Sunday, 20 February 2011

Experiments with Culture

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
I've got six bale-topped bottles lined up in front of me, sterilizing bleach water in the sink behind me, when my husband walks in to make himself something for dinner. "Could you please wait a couple more minutes, until I'm finished?" I ask, and he heads back into the living room. I'm bottling a batch of kombucha and, as with all fermented or cultured foods, care must be taken to avoid cross-contamination with rogue bacterias. And we do share our home with quite a few different cultures that need care and feeding just like the animals.

My kitchen alchemy experiments started with cabbage. Living then above 10,000 feet, my gardening attempts never produced very much, but one year I ended up with way more cabbage than I thought I could eat fresh. With salt and a bit of time, however, I watched fascinated as the cabbage transformed into sauerkraut. And it was so good! I'd only tasted supermarket stuff dumped out of a can - this was crunchy and fresh-tasting instead of tinny and limp. I still try to make a batch each fall. There's a half-gallon jar of fresh, never canned, kraut in my refrigerator right now.

Next up, after I'd moved to Nevada, was a sourdough culture, shared with me by an elderly neighbor twenty years ago. I don't know how long she'd kept it going, she's been gone for quite a few years now. But I've dutifully kept it fed and healthy ever since.

I'm not the only one fermenting and culturing stuff around here, either. I gave my husband a little 2-gallon beer-making kit one Christmas. He caught the fermenting fever and now, every couple of months, we have a five-gallon fermentation bucket bubbling away on the corner of the kitchen counter. Last fall, he made a batch of beer using our first home-grown hops harvest. As soon as the beer was finished and bottled, we crushed a bushel of gleaned apples for a batch of hard cider. When a friend offered me the four cases of empty Grolsch beer bottles stored in her garage, I was there in a heartbeat. With new neoprene gaskets, it's easy to use the same bottles over and over - just fill and snap closed.

Once I had access to apple cider alcohol, trying my hand at cider vinegar seemed a logical next step. Every fall, we like to make the trip across the Sierras to Apple Hill, a day spent wandering around the area checking out the harvests, craft fairs, and shops. One of my favorite places has lots of flavored vinegars for sale. I got to talking with the owner about vinegar-making, and he was kind enough to give me some vinegar mother from one of his barrels. It now lives in a jar in my top cupboard. Every once in a while, when I'm down in the cellar, I'll bring up a bottle of cider to feed "mother".

After reading about kombucha, a fizzy beverage cultured from sweetened tea, I thought I'd like to try making it. I asked for the culture on my local Freecycle website, and had two responses within a day. When I went out to pick up the culture, that nice lady also offered me some kefir grains. The kefir I keep alive by making a batch occasionally, and storing it in the refrigerator between times. The kombucha, I love! A gallon jar makes enough for six bottles plus a bit more to add to the next batch, and I've had a batch going pretty much continuously for the past year.

Last summer, with a glut of fresh cucumbers, I decided to try fermenting them into sour pickles. This one is definitely a keeper! I moved the crock full of pickles into the cellar last fall. I have to pull a layer of scum off the top of the liquid every week to 10 days, but that's no problem as I'm down there that often anyway. It holds together almost like a firm gel, so I just pinch it to pull it out and toss it. Every couple of weeks I bring a big pickle up to keep in a jar in the refrigerator, cutting off slices as needed. They're so much better, and crisper, than the salty, vinegary dill pickles I used to make.

Just about the only cultures I don't keep going on a regular basis are yogurt and buttermilk. I've heard it's best to start those with fresh cultures every so often anyway, and both are easy enough to come by in the store. One of these days, I might have to try cheese-making. My fellow blogger here, Gavin, has piqued my interest with his posts. A home just can't have too much culture, can it?