For the 21st episode of Homesteads and Homeschools, we enjoy a cold fermented beverage and have a discussion with fermentation guru Sandor Katz. We discussed some of the basics of fermentation, as well as the health benefits of not just fermented food, but bacteria and some of the problems with humanity’s desire to create a sterilized environment. There is an extra bonus episode for supporters of the show.
Since moving to Georgia, we have made an effort to go north for a couple of weeks each summer. It helps us escape the heat and it allows us to see family during the nicest part of the year in New England. This means the garden struggles. Of course, it’s usually the end of July or early August that we head north so the garden is taking a break for the most part, but without someone here to keep the pigweed, lambs quarter and morning glory at bay, the weeds can take over in a matter of weeks. We learned this the hard-way last year. So this year as we prepared to go north, we decided to head to the local nursery and see what they had for cover crops.
We weren’t really sure what to get, so we went with the cheapest things the owner suggested – a pound of buckwheat seed and a pound of daikon radish seed. I knew buckwheat is good for honey and if we got ambitious we could grind the seeds for flour, so that sounded good. I also knew you could eat daikon radish, and they’re often used in Asian cuisine, but these were seeds out of a 55 gallon drum and I had no clue what variety of daikon they were (or if there even are different varieties of daikon radish.) With no inclination as to what I was doing, I walked around the perimeter of the garden, broadcast seeding the buckwheat on two sides and the daikon on the other two.
When we left, the weather was predictably dry, but we did have a few rain storms, and apparently it was enough for the cover crops to take root so that when we returned home, we had a weed free perimeter, some pretty white buckwheat flowers and some baby daikon growing in the back.
Of course, we tilled the buckwheat and daikon back into the ground when it came time to get our fall crops in, but partly out of laziness and also because I like to experiment, I left part of the back row as daikon, just to see what would happen. Well, they got bigger, and bigger, and bigger, to the point that they actually look like the long white radishes that you see when you purchase daikon from the store. This was awesome not only because the the chickens love the greens and it’s an excellent supplement for fresh forage now that winter is here.
But also because it’s the right kind of radish to make kkakdugi – radish kimchi!
Making a SCOBY is not super difficult. In fact, I think it is fairly easy. Though for some this is not the case. (My brother has tried multiple times to start a culture, but continued to fail until I gave him one.) Once you have kombucha brewing, you will have an abundance of SCOBYs.
If you cannot get a SCOBY to grow, we offer some of our SCOBYs for sale. All the SCOBYs we sell are raised on organic black tea and sugar (any SCOBYs grown on flavored teas are given to the chickens).
We sell SCOBYs wet or dehydrated. Dehydrated come in packages of two – in case one does not rehydrate properly – wet SCOBYs come individually.
Both prices include shipping fees. Send us an email, and we will get you a SCOBY, or two.
After college, I was not sure what to do in terms of a job, I had not applied to graduate school, so I started to peruse the Yahoo! Jobs section. Long story short, I ended up in South Korea teaching English for a year. It took me a while, but eventually I fell in love with that pungent, spicy dish we call kim chi. When I returned home, I struggled to find authentic kim chi the way the ajumma’s in Korea make it. The stuff in the jar at the grocery store was passable, but by no means a substitution for what could be found at any random Korean restaurant. I then started to venture into making my own kim chi, and sadly, was never able to make it right. (I think a fair bit of it has to do with getting authentic go chu jang powder – this is probably the best.)
Despite not being able to make truly authentic kim chi, I experimented with some other vegetables and eventually – with some assistance through Sandor Katz – found the world of fermentation. Really, you can ferment anything, especially if you go the lacto-fermentation route; granted some things taste better than others, but it’s always fun to experiment and see what happens. Sometimes you get a winner, and sometimes you made some chicken food.
This past winter we had a spectacular carrot harvest. We froze some, and kept a supply in the refrigerator, but we still had plenty left over. (Unfortunately, here in Georgia, it would seem that no one has heard of a basement or a root-cellar so we have no ideal place for storage.) Rather than just chuck more carrots in the freezer, I decided to lacto-ferment a few and see what happened.
We don’t use pesticides or chemicals in our garden, so I have no concerns about eating the skins of our vegetables, so before cutting the carrots into spears I gave them a good scrub, but left the skins on. I’m a big fan of garlic, ginger, and hot pepper, so naturally, they were part of my supply list as was a jar that has a slight taper towards the top with a rubber gasket – and of course sea salt. My wife got this jar a long time ago for storing dried goods, but the slight taper allows me to pack things in, and then the pressure keeps vegetables submerged without needing any sort of weight to keep them down.
Lacto-fermenting is really one of the easiest ways to preserve food. I peeled a couple garlic cloves and cut a couple big chunks of ginger up before tossing them into the bottom of the jar and adding a healthy dose of hot pepper. I cut the tops off the carrots before slicing them lengthwise into quarters – sixths for the bigger carrots – and then shoved them in lengthwise packing them tight. When I could fit no more, I used a measuring cup, keeping track of how much water it took to fill my jar about half an inch above the top of the carrots. I like to use a ratio of 1:1, tablespoons of salt:cups of water, so I ended up needing just under two tablespoons of salt. I added the salt and used a chopstick to wiggle the carrots around which helped the salt sink down, but who’s real purpose was to allow any trapped air bubbles to escape. (If you trap air bubbles, you defeat the idea of lacto-fermentation and you’ll get inedible rot.)
When my salt, carrots, spices and water were added, I shut the lid and put the jar in the closet of the warmest room in our house. By about day two, I noticed little tiny bubbles rising to the surface, on day three I burped the jar, but probably did not need to as there was no pressure to speak of. (Secretly I wanted to give them the sniff test and it’s really hard to leave them alone.) At this point you don’t want to agitate the carrots any. The carbon dioxide – a byproduct of the lacto-fermentation process – is heavier than air and will sit on top of your ferment, keeping the nasty oxygen away from your vegetables and preventing contamination.
How long you let your carrots sit is really up to you. It depends on how warm the ambient air temps are, how big your ferment batch is, and how tangy you like your veggies. I left our carrots for five days. As this was the first time trying to ferment carrots, I wasn’t really sure how they would come out and part of me was ready to march straight away to the chicken coop – my wife has disallowed me from keeping ferments in the fridge that I “might” eat “one day” – but much to my surprise, they were delicious – crisp and slightly reminiscent of relish, but with that lacto-fermented-almost-kim chi- flavor I’d been searching for. Next to some radish kim chi I made a few years ago, this was the closest flavor I had come to that reminded me of that spicy goodness every capable Korean grandmother creates. And, as a bit of a surprise, the red-purple coloring from our Dragon Carrots leached into the water giving it a red hue. Give it a shot!
When I mentioned making soda a couple of weeks ago, I also mentioned making a slightly carbonated fermented tea called kombucha. If you’re not sure what kombucha is, it is a sweet tea that has been inoculated and allowed to ferment for a period of time. It is easy to make and a whole lot cheaper than buying it from the store. Kombucha is to the fermenting world what chickens are to homesteading. It’s that gateway that introduces you to the endless world of ferments.
Making kombucha is really quite easy, but before you can start brewing batches right and left, you must come up with a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) otherwise known as a mother culture. There are a good number of places you can find them online – a quick google search, Amazon, or heck, even us – or you can take the time to make one yourself. Making a SCOBY is not difficult, but if its your first foray into fermenting, it might seem a bit daunting; for all intents and purposes, it is not, and you probably have most of the stuff you’ll need sitting in your kitchen.
Kombucha is tea that is fermented, so you’ll need some sort of black tea, sugar, water a fermenting vessel and some plain kombucha. Later in life when you have multiple SCOBYs you can experiment with different types of teas, but the different oils and compounds can effect your SCOBY adversely so it’s recommended to start with a basic black tea. (After using a SCOBY in non-black tea, I give it to the chickens and use another mother next time.) Sugar is another important factor for making kombucha, like any ferment, the bacteria and yeast need sugar to feed on. White refined sugar is what the internet and all the books claim works the best. I have tried different types of sugars and have noticed no difference in taste. Again, to start, use white sugar, and once you get going go ahead and experiment. Remember that honey is an anti-microbial and while it may work for kombucha, it slows the process and hurts the SCOBY. Some people put a lot of focus on the water, saying you have to use filtered water or bottled water. I haven’t found this to be an issue, so long as you don’t have chlorinated water, you should be fine. If your water is chlorinated you can buy bottled water, or let your water sit in a container with an open top (use a coffee filter) and let the chlorine dissipate into the air for a day or two. As far as fermenting vessels go, I’ve used an empty glass gallon jar; it started out full of pickles. Or if a gallon of kombucha is too much, you can get a half-gallon mason jar.
The last key ingredient is the kombucha culture can be obtained from the store. Technically you should use plain kombucha for making a SCOBY as it doesn’t have the additive flavors and oils, however I have been able to use flavored kombucha when the store didn’t have any plain.
Now it’s time to make your SCOBY. It is simple. When you make your first SCOBY you don’t want a huge batch of kombucha, so you could start with a quart size jar while you eat all your pickles.
Start with a cup of water and ¼ cup of sugar. Heat the water up with one black tea bag or one tablespoon of loose black tea and dissolve the sugar.
Allow the tea to cool to about 70-80°F and remove the tea.
Add your bottle of kombucha. You can add the whole bottle, or you can add less, just make sure to get the visible strains and yeast from the bottom into your batch.
Put a breathable top on your container (rubber bands and coffee filters work well).
Put the container in a warm (70-80°F) place and let it rest.
In a few days – seven at the latest – you’ll start to see a baby SCOBY forming on the top.
In two or three weeks, you’ll have a decent sized mother and will be able to start fermenting your own batches of kombucha.
Making your first batch of kombucha is essentially the same as making a SCOBY, extrapolate the ratios and add your mother with a half-cup of starter tea and you’re off!
One of the reasons behind homesteading for us is the cutting down of stuff; a limiting of trash. Unfortunately – or not – a lot of this garbage comes from food packaging. Not only can we (most probably) all agree that refined foods are bad for you, but they also generate some of the most garbage – plastic bags inside of boxes, wrapped in cellophane? This means that the sleeve of saltines is one of the first things to go, which isn’t a huge effort for us, but a little tougher than kicking the saltines to the curb is our seltzer habit. Aside from milk, seltzer is the only beverage we buy from the store.
Embarking on a seltzer-less journey, I really wanted to find some sort of substitute for the whole family that could still give us that mouth cleansing effervescence found in a can of seltzer. Of course (mediocre) beer is easy enough to make, but even with a low ABV, it could easily result in trouble, especially if we start giving it to the kids, so that’s out. Then there is kombucha, which my daughter will devour, but my son is repulsed by. So I turned my eye toward soda.
Our kids very rarely have soda – mostly at church functions and birthday parties – as it isn’t exactly what I’d call child-friendly or healthy. As I thought back to college, making a few batches of Birch beer soda, and I remembered adding sugar. Yes the yeast feed off the sugars, but we’re not going for long standing ferments here, we’re just looking for some carbonation so the potential to limit the sugar going into a recipe is, to some degree, up to the cook.
You can make soda a few different ways, most recently it seems that soda making machines are all the rage, but that sort of defeats the purpose of getting rid of stuff. You can also just add sugar water or juice to seltzer – again, defeating the less-junk purpose. But believe it or not, there is a way to make soda naturally, with lacto-fermentation. This is the path we decided to take. Where as kombucha needs a SCOBY to grow, soda needs a bug, and once you have a bug, the soda possibilities are only limited by your imagination. And there are a plethora of books out there to help you on your journey to
soda making master.
Once you’ve made a bug – or otherwise obtained a culture – the process is fairly simple: boil some water, add some sugar, add some flavorings, cool, add some bug, bottle. But before you go making a bug or some soda, there are some things to consider:
Grolsch style bottles are recommended, though they should be burped during the fermentation process. No one wants a ginger ale cocktail bomb in their pantry.
For the cocktail bomb reason, we prefer old plastic soda bottles. (Plastic bottles don’t really create shrapnel.)
Carbonation is fleeting. We’ve found that once a bottle is fully opened. Soda should be consumed with in a couple of days lest it become a flat, nasty, mess. This is why we use 1-liter or smaller bottles. (Also, Grolsch bottles are smaller, single serving sizes.)
Like beer, you can filter your soda and remove some of the flavorings before bottling, or you can leave them for an unfiltered taste and appearance. Once soda has become carbonated, it’s very hard to filter the flavorings without going flat.
Making a ginger bug is a fairly simple process. It requires a bit of prolonged attention, but very little time. To make a bug here’s what you’ll need:
35-45 grams of finely chopped ginger
35-40 grams of white sugar
2 cups of water
Quart Size Mason Jar
Before we make the bug, we process all our ginger in the food processor; after we’re done with what we need for the day, we put it back in the fridge until the next day we need it. In apples and berries, the naturally occurring yeast that turn apples to cider are found on the skin, so we include our ginger skin when making a bug, but you don’t have to. As for the sugar, you can experiment around with different types, but when it comes down to it, simple white sugar seems to be the best. Remember, honey is an antimicrobial, so while you may be able to play around with individual batches and honey, it will not work for your bug.
On day one add 15 g (or 1 large tablespoon) of ginger to your mason jar. Add an equal amount of ginger, and your two cups of water. Stir it up so the sugar dissolves. Put it in a warm place and let it rest until tomorrow. (Supposedly, metal kills yeast and shouldn’t be used to make breads and other products that contain microorganisms. Growing up we always used a fork to make pizza dough and never had a problem. All the same, we use a wooden spoon now.)
On day two, add 5 g of ginger and an equal amount of sugar. Stir and let rest.
Continue this process for a total of five days – so three more days – or more if you are in a colder climate and your bug doesn’t seem to be generating much activity. You’ll know your bug is alive when bubbles start amassing on the surface. You also can start smelling faintly floral yeasty activity within the jar and if you’re quite, you can hear the bubbles popping.
Once your bug is formed, you can use it right away to make some naturally fermented
soda, or you can wait. There are two options to waiting, you can store it on the counter or in the fridge. If you store the bug on the counter, it will remain active and will need to
be fed nearly daily 5 g of ginger and an equal amount of sugar. If you store the bug in the fridge, it will still need to be fed, but on a weekly basis. To be honest, I’ve had a bug in the fridge that I’ve forgotten about for three weeks, and it survived.
After making your first batch of soda – most recipes call for ½ cup of bug – you need to replenish your bug. Add half a cup of water, 5 g of ginger and 5 g of sugar. Typically after use we like to leave the bug on the counter for a day or two (feeding it each day) to really get active and incorporate the new water before we throw it back in the fridge. It’s been a fun experiment
for both parents and kids and tastes pretty good, too, though I can’t say it’s a permanent staple in our fridge.
I can’t tell you when I started dabbling in ferments. My earliest recollection is trying to make some country wine in my basement when I was probably thirteen or fourteen. It was a total crap shoot. I put some sugar in a mason jar, threw in some fruit and a bit of yeast, then flipped the jar over into a wider basin of water to create a seal of sorts. Needless to say it turned out poorly and was unsuccessful. (I’ve since made some palatable stuff…) Into college I dabbled with brewing beer and trying to make some ‘shine, but it wasn’t until I lived in South Korea for a year that I really started a love affair with fermented foods, all thanks to kim chi. It is a goal of mine to one day make some kim chi that actually tastes like an ajumma made it, and not some stateside grocer, but that’s a story for another day.
There are a million different fermented dishes you can make, some are time consuming, require special tools, and mountains of time, others, like oatmeal, are extremely simple. I first came across this idea reading one of Sandor Katz’s books. (I couldn’t tell you which one; they’re all excellent.) Almost everyone these days have heard of overnight oats. Some folks will soak them overnight, some cook them overnight in a slow cooker, some soak them and eat them raw the next morning. It may sound loopy, but here’s the basic reason why:
Oats and other grains contain phytic acid. Phytic acid is known to bind to certain nutrients therefore hindering the bodies ability to absorb these nutrients. Soaking (particularly in an acidic environment) helps to break this phytic acid down. You can achieve an acidic environment by using whey – kefir, yogurt, etc. – apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, or anything else you can think of that might lower the pH. You can also skip the additives and really let those oats ferment naturally lowering the pH of the solution. Typical instructions will call for the oats to be soaked in cold water, or even left in the refrigerator, over night; the problem is, this cooler environment doesn’t allow for much fermentation. Ideally, you want to soak your oats on the counter from 12-24 hours to really break down the phytic acid, but there’s more.
Fermented foods have particularly rich flavors, sweet and sour, tart, tangy, and dense. If all you want to do is break down some phytic acid, soak your oats for 12-24 hours in a warm environment. If you want all the funky flavors of a delicious fermented dish here’s our technique.
Before I even throw the oats in the mason jar, I toss in a handful or raisins. The raisins add some sweetness and some naturally occurring yeast (which is a good thing.) If you don’t have raisins, other fruits with naturally occurring yeast can work – berries, apples. Once the raisins are in, I add my spices: usually some fresh minced ginger, cardamom, cinnamon and turmeric. When I can find it, I’ll use garam masala, or if I’m having a later afternoon snack, I’ll throw in a bit of curry powder. If I
want it a little sweeter, I’ll add in some ripe banana. Really the possibilities are endless, and it is up to you and your taste buds
The amount of oats, and size of container I use depends on who’s going to be eating them with me. My son is not a big fan, but my daughter will eat a whole cup if I allow her. Once the oats are in, I cover them with water, screw on a lid, and let them go. On average, I’ll wait a good two days, though less when it’s summer, and a little longer in the winter. The trick is to really let the fermentation kick in. Typically, mid-way through day two, I’ll start to see tiny bubbles welling up from below and it begins to look like one big gloppy mess. When I see these things, I’m know I’m good to go.
These really are one of the simplest fermented dishes you can make. Once you’re happy with how the little guys are doing with your oats, it’s time to cook them. Dump them in a pain, and cook. I use a low heat, and stir. Because they’re so dense and gloppy, they tend to burn a little bit if you let them go without stirring for too long. If they’re too thick coming out of the jar, you can always add a little water.
When the oats are warmed thoroughly, we serve them! (Imagine that…). Typically we don’t add sugar, but on occasion my daughter can convince me that they need a little Maple Syrup. Either way, they’re delicious.
Addendum: We have experimented with adding chia to the ferment, this requires more water. We have also tried this with grits, and steel cut oats. The soak times for steel cut oats is a little longer, but both turned out equally as well. Other ways to reduce phytic acid is to sprout the item in question (think beans.)
I’m always searching for fun easy ferments (or even more difficult ones) so if you have any favorites, let me know in the comments.