Saturday, September 19, 2009

Maggots and Vinegar--My Learning Curve With Fermented Foods

Hew Boy, have I been having some fun learning how to ferment things! It seemed to be going well for quite awhile, but then I hit a few bumps in the road. I guess there are too many biological processes involved when you're not sterilizing your food to death. Things can go awry, horribly awry.

The beet juice thing was awesome for a few weeks. I kept brewing new batches and drinking a small glassful every morning. Note that in the recipe I've been using, it calls for placing a piece of sourdough bread on top of the beets. This introduces beneficial beasties as well as keeps the beets under the liquid, which is critical. So, there were the beets and the liquid, topped by a piece of sourdough bread (it was the top half of a sourdough bun, which fit perfectly into the jar), then the jar was covered with four layers of cheesecloth tied snugly around the rim.

I will never forget the morning I took the cheesecloth off my most recent batch of fermented beet juice. I had eagerly been anticipating the newest batch, but when I looked in--OH MY GOD!! (I've had a lifelong aversion to wormy things of all sorts)--the sourdough was crawling with maggots! Just crawling with them. I have NO idea how that could have happened. Four layers of cheesecloth! The cheesecloth was suspended at least an inch above the bread. Maybe the bread needed to be fully submerged in the brine (it wasn't) but still, how could a fly have gotten to it to lay eggs? And we haven't even had many flies this year. That week was the first time I had noticed any in the house at all.

It was so traumatizing I haven't been able to make more beet juice since then. When I get brave enough to try it again, I think I'll use something else to hold the beets under the brine. Something inert like a small cup or plate.

I am so glad I didn't totally freak out and drop the jar on the floor. That would have been great--glass shards, beets, blood red juice, a sloppy piece of bread and MAGGOTS EVERYWHERE. I would have just lost it. Luckily, I maintained control of my faculties enough to get the jar out to the compost bin and dump it before the worst of the willies set in. Bleck!

The next adventure had to do with my sourdough starter. I was making a new batch of ginger ale and had all the ingredients in the bottle except for the yeast. As I mentioned before, I've started using a tablespoon of my sourdough starter in place of commercial yeast, and have really liked the results. So I got the starter out of the fridge, opened it, and held it up to my nose. Instead of the pleasant yeasty aroma of sourdough, my nose was assaulted with the pungent smell of vinegar. My sourdough had turned to vinegar--Oh No! It's true I'd been abusing it lately. I left it out on the counter too long without feeding it one time. I think that's what did it. If you've never worked with sourdough you might not realize the liquid that forms on top of the starter is pure "hooch"--grain alcohol--so, yes, it's possible for your starter to turn to vinegar. In wine-making that's why fermentation is done in narrow-necked containers, to keep the vinegar-making beasties out. But I had left my wide round bowl of starter out on the counter (for a very long time) which was just a big ole' welcome sign for them.

So then I had another problem. Here I was with a three liter bottle of ginger ale all ready to go except for the yeast. And I didn't have any sourdough starter nor any commercial yeast. I decided to see what would happen if I just let it go as is. Would there be enough wild yeasts present on the ginger to get the process going and allow it to ferment? Well, guess what--it worked! It took about two or three days, instead of the usual one day, but it carbonated itself. Yay! I learned something really valuable--adding yeast was never even necessary. It just speeds things up a bit.

Aside from these lessons, my other fermentation projects are going well. I've made fermented chard stalks which are coming along nicely, as well as a fermented salsa that's not half bad.

Live and learn, though. These sure have been some interesting food adventures.

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