The New Home Economics


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Book review: The Art of Fermentation

Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix KatzThe Art of Fermentation
An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World
By Sandor Ellix Katz

I met Sandor Katz a few years ago, shortly after I purchased his first book, Wild Fermentation. I feel fortunate that I took a class from him when he was still relatively unknown; the likelihood that he’ll be teaching inexpensive classes at local co-ops again in the near future seems pretty low.

Wild Fermentation is a true recipe book; in it you will find recipes for things like sauerkraut, kimchee, mead, and a whole host of other fermented foods. But one of my main issues with it was that I wanted to know the WHYs of every recipe. Why is it OK to eat brined pickles that are a bit moldy on the surface? Why did my brined pickles fail? Actually, how do I know whether they failed? Why is lacto-fermentation as safe (or safer) than canning? Does lacto- mean it involves lactose?

I had a lot of questions, clearly. Some of them were answered slowly, over time, as fermentation became mainstream. When I made my first batch of yogurt four years ago, google searches turned up almost no answers. Now, there’s even an heirloom vs. modern yogurt debate. I retired my yogurt maker and switched to the oven method a year ago.

Actually, the reason I read Wild Fermentation was in search of answers to MANY questions that I had after reading Nourishing Traditions. If you’ve ever read either one of those books, or had mixed success with some of the recipes, The Art of Fermentation is an invaluable resource. It covers everything the WAPF-ers are passionate about, from proper preparation of grains to culturing dairy products to the value of live-fermented foods, but the difference is Katz includes the science and logic to back up every single claim. Wild Fermentation and Art of Fermentation are truly complements to each other.

Here were some of my favorite bits from Art of Fermentation:

Botulism
If you’re confused about the now generations-old association between canning and botulism, Katz puts this question to rest once and for all. For starters: fermenting is completely different than canning, even though it may use the same jars. The acidic environment present in any and all fermented foods prevents botulism spores from ever gaining a foothold, as they can in warm, sterilized canned food environments. Katz includes an anecdote about Native Alaskan peoples’ techniques for preserving/fermenting fish, which involve burying them in a pit in the ground. Recently, people interested in reviving the tradition have tried fermenting fish in plastic bags and buckets instead of pits, and the results have been questionable enough that the US Centers for Disease Control conducted a test. To me, this was one of the most powerful passages in the book:

Two batches were prepared the proper traditional way, and two were prepared…using plastic bags or buckets. One of each batch we inoculated with botulism; the other was left natural. After the fermentation process was complete, we tested them. To our surprise, those batches of foods prepared the traditional way had no trace of the botulism toxin, not even in the foods that were inoculated with botulism spores. On the other hand, both batch of foods prepared in plastic tested positive for botulism. The advice that came out of that experiment was—”keep on fermenting your food, but never use plastic bags or buckets, and be certain that you do it the traditional native way without any short cuts or changes.”

Do you really need whey, or what?
I found the Nourishing Traditions fermented vegetable recipes confusing. The book made it sound (to me anyway) like if you do not use liquid whey (and I was unclear whether the whey should be from raw or pasteurized dairy), that your fermented foods will not turn out. My own anecdotal evidence plus this book has now settled this issue for me. Whey: not necessary at all. There’s no harm in using liquid whey; adding it is sort of like adding a “starter”–think sourdough. In vegetable ferments, it can help fermentation get started quicker, but it’s not necessary.

Yogurt
I’ve already documented a couple different yogurt-making methods that have worked for me, and Katz says his method has evolved as well. For one thing, he uses only 1 T. of starter per quart of milk and only cultures it for about 4 hours. Also, Katz clarifies the differences between using store-bought yogurt and heirloom cultures. But this is one of the great things about him: he doesn’t fuss about contentious issues like raw vs. pasteurized milk. He wants people to ferment foods which they have access to, whatever those may be.

Butter
I’ve always been confused about what is the difference between sweet cream and cultured butter. The difference is this: sweet cream butter is made from agitating fresh cream until the butter and the buttermilk separate. Cultured butter is made from cream that has first been “soured”–on it’s way to becoming creme fraiche. To make creme fraiche, simply add 1 T. of yogurt or buttermilk to 1 c. cream and leave it out for 24 hours. Refrigerate until set for creme fraiche, or shake it up for cultured butter. Now it all makes sense!

Water
I now understand why several of my brine ferments have failed in the last few years: up until 2012, I always used tap water. Katz recommends against using city water because it has chlorine in it, which upsets the natural balance of bacteria. I had a feeling about this, so I used spring water for my pickles in 2012, and not one jar went bad. I don’t like buying bottled water, but for this one thing, it’s worth it. There are ways to de-chlorinate city water, but most simple filtration systems don’t remove enough of it. Yes, of course, I’d love to get a super expensive filtration system, but… maybe someday.

Other topics
Just to give you an idea, Art of Fermentation also covers all of the following: kombucha, sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, wine, beer, sake, hominy, coffee, cheese, salami, cod liver oil, brined mushrooms, kimchee, cider, fermented urine as garden fertilizer, sourdough breads, koji, and 100 year eggs. That’s only a sampling.  There are only a few recipes, in the traditional sense of the word; this is a book of methodology and inspiration. If you decide to make one of the more complicated ferments, such as salami, Katz urges you to read more on the subject and gives you ideas of where to start. On the other hand, with simpler vegetable and cultured milk ferments, there are SO many right ways to do them that knowing the basic methodology (and science behind why it works) is really all you need.

Fermentation, wow, who knew I would become so obsessed!? I love it!

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Yogurt: oven method

When I started making yogurt 3 years ago, I had a hard time finding information and recipes.  Now the internets are practically exploding with yogurt methods — crock pot, oven, yogurt maker, heating pad, back seat of your car, you name it. Yes, there is even heirloom yogurt now. (Thanks, Christina!)

Anyway, as my kids kept getting bigger I started having to make yogurt with my little yogurt maker twice a week. I have limited time, so I put the yogurt maker away for a while. Here’s how we’re doing it, three years later:

Start with a 1/2 gallon of the best whole milk you can get your hands on. Heat it to just around the boiling point, or 180 degrees F. Remove from heat, plunge into a sink full of cold water, and bring the temperature back down to 110-115 degrees F.

Stir in a cup or so of yogurt from your last batch. Whisk.

My oven has a setting called “proofing” — for people who have time to bake bread (some day I’ll get back into it, sniff) — it holds the oven at around 100-110 degrees.  Perfect. I bake my yogurt overnight usually, around 8-9 hours. Simple, and it makes quite a bit — usually around 80 ounces.  Still no plastic to recycle (though now the city of Minneapolis does take yogurt containers).

A little chunky for ya? That’s what happens when you use non-homogenized milk. Doesn’t bother me, honestly. A solid week’s worth of full fat yogurt from grass-fed cows who live less than an hour away (and who I’ve actually met) for only about $5. Cool!


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Food nights

We’ve been really busy.  It’s hard to make time to make foods from scratch when you are packing so much into your day already.  So one or two nights a week, Adam and I have been having a “home-cooked” night where we break out a bottle of wine after the kids are in bed, and then proceed to cook a bunch of foods at once to get us through the next few days.  The other night we made yogurt, bread, granola, and a bean sandwich spread.

Adam put orange zest in the granola, and it was really elevated to new heights by that simple addition.  He used our basic recipe but sweetened it with a little brown rice syrup, and added orange zest and craisins at the end.  YUMMY!  My bean dip turned out really good too; I used the “a little for you and a little for me” method with my glass of red wine and it really elevated the recipe quite a bit.

As for the bread, I’ve moved on to a new experiment: making more recipes from Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes a Day but using 1/3-1/2 the amount of yeast they call for and greatly increasing the initial rise time — letting the bread rise overnight.  This week’s batch turned out great.

I have a whole bunch of books that I’m in the middle of and hope to review this week.


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Recipe: yogurt cheese & whey

This isn’t really a recipe, so much as a general how-to.  Take any amount of plain yogurt.  I prefer the full-fat kind, but this works fine with low-fat as well.  Place a bit of cheese cloth or floursack towel with a rubberband over a bowl or cup, then spoon the yogurt on top.  Let it sit for at least 2 hours, or overnight, in the fridge.  Spoon the thickened yogurt into a separate container and use or store in the fridge.  The longer you let it sit, the thicker it gets.

So what do you use it for?  Anything that you can imagine using sour cream on, basically.  You could dip vegetables in it, or stir it into Indian lentil dishes to give them that nice creaminess.  Lately I’ve been spooning it on top of scrambled eggs in order to work a cultured or fermented food into our breakfast routine.  You could use it to top nachos or tacos, or even stir a bit into some chili.

An added bonus is that you end up with a bunch of whey that has drained off the yogurt when you’re done making it.  A couple of tablespoons of whey gets the fermentation process going nicely if you’re making sauerkraut, soaking grains, etc.  I made this the other night so that I could use the whey to help with some bread dough that I was attempting to sour overnight.  That bread was a giant fail, but that’s another story.

If you ever cook with the Nourishing Traditions cookbook it seems like every other recipe in there calls for whey, so this is an easy way to acquire some.

UPDATE March 16, 2010: Mark Bittman (my cooking hero!) talks about yogurt cheese in his “Minimalist” column in the NY Times today.  Read it right here.  He prefers a flour sack towel to cheesecloth, and he’s probably right.  I will try that method next time.  Silly him, though, for having absolutely no use whatsoever for whey.


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Fermentation Workshop

wildfermentation

Wednesday night I had the honor of taking a fermentation class taught by none other than Sandor Ellix Katz, of Wild Fermentation fame!  It was very cool, and I have never felt so jazzed about sauerkraut in my entire life.  He talked about a lot of things from his book, and answered a lot of questions, including two of mine.

First, I asked him what’s the deal with yogurt recipes that recommend buying commercial yogurt to use as a basis for home yogurt-making.  Basically, to make yogurt, you bring milk to a boil, then stir in a small amount of yogurt, then keep it at about 110 degrees F for at least 7 hours (up to 10).  The bacteria in the yogurt you added multiply, and now you have a new batch.

Well, you would think “HEY! I never have to buy yogurt again” because you could just use a little of your previous batch to innoculate your next batch.  But most of the recipes I have found say to buy a small container of commercial yogurt to innoculate your next batch.

People, we finally have an answer to this months-old question. Katz said that American commercial yogurt makers include strains of bacteria that do specific things, such as make the yogurt thicker and smoother.  If you keep using the same batch over and over again, these strains will eventually get weaker and classic yogurt bacterias such as the acidophilus group get stronger.  Your yogurt might end up being kinda runny and/or not have a great texture.  It will still be good for you, just maybe not as pleasing in appearance and texture to our American palates.

As for myself, I’ve gotten into a rhythm with my yogurt-making that I think I will probably maintain despite this revelation.  I buy a 6-oz container of Cultural Revolution yogurt for about $1.25 every time I go grocery shopping.  It’s whole-milk and unflavored, and just the exact right amount, so that makes it really easy.

Since I started using this as an innoculant, and also switched to non-homogenized milk, my yogurt is definitely a little more runny.  But we stir it up good, and add a little honey, and it is delicious!

The other question I was going to ask, but didn’t have to because he covered it anyway, was what is the deal with covering fermenting kimchi/kraut/etc.?  You may remember from my last post about making kimchi that I was super confused about this.

Well, the deal with fermenting foods is this:  because it has been done in so many different places for SO long (pre-dating the written word, for Pete’s sake), there are many “right” ways to do this stuff.  If you’re making a small amount, like the recipe I posted that made 1 qt, you can just put the standard canning lid on, as long as you make sure you open it at least once a day to let out accumulated pressure, and press down your veggies manually.kimchiinprogress

Or you can do like we did and put a piece of cloth on top so that air can get out but flies can’t get in.  OR you can weight the kraut/kimchi down with a heavy weight to hold the veggies under the surface of the liquid (this is more of a classic method and works especially well when you’re making very large amounts).  The gist is: there are multiple right ways, and worst-case-scenario if you get it wrong is that it might not taste super awesome.  But even that is a matter of individual preference.  You also might get scums/molds, but they are not dangerous and easily dealt with.  The powerful good-for-you enzymes will annihilate any bad bacteria that might find its way in, so things like botulism simply aren’t an issue.

The right amount of time for fermenting is also wide open.  He said it could be 3 days, 3 weeks, 3 months, or 3 years depending on the temperature of your house and how sour you like your kraut.  We fermented our first kimchi for about a week, during pretty warm weather, and it got real sour.  Our second batch we only fermented for about 3-4 days before moving it into the fridge.  Upon tasting it a couple times, it seemed a little too salty and not sour enough for me so I got it back out last night to get going again.  I’ll probably put it back in the fridge tomorrow.

He also talked about all kinds of fun and exciting things like making mead, which we are going to try shortly here now that our one glass carboy is freed up from the beer-making that Adam and his brother were doing last month.

So if you’re still reading (which would really surprise me) you might be wondering “what’s the deal with fermented foods anyway?”  Why are they so good for us?  Several reasons.  For one, humans consumed them in large quantities, for millennia.  It’s only in the last 50-100 years that we gave up these rich sources of B vitamins, beneficial enzymes and probiotics.

Secondly, just at the precise moment when we gave these up, we also started an all-out assault on bacteria on two fronts:  first, and most importantly, we started giving antibiotics in large quantities to meat animals which we then eat.  All these excess antibiotics build up in our food, our water, and our bodies, creating a beautiful, bacteria-free blank slate on which new harmful bacterias can grow and proliferate.

So we’re getting sicker, and more often.  And how do we deal with that?  Exactly the opposite of how we should: with antibacterial soaps and prescription antibiotics.

Now more than ever our bodies need good bacteria on our side, and eating fermented foods is a really great (and delicious) way to accomplish that.  Do I sound like a true believer or what?!  I was so jazzed that I came home and ate a big bowl of kimchi right after the class.


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Book Review: In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

indefenseoffoodIn Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
by Michael Pollan

This book’s been out for a couple years now but I only just got around to reading it.  And actually I didn’t read it; I listened to the audio book.

First a note on that: I don’t highly recommend the audio version.  The reader, Scott Brick, had kind of a nasally, annoying voice.  It wasn’t enough to diminish the importance of the material for me, but still something to note.

This is the book that launched the phrase, which I’m sure many of you have heard by now:

“Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”

The book is broken down into three sections:  The Age of Nutritionism, The Western Diet, and Getting Over Nutritionism.

Nutritionism is the term Pollan uses (he did not coin it, however) to describe how we came to focus on the building blocks of foods (vitamins, minerals, nutrients, etc.) instead of foods themselves, and why that is problematic.  Margarine is such a perfect example of this phenomenon.  Because margarine is such a highly processed product, the food industry can change enough of its ingredients to make it appealing no matter what the current nutrition fad is.  So while a few years ago margarine was all about being low in cholesterol, now it’s all about being trans-fat free.

Pollan talks a lot about food processing and labelling, and blasts holes in a lot of sacred cows such as the lipid hypothesis (which is what connects a high cholesterol diet with coronary heart disease), and the idea that soy is good for you (his take: that depends on how it’s prepared).  Much of this information was also presented in Nourishing Traditions (by Sally Fallon), for which I still have to write up a review.

To be completely honest, part of me really wanted to dismiss Sally Fallon and Dr. Weston A Price’s ideas because they seemed so radical.  But to hear those same ideas coming out of someone as mainstream as Michael Pollan was kinda shocking in its own way.  When Pollan talked about Price’s research in this book, my first reaction was “Oh wow, this all might actually be true.  SHIT!”

Actually, Pollan himself has had a pretty big impact on my life.  It was the Omnivore’s Dilemma that convinced me to bring meat back into my life after spending 8 years as a vegetarian.  (Well, it didn’t help that I was pregnant with twins and having major steak cravings.)

If you are new to this stuff, I highly recommend The Omnivore’s Dilemma or the movie Food, Inc. as a jumping-off point.  In Defense of Food, along with Nourishing Traditions, takes things to the next level.  I feel like I’m now in the sophomore year of my New Home Economics major.  I’m still a long ways from graduating though.

Pollan breaks his seven word manifesto down into what he calls “eating algorithms” to help us try to eat healthier without feeling so much anxiety about invisible nutrients and keeping track of which one is now good for us and which one is now bad for us.

As you might suspect, each part of his catch-phrase is slightly more complicated than it first appears to be.  Example: Eat Food.  He expands on that to help you understand that much of what you see at the supermarket isn’t necessarily real food.  A good example is something like plain, whole milk yogurt.  It’s been around for eons.  But to say that a product like “Go-gurt” (squeezable low-fat yogurt pouches flavored with high-fructose corn syrup, among other things) is the nutritional equivalent of the original yogurt?  Well, that’s questionable at this point.

Then he talks about the “Mostly Plants” part and breaks down the difference between eating mostly seeds (as we do now), and eating mostly leaves (as we did for all of human history until the last 100 or so years).  Hint: leaves are better.

Finally, the part that hit me right in the heart and gut: “Not too much.”  This is clearly one of my biggest hurdles (in addition to a good old fashioned sugar addiction).  For a long time, I’ve been telling myself,  it’s organic!  It’s homemade!  It’s all-natural!  It’s OK for me to have seconds and thirds because that just means more good-for-you stuff!  Well calories are still calories, unfortunately, and it would do me a lot of good to learn a little self-control.

I thought there were a lot of really great take-aways from this book, and even though I’ve read many of them before it never hurts to be reminded.  This will be going on the “highly recommended” list.


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Recipe: Kimchi

I’ve been wanting to try my hand at either sour kraut or kimchi for quite a while now, but my previous failed attempts at fermentation did not exactly boost my confidence.  This past week we made kimchi, and it turned out pretty good.  Here’s the recipe/methodology, from the book Wild Fermentation:

Chop up:
1 head napa cabbage
1 daikon radish or a few red radishes
1-2 carrots
1-2 onions or leeks or scallions
3-4 cloves garlic
3-4 hot red chilies, or chili pepper flakes, or hot chili sauce as long as it doesn’t have preservatives
3-5 T. fresh grated ginger

Place in:
4 c. water mixed with 4 T. sea salt.

kimchiallchoppedupPlace a heavy weight on it to hold the vegetables under the surface of the water overnight:

kimchifirstnightThe next day, grate the ginger, chop the garlic, and mix together well with the red chili peppers.  The book says “until it forms a paste” but I either lost patience or was using the wrong amount of ingredients because mine was just very finely minced stuff.

Drain the brine off the vegetables but save it for later.  Taste a vegetable.  If it tastes super salty, give them a little rinse.  Ours tasted fine so we didn’t rinse.  Mix vegetables with spices.  Press into quart-size jar (wide mouth works better).  Press down hard on the vegetable and some brine should seep out of them and rise up to the top of the jar.  If they are a bit on the dry side, add a little reserved brine.

Now is the super confusing part.  For the next few days, according to different books, you should:

a) seal with an airtight lid and leave it be
b) seal with a lid that lets air out but not in (like this)
c) just put some cheesecloth on it and if a yeast starts growing on the top, simply skim it off (it won’t kill you, apparently), and press down the veggies daily

I still find this all very confusing and so am taking a class in two weeks and hopefully some of my questions will be answered there.  At any rate, we chose method C because that is the method that the book seems to use:

kimchiinprogressOK we didn’t have any cheesecloth on hand so I used a cut up piece of old floursack towel.  No yeasty scum ever formed on mine, but I think results on that can vary widely just depending on where you live and ferment.

Every day, you’re supposed to check the kimchi.  You take off your “lid” or whatever, push down the cabbage to release extra bubbles, then taste one of the vegetables.  Katz says that when it tastes “ripe” it is done.  What the heck does that mean, “ripe?”

Well by the 4th or 5th day our kimchi was definitely getting less salty and more sour tasting.  We took that to mean ripeness.   We called it done on Friday and put an air-tight lid on it and moved it to the fridge.  Here’s the final product:

kimchionplateIt’s not super pretty; the veggies don’t look super vibrant.  Also, I didn’t like the way the napa cabbage held up.  Most of the commercial kimchis that I’ve bought use regular head cabbage, and I think I would use that next time too.  It stays crunchier.

Is this the weirdest recipe I’ve done yet?  For sure.  Fermentation is still very mysterious to me.  I think part of the reason is that there are multiple right ways to do it, so it just depends on who you ask.

Our kimchi is EXTREMELY sour.  I’m not really sure what that means.  It’s maybe a little too sour for me, but I’m hoping it will mellow out over time.  It’s very gingery (we used quite a bit) but it actually could be spicier.

So this brings me to the WHY.  Why eat this stuff?  I certainly did not grow up eating this stuff.   The closest thing to it that I ever experienced was pickled herring at Christmas which I thought disgusting (now I’d like to try it again).  It seems that fermented/pickled foods are something that adds quite a bit of nutritional value to your life, and it’s something we’ve really lost track of in the western/American diet.

What, you say?  What about our beloved dill pickles?  What of our canned kraut that we can pick up at any supermarket?  Well, the problem is that industrialization demands a very long shelf life of most foods, so the pickles, kraut, etc. that you buy at most grocery stores have been pasteurized.  All those nutritious enzymes, probiotics, etc. have been annhilated.  Even most pickle recipes that you see call for vinegar instead of brine.  Vinegar is not a hospitable environment for enzymes either.  The one happy exception to all this is yogurt, which we all know and love (though I’d avoid the nonfat or lowfat stuff because your body can’t properly assimilate fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients without a little, duh, fat).

Wild Fermentation‘s author, Sandor Ellix Katz, lives with AIDS and one of the ways he manages his disease is through fermented foods.  Fermented and cultured foods are also mentioned quite a bit in Nourishing Traditions (though I found Fallon’s recipes to be confusing).

What I’ve read has been enough to convince me that I ought to make more of an effort to include these foods in my diet.  At Seward Co-op they have some unpasteurized artisan “raw” kimchis and saur krauts, but holy hanna are they expensive.  I’ve tried them a couple times and really liked how they tasted and how they made my tummy feel.  Apparently they are really a boon to digestion.

So I feel it is worth it to give this a shot on my own.  Our kimchi was really inexpensive to make and it made a whole quart!  We’re talking about less than 1/4 the cost of the artisan ones.  Is it quite as good?  Honestly, no.  But hopefully with practice, it will get better.

(Update, early August 2009: I took a fermentation workshop last week and many of my questions were answered.  Click here to read them.  I also made my second batch of kimchi and it turned out great!  I think with these things, practice is really the essential thing.)

Finally, I’m going to squeeze in a quick garden update:  I picked our first round of green beans today:

greenbeansWe had them with supper, and they were “scrumdelicious” (I must lay off the danged Winnie-the-Pooh books).  I also froze a quart bag of them.