Winter 2015 update: New ferments!

I’ve been focusing much on my own health and healing from lifelong auto-immune disease, and as a result the fermentation project has fallen by the wayside for a year.  I simply did not have the capacity, for most this year, to jar the remaining sauerchi in the crocks, let alone process new batches.

On a related note, I no longer have regular internet access, so cannot provide regular updates.  Contact me via phone (msg or txt) for a more immediate response (see menu link below for #).  Contact me via facebook or email only if you can wait one to two weeks!

My recovery is going well, though, and this winter, with the help of a dear friend, I was able to push and take care of the last remaining batches, which brings us to…

New ferments available!

Caiti and I just jarred almost 28 gallons of sauerchi, all well-aged and mellowed, like a fine wine or cheese. You can see what’s available in the menu: Menu_122815 and below.  Please contact me via phone (see menu link for #) for inventory confirmation.

Cold and Ready (limited stock)

## contact us to confirm current inventory ##

Main Ingredient

(*farm sourced)

Pesto

(*farm-sourced)

Farm Source(s)

*white cabbage, *daikon greens

*radish root, *carrot, garlic

[HG]

*lacinato kale

onion, *apple, *garlic

[HG]

*eggplant

onion, *cilantro, cinnamon, turmeric, cumin

[MIG]

*shredded yellow and green summer squash

onion, *basil, ground mustard

[FOH][MIG]

*hothouse cucumbers

*carrots, *dandelion (roots and greens), *elephant garlic, mustard seed, *veggie brine

[HG][FOH]

*broccoli, *carrots

onion, *cilantro, ginger, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, chili powder

[MIG]

*red cabbage, *red beets

cranberries (fresh and dried / sweetened; non-organic), *parsley, ginger

[MIG]

*red beets, *red cabbage

*dill, onion, *elephant garlic, mustard seed

[MIG][HG]

*red cabbage, *red beets

onion, *basil, ginger

[MIG]

*white cabbage, *heirloom beets, *carrot

onion, *cilantro, mustard, turmeric, cinnamon

[MIG]

Coming Soon Cold and Ready (new stock!)

Main Ingredient

(*farm sourced)

Pesto

(*farm-sourced)

Farm Source(s) Crock Size

*red cabbage

cranberries (fresh and dried / sweetened; non-organic), onion, *carrot, ginger

[MIG]

5 liter

*savoy and *nappa cabbage

*radish, *carrot, onion, ginger, *rosemary [note: this is a really strong ferment, like a very stinky cheese]

[MIG][HG]

3 gal

*red cabbage and *fennel bulbs

*fennel (fronds and seeds), onion, ginger and turmeric

[MIG][HG]

3 gal

*red cabbage

onion, ginger and garlic

[MIG]

5 liter

*carrots

onion, *carrot sprouts, ginger, garlic, *rosemary

[MIG][HG]

3 gal

*carrots

onion, *carrot sprouts, ginger

[MIG]

3 gal

*chioggia beets

onion, *elephant garlic, *sage, *rosemary, *fennel

[MIG][HG]

20 liter

*golden beets

onion, mustard, turmeric

[MIG]

20 liter

*delicata squash

*carrot, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, clove

[MIG]

20 liter

In the Crocks

Main Ingredient

(*farm sourced)

Pesto

(*farm-sourced)

Farm Source(s) Crock Size

*Heirloom cabbage

Dried blueberries, chocolate mint, lemon balm

[HG]

5 liter

*apple and onion

[This is a long-fermented apple ketchup]

[HG]

3 gal

Thinking Categorically About Food

People often ask me where my culinary creativity comes from.  This post addresses at least one major source which I call “categorical thinking.”  Saueressen is not just an artisan cooperative delivering farm-fresh fermented foods to the community, but also an educational institution teaching live-culture life skills, empowering people toward greater freedom, nutrition and culinary capacities in their lives!  This and other posts will serve as foundations for community-based workshop curricula, part of Saueressen’s work to reskill the local foodshed.

Contents

  1. The Foundations of a Pantry Chef
  2. Examples, aka Ethan’s non-specific relationship with food
  3. Making it happen: abundance, scarcity and fear

The Foundations of a Pantry Chef

A huge part of working with food effectively involves what I call “categorical thinking.”  That is, thinking about the different elements of the kitchen process and how they contribute to the overall dish.  In the specific case of ingredients, something might add saltiness, or moisture, or fat, or sweetness, or sourness, or umami, or chewiness, or creaminess, or bulk, it may act as a binder or thickener, aromatic, savory, any or all the above and more.

Thinking categorically about food allows us to improvise and empowers us to explore new combinations and hone in on core ingredients to keep stocked in our pantries.  This largely distinguishes a good pantry chef from someone who feels dependent on specific recipes and tools.   Don’t have that one ingredient?  Rush to the store!  Don’t have that one kitchen item?   Better go buy it!  Pull together your weekly shopping list based on your recipe plan.  Recipes, lists, cell-phone apps, endless specialized tools, oh my!  How did people get by without these things?  Pantry chefing saves time and money while leading to amazing discoveries.  Pantry chefing generally allows us to throw together fantastic meals from ingredients on-hand, and it affords us flexibility to substitute and experiment piecemeal and bit by bit with new ingredients even as we maintain a solid foundation.

Pantry chefing means knowing the true value of what we have.  For example, that lemon balm growing like a weed outside your building isn’t just for shits and giggles — it makes a fantastic culinary herb.  The first time I made zaatar, I didn’t have sumac on-hand, so I went to the store.  I couldn’t find it at any store, after trying several.  I did, however, remember that it imparted a lemony-sour flavor to the dish.  So I minced some lemon balm and macerated it in vinegar and added that into the zaatar.  It turned out fantastic.  Not exactly the same as zaatar with sumac, but still really good in its own right.  Lemon balm also makes a great pesto.  In fact, “pesto” just means “ground into a paste.”  You can make a pesto out of pretty much any tender, leafy aromatic herb.  Not just basil. Carrot fronds, parsley, cilantro, mint, oregano, sage, etc.

Everyone knows you serve fish with a slice of lemon or lemon juice, right?  Don’t have lemon on hand?  Try another citrus fruit.  Don’t have any citrus on hand?  Well, try pan-frying fish covered in a garlic-lemon balm paste (use a fat like butter, lard or coconut oil to smear the paste onto the fish) and vinegar (either in a marinade or as a condiment).  Or, maybe you have sumac on-hand.  Congrats — by substituting things out for the “citrus” and “sour” categories, your cooking just got a whole lot more creative!

Don’t have honey?  Mollasses, maple syrup, fruit syrup, sugary fruit preserves all do the trick, and vice-versa, while adding their unique footprint to the finished recipe.

Making mayonnaise?  It requires egg yolk, right?  Well, mayo is really just emulsified oil with added salt, sweet and acid components, sometimes a fancy “aioli” with aromatics like herbs or garlic.  What else works as an emulsifier?  Try substituting avocado for the egg yolk.  You might understand this instinctively, knowing that avocado makes great smoothies or can make a fantastic egg-free banana bread.  With categorical thinking, you just landed smack dab in the middle of a delicious bowl of vegan mayo — without any of those weird ingredients you find in the commodity “veganaise” you might buy at the store!

In no way do I disparage recipes or recipe-based weekly grocery lists.  I think they are great starting points for reskilling ourselves in the art of food prep.  But I encourage everyone to move beyond that limitation and develop their own culinary repertoire, vision and style.  One major way we do that is through categorical thinking.

Taste, smell, texture, size.  What ingredients cook quickly, burning easily or turning to mush?  What ingredients take a while?  What “residual flavors” do you want to impart?  Maybe you should cook those things first, unless their flavor burns off quickly.  Then add them last or even save them as a fresh ingredient or garnish.

One of the trade-offs is specificity.  Most people who make recipes don’t really seem to know what they are doing.  But there are many recipes out there that call for specific ingredients and processes, and for good reason.  While thinking categorically in many ways lowers the bar and makes recipes easier, it also means we need to broaden our expectations about the results, because it will most often result in different tastes and textures in the end product.  It’s also possible to acheive results very close to the original recipe, but I think mimicry should take a back seat to discovery as the goal.  Different does not mean “better” or “worse.”  Our goal to produce a satisfying, delicious, pleasing result always remains, even though the result might be slightly different than that one recipe you found on that one website or in that one book.  Or maybe you have a recipe handed down to you through generations of family folklore.  You can decide whether you commit an act of tribute or sacrilege through creative categorical modification.

On a similar note, sometimes a specialized tool really does the job better, more quickly, more safely.  On the other hand, it takes a chunk of change from your wallet and will just add to the already-formidable kitchen clutter (don’t try to tell me you don’t have kitchen clutter without explaining exactly how you’ve managed to work your way around that landmine).  For the longest time, I didn’t have a double-boiler.  But I have pots and bowls. So I just nested a small glass bowl neatly inside a pot of slightly larger diameter filled with water and made sure the bottom of the bowl didn’t touch the bottom of the pot.  It worked well enough.  But the second-hand dedicated double boiler bowl I have now gives me greater capacity and it allows me to use the pot lid.  And at the end of the day it’s also, you know…a bowl.

I do the vast majority of all my food prep with a chef’s knife and a paring knife.  I love learning new knife techniques.  However, if you make a lot of julienned vegetables — consider them a staple in your weekly household fare, rather than a phase — then it might be worth getting that one device that makes julienning a little easier, faster and safer for us mere mortals.

Here’s some more examples of categories I think about, to get you started…consider this a window into my mind, how I think about “specific dishes”

Examples, aka Ethan’s non-specific relationship with food

Tabbouleh:  minced aromatic salad, usually with a salt and acid component, diced fruit (dried or fresh) and a minced carbohydrate (for paleo, i use apple or carrot or dried fruit; for gluten-free, try quinoa instead of bulgar wheat) and lots of olive or avocado or walnut oil to give it a moist mouth feel.  The last tabbouleh I made was from carrot fronds with lots of supplemental aromatic herbs, including mint, oregano, sage and lemon balm.  It’s a great way to dispose of a wealth of herbs.  Tabbouleh also makes a great summer dish because it doesn’t require heating up the house — another food category.  During the hottest days, I tend to focus more on light salads, coleslaws with sides of cold meats (like salami or smoked salmon or chicken).

Sausage:  minced or ground salted aromatic fatty meats
As long as the meat is minced or finely chopped, it’s fatty enough, and salty enough, it starts tasting a lot like sausage.  Beyond that, no matter what other ingredients I add, it always turns out great sausage.  I just made some ground beef sausage with finely minced fennel fronds, basil and mint blossoms (stuff from my garden), garlic, onion and wine vinegar.  The meat wasn’t fatty enough, so I minced some frozen bacon fat and added it in to the mix.  Turned out fantastic.  Consequently, this is how I started adding organ meats and other nutrient dense offal back into my diet.  Texture and taste are acquired, and I can say I have not, in the course of my life, acquired a fondness for the texture and taste of liver.  However, when I chop it and mix it with aromatic herbs and spices and salt it, I love the texture and taste.  I can still tell it’s liver, but now it’s…surprisingly good, and even more nutrient dense than plain liver (is that even possible?).  Try one teaspoon of salt per pound of meat, and go heavy on the aromatics.

Kraut:  brined and fermented brassicas, undrained, plain or with other ingredients.

Chi:  brined and fermented brassicas, drained and flavored with an aromatic paste or pesto.

Sauerchi:  The best of both worlds.

Fries:  stripped or julienned starchy vegetables, fried and salted.  Use medium-high heat (depending on the veggie) so they are a bit crispy and brown on the outside and tender on the inside.  I can’t eat potatoes, but I make fries with sweet potatoes, sunchokes, carrots and other roots and tubers, even squash strips or kholrabi.

Saag:  spiced leafy green vegetables stewed in fat and broth until tender and mellow.  I make it with bumper crops of spinach, wild spinach (pigweed/amaranth greens), and chard, mostly, but you can use pretty much any leafy green, even kale or collards (although it will take longer to cook and have a different texture).  You can get rid of a LOT of greens in a single pot of saag.  I use the tender stems, but chop them like celery and onions and add them in at the beginning with the rest of the soup base so they have extra time to heat and reduce and tenderize with the rest of the base ingredients.  Otherwise, they might ruin the smooth and creamy texture.  The spices are up to you. Sometimes I do something more mediterranean, but often I use combos of ginger and cinnamon and clove.  Meat optional, but I always cook the veggies in the base very well before adding the greens, deglazing several times to reduce and dissolve them (for texture) and caramelize their sugars, bringing natural sweetness and depth to the dish.  If I have it on-hand, I’ll add bone broth or extra fat (coconut or dairy cream, butter, coconut oil, lard, etc) to enhance creaminess.

Frittata:  a beaten egg mixture poured and cooked over stir-fried vegetables — a savory egg pie.  Prepped on stovetop w/a lid on the pan or finished in the oven to crisp the top.  A quiche is just a frittata with a crust around it.  Michelle Tam of Nom Nom Paleo got rid of the carbs but kept the crust with her Prosciutto-wrapped mini frittata muffins (is it a muffin?  is it a frittata?  is it a quiche?  Yes!), in a great example of creative categorical culinary thought.

Soft tea:  a home-brewed soft drink made from tea, sweetened and fermented to add some sourness and carbonation.  Examples of soft tea include kombucha, which tends to be pretty acidic, bordering on unfinished vinegar (not my cup of tea), and ginger beer (which requires steeping the ginger in boiling or hot water for a while to extract the gingery goodness).  I like my soft teas with a subtle sourness that sets them apart from kombucha, very little sweetness (because the sour isn’t overwhelming and my body doesn’t do well with lots sugar and I the flavor of the tea itself to come through the sourness and the sweetness) and moderate carbonation.

Revisit what you know about “soups” and “stews” and “pies” and baked and stovetop dishes, marinades and sauces and others.  Categorical thinking tends to focus on prep techniques and processes just as much as ingredients.  Much of the results reside in the process.  For example, sometimes taste comes from process rather than ingredients. The first time I brought my ginger beer to a party, someone said, “mmm, it tastes like it has lemon in it!” I said, “it doesn’t.”  It has three ingredients:  water, honey and ginger. “How did you get it to taste lemony?” she asked.  “I sweeten and ferment it until it sours mildly with lactic and acetic acid, then I resweeten it slightly and bottle it to carbonate.  That way it stays low-alcohol.”  <long pause>  “…So, you’re saying it doesn’t have any lemon in it…?”

Categorical thinking cuts both ways, like a double-edged sword.  You can get all the ingredients right, but still screw up the process.  Or, thinking about it differently, you can create a completely different dish using the same ingredients with a different process.  Don’t want frittata?  Have an omelette instead!  Or some stir-fried veggies and a side of eggs over-easy.  Same ingredients.

Consider the techniques, texture (e.g,. fibrous, crisp, mushy), cutting/chopping pattern, tastes, smells, nutrition, tools (how are you going to get the skin off that raw winter squash?), functional roles (is that going to work as a binder?), etc.

I often substitute leeks (aka “bunching onions”) for both onion bulbs (cooked) and green onions (raw) in many dishes, because I have them on-hand (they grow prolifically in my garden with little or no help for me, stocking me with onions for months out of the year).  I sometimes also think of “alliums” as a culinary category, much like “citrus” or “parsley” (carrot greens, celery greens, etc).  Don’t have onion?  I can still add garlic or chives.  Different, but still pungent-sweet-good.

Want to do barbeque chicken, but don’t have either a grill or a barbeque sauce?  Well, barbeque sauce combines a sweetened fruit base with alliums (onions — oftened caramelized — and/or garlic), acid (such as vinegar or lemon juice) and salt.  The last barbeque sauce I made was from blueberries.  It’s a very strongly-flavored condiment that adds to and enhances the flavor of the entire dish, so don’t be afraid to go heavy on the acid, salt and sweet.  The grill adds a smokey flavor, but you can still easily achieve the browning by searing the salted chicken at high heat before slathering in sauce and baking or braising.  I can’t have tomatoes, but I also love making barbeque sauce and sloppy joe’s using applesauce or apple-based ketchups as a substitute.  Delicious!

Making it happen:  Abundance, Scarcity and Fear

In the end, the categories you use reflect your individual focus and priorities, including your skills, tools, preferences, challenges, etc.  Some people just cannot bring themselves to make tabbouleh without parsley.  Others cannot bear to think of orange as a substitute for lemon.  All of which brings up another wonderful point:  categorical thinking helps people explore and develop their individual culinary voice and vocabulary.  It leads to culinary diversity, which I find wonderful because when you and I talk shop, we’ll offer one-another unique perspectives on food prep.  Our dialog creates even more ideas and possibilities to explore.  So, you don’t like orange juice with fish because it’s too sweet and not sour enough?  Yup.  What if we add some apple cider or wine vinegar to it?  No, it’s not lemon juice but…hmmm…mmmm…interesting.  Ya know, I’d like to braise a chicken in this!  Oh, wow.

Thinking categorically starts when you flip the switch from the train of thought that asks, “what ingredients or skills or tools don’t I have?” to “what ingredients and skills and tools do I have to meet the spirit of the need at hand?”  This describes the difference between scarcity-based and abundance-based thought.  Scarcity thinking confines us in a cacoon of fear, limits and controls us.  In contrast, abundance thinking frees us to relate and experiment and experience and grow and share.  Another positive consequence of abundance-based thinking is that it implies and facilitates greater gratitude, graciousness and appreciation for life, which also helps enhance our mood and make us happier and healthier.  When I make mistakes, I now look for the lessons and growth opportunities.  Not only do I become better, stronger, etc as a result — but it also lowers my stress level a lot.  More specifically, thinking in terms of abundance about categories of food, ingredients, processes, techniques and tools provides us endless possibilities to explore.  Which of the literally infinite possible things can you do with an onion?  I know a few…and I aim to learn more all the time.

Some might think, “Ok, that’s all well and good, but where do I start?”  You start wherever you are at, with whatever you know and whatever you have.   You learn to trust yourself and your senses and your vision and imagination — the more you use them, the greater they grow in strength and sensitivity and usefulness.  I started over a decade ago with nothing but a cheap chef’s knife (that I still have and love) and the knowledge that I liked making quesadillas.  My quesadillas steadily evolved from cheese in a folded tortilla, fried.  Then I added some veggies and salsa.  Then I caramelized some onions.  Oooh.  After a year or so, my quesadillas started looking more like fried tacos, stuffed full of delicious veggies and meats and sauces, but they still had that cheese and crispy fried tortilla.  This is called embellishment, an important component of categorical thought.  Try it with grilled cheese, or pasta, or any other simple dish you know.  Then, when things get complicated, revisit the basics.  After years of making soups, I recently discovered a new favorite (and nutritious) comfort food:  rich bone broth, slightly salted, with fresh thyme and coconut milk.

You develop culinary skills by practicing and picking up hints and tips here and there and making mistakes and learning from them.  It took me ten years until I observed and learned how to hold a chef’s knife…and as long to learn how to keep it sharp and file down the spine so that it doesn’t bite into my hand.  I don’t regret those intervening years at all — far from time wasted, they remain filled with amazing adventures and discoveries along the way.  I learned many easy and difficult lessons.  Most recently, when I almost severed my pinky finger from my hand, I learned the importance of always a. staying attentive and present to the task at hand, b. clearing and maintaining a clean and uncluttered workspace for food prep, and c. letting the knife fall, if it falls, rather than trying to catch it.  I feel incredibly grateful for those lessons — they have made me a better person and contribute in many other indirect and unseen ways to my life.  Similarly, by adding too much oil or salt to a dish, I learned how to identify “enough.”

I tell people that “I eat my mistakes,” as a way to both literally and figuratively ingest them and pick them apart so I know what to do better or differently next time and really let the lessons sink in.  By relishing learning opportunity, I don’t allow my fear of mistakes to paralyze me so much anymore.  Yes, I still fear mistakes.  When I release myself from fear of making mistakes, even my mistakes become gifts.  Sometimes, they represent the greatest gifts, as some of my biggest mistakes have also led to some of my biggest successes and points of growth.  That to me represents the immense power of abundance-based thought.

Time-Lapse Video and Troubleshooting Cultured Milk

Fermentation can be funny sometimes.  Same ingredients, same process (or so it seems), and yet different results.  Fortunately, “different” seldom means “ruined.”  But it requires us to think creatively or adjust expectations.    So my curds separated from my whey in my dairy ferment.  Ruined?  No, certainly not.  Cheese?  Well on its way!

Donna Schwenk created a short time-lapse video that effectively illustrates how temperature, time and starter ratios (the volume of starter culture compared to fresh milk) all interact to produce different results.  Watch the video here (sorry, there’s no way to embed):

http://www.culturedfoodlife.com/new-video-kefir-separating/

Milk is just a colloidal suspension (specifically, an emulsion) of proteins and fats in water.  Under certain conditions (such as acidification), these different components can separate out.  In this case, the physical process of separation involves the denaturing (curdling) of proteins, causing them to tangle and gob up with one-another, and the production of carbon dioxide, which then gets trapped among the now-solid proteins, causing them to rise to the top of the vessel.  Shaking or stirring typically disentangles and redistributes the proteins, releasing the trapped carbon dioxide as well.

In my experience, the separation tends to happen when acid-producing strains become dominant. There’s a rhythm to backslopping, so the frequency with which you use and renew the culture also affects its behavior (people who work with sourdough tend to understand this principle).  I would consider frequency a fourth variable for us to keep in mind, alongside ratio of starter used and temperature and time (as displayed in the video).

If I’m making a rennet-free kefir or yogurt cheese, then I want the curds to separate from the whey, as the video portrays.  This involves minimal disturbance so the proteins can tangle together and form a gel-matrix.  I can then further drain and salt and press and age the curds into cheese, depending on the type of cheese I want.  However, if I want my dairy ferment to stay smooth and creamy, then I’ll shake and stir it periodically as it ferments, or try making several smaller batches in rapid succession and use a smaller ratio of starter:total volume than normal to rebalance the microbial community.

Relational Note

Learning these subtleties takes fermentation and our relationship with the wonderful micro-organisms who preserve our food and nourish us to a whole new level.  It involves a dialog betwen us and them.  “Ok, this is what I want, what do you need to help me produce those results?”  We think of the industrious little critters less as slaves and more as coworkers and colleagues, and ultimately giving us better food and better emotional results (including less stress!).

Community Note

This post started as a follow up and embellishment of Donna Schwenk’s response to a confused customer’s questions.  I respect her for trying to troubleshoot problems based on 3rd party descriptions.  I wouldn’t.  Too many variables and…ever played a game of telephone?   This brings about another reason for why Saueressen exists:  to provide real-world community-based expertise.  We need to talk directly.  We need to workshop food security in the same room, compare notes as we observe the same problems and processes.  This is the next level of the fermentation revolution.  We have tons of internet experts.  Saueressen will contribute its small part.  But the we need now, more than ever, solid and rigorous community-based expertise.  Just like deli’s dot the map across the continent, Saueressens (and artisan co-ops like them) should find their niche in every community where moderate interest in food fermentation exists.

Cultural Resilience in Yogurt Making

Contents

  1. part 1: (mostly) Background and Philosophy
  2. Part 2:  (mostly) Process and Practice
  3. Epilogue

part 1: (mostly) Background and Philosophy

I’ve been making yogurt (and many other fermented foods) since 1998.  But unlike many other DIY yogurt-makers, I’ve made every batch from the same starter culture I began using when I first started making yogurt with great success.

This should come as a surprise to many other yogurt makers.  I can’t count the number of times I come across recipes on the internet that say something along the lines of, “Your starter culture is only good for a few generations.  It will begin to weaken and eventually won’t make a good yogurt.  You’ll need to throw it out and buy a new starter culture.”

This is commercialized nonsense, along the lines of those ridiculous single-purpose plug-in “yogurt maker” machines.  Some people will do anything to make a buck, preying on our ignorance and insecurity, and there’s a lot of misinformation packaged as expert advice on the internet from people who really don’t know what they’re talking about.  Beware of those who spread FUD: Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt!  In contrast, for the best discussion on yogurt making tips and techniques I’ve ever read, check out http://www.nwedible.com/do-you-need-to-heat-milk-for-yogurt-making/  It’s worth reading just to familiarize yourself with a “good discussion” to help you identify and steer clear of the many FUD-based misinformation traps.  You’ll see there are as many ways to make “good yogurt” as there are ways to define “good yogurt.”

When I first started making yogurt, I tried using one of those single-purpose “yogurt maker” machines as well.  My yogurt was consistently mediocre.  I look back at my first attempts as proof that technology is no substitute for knowledge, wisdom, experience, intuitive experimentation and keen observational skills.  Instead of giving up like many people do, I was determined to get the yogurt of my dreams at home:  sour, creamy, consistent (but not too thick!) texture.  Along the way, I learned a lot about yogurt cultures and fermentation in general.

I first began by building my own starter culture.  A starter culture is a community of micro-organisms.  Like any community, it needs population diversity.  Most live-cultured yogurt you get at the store contains only a few, largely-domesticated bacterial strands, carefully bred to perform under very specific conditions.  Consider these commercial cultures the “prima donnas” of yogurt: finicky, fragile, expensive, fickle, easy to control and manipulate.  A strong yogurt culture, in contrast, will have dozens of strains of bacteria — and maybe even some yeast, and will thrive in a wide range of conditions.  But it will be difficult or impossible to “control.”

Wait a minute, here.  Let’s stop and think about what we are doing.  Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms is famous for pioneering more just, sustainable and productive forms of agriculture.  He sells milk, beef, eggs and poultry.  But, in his words, he’s not a milk, beef, egg or poultry farmer.  He’s a grass farmer, and maintains grass-based ecosystems.  The cows and chickens he raises are actually a “by-product” (sic) of that system.  If he has a healthy grass ecosystem, he has happier and healthier cows and chickens, who in turn provide great-tasting milk, beef, eggs and poultry that are arguably also healthier for us (e.g, in their balance of Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids).

We can use Joel Salatin’s example to describe a successful food fermentation process:  we don’t “make fermented food” — we are microbial farmers focusing on supporting communities of micro-organisms.  The fermented food is just a wonderful “by-product.”  If our microbial communities are happy, then our fermented food will turn out excellent. My yogurt is wonderful.  Batches are consistent.   I attribute my success first and foremost to a shift in my mindset away from “yogurt making” and toward “microbial farming/gardening.”  In short:  I strive to create the conditions and environment where the desirable organisms thrive.  Rather than trying to “make bacteria turn milk into yogurt” I attract the bacteria I want and keep them happy.  It’s a very different relationship — more of a partnership than the typical commercial “master/slave” dynamic.

My yogurt culture is part of the family.  It is important to me.  My yogurt culture gives me nutrition.  It turns an unedible (for me, at least) animal product into an edible, delicious and (arguably, more nutritious and safer) food that, at the very least, does not cause an acute detoriation in my health when I eat it.  I owe the yogurt culture a debt of gratitude.  I have an obligation to protect it and help it thrive.  This obligation is not just moral — it is material: epicurean, nutritional and caloric.

This mindset is also akin to the “predator-prey” bargain that Derrick Jensen mentions in his two-volume book:  Endgame.  The predator-prey bargain goes like this:

If I eat a salmon, I depend on the salmon.  Through this relationship, the salmon becomes me, and I become more the salmon.  I create an obligation to protect  the health and welfare of the larger salmon population.   I must also protect their habitat, because their habitat is now my habitat.  This is not an altruistic obligation: If I don’t fulfill my end of the bargain, the salmon and I will both suffer as a result.

I use the salmon example, because a healthy salmonid population is an indicator and steward of a vibrant terrestrial riparian ecosystem.  Thus, the clear-cutting, water damming, fish hatcheries and poisoning, industrial farming, overfishing and global warming that threaten the salmon also threaten our terrestrial forest ecosystems.  Commercial yogurt cultures are mostly like hatchery-spawned salmon or the dreaded Gammas and Deltas in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  Healthy yogurt cultures are more like John the Savage, in that they thrive outside the rigid confines of the factory, and die if forced into such spaces.

Part 2:  (mostly) Process and Practice

Context is important.  My job as someone who makes yogurt is not to make a batch of yogurt, but to keep the community of micro-organisms responsible for yogurt making happy and healthy.  So how do we accomplish this?  With a background in ecology, I knew that community diversity was (and still is) key to a strong, healthy starter culture — or what Sandor Katz of Wild Fermentation calls a “heritage-quality culture.”  My first goal was to cultivate microbial diversity by attracting and retaining as many different species and strains of bacteria as possible.

I use two primary techniques to attract bacteria to my yogurt culture:  In the beginning, I synthesized as many different commercial yogurt cultures as possible into a single super-culture.  I would buy a few containers of yogurt from different manufacturers with the most simple ingredient lists possible (ideally, just milk and bacteria, but I used flavored yogurt when plain yogurt was unavailable, and some yogurt has pectin or gelatin in it). I combined them into a single starter over the course of about ten generations (batches) of yogurt, giving them time to stabilize and balance, letting the finicky ones die back and the robust ones survive.  I got consistent, OK yogurt.  But I didn’t stop there.  I added raw and fermented/soured oats, sourdough starter, raw crushed fruit, and raw milk from a reputable source.  Then I let sugar ants into some milk.  They carry a lot of bacteria with them — and rumor has it — some of the finest bacteria for yogurt making the world over.

Say what?  Commercial yogurt makers want you to think that they have something mystical and special and unobtainable by mere home-fermenting mortals.  In reality, the micro-organisms responsible for fermenting yogurt exist almost everywhere in our environment, including inside of us (and the animals whose milk we drink).  Heck, you could even throw some shredded cabbage leaf into your yogurt and isolate some thermophillic lactic acid bacteria from it.  It’s a lot like making a sourdough starter.  The weird things you do to get it going needn’t exist in the finished batch.

I want to expand on the above point a little more:  many places on these interwebz train us to dichotomize and categorize fermentations, but every fermentation from a healthy “heritage quality culture” will have various yeasts, aerobic and anaerobic bacteria in it.  Once you get all the micro-organisms assembled, the medium or substrate (e.g,. the milk) and the process you use select for species dominance over time and batch.

Second, learn the difference between sanitation and sterility (more on this later).  During fermentation, we want to follow sanitary practices and avoid sterility.  We humans are mutual (or at least commensalist) symbionts with bacteria, too: The same bacteria that make yogurt also live in, on and around us.  By the time I’m ready to make another batch to restore my culture’s population, I’m sure it’s been recolonized by different genetic strains or even species of bacteria.  I get my starter for the next batch from the dregs of my last jar.  Here we see how home fermenters have an edge over commercial producers:  go ahead and check for suitable temperature with a sanitary (not sterile!) finger, because doing so helps innoculate the batch.

Many home fermentation instructions encourage home-fermenters to meticulously clean everything to “avoid contamination.”  More FUD.   Sanitary environments contain innoculants.  Sterile environments contain no micro-organisms, and, from a food-safety perspective, are highly problematic and risky.  Successful fermentation and cultural resilience is all about artistic or intentional microbial contamination of food, and the conditions and context in which the microbes develop in the food.  By following a solid process, the food and culture will innoculate and take up residence in the surrounding environment, much like how we find yeast powder coating the skin of grapes.  Environmental innoculation requires a sanitary, clean but NOT sterile environment.

Different strains and species of bacteria have different needs and preferences.  If I want to maintain the population diversity I’ve been building, then I need to maintain diversity in the population’s habitat.  This is difficult for some people to think about, because we can’t clearly see the habitat diversity inside a jar:  A good batch of yogurt looks uniform and consistent, even homogenous.  So what gives?  The habitat diversity of a yogurt culture lies within the culturing process, not so much the structural properties of the yogurt itself. Different strains of bacteria thrive at different temperatures:  Some like it hot, some like it warm, some like it luke-warm, and they’ll all continue to ferment slowly at room temperature, or even in the fridge or other cold storage.  Some function better than others in salty environments.

Different bacteria also have different preferences or requirements for nutrients and pH balance.  By feeding the bacteria more than just yogurt — such as honey, fruit, or oats, we encourage a wider range of bacteria to develop.  The longer the yogurt ferments, the more acidic it will get, and acid-tolerant bacteria will start to dominate over the earlier low-acid bacteria that started the fermentation process. If the yogurt becomes acidic enough, curds will start to separate from whey, an aesthetic that people seem to love or hate, but which is ultimately harmless or even beneficial.  The lactic acid responsible for the sourness is an effective natural preservative, so if you don’t plan on using cold storage to store your yogurt, ferment away!

My Arabic professor was a Palestinian refugee, and he told stories of his mom making large (several gallon) batches of yogurt in an open vat in the kitchen in Haifa.  It’s hot in Haifa (trust me, I’ve been there!).  My professor said the yogurt was always very sour and refreshing in the heat, and that his family ate it over the course of a few weeks.  The fact that this was a safe thing to do is probably thanks in large part to the heavy and progressive lactic acid fermentation that occurred in the Haifa heat.  I since tried this — storing a batch of yogurt at room temperature for half a year.  It got so sour that I had a hard time using it as a starter because even a little bit curdled the milk!  I found it more suitable as a creamy lemon juice substitute!  Strong-tasting, sure, but completely safe.

Cultural diversity in this way helps protect against contamination. When we ensure that the micro-organisms that produce the results we desire gain a strong foothold early in the fermentation process and become dominant, these friendly microbial allies create an environment that is toxic (acidic and even actively poisonous) and inhospitable to (lacking food or habitat for) unfriendly pathogens.  A full, unopened jar of fresh yogurt fermented at a hot temperature and stored in a relatively cool area creates a vacuum seal that minimizes the air under the lid and prevents contamination from molds and yeasts that require air to grow.  It will keep for weeks outside of a fridge, and for several months inside a fridge, easily, before souring so much you have to use it as a lemon juice substitute.

The rest of the techniques that I use are fairly standard, with one twist.  I heat the milk to where it is scalding hot to set the proteins and repasteurize it.  Sometimes, for thicker yogurt, I hold it at the scalding temperature (stirring frequently!) to evaporate and reduce the liquid.  I don’t recommend adding powdered milk, because it’s often rancid by virtue of how it’s produced, which is why it tastes weird.  I’ve never had a problem with milk sticking or burning on the bottom, but some folks have.

I don’t measure anything with instruments.  The milk is at the correct temperature when I can’t hold a warm finger in it for more than a fraction of a second.   The milk is cooled enough when it feels slightly hotter than is comfortable to hold a warm finger in it.  I say “warm finger” because cold fingers will absorb more heat from the milk over a longer period of time before discomfort appears, which might skew my perception toward using overly-hot milk.

I pour most of the heated milk into my fermentation containers, and leave a little bit left in the bottom of the pan.  To this remainder, I add my starter.  I add only about a teaspon to a tablespoon of starter per half-gallon or gallon of milk.  Why so little?  Because the bacteria grow exponentially.  Yogurt may be delicious food for us, but it is a polluted, spent growth-medium, habitat and food-source for the bacteria.  If I add a lot of starter to a little milk, I’m not inoculating the milk so much as polluting the new, pristine habitat!   The culture needs room to breathe and grow and blossom, and its food source (the milk) needs to be exponentially larger and more plentiful than its starting population.  Otherwise, the bacteria will become too crowded too quickly.  Unhappy bacteria means bad (or mediocre) yogurt.

Yogurt becomes thick through coagulation of milk proteins:  The lactic acid that the bacteria produce as they eat the sugars in the milk denature the milk proteins, causing each protein shift from a straight, slippery form into a twisted, knotty form.  When the proteins coagulate together in an undisturbed (still, motionless) environment, they knit together to create a “protein-gel matrix.”  This helps ensure consistent texture.  The higher the protein concentration per amount of liquid, the thicker the resulting yogurt will be.  “Greek yogurt” is simply yogurt made from evaporated milk, or milk fortified with a lot of powdered milk during its heating process.  We make “yogurt cheese,” in contrast, by straining out whey (proteins and acid suspended in water) from the gel-matrix.  It’s also why other protein-gel matrixes, like pectin and gelatin, get used to thicken and stabilize yogurt.  Gelatin (animal-based) has great nutritional value as a wonderful protein supplement with trace micronutrients, and pectin (plant-based) contains a lot of carbohydrates.  Both have a long history of safe use in human food, but I prefer gelatin for its higher nutritive value.   In contrast, sometimes commercial producers add other gum-like stabilizers, with dubious or unstudied health impacts.  If you want good yogurt, start with good milk and take a little extra time to reduce and concentrate it over the stove instead of diluting it with weird ingredients.

I stir the starter into the milk remaining in the bulk heating vessel, then pour this mixture into the jars with the rest of the milk, and give each a good stir to ensure even mixing and distribution of the starter culture throughout the batch.  Pre-mixing the yogurt starter and warm milk creates an innoculation solution that is of a much similar density to the actual milk, increasing the likelihood of even suspension and distribution and decreasing the likelihood of most of the starter culture sinking to the bottom, resulting in the “grainy sour bottom” problem in some people’s yogurts.  Whisks do wonderful work to break apart the gel matrix.

Here’s the twist:  I’ll add a smigeon of a mesophillic dairy culture — much like kefir — to each incubation vessel before capping.  This is a separate line of dairy cultures that I keep going in a bottomless vessel. It contains bacteria and yeasts that do best at around room temperature, and results in a thick, fizzy ferment at room temperature.  No heating, no incubation.  Just empty the vessel, refill, shake to mix on occasion, and let sit and ferment — like sourdough.  I created my mesophillic dairy culture from storebought starter, added in sourdough, fruit, oats, mollasses, sugar ants, etc.  I feel fairly confident about making it from scratch now, much like sourdough starter.  The main difference in this culture compared to my “yogurt culture” is that I incubate the yogurt (and therefore select for thermophillic dominance).  So I keep two different process lines going to maintain that diversity and add them back together with each new batch, slowly building up the mesophillic culture’s heat tolerance along the way.

Sometimes, I add oats, berries, salt, honey, or spices, etc to the mixture.  The oats, for example, absorb more of the liquid, create a thicker yogurt, and soften and lacto-ferment into a delicious porridge or “oat-cheese” — like a live-cultured version of oatmeal.  Salt selects for lactic acid bacteria and slows the ferment, resulting in a smoother and cheesier-tasting yogurt.

Regardless, I try to fill each jar close to the top, leaving between an inch to a centimeter of space, much like when canning.  This is helpful mainly as a way to store the yogurt safely for extended periods of time after fermentation — it maximizes fermentation, reduces airspace and creates a better vacuum seal.  Finally, I seal the jars, maybe give them a few extra shakes for good measure, and put them into incubation.

I put the jars into a cooler or other insulated space, and fill it halfway or up to the bottom of the lids with boiling or near-boiling water (so the jars are never completely submerged).  I poor the water over the jars to heat the remaining air inside and create a stronger vacuum inside each jar at room temperature.  A friend simply places the jars by the fridge (fridges radiate heat).  Another friend places them a closet underneath blankets or even down sleeping bags or coats for insulation and just ferments the yogurt for a longer time.  I let the batch ferment for 6-14 hours, depending on my schedule, how sour I want the batch to be, ambient temp, how often I’ve been refreshing the culture, etc.  The yogurt finishes coagulating long before it turns very sour, so much of it is preference.  Again, if you plan on storing the yogurt for a long time, consider a longer ferment. As my process has improved (as well as, I surmise, the cultural diversity), I’ve found greater and greater consistency in the quality of my batches regardless of whether I incubate for 8 or 16 hours.

However long I decide to incubate (and often time life decides for me), I make sure NOT TO DISTURB THE YOGURT WHILE IT INCUBATES AND FERMENTS.  If you jostle it around too early in the process, you’ll break the gel-matrix while its still weak and get a less consistent texture.  Practice patience and faith.

I don’t use rigid temperature control, because that will create a homogenous environment, which will tend to homogenize the culture.  Part of the process requires letting the milk go from hot to cool during the incubation and culturing period.  It gives different organisms different timelines for work.

However many hours later, I have another great batch of yogurt: smooth, creamy, even a little cheesy in texture.  Err, I mean, I have another happy, full community of lactic acid bacteria, ready and waiting for their chance to do it all over again.

Epilogue

A while ago, I came home from work and found my partner had made a batch of mac and cheese.  Except, she had used the last bit of yogurt in my last jar (the one I was going to use to start my next batch).  She had, in effect, killed my yogurt, a part of my family.  Or so I thought.

She was incredibly apologetic.  She didn’t know.  I was fraught and desparate.  “It might not be alive,” she said.  “I mixed it with the cheese when the noodles were still pretty hot.”  I worked fast:  I scraped out as much cheese/yogurt sauce as possible, including a lot of the noodles that seemed to have extra sauce on them.  I added a little bit of milk to whatever I had salvaged as a temporary feeder, and made a batch as I normally do.  I half-resigned myself to failure, half-holding my breath in suspense.   At the very least, I took comfort in the fact that I had split off my yogurt starter to several others.  Although mine may have died, its siblings still thrive elsewhere (hopefully).

The next morning, I opened the cooler with as much cold, indifferent skepticism as I could muster.  I examined a jar — it was thick.  My skepticism melted into hope.  I opened the jar and gave a taste.  It was thick, creamy, delicious and — yes — a little cheesy.  The community came out alive and well.  Another little adventure for them.  Here’s a toast to diversity and cultural resilience!

Join us as we build an Open Food Federation

Open Food Federation founders will meet soon for the first time to discuss the development of a sustainable open technology solutions network for local food hubs everywhere.  All supporters of local food systems and open technologies are welcome to join the discussion.

Learn more at:

http://www.openfoodsource.org/open-invitation-federation-founders-meeting/

The Federation will comprise a nationwide or even international network of local food hubs who contribute to information technology solutions that embody the local food cooperative movement’s values and principles of transparency, collaboration and democratic control.

Pro-biotic Jell-O, anyone? + Protease discussion

The Background

I found some packages of Jell-O lying around. Gelatin is an incredible collagen-based nutrient for the body regarding tissue repair. Have you ever made a bone broth, and put it in the fridge, only to find that much of it had solidified into a gel (and it liquifies again when heated)? That’s because in making bone broths, we use heats and acids (like vinegars) to dissolve or extract nutrients from the bones and connective tissues. Some think that dissolved gelatin contributes significantly to the health benefits of bone broth. I definitely find it a more palatable way to eat connective tissues!

The Experiment

i’m doing a mesophillic SCOBY (symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast) ferment of jell-o to add flavor, nutrition and reduce the finished sugar content, with added fruit (raspberries and chopped whole apple) and cinnamon (which gets slimy when hydrated, so a good option for something like gelatin/pectin). will be interesting to see how well the bacteria and yeast take to the collagen-based medium and whether i can still finish setting the gelatin after fermentation!

Troubleshooting

if this doesn’t work, i’ll use pure gelatin next time (without any of the chemical flavors, conditioners and preservatives), peel the apple and boil the apple peels in the mix water or tea (kombucha jell-o?) to add pectin and aid in the setting of the gelatin.

I also found an interesting tip on the Jell-O package: don’t add fresh or frozen pineapple, figs, ginger root, kiwi, papaya or guava because they’ll prevent the gelatin from setting. Also, not listed b/c it’s not yet commercialized, pawpaw will do the same thing. Kiwi, figs and pawpaw are all temperate climate fruits.

The above fruits contain a high density of proteases — enzymes that help digest proteins. So consider such fruits a useful addition to any protein-heavy meal or ingredient to enhance digestibility. For example, marinate or soak meats or grains in pineapple juice before cooking.  If you reduce the pineapple juice over the stove at a heat above 140 degrees Fahrenheit, you’ll likely denature and de-activate the enzymes.  Which is why it’s OK to add cooked fig or kiwi sauce to a Jell-O concoction!

On the flip-side, proteins are often used to enhance texture in or thicken foods (think: gluten, whey and egg whites for baked goods).  So we have a dilemma:  more nutritionally-available (and safer) the foods typically have a broken down protein structure, but contribute less to the “sharp” texture of the finished meal.   In this case, no Jell-o jigglers.  But the liquid version will still taste good and I suspect provide a similar nutrition.  I used to drink — and love — “hot Jell-o” as a kid…mmm…memories!

Updates

This experiement was a smashing success.  Recommended for anyone who enjoys fizzy things and jell-o.  I ate the first batch before it got very bubbly (fruit and jello-o and spices).  In the second batch, I substituted rooibos and ginger tea for the boiling water, and subbed 2 cups of fresh kombucha for the cool water.   In the future, I’ll be making this from scratch with sweet tea and finished kombucha and fresh fruit.

latest concoction: a spiced strawberry apple jell-o with homemade apple cider vinegar and a chamomile-rooibos sweet tea. Next concoction will address the banana-carob connection.  The fruit seems to ferment more readily than the sweetened gelatin.

Sideways and Sauerchi: Introduction to Living Foods

Contents

  1. Background:  Managing Expectations
  2. Inspiration: Maya from Sideways on Wine
  3. Why Wine? A Sideways-sauerchi comparison
  4. Live-culture labeling

Background:  Managing Expectations

I find increasingly that living foods seem to pose a lot of questions and confusion to many of us not used to interacting with them.   How do we start thinking effectively about living foods and our relationship to them?

The way we view our food factors hugely into what we expect of it.  For example, did you know that wineries only tend to clarify (remove tartrate sediment from) their lower-end, cheaper wines, and leave their higher-end wines cloudy?  Clarifying wines takes extra time and labor, and can even result in a lower-quality, less-complex wine.  So why go through the trouble of clarifying low-end wines?  It makes no sense, right?  Except consumers of low-end wines expect a clear wine.  To them, an unclarified wine has “gone bad.”  I don’t know how the expectation got started.  We’ve gotten ourselves stuck in an endless loop, and it seems no one has the courage to dare break the cycle!  Wineries fear losing their low-end market, and consumers fear drinking something “bad.”

On the flip-side, wine snobs will tend to reject “clarified wines” as overprocessed — like the difference between distilled grain vinegar and a fine oak-aged wine vinegar.  So, everyone wins if people can adjust their expectations accordingly:  wineries can save time and money, and low-end wine consumers can get a better product for their money!

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Inspiration:  Maya from Sideways on Wine

Maya explains to Miles, the main character in Sideways, why she likes wine.

Transcript

I like to think about the life of wine.  How it’s a living thing.  I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were grown:  How the sun was shining, the rain…I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes, and — if it’s an old wine — how many of them must be dead by now.

I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I open a bottle of wine today, it will taste different than if I open it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive, and it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity…that is, until it peaks.  And then it begins its steady and inevitable decline.

…And it tastes…So. F***ing. Good.

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Why Wine?  A Sideways-sauerchi comparison

Sauerchi shares many similarities with wine (and beer; and yogurt, and fermented live-culture food in general).  They also have many differences.

I find it useful to think about the similarities between wine and sauerchi because, as Maya explains, they are both /alive/.  However, wine has a more established place in our society.  We can make the transition from dead/canned/pasteurized foods to living foods by thinking about sauerchi in similar ways we think about wine, and adjust our expectations of our food to better nourish ourselves.

  • wine and sauerchi both represent ways to process perishable foods that enhance rather than diminish their value over time (have you ever tasted a 4-year-old sauerkraut?  Yes, they exist!  Sandor Katz, the author of Wild Fermentation, describes his experience with them as “sublime”)
  • they continue to change and evolve over time, gaining complexity
  • the rate and type of change depends on their storage conditions
  • they remain sensitive to oxygen, light and heat
  • they can “go bad” if not properly cared for before opened
  • their “going bad” has little to do with danger and mostly to do with expectations and aesthetics (e.g,. wine turns to vinegar; sauerchi can develop kahm yeast [read about it here and here]; when it develops a heavy kahm yeast, it tends to exhibit cheddar-like flavors and textures, and I call it “sauercheese” and enjoy its different properties in this manner, with adjusted expectations).
  • Wine gets fermented in a way to minimize the risk of vinegar bacteria development during its initial fermentation; but subtle and slow processes occur after bottling and during aging, opening and consumption that add to the wine’s complexity and aesthetics.  Similarly, sauerchi gets fermented in a way to minimize the risk of kahm yeast in its initial fermentation, but subtle and slow processes occur during aging, jarring, opening and consumption that add to the sauerchi’s complexity and aesthetics.
  • if left too long in warm or aerobic (“with oxygen”) conditions, wine and sauerchi both turn into different foods with different aesthetics and expectations and uses (wine turns to vinegar; sauerchi turns to sauercheese).

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Live-culture labeling

After thinking through the above, and with feedback from many customers and advisors, it seems necessary to include three short statements that go a little way toward educating customers on the nature of living foods:

I’m a living, breathing food.  Please store me upright in a cool, dark location.  Enjoy my many phases of life!

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