Ferment Friday no. 3: Kombucha

I have converted my family into a tribe of kombucha-lovers.

Well, all of them except the tallest one. He claims to be wary of the scoby. I can’t imagine why, it’s not creepy at all — I only get warm fuzzies when looking at it.

But, wait. Did I lose you at scoby?

The word, or the photo?

Ok, so let’s just pretend you didn’t see that, and back up a bit.

Kombucha is a cultured tea beverage. A culture, or SCoBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria & Yeast) is used to ferment sweetened black tea (green tea and yerba mate can also be used, but caffeine and sugar are both necessary to feed the yeast). The culture forms a “mat,” or in the words of my kids, “that ewwww! creepy thing that OH MY GOSH YOU’RE TOUCHING IT eeewww!! sits in the tea.”

The drink has been around for thousands of years (via China and Russia), and is known for its detoxing properties and probiotic benefits. It’s slightly fizzy, and has a pleasant sweet-tart flavor (most sugar is converted during culturing, and from what I’ve read the caffeine is also greatly reduced in the finished tea). You can buy commercially-produced kombucha for about $3-$4 per 16-oz bottle — or, you can make it at home for about $1/gallon.

…..aaaaaaannd in case you don’t want to do the quick math on that: that’s about TWENTY-EIGHT DOLLARS versus ONE DOLLAR. My kind of savings.

What do you need to make kombucha at home? You need organic tea, organic sugar, filtered water, a gallon jar, and a scoby.

I bought a scoby online a couple years ago from a very reputable source. I then set out to make my kombucha in the dead of winter. This plan? Bad. Idea. Jeans.

Kombucha likes warmth. In fact, this winter, I might invest in a little electric warming mat for my kombucha jar (thought about trying to rig this thing to do it, it’s cheaper than the official ones). So, lesson #1: if you’re buying a scoby online, I recommend starting it before the cold of winter sets in.

The very best way to get a scoby is to find a friend who’s making kombucha. The scoby’s multiply, or add new layers, as they culture. You can just separate the layers and give them to a friend to start a new batch. The scoby I have now was given to me by a friend in my culture club — and it makes the best kombucha I’ve ever tasted.

If you’re concerned about home-brewing safety, as I am — simply invest in pH strips or a pH meter. Kombucha is safe to drink at a pH of 3-4 (3 is ideal), which is the right acidity to prevent extra bacterial growth but not so acidic to hurt our tummies.

In case I’ve not sung the praises of kombucha enough:  this is, by far, the lowest-maintenance cultured product that I make at home. It only requires making a gallon of sweet tea every 1-2 weeks (depending on how fast your tea is culturing) and bottling the finished tea.

Still unsure? Go by the health food store and buy a few jars of GT’s plain kombucha (only drink about 1/3 of a jar per day). You’ll be hooked in a week, back here, desperate for information on how to make your own.

Mark. My. Words.

(This, from the woman who still hasn’t gotten her unbelievably stubborn husband to drink it. My next plan includes resorting to incessant mockery, for his “fear” of “icky things.”)

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No way. Whey.

You may have noticed that there’s a lot of mention here, in these parts, about whey.

No, it’s not the protein powder. It’s the stuff of Little Miss Muffet.

You remember her — she sat on her tuffet (questionable action), eating her curds and whey.

Now, I’ll stop here, and admit that the first time I made mozzarella cheese (no eye-rolling — it’s remarkably easy, I’ll tell you all about it sometime), and realized that I was actually stirring a pot of of two ingredients that completely flummoxed me during my formative Mother Goose years, I was delighted. But that delight quickly fell way to further confusion, because the whole point of cheese-making is that you remove the curds from the whey — you don’t eat a bowl of them together.

Now that I’m thinking about this again, I’ll probably lose sleep tonight.

Anywhey.

See? There’s no end to this.

So what is this mysterious liquid of Miss Muffet and her curious arachnid? Whey is the liquid that separates from milk solids when making yogurt or cheese or other cultured dairy products. When making cheese, this separation occurs in dramatic fashion when acid is added to the milk. With yogurt, it requires a little more time, and often requires straining (though sometimes yogurt separates on its own in the container — that liquid in your yogurt cup? yep — it’s whey). It’s full of enzymes, beneficial bacteria, and lactic acid — and is good for digestion and nutrient absorption.

Whey is used in all sorts of lacto-fermentation. Many folks put it in their cultured vegetables — I use mine in bread-making, overnight-soaking of grains and legumes, fermentation of fruits and homemade mayonnaise, and lately in making beet kvass (a fermented beet beverage, my new favorite). I always have whey in my refrigerator — which is pretty easy to do, since it lasts in a jar for about 6 weeks.

One of the greatest things about whey-making day is the byproduct of this method: yogurt cheese. It’s the consistency of cream cheese, though more tart — and with a little honey, vanilla, and cinnamon added, it makes a fantastic probiotic dip for fruits and crackers. I have at least two children who gobble this stuff up — and the third gets mocked by the whole family when she doesn’t. It’s fun times.

Oh, and greek yogurt? It’s nothing more than strained yogurt — just like what we do here in this process (you’d just stop after the first straining step, when the yogurt is very thick but still creamy).

So get off your tuffet and give this a try. Helpful hints: my favorite cheesecloth is this brand — and I’ve been using and washing the same cut-off 18″ square now for about 6 months, so it’s worth the tiny extra investment. Also, if you’re not into sweet dips, then by all means just use some chopped garlic, fresh herbs, and sea salt for a lovely savory dip. I’m sure Miss Muffet and her voyeuristic spider would approve.

 

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Make your own: sauerkraut

kraut-jarred

Fermenting vegetables can feel like a mysterious, risky thing.

Or, it did to me, anyway. And the first time I did it? I hated the results.

It was back in the infamous days of starting my half-baked adventures with the Nourishing Traditions cookbook. I made ginger carrots, since that’s what Sally says is the fermented vegetable most palatable to the newbie.

She was wrong. I let that quart of lacto-fermented carrots sit in my refrigerator for almost a year, hoping I’d wake up one day and like them. I finally dumped the quart when we moved.

Eating fermented veggies was always a struggle for me — I just didn’t have a taste for them. But when I started the GAPS diet, I was required to eat them with every meal — the probiotic value of those ferments is a huge help in digestion and balancing gut flora. I whipped up my first batch of sauerkraut just before starting the intro diet, and had my first taste during the second week.

kraut-quarteredcabbage

I loved it. Something had changed.

I’m not sure if it was that I was starving to death that first week (blinding hunger will certainly change how things taste), or if it was the fact that I cultured my kraut with just salt, not whey — but I’ve continued to love it, and even crave other fermented veggies as well — dilly carrot sticks and beet relish are among my daily binges.

kraut-slicedcabbage

So what’s the difference between veggies fermented with salt and those using whey (the liquid that separates from yogurt, or leftover from making cheese — I get mine from straining homemade yogurt)? I checked with the experts, the guys over at Fermenti Artisan, to get an answer.

In short, using whey provides for a much quicker ferment. It’s also more consistent, and offers a larger yield (you usually don’t have to scrape off browned pieces from the top because the cabbage ferments more quickly, less susceptible to oxidation). For those guys, selling ferments to the public in large quantities, these things are all important. But for me, since I prefer the flavor of a salt-only ferment, I choose to lose a little cabbage and skip the whey (in case you’re wondering, all of the bacteria in a salt-only ferment comes from the cabbage itself — which is why buying organic cabbage is important).

kraut-bowl

As a bonus, this kraut can be started at home by just about anyone, even if you don’t have whey on-hand. All you really need is organic cabbage, salt, a wooden spoon, and a canning jar or two. A teaspoon or two of your favorite herb seed (caraway, dill, fennel, etc.) will add flavor.

And, of course, an ounce or two of patience. Your kraut won’t be ready for a week, and the ideal time to consume it is after several weeks. So starting a jar means you’ll be enjoying it in about a month (I start a new jar when I get halfway down my current stash).

kraut-pound

If you’re interested in learning more, and are local to Indy, there will be a class on Thursday, April 19, at 6pm at City Market. The class will be taught by the guys at Fermenti Artisan with additional info from Kate Payne, author of The Hip Girls Guide to Homemaking, who’s coming to town for another visit. If you’d like to learn more and are not local, may I suggest a new book written by my online friend Wardeh Harmon of GNOWFGLINSThe Complete Idiot’s Guide to Fermenting Foods. It’s hot off the presses!

Or, if a simple brined kraut will do ya, grab a head of cabbage and get those juices flowing — let me know how it goes!

…………………………………………….

Recipe: Simple Sauerkraut

Ingredients

  • 1 medium (about 2 pounds) head organic* cabbage
  • 2 tsp sea salt, plus more for brine
  • 1/2 tsp caraway, dill, or fennel seeds
  • sliced onions and/or chopped peeled apple (optional)
  • 1 quart-sized canning jar, plus an additional pint jar if necessary

Instructions

  1. Rinse cabbage and remove any browned outer leaves. Using a large chef’s knife, cut the head into 4 quarters, cutting pole-to-pole (this is a great affordable chef’s knife)
  2. Remove the core by cutting at a diagonal along the stem (see photos above). With each core laying on its side, cut thin strips of cabbage.
  3. Place cabbage in a large bowl, and toss with 2 tsp sea salt. Let sit at room temperature (uncovered ok) for 20-30 minutes.
  4. Using a thick wooden spoon or meat tenderizer (a kraut pounder is on my gift list!), pound the cabbage for about 5 minutes to help release juices.
  5. Layer cabbage with optional onions & apples and seeds in a quart-sized glass canning jar. Really pack the vegetables in the jar.
  6. If more liquid is needed, make additional brine water: dissolve 1 tsp salt in 2 cups room-temperature filtered water. Pour this into the jars until the cabbage is covered.
  7. Place lids on the jars, but loosely. Place on a shelf or counter of your kitchen, and let sit for 7 days (it helps me to mark the date on the lid with a dry-erase marker).
  8. Remove any darkened vegetables from the top layer, and transfer lidded jar to the refrigerator. Kraut will continue to mellow for 3 or 4 weeks, but it’s safe to consume immediately. Will keep for several months in the refrigerator.

* Organic cabbage is important, as conventionally-raised cabbage could be bereft of bacteria needed to encourage fermentation.

Copyright © Katy Carter, 2012.

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One of myriad ways you can make your own yogurt

yogurt_jars

Seriously — have you ever done a google search for homemade yogurt? There are so many contraptions, home-rigged options, and preferences, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone, somewhere, fills a hot water bottle with milk and sits on it for 8 hours, multi-tasking by making yogurt and cushioning a weary backside at the same time. It can seem daunting and complicated, but it is a simple process: introduce live cultures to a quantity of milk (i.e., add ready-made yogurt to milk), and let those cultures eat sugar and multiply by keeping them at a temperature they love: around 90º. That’s it.

The first yogurt I ever made was soy yogurt. I personally hate the stuff — even when I was dairy-free I couldn’t stomach the off-putting flavor — but when my allergic guy was younger, I was desperate to get any sort of corn- and dairy-free probiotic into his system. Since all store-bought soy yogurts contain corn-based stabilizers, I was forced to go rogue. The process of making soy yogurt was much more complicated than making it from plain cow’s milk; soy requires some sort of thickener, plus an additional sweetener, and it was even more important to make sure everything was sterile — so I was boiling objects in my kitchen for an eternity before I could even get started. Long story short, my son never really took to it anyway, and then we ended up getting rid of soy. But the biggest casualty was my desire to make yogurt; it was such a pain, I didn’t see myself ever doing it.

But I gave it another try at the end of last year. We had starting getting our milk, local and raw, from a cow share program at a nearby farm. I had been spending $3.50 on a quart of plain organic whole milk yogurt at the store, and we were eating a lot of it. My mental cash register (does anyone else’s head ding when making calculations?) figured out that two quarts of yogurt made from our raw milk would cost $2.75.  That’s 39% of the cost of my favorite store-bought brand. I did a little more digging, and came up with a plan that now works quite well.

Continue reading “One of myriad ways you can make your own yogurt”

Culture shock

kombucha

Of all the ways I’ve been venturing into new and personally uncharted dietary territory, this one has, by far, been the most difficult to explain. Here’s a sample conversation:

Hey, Katy — what’s in that jar?

Oh, that? It’s kombucha.

What did you call me?

K-O-M-B-U-C-H-A.

Never heard of it.

It’s a fermented tea.

What’s that thing floating in it?

That’s the scoby.

Come again?

It’s kind of like a mushroom.

That’s a weird-looking mushroom. So… you’re drinking mushroom juice?

Sort of.

Hmmm. Had any hallucinations?

Not yet, but here’s hoping.

Actually, no — I don’t hope for hallucinations, nor do I expect to ever have any. This drink is one that has been around for a couple thousand years in various cultures, recorded especially in Russian history. It is, quite simply, brewed sweetened tea that is fermented with a scoby, or symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast — not a true mushroom at all, but called so because of its appearance. The drink has a broad anecdotal and scientific history of being an all-around beneficial drink: it is full of B-vitamins, anti-oxidants, and glucaric acids. A detoxifying drink, it is also high in glucosamines, and gives a probiotic boost to your immune system.

Most articles I read about the drink admit that there is little Western scientific study to back up its claims: there’s just not a lot of money out there to fund studies determining the effectiveness of a drink that can be made at home for about $1 a gallon. But I have yet to read an account of someone who drinks it regularly who does not sing its praises. Since I’m a probiotic junkie, and since I looked up one morning and figured I needed just one more jar of fermenting foodstuff on my kitchen counter, I gave it a whirl.

I ordered my scoby online, but you can get one for free if you know someone who makes their own kombucha (the culture will make a baby scoby… though this is not as creepy as it sounds). I’ve read accounts, too, of people growing their own from a store-bought bottle (they are sold at most health food stores), but figured it was easiest to drop the $12 on a mail-order sure-thing. Once you get your little guy (I’m not sure why it’s a male pronoun in my head, especially since it’s referred to as the “mother”) in the mail, you need to make your first batch pretty quickly. So don’t order it unless you’re ready to roll. Other than the k-shroom, you’ll need some quart or larger glass jars, some organic tea, sugar, and time to wait.

When I made my first batch, I made one quart. After it fermented for 7 days, I took a bit from that batch and made a gallon. I’m not in a good groove yet; ideally I will always have kombucha fermenting at various stages, and will always have some that’s ready to drink. You can find good directions of how to do it here and here; but if you start looking around, you’ll find there are infinite variations on the process — I just follow the directions that came with my culture.

I’ve been drinking it daily for about a week now — and am really enjoying it — it’s like a slightly sweet, slightly sour tea with a bit of fizz and flavor of fermentation. Some people feel lightheaded when they drink it at first; I didn’t really, but I have felt a small burst of energy. I think it will take long-term drinking for me to really tell if it makes a difference in how I feel. As a person with cancerous and arthritic genes lurking at my every corner, I’m mostly interested in how kombucha can help prevent those degenerative diseases, rather than how it might make me feel on a daily basis.

My almost-four-year old, now seen as the dietary adventurer in our family since he absolutely LOVES my liver paté (and is the only one who eats it), has sipped a bit here and there, and likes it. I think he likes it because he says it “smells like beer.” You would think that if I could get the preschooler to drink it, I could get my husband on the bandwagon, too. But, no. So far, he’s still way back, hovering at the crevasse of lacto-fermented grains. I’m working on a rope bridge to get him across.

So, is this it? Is this, reader, where I lose you?

Oh, my.

I was at Earth Fare this morning, doing my weekly shopping trip. It was — I believe — the first time I’ve attempted this with all 3 children in-tow. It went surprisingly well. I had the wee one in a sling, and the older two were unusually well-behaved.

So while I might like to paint a picture of me being frazzled and overwhelmed, and therefore just needing to pamper myself with a treat, I can’t do it. But when I walked by the yogurt in the dairy case, this little cup called out to me. Plum and walnut? How could I resist that flavor, at this time of year? In a L’Oreal-inspired “because I’m worth it” moment, I bought it.

Fast-forward half an hour, and after making lunch for the kids while the baby screamed her head off, being torturously left in her carseat for five minutes, I sat down to feed screaming baby and simultaneously began scarfing down this heavenly yogurt creation.

Have you had this stuff? This is beyond what yogurt should be. It really shouldn’t be called yogurt; it’s more in line with some whipped delight, a confection of more disastrous coronary implications (disclaimer: there’s a reason it tastes so good… so if you’re avoiding saturated fat, it’s not the choice for you).

This is how good it is: given the choice of another cup of this yogurt or a Chocolove bar, I’d go with Liberté. Those crazy French-Canadians. They know what they’re doing with cultured milk. It was indeed: