Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Kitchen Chemistry

Several weeks ago, one of my Facebook friends suggested I try fermenting.  With my yogurt-making and garden, she figured it would be something I could do and even enjoy.

What she didn't know was that when I was a kid I loved pretending to be a chemist.  I would line up wooden blocks, write made-up ingredient names on them, gather some bowls, spoons and other utensils and play chemistry.  My brother was the one who actually got a chemistry set, but I did my darnedest to make my own.

When I got a little older my sister and I would go into the kitchen and mix a little bit of this and a little bit of that pretending that we were creating some amazing mixture.  I honestly don't remember if we were pretending to cook or pretending to conduct science experiments.  All I know is that we made a mighty mess and had the time of our lives.

So it is no surprise that today, and for the last 30 or so years, I have been enjoying cooking but with a twist.  I always want to know why certain ingredients behave the way they do.  I want to know what makes yeast make the bread rise.  I want to understand the science behind cooking.  This understanding has served me well.  When I know why I feel that I have a better chance of success.

Unplanned, but extremely welcomed, my Bartlett pear tree had a bumper crop this year.  For years I tried to find out how to prune a pear tree, when to harvest the fruit from a pear tree.  Somehow I never found the information I needed.  This year, however, I found information explaining that pears must be picked while unripe and allowed to ripen off of the tree.  Time to experiment: I picked three pears and placed them on my kitchen windowsill.  I checked them every day, giving them a little squeeze.  Hard as rocks.  Then, six days later, I squeezed one of the pears and it gave.  It was no longer hard as a rock.  I knew from experience that the peels on these pears were really tough and not tasty so I peeled one of the pears, cut a piece off and took a bite.  Oh my!  It was amazingly sweet and delicious.  I then called the boys into the kitchen and insisted that each of them taste this pear.  They all agreed that it was the best pear they had ever eaten.  We ate the other two within a few minutes.

Out the door I go to pick a bowlful of pears from the tree.  Six days later they were ripe.  We ate these pears but my 12 year old picked a bunch of them for the next batch to ripen.

At the same time all of this is happening I am running out of apple cider vinegar, the organic, unfiltered, unpasteurized kind that has all of the probiotics and healthy stuff still in it.  I am peeling all of these pears and after a little searching online realize that pear vinegar is made from the peels and cores of pears.  So while we can eat the sweet part the rest can be used to make vinegar. Sounds easy.

Pear Vinegar

I take a 1/2 gallon Ball jar, fill it about halfway with peelings and cores, pour enough of our well water to fill the jar 3/4ths of the way, then finally put in a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar with a little bit of the mother to give the mixture a good start (I read that you should add 1/4 cup ACV but I only had a few tablespoons left and didn't want to spare it).  I covered the jar with a paper towel held on by a rubber band. I read that it is good to add peelings and cores daily for a week or so to feed the fermenting mixture. 

Within a couple of days I could smell alcohol.  A week after that I could already smell vinegar.  Yippee!

Pear vinegar with scoby forming
Two weeks later I get a huge surprise: a scoby is forming on each of the four jars I have going.  One of the jars has a lot of the fruit mixed in with the scoby so I decided to strain out the fruit, scrape as much of the mother as I could and add it back in afterwards to see if a new scoby will form.

Strained pear vinegar



After starting my four jars of pear vinegar I was hooked and wanted to learn to ferment more stuff.  My Facebook friend offered me some water kefir grains but she is housebound right now and couldn't get them to the post office. Water kefir is on hold.  How about Kombucha?  I encountered the same issue: no one close by seemed to have a scoby to share.  I read that you could grown your own scoby for Kombucha from a bottle of raw Kombucha purchased at a healthfood store.

Kombucha is a fermented drink made from black tea, sugar and a scoby.  The scoby contains all of these wonderful bacteria and yeast which make the black tea and sugar become this fizzy drink full of healthy organisms.

We do not have many healthfood stores here in Connecticut and only one Whole Foods Market and one Trader Joe's,  neither of which is close to my house.  So I swung by the healthfood store in Middletown and bought the only Kombucha they had, a green one.  Not ideal, but why not?  I got it home, put it in a jar, fed it 1/4 cup of sugar and stirred it up.  Next, I covered it with a cloth and left it alone.  Of course, I peeked an awful lot.  I want to see it change.  It is that chemistry thing I have going on.

After 2 weeks (not 2.5 weeks) here is what I have:

I know that doesn't look terribly appetizing, but that is a scoby floating on top of that blue-green algae infused Kombucha.  Oh, scoby is an acronym for Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast.  Sounds delightful, doesn't it? Like freshly made pancakes and real maple syrup, right? No?

What scientists are beginning to figure out, and many Mother Earth News types have known for 40+ years, is that our bodies need bacteria and yeast to be healthy.  But we need the right kinds of bacteria and yeast.  Most of us have too much of the wrong kinds, the malevolent kinds, and are not terribly healthy as a result.  Some scientists believe that our immune system is really centralized in the gut which means those yogurt-eating, Kombucha-drinking, ACV-loving people have been doing something right all along.  The rest of us just made fun of them for wearing Birkenstocks and eating whole wheat bread while meditating.  Now we are not terribly healthy and they are out hiking the Adirondacks while we spend thousands of dollars on doctors bills and pharmaceuticals.

Kombucha starter - showing life

Okay, back to fermenting.  I had an appointment in Glastonbury where there just happens to be a Whole Foods Market.  I knew one was there but I never knew where it was.  My gps drove me right past it last Friday.  Couldn't miss it.  Yippee!  After my appointment I went inside Whole Foods.  Oh, I love that store.  And the people are so nice there.  I wanted to stay just to absorb the positive energy I felt there -- maybe it was just the absence of pesticides and chemicals.  Who knows.  I grabbed two bottles of Raw Kombucha and two bags of organic blue corn tortilla chips (the boys favorite) and headed home.

I then poured the contents of each bottle into a jar, added 1/4 cup of organic sugar in one and 1/4 cup honey in the other, and covered each with a cloth.  That was last Friday.  I can just see the beginnings of a scoby forming, or what I hope is a scoby.  Need to be patient.  


Ginger Bug

Ginger Bug on Day 4
Then my friend shared a recipe for homemade Ginger Ale and I knew I had to make this.  But you need something called "Ginger Bug" first.  Okay, next project: Jar with 3 cups of water, 3 teaspoons diced fresh ginger (I used organic), and 3 teaspoons sugar (again, I used organic).  Shake bottle up.  Each day add 2 teaspoons fresh diced ginger and 2 teaspoons sugar, shake and allow to ferment.  

I am on Day 4 and you can see the bubbles indicating fermentation.  I wish I could share the smell of this mixture with you.  Suffice it to say, it is delightful.

A week or so more and I will have my Ginger Bug and can start my first batch of Ginger Ale.  That will require its very own blog post when it is time.

The boys will be thrilled!

Yogurt made from probiotic capsule




Although I typically made yogurt from either my last batch or a store-bought organic yogurt, yesterday I decided to try something I had been wanting to try for a long time: make yogurt using a probiotic capsule.  My son has a bottle of probiotics that he had to take when he was on antibiotics for Lyme disease.  There are a few left in the bottle and I wondered how well this mega probiotic would culture.

I stirred in one capsule of probiotic powder into 3 pints of organic milk and placed it on my slow cooker base allowing it to culture overnight.  Today I had a bowlful of amazing yogurt that tastes completely different than my usual.

Blueberry yogurt
I then made a pint of blueberry yogurt with my new homemade yogurt, frozen wild blueberries, raw honey and homemade vanilla extract.  It actually made more than a pint but I ate the rest for a snack.  This yogurt is delicious.


Sourdough Starter

Sourdough starter Day 4
My last science experiment is another attempt to make a sourdough starter, this time from wild yeast instead of store-bought yeast following the directions on Starting a starter, Mike's Old Way.  I mixed 50g of whole wheat flour and 50g of water and allowed them to do their thing.  Each day I add the same to 100g of the starter mix (just throw away the rest).  It is getting more and more active each day. 

When it doubles in size after "feeding" I know it is ready to try out in a recipe.

I am thrilled to be exploring my chemist side daily.  Eventually, my hope is that I will have a huge variety of fermented foods, lots of probiotics for me and the boys, and eventually to share with my pregnant daughter (after she has the baby).  I'll let you know how these experiments turn out.

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