon of blueberry wine (using organic berries we had picked at a local farm). Using another bit of advice from Mr. Schramm’s book, I made a yeast starter and let the yeast multiply for 24 hours before pitching it in the mead and wine.  This allows the yeast to multiply and boosts the little critters’ ability to eat up the fermentable sugars and turn them into alcohol.

My blueberry wine was ready to bottle after six or seven weeks, but my mead lingered on actively fermenting. After two months I decided it was time to at least rack the mead off of the sediment. We tasted it and I must say, it is really good! The flavor of the honey is still perceptible with a slight citrus flavor and  no phenol flavor or aromas. Eureka!!!

But how to stop the fermentation? I could go with the Campden tablet thing, but I really didn’t want to add chemicals to this delicate mead. Then I remembered that a friend of mine in Charleston told me that he used sunshine to stop his mead fermentation. Anything you read about brewing or fermenting always includes a line about keeping your precious ferments away from light. I decided to give it a try and it worked!

Stopping Fermentation with Sunshine
Stopping Fermentation with Sunshine

I left the mead out on my deck all day yesterday to soak up the South Carolina sun. It is still nice and warm here and the mead may have gotten up to 90 degrees or so. It was still fermenting away most of the day. Every once in a while I would go by and shake the jug a little to help degas the mead. Then around dark I brought it inside. We have an opossum that visits once in a while and I wouldn’t want him tempted by this jug of liquid gold. This morning I got up thinking I would set it outside again today, but when I looked at the airlock the liquid had gotten sucked back into the chamber closest to the mead. I’ve only ever seen that happen when fermentation is completely finished. So yea for sunshine!!!

The mead still isn’t clear. I had added tea leaves in the beginning, but it is still cloudy. My first couple of meads were clear by this point. So I just added another tea bag to the mead and 1/4 cup of French oak chips. Hopefully I’ll be bottling it in a couple of days!

 

Muscadine Wine

Tomorrow evening I will be teaching a Muscadine Wine class in coordination with Augusta Locally Grown and the West End Market & Bakery in Augusta.  I sat down yesterday to write up a handout for my class and thought about how lucky we are to live in an area of such abundant, year-round produce.

Wild Muscadine Grape Leaves
Wild Muscadine Grape Leaves

The ice storm we had back in February broke a lot of my neighbors vine covered trees over onto my property. I’m not so happy with the trees, but those vines were wild muscadine vines. About a month ago I pulled a tarp underneath the vine-laden trees and shook the grapes out of them. I gathered several pounds of wild grapes and made a batch of wine that I’ll use tomorrow night to demonstrate how to rack the wine from one container to another.  I’ll be using a blueberry wine that’s been fermenting away for a couple of months to show them how to bottle the wine.  The blueberries were from a local farm where my hubby and I went and picked them ourselves. I love taking things that are foraged, that I’ve grown or at least picked myself and turning them into something wonderful and complex that can be enjoyed months later!

I’m sure we’ll have a good time tomorrow night and I hope to have some pictures taken so that I can post them here. I think my next class will be on Kefir or Mead, Cider & Ciser. I’ll let you know when I get it scheduled!

Okra Pickles and Fermented Green Tomatoes

As Fall is finally hitting us here along the South Carolina-Georgia border, my CSA basket has been filled with a lot of okra the past few weeks. Like many Southerners, I love okra. I love to fry it with a crispy coating of seasoned rice flour, I love to bake it at high heat after massaging it with olive oil and sea salt, and I love to pickle it (Sorry, I just can’t stand it in gumbo. I don’t have many texture issues, but the sliminess it produces in gumbo is one of them.). While perusing Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation I found that fermented okra can be quite a lovely thing. Since I had eaten all the fried okra I could care for this summer, I decided to give it a try.

I took a suggestion from Katz’s book and trimmed the stems a little bit, leaving the caps intact on the okra, stuffed them in jars with a couple of cloves of garlic, some pickling spices, a jalapeno, and covered it with brine. I let them ferment on the kitchen counter for three days and tried them. They hadn’t quite achieved the texture I was going for, so I left them for about another week. Over that next week, the slime from the okra came forth and the white mold-looking (although it isn’t mold and is perfectly safe) gunk that can sometimes accumulate on top of fermented veggies showed up. I scraped off the gunk, poured out the liquid, washed off my okra and put them in a fresh batch of brine and popped them in the fridge. They are a little slimy, but I’m happy with how they turned out.

My garden is pretty much done for the summer, though there are a few green cherry tomatoes still growing on one of my tomato vines. I am going to pick those this morning and ferment them as well. I hear that fermented green tomatoes turn into a very sour delight that I can’t wait to try!

Kimchi, kimchee, gimchi!

However you spell it, it’s a whole lot of wonderfulness. Kimchi is a traditional dish from Korea with a history that dates back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The word kimchi means “pickle” in Korean, and therefore is used to describe a variety of lacto-fermented foods. The kind that is most commonly known here in the States uses Napa cabbage and hot, ground pepper as two of its main ingredients. There are loads of other ingredients you can use, of course using the produce that is in season in your local area is always the best.

Kimchi Demo at the Augusta Veggie Food Truck
Kimchi Demo at the Augusta Veggie Food Truck

With that in mind I got together with the folks at Augusta Locally Grown to do a Kimchi Cooking Demo at their Veggie Food Truck market. It went very well – lots of folks tried it and the majority of them enjoyed it (even those who had never heard of kimchi, much less previously tried it). I want to share with any of you who might read this little blog how I make my kimchi. Regular cabbage is in season here in the Central Savannah River Area (CSRA) and I’ve not been able to find locally grown Napa cabbage, so I cheat a little a use the regular cabbage.

Ingredients (Makes about 7 quarts of Kimchi):

For salting cabbage:

3 heads cabbage
1/2 cup Kosher salt

Vegetables:

2 cups shredded radishes
1 cup shredded carrots
9 or 10 green onions, chopped
2 bell peppers, sliced
2 banana peppers, sliced

Spices:

1/2 cup garlic cloves (24 garlic cloves), minced
2 teaspoon ginger, minced
1/2 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup fermented salted shrimp (saeujeot) with the salty brine
1/2 – 2 cups hot pepper flakes (gochugaru), depending on taste

Directions:

1. Quarter each head of cabbage and dunk each quarter under water to get all the leaves wet. Sprinkle salt on all the leaves, pulling them apart to get salt on each leaf and let them rest for a couple of hours.

2. While the cabbage is resting, shred the carrots and radishes, mince the garlic and ginger, chop the onions, and slice the peppers.

3. Mix the spices and extra veggies into a paste.

4. When the cabbage is all rested, rinse the salt off and smear with the spice paste.

5. Roll the cabbage up into little packets and place into jars or a fermentation crock. Pack them down very tightly, use a pestle or a large spoon to crush it a little and let the juices flow. Leave an inch of space at the top of the container. Make sure the lids are put on loosely because the action of fermentation will release gases.

6. Let it sit at room temperature overnight and let the juices start to fill the jar. If by morning the kimchi isn’t covered by liquid, add a mild salt brine (1-4 tbsp of salt to a quart of water, depending on your taste) to cover the veggies.

7. Let sit at room temperature a day or two to start fermentation. You will start to see bubbles in the liquid and smell a funky smell – don’t worry, your kimchi is fermenting! Taste your kimchi every day or so until you are happy with the flavor, then put it in the fridge to stall the fermentation. It will last in the fridge for several months.

8. Enjoy your yummy kimchi and make it as often as you want!

Kombucha

Several months ago I decided that I wanted to make my own kombucha. I had bought some from a lady at my local online farmers market a couple of years ago and I couldn’t help but remember how she talked about how easy and affordable it was to make. Being the nerd that I am, I did some research and found out that one used to be able to buy a bottle of kombucha, pour it into a jar of sweet tea, wait a few weeks and then enjoy your own homebrewed buch as well as having a lovely SCOBY to use thereafter. But due to an FDA regulation that was enacted a few years ago, the commercially marketed kombucha that you buy nowadays has been filtered to the point that it cannot propagate a new SCOBY and, therefore, it is really only good to drink that one time. I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to pay $3.00 or more for one drink it better lead to a buzz down the road. I decided to go online and purchase a SCOBY so that I could make my own yummy, nutritious kombucha.

For those who may not be too familiar with the acronym, SCOBY is short for a Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast. In other words, it’s a fermentation culture. If you look at a SCOBY through the side of a clear glass jar, it can look kind of like a jellyfish… an alien jellyfish even. Shortly after I made my first batch of buch we had a major ice storm and were without electricity for a few days. I knew that the kombucha was supposed to stay between **76°-82°**. If it gets too much cooler, it can grow mold. When we got our power back on I was afraid that it had gone moldy, but I contacted the person I got it from, sent her some pictures and it was actually fine.
I originally brewed my buch in a one gallon jar that I covered with a coffee filter held in place with a rubber band. Like anything brewing with yeast, you have to keep light, especially sunlight off of it. I eventually found an old water cooler at an antique store and snatched it for less than $30! I cleaned it up and replaced the spigot. Then I placed a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), a small amount of brewed kombucha, and a LOT of organic sweet tea in the cooler… did I mention that my old water cooler/new kombucha continuous brewer holds five gallons?

So now I drink around three glasses of kombucha each day, especially if I’m out working in the yard. It’s so yummy and refreshing!

Recently it started getting acidic very quickly. You see, SCOBYs reproduce every so often. That’s really great if you want to set up several jars or continuous brewers, or if you want to share SCOBYs with your friends. I hadn’t taken a good look at my SCOBY since setting up my continuous brewer, so you can imagine my surprise when I found that it had reproduced many times and I had SCOBYs about 6” in thickness and around 14” in diameter! No wonder the buch was so acidic! So now I need to thin them down. I think I’ll take on that challenge this weekend.

Getting the Most Out of a Half Gallon of Cream & Three Cabbages

I am happy that in my state I can buy raw milk and cream. After tasting raw milk the first time I knew I would never be happy drinking pasteurized milk again! The cream is also wonderfully delicious. It isn’t as thick as the ultra-pasteurized heavy whipping cream that I used to buy, but it is luscious and naturally sweet. I can only buy it in half-gallon jugs, though. The ultra-pasteurized stuff will stay good in the fridge for over a month, the raw cream goes off a good bit sooner than that. There’s only so much creme brûlée and ice cream my hubby and I can eat so I had to find another way to use this amazing product.

I had seen a pin on Pinterest about making butter in a stand mixer, so I decided to try it. I did some research and found that in some traditional societies, the cream was allowed to go off before making butter out of it. The enzymes released when the cream begins to sour makes digestion easier on us and gives a nice flavor to the butter. So the next time I bought a half-gallon of cream, I let it go sour then put it in my stand mixer, covered it with a towel, set it on high speed and let it go. With the raw cream it took about twenty minutes for it to first turn into whipped cream and then separate into butter and buttermilk.

The buttermilk is not the cultured buttermilk that you can buy in stores – it is true buttermilk. My grandparents and great grandparents always ate cornbread crumbled up in their buttermilk, but I never did like it. But now I know that’s because it was the nasty cultured stuff. Real buttermilk has tiny flecks of butter that melt on your tongue as soon as they touch it. It is amazing! You can save your buttermilk and enjoy drinking it (I made cornbread from scratch and gorged myself on it with my buttermilk for a day or so).

But what if you really aren’t interested in buttermilk? There is another option. You can slowly heat the buttermilk to 180 degrees Fahrenheit (stirring constantly), add about three drops of liquid renet and watch the liquid separate into curds & whey. Line a colander with several layers of cheesecloth or a clean tea towel, set the colander over a bowl and pour the curds & whey into the cheesecloth. Leave the curds to drain for about an hour (less if you want them soft). Save the whey in jars for use later. Add a little salt to the curds and fresh herbs if you like. The cheese is a bit like ricotta, but I ate mine with gluten-free crackers.

Fresh cheese and butter from half gallon of cream.
Fresh cheese and butter from half gallon of cream.

I had about 2 1/2 quarts of whey left over. Whey is an amazing liquid! It is highly nutritious (this is where the whey protein many people use in their protein shakes come from). It is also great for food preservation. In Medieval Iceland, it was saved in barrels and fermented for a year or two and drank in lieu of ale. And it is good for the compost if you can’t figure out what else to do with it. I wanted to make lacto-fermented sauerkraut. It is less smelly and easier than traditional fermented sauerkraut.

At my local farmers market I found the most fantastic cabbage. Three of these heads filled a large trash bag and I looked like Santa hauling these babies to my car. I washed and cut the cabbage small enough to fit in my food processor and shredded it into tiny bits.

One giant head of cabbage.
One giant head of cabbage.

For Traditional Sour Kraut the ingredients are as follows:
1 head cabbage, shredded
1 Tbsp Kosher salt
4 Tbsp whey
1 Tbsp Caraway Seeds

For Latin American Sour Kraut the recipe is as follows:
1 head cabbage, shredded
1 cup carrots, shredded
1 large onion, quartered and thinly sliced
1 Tbsp Kosher salt
1 Tbsp dried oregano
4 Tbsp whey
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes

Ingredients for Latin American Sour Kraut.
Ingredients for Latin American Sour Kraut.

I mixed the ingredients together in a very large bowl (I used a 6 quart bowl) and pounded it with a stone pestal (you can also use a kitchen mallet) till the juices started flowing, about 8-10 minutes. This reduced the cabbage mixture from 6 quarts to 4 quarts.

Pounding away at the kraut mixture.
Pounding away at the kraut mixture.

After my arms were tired, I spooned the kraut into jars. Then push the solids down far enough to let the juice rise above the top. Make sure to leave an inch of empty space at the top. Don’t forget this step!

Press the kraut underneath the juice.
Press the kraut underneath the juice.

Leave the jars sitting on your counter at room temperature for three days. After this you can put the jars in the refrigerator. It lasts months in cold storage. Don’t worry about the green juice, it clears up as it ferments.
jars
So, from a half-gallon of cream, three heads of cabbage and a few more minor ingredients, you can enjoy around 16 Tbsps of fresh butter, around 2/3 cup of fresh cheese, and nine quarts of sauerkraut! I still have one quart of whey left. I think I’ll get some more cabbage or something else to ferment for the winter.

UPDATE (5/10/15):

I made a LOT of fermented veggies since that first experiment making  sauerkraut. I have come to prefer to fermented veggies without the whey. Whey is a great booster for folks fermenting veggies in the far north, like Maine or Scandinavia, but for where I live in the American South, it is unnecessary. The whey speeds up the time it takes to get fermentation started, but here in South Carolina I usually start seeing bubbles form after 12-24 hours (depending on the temperature and the particular vegetables being fermented). Another reason I’ve stopped using whey is that it imparts a flavor that I am not very fond of. In addition, I find that the time I listed, 3 days, isn’t really long enough for the veggies to ferment for my taste. I now leave things fermenting from one week to two months. You can start tasting your ferment after three days, if you’d like and keep trying it every day or two until the flavor is where you want it, then put it in the fridge to slow it down. So get to a farmers market (or better yet, your garden), grab some fresh veggies, and ferment them!