I was anticipating being able to return to the Horton Farmers' Market for this years opening weekend but unfortunately it's not going to work out. I will get there - it just won't be on Saturday.
In preparation for the new season, I had started several different ferments and cultures so that I would have some healthy and delicious probiotic products available for sale on Mother's Day. I've been sharing pictures and my progress on my Facebook page but I've neglected to post updates on the blog.
For my lack of sharing with non-Facebook users I apologize.
Along with water kefir tonic beverages, I've fermented sour pickles (using Ontario greenhouse cucumbers), another batch of kimchi, a ginger bug for preparing sodas, purple sauerkraut, and my proud achievement of the week: a successful batch of sauerkraut.
The more I delve into the world of fermentation the more I want to go. The age of the information may be here with a focus on the internet but good ol' fashioned print books, magazines, and periodicals are still an incredibly round source of knowledge for something as non-mainstream such as fermenting food and drink. For my research into fermenting I've sourced a few online sites and communities but most of my guidance comes from ink and paper books or by experimenting and seeing what happens.
Although some ferments may be almost extinct or non-existent commercially in this area (such as kvass or kefir), some are also thriving. If you have ever made your own homebrewed beer or wine you have fermented. If you have ever used yeast to bake a loaf of bread you have fermented. Pickling in vinegar and canning is not the same as fermenting although the process can produce wonderful flavours. That being said, lacto-fermented items contain many more aromatics, textures, vitamins, and live cultures that general pickling cannot replicate. Also, as soon as the pickled item is pasteurized or heated to certain temperatures much of the life of the food is destroyed.
Probably without realizing, you consume a wide variety of fermented products each and every day. Chocolate, tea, coffee, vanilla, bread, yogurt, cheese, vinegar, beer, and wine are all fermented at some stage and are pretty much staples in our diets. Fermentation is helpful because it breaks down vitamins and minerals in food that were not accessible to the body (making digestion easier) and in some cases can actually increase the vitamin count. Foods rich in probiotics (including Lactic Acid Bacteria) such as active live-cultured yogurt, sauerkraut, and water kefir reportedly contribute to a 'healthy gut culture' which helps grow and maintain a strong immune system.
Fermentation has been a part of our culture from before we had a name for culture. From the examples listed about you can see how it is a very large part of the culinary world. The culinary arts are just as much about ingredients as they are about methods and traditions - some of them dating back a thousand years. If you had extra milk at the end of the day from the only goat you had (and only source of milk and certain vitamins), what did you do with the leftovers? When the cabbages were ripe and abundant pre-1850, how did people preserve food before the spread of hot-water bath canning in aluminum cans or glass jars? What and how did/do the native people of Iqaluit eat in the middle of winter in when food sources were frozen or non-existent?
They used the food they had available and fermented it!
Water kefir (similar but different from milk kefir) is a refreshing tonic beverage that is slightly tart and effervescent. With a much milder fermented flavour compared to sodas prepared with a gingerbug (see my previous post), kefir is a perfect drink for those who don't like commercial sugar-loaded pop but want to enjoy a delicious , sparkling, beverage.
It is impossible to say kefir contains no alcohol, as methyl and carbonation are biproducts of yeasts feeding on sugars. However, to ensure the lowest amount of alcohol is produced, steps are taken during preparation and the result is a tonic with less alcohol than you would find in a typical near-beer. To put it in perspective, some orange juices contain more alcohol than kefir but it's still worth mentioning to those who choose to avoid any and all alcohol. I have no qualms about serving kefir tonic to children as long as it was prepared using a quick and open ferment like I do. If you want an alcoholic beverage, I do know for a fact a glass of kefir on the rocks with a splash of gin is very thirst-quenching while gardening. The addition of a little wine would make a wonderful spritzer as well.
Over the past month and a half since I've sourced kefir grains, I have experimented with many different flavour combinations and quantities. I've worked out a few kinks and now have a consistent method of obtaining the proper amount of carbonation. Flavour-combos have mostly been hits, but there have been a few misses. I attempted to use creamed coconut for a tropical element in a grapefruit-ginger kefir but the resulting drink was slightly bitter from the grapefruit and the creamed coconut never fully emulsified leaving me with floaty, fatty-bits. I strain kefir before consuming (usually) but coconut milk and shredded unsweetened coconut flakes produce a better result in both flavour and texture so I will stick with those ingredients. as
Other flavour I've experimented with:
More ideas in fruition that I'm not ready to share just yet. As the local produce ripens you can count on seeing and tasting it in all my ferments.
These are water kefir grains - aka SCOBY or Symbiotic Community of Bacteria and Yeasts. Not really grains (they just look like it), the grains look like gelatin beads. I use about 3 T of grains to ferment 1 L of kefir. I'm preparing a gallon per batch now although I'm not bottling it all. Finding fridge space and bottles are a challenge...
The SCOBY (or the grains- easier to say) are mixed with sugar and water. The bacteria and yeasts then feed on the sugars creating a pro-biotic tonic full of live 'good' bacteria and yeasts which we then eat or drink. Live-cultured yogurt? Same idea except these aren't commercial strains of bacteria that are typically used in large scale operations. Variety is the key to life which helps us build up immunity and encourage a healthy gut culture. That fact that we refer to bacteria and yeasts as cultures and parts of our society is made up of different cultures isn't a coincidence.
After the SCOBY ferments in the water and sugars, I strain out the grains and then add flavouring and bottle. From left to right: blueberry lemon, grapefruit rosemary, rhubarb ginger. The tonics will sit at room temp for about 24 hours where they will go through a secondary fermentation, this time in sealed bottles so the carbonation is contained which makes for a bubbly beverage. Once fermentation is completed, into the fridge they go to chill and slow down any further fermenting. Yes, it's a live product, not pasteurized, which is why it needs to refrigerated or consumed immediately. Worried about sugar content? I'm using organic cane sugar and most of it is consumed by the SCOBY leaving a slightly acidic, barely sweetened probiotic carbonated tonic flavoured with just about anything you can imagine!
Another awesome ferment I've been experimenting with is sauerkraut. It's amazing what cabbage, salt, and time can transform into: a tangy, crisp, probiotic rich vegetable condiment fit for kraut kings and queens.
After thinly slicing cabbage, it is tossed and pounded with salt until some of the water contained in the vegetable cells is released creating a natural brine. The cabbage is then placed into a non-reactive container and compacted to remove as much air as possible. The cabbage needs to be completely submerged in brine for an anaerobic ferment (without oxygen) so a weight is used to hold the cabbage down under the liquid. You can use a simple cover such as a towel and rubber band for a lid to the crock or jar (to allow gases to escape but not let in any bugs or dust) or use an airlock.
Just like when preparing kimchi or sour pickles, as the vegetables ferment lactic acid bacteria (other bacteria and yeasts form as well) begin to flourish and create lactic acid. The lactic acid (from the good bacteria) stave off any 'bad bacteria' and turn the environment acidic. This is what preserves the vegetables. Salt and cool temperatures slow down fermentation whereas less salt and warmer temperatures quicken fermentation. Salt aids in preservation so it's recommended to add at least a little to your cabbage even if you are on a low-sodium diet. I tasted this first batch of sauerkraut after 14 days and I was afraid of the salt content. Since it has fully fermented, the salt taste has decreased as the acidity level grew. I will add less in future batches but for now I can rinse off some of the brine to balance out the saltiness.
Because all of my ferments are live-cultured and never pasteurized (that would kill the pro-biotics!), everything needs to be refrigerated. The fridge will not stop fermentation but it will slow it down. In the case of the water kefir tonics, the longest I've kept a bottle is 10 days without any sort of negative consequences. Will it be just as delicious after 2 weeks? I would think 'yes', but I drink the beverages so fast there is never any left to find out for sure. Another experiment will have to happen.
Eating. Drinking. Sharing.