Posts Tagged ‘fermentation’

Leaf Ales for All Seasons

By any standards, we have been through a very strange year, and it isn’t over yet. The tragedy of the pandemic looms over everything, changing every professional, social, and financial situation. As a healthcare worker I’ve seen the distress caused as the impact of deaths ripples outward through families and communities. Anything that we can do to help and protect each other needs to be done.
More than ever, I feel that provident householders who have taken some steps toward being able to meet their own needs are relatively fortunate even when times are tough. The 2020 growing season was a strange one here, starting with an early long balmy spring that encouraged everything to start leafing out and blooming, then days of hard freeze that destroyed all the blossoms and infant fruit. Apples, peaches, apricots, cherries, plums, all gone. I didn’t harvest a single piece of fruit. Not even grapes, because the hungry squirrels ate them. Thinking that I would not be able to do any winemaking, I wandered around disconsolate, until it occurred to me that what I had was leaves. Lots and lots of leaves. Leaves can be made into teas and liquid infusions, and therefore they can be fermented into wine.

Throughout this discussion I’ll give brief directions suited to people with some fermentation equipment and experience. If you have neither, I’d recommend the book Making Wild Wines and Meads by Rich Gulling. The book gives more complete directions but preserves the spirit of experimentation that makes fermentation so interesting. Just be aware that his directions about the amount of sweetening to add produce very high alcohol wine, suitable for the storage times that he talks about. Mine are different.

Step 1 is to prepare the yeast. Any yeast intended for white wine will work. I use champagne yeast because it’s sturdy and unstoppable and I’ve never had a problem with it. Put half a cup of warm water in a large glass, stir in 2 teaspoons of sugar until dissolved, then add a teaspoon of dry winemaking yeast. Let the yeast granules moisten for a few minutes, stir them in, and cover the glass with plastic wrap. If you forget to give the yeast a head start you can pitch it directly into the sweetened brew later, but with the prestart it is rarin’ to go when added to the brew.
Next, catch your leaves. For the most part I used tree leaves, because it was in accord with my semi-permaculture principles and because I had a lot of them. In western society we don’t make a lot of use of tree leaves, so it’s very important to find out which ones you can safely use. In my area there are a lot of mulberry trees, and I have fig trees on my property, and I knew that these leaves are used for teas in other countries and are safe and non-toxic. Some people do have allergic skin reactions to handling fig leaves, so determine your own limits. I’ll have more to say about leaf foraging further along. To make a 1.5 gallon batch of wine, I started by going out in the yard with a 2 gallon stockpot and picking it full of leaves,  packed slightly but not tightly. Then I washed the leaves carefully, and chopped them up a bit just by sticking my big kitchen shears in the pot and cutting through handfuls of leaves. The exception was the fig leaves. I rolled them up in bundles of about 10 leaves and cut them in crosswise strips. I was fairly sure that they were too thick and tough for my stick blender to chop up. Then water was added to almost fill the pot, and the heat was started. I let the water come to a boil, stirred the leaves frequently, and after about 15 minutes when the leaves started to shrink and look cooked, I started chopping with my stick blender.  Ultimately you want an almost-puréed witch’s brew looking like this.

Yech, right? But your finished wine will look quite different and will resemble the pale green-gold wine in the second photo above. At this stage start to think about how to flavor it. The leaves have little flavor, so if you add nothing else it may not taste like much. My personal favorite is about 10 stars of star anise thrown in at this point and simmered with the brew for another 15 minutes, but there are lots of other possibilities. I think that lemon verbena would be a particularly nice flavor, and next summer I plan to try that. You can also add flavoring agents to the finished wine later. After you have simmered in your flavor ingredients of choice, turn off the burner and let the brew cool to room temperature.

Next, run the brew through a mesh straining bag, which you can get through any brewing supply store. Wring and squeeze the bag to get as much fluid out as possible. You should get about 1.5 gallons back. Now you add the sweetening that the yeast will live on. The amount added determines the alcohol level of the finished wine. I use 1pound per gallon of ordinary table sugar or raw sugar, or 1lb 8oz for this quantity, which makes a very light wine of about 4% alcohol content. You can use more if you want more alcohol. You also need to add some acid at this point or your finished wine will be very bland. I make 5 gallon batches and lemon juice would be too expensive, so I use malic acid powder from the brewing store. The amount is a very individual thing. For this quantity I use about two tablespoons. Have a small clean cup handy and taste the brew, bearing in mind that the sweetness will be gone after fermentation and you are tasting only for acid content. Be cautious, because you can always add more later.

By now your glass of yeast should look foamy and bubbly. Add the yeast mixture to the cooled brew, stir in thoroughly, put the brew in a 2 gallon fermentation bucket, fit with a fermentation lock, and put it in a place that isn’t too chilly. Bubbles should start to come through the fermentation lock within 12 hours, and reach peak in 2-4 days. Let the whole rig sit undisturbed for 2 weeks, then siphon into a clean bucket, put the fermentation lock on again, and leave it for another two weeks. Be sure to watch the fermentation lock and keep it full of liquid to the fill line. It has now completed secondary fermentation, and you can siphon it into glass jugs.

A wine this low in alcohol has very little ability to keep, so you will want to use it in the near future or store it in the refrigerator. Now let’s consider how to drink it. Chill it, taste it, and think about it. The sweetening is now completely gone, and it may taste too acid. Add a little sugar, or a drop or two of artificial sweetener if you use that, and see if you like that effect better. If it seems bland, a small squeeze of lemon juice added in the glass might be just what it needs to perk it up. If the acid balance seems right to you but you don’t taste enough other flavors, it might be delicious with a little bit of one of the many herbal liqueurs added. I make my own mixed herbal liqueur and my own anisette, and often add a few drops of each to a glass. I like the leaf wines best when carbonated, and for my large batches this is done in a kegerator, but you can carbonate small amounts using the Drinkmate. Add fruit juice or whatever else takes your fancy. Play with it. It’s yours, and the rules that might apply to fine wines have no application here.

If you don’t have any tree leaves available but you do have a garden, you still have the materials to make a very personal leaf wine from your own property. I often use Swiss chard leaves from my garden in these brews, and have discovered to my great pleasure that I can use kale and outer leaves of cabbage, and although the cabbagey scent can be quite obnoxious in the original brew, it is gone after fermentation. One of my favorites was made entirely from scarlet kale, and is beautiful in the glass.


Turns into this:

If you decide to try it, be aware that in the pot the brew will be a dreadful purple-brown shade and you will curse me. Fear not, when you add the acid the magic of polyphenol redox chemistry will take place and the brew will turn a lovely bright magenta.

Other things that I have added to leaf wine brews include prickly pear juice, blood orange juice, and elderberries.

Rose hips are also good material, and the pretty tawny-rose wine at the top of this post was made with rose hips. A double handful of blackberries added a pretty tinge to another batch.

We enjoy the leaf wines so much that I make 5 gallon batches in my giant 8 gallon stockpot, but don’t do this until you’ve tried some small batches to see if you like the concept. Also, just to emphasize this point again, leaf wines made according to my directions have a very low alcohol content and won’t keep well unless refrigerated. I am able to store them under refrigeration, but if you aren’t, stick to smaller amounts.

Also be aware that when I started making large batches, my home stick blender dropped dead and I had to get a commercial one from a restaurant supply house. Tree leaves are tough.

As always when foraging, use common sense and tend to your own safety. I don’t have any problem consuming mulberry leaves, fig leaves, or Siberian elm leaves, but you might. Never assume that the leaves can be used because the fruit can be used; elderberries are just one example of a plant that has edible fruit but poisonous leaves. Never trust your safety to a stranger on the Internet. Do your own research.

If you are interested in thriving on what’s around you, leaf wines can add a bit of sparkle and joy to your life.





Fermentation VIII: Kefir Broth

I love to make soups in the winter, and have often written about the wonders of homemade broth.  I’ve never cared much for any vegetable broth that I have tasted, and I like the deep savoriness and the economy and thrift of making meat and chicken broth. But recently, more or less by accident, I did discover an alternative.   I was experimenting with my abundant supply of water kefir, and was cooking it down to make a syrupy glaze of the type that I have enjoyed making out of kombucha.  About the original idea, all I can say is please don’t try this with kefir, because the result is rather dreadful. However, having tasted the product of one pot, I turn the heat off under the other one, which had been reduced to a little more than half its original volume. I tasted, thought, added some salt, and had something that tasted savory and surprisingly like chicken broth.  Cooked with some aromatics and herbs, the resemblance would be even more striking.

I tried the same experiment with some water kefir  made with coconut sugar, thinking that the deeper color and flavor would be attractive in this context.  But to my surprise, the faint bitterness that is detectable as an undertaste in brown sugar or coconut sugar was greatly exaggerated in the finished broth, to the point that I threw it out.  So save yourself some time and trouble and use plain sugar when making kefir that you intend to cook down.

Since I remain obsessed with fermentation months after first reading the Noma Guide to Fermentation, I decided to try combining various fungi both microscopic and macroscopic in a mushroom broth.  I had a quart of broth made from boiling down 2 quarts of water kefir.  I started with butter, which made my soup vegetarian, but if you wish to use olive oil or some other vegetable oil instead it will be vegan.  Heat about 3 tablespoons of your chosen fat in a small heavy sauce pan, and sauté one large or two small cloves of garlic finely chopped and one small onion sliced thin.  Cook them over medium low heat, stirring frequently, until they are thoroughly cooked, soft, and a bit caramelized.  Put in 3 tablespoons of mushroom powder. I used dried and powdered Sullius that I had gathered, but the most commonly available powdered mushroom is porcini.  Sautée the powder for a few minutes, and add a quart of broth to your pan. Bring to a boil, and then turn the heat down to simmer.  Now stir in 2 tablespoons of white miso paste.   Taste for saltiness. You might want more miso, but taste it first. I am working on making my own miso, but a good grade of white miso from your nearest Asian market is fine.  Simmer  the soup for 15 to 20 minutes over low heat.

The final step is to smooth it out.  You can do this with a stick blender, but in my opinion there is no alternative to a Vitamix blender to turn your soup into pure velvet.  Make sure you know how to handle hot liquids in your blender without creating a sort of fluid explosion.  When the soup is completely smooth, return it to the pan, heat gently, taste for seasoning, grind in a little fresh pepper, and serve.

There is nothing quite like the process of fermentation to produce a rich, meaty savor without the use of meat. In this basic recipe, I was experimenting with fermentation as a way to make a vegan or vegetarian product highly satisfying.  But if you are not a vegan or vegetarian, there is no reason to feel limited.  You can start with bacon fat if you want to, or add chunks of leftover cooked meat, or finish it with a dash of good sherry or a swirl of cream or both. Sautéed mushrooms would be a great addition.

It interested me that despite use of miso, this soup doesn’t taste identifiably Asian. It just tastes good. If you want something that leans more Asian, you could add a piece or two of kombu to the kefir for a few minutes  as it cooks down and finish the bowls with some diagonally slivered scallions.

Fermentation VII: Umami Sauce

At the beginning of the year I like to look back on what worked last year and what is still with me. My major category of experiments this fall and winter was fermentation, and this rich dark meaty sauce paste which incorporates multiple fermented ingredients is one of the clear winners. I try to keep some in the fridge at all times because it’s really useful stuff.

The foundation is black garlic.  I have come to love black garlic with passionate intensity, and have also had to sadly admit that my own homemade version is not nearly as good as what I can get commercially.  I think the difference is the evenness of heat that can be kept in a commercial fermentation chamber, and a rigged rice cooker or slow cooker just doesn’t work as well.  One day, no doubt, I will find a safe way to build a fermentation chamber that holds 140°. In the meantime, I buy it from the sources mentioned in my black garlic post.

To make the sauce paste pound three of the large Korean style single cloves of garlic or the peeled cloves from one head of regular black garlic with a generous pinch of salt in a mortar and pestle. This supposes that you have one of the big Thai ones meant for ingredients, not the tiny things meant for spices. Keep pounding until the paste is smooth. Pound in a tablespoon of butter, avocado oil, or olive oil. When this is smoothly incorporated, pound in a couple of tablespoons of of lacto-fermented cremini mushrooms and their juice (read more here.) When the paste is smooth again, stir in a tease of colatura or Red Boat fish sauce (I use t teaspoons,) a tablespoon of good red wine vinegar and one tablespoon of your own best balsamic-type vinegar (I use my Concord-must vinegar) or high-quality commercial balsamic vinegar (no grocery-store stuff.) Taste for salt and for acid balance, and adjust as needed. You can double or triple the recipe as long as your mortar is big enough.

Now you have a number of possibilities. The paste can be used as is, making sure it’s brought to room temp if you used butter, and can be stirred into soup or eggs or spread on buttered toast or grilled polenta for a tasty side. A spoonful lends distinction to a mug of hot sipping broth. A fewspoonfools are really good tossed into greens at the last minute of cooking. Just don’t be timid with it. The flavors are rich but surprisingly understated. It keeps in the refrigerator for at least a week if tightly covered.


It can be thinned to a more sauce-like consistency with a little broth or a little more oil and poured over hot or cold sliced meat.

My favorite elaboration is, when pounding in the butter, to keep pounding in more, up to four or five tablespoons instead of just one. If you pound enough this creates a smooth mousse, into which the rest of the ingredients can be stirred. It’s superb as steak butter, wonderful on sourdough bread, great spread on a thick slice of Manchego cheese, and I can easily imagine it dolloped  over a plate of hot pan-grilled shrimp. I think it would be great as a topping for broiled salmon, and can imagine it lending a deep meaty flavor to roasted or grilled vegetables.

It has become one of the things that I have to have around, and I’m always thrilled when I find things like that.

Happy 2019!

Fermentation V: Water Kefir

I am experimenting  with kombucha and its culinary uses, but for daily drinking I prefer water kefir. It’s a fermented drink with a mildly yeasty tangy flavor and none of the vinegary overtones of kombucha. It can be flavored in a lot of ways, and it’s quick and fun to make.

It’s produced by a SCOBY, a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, but rather than form a solid mat the kefir SCOBY forms rounded globules called “grains.” I had trouble getting started because I kept buying dehydrated grains that never came to life. Finally I bought fresh grains from Florida Sun Kefir and they got off to a flying start. The substrate is water with 1/4 cup of sugar per quart of water dissolved in it. I use a mixture of white and coconut sugar, and brew about two quarts at a time. Pour the water mixture over the grains, screw the lid on loosely or cover with a dish towel tied on tightly, and let it sit at room temperature for 36-48 hours. The grains are in motion during fermentation, rising through the fluid, discharging their cargo of carbon dioxide into the air, and sinking slowly back to the bottom of the jar. They will slow down as the sugar is exhausted. I tell when it’s ready by tasting. When the sugar is fermented totally and none is detectable to taste, it’s done.  I pour off most of the fluid in the jar through a mesh strainer and refrigerate until I want to drink it. If you want yours a bit sweet, stop sooner, but I prefer to sweeten artificially before drinking. Leave the grains in enough finished kefir to cover them, add more sugar water, and the grains are off and running again.  I then add flavoring and some artificial sweetener, carbonate in my nifty Drinkmate, and enjoy. My favorite flavorings are vanilla or a little good root beer extract or a bit of grated ginger juice. There are all sorts of possibilities including adding fruit juice.`

I find the Drinkmate to be the easiest and most exact method of carbonation. I have found the “natural” method to produce erratic and undependable results, but if you want to try it, try out these directions:

I can’t explain this, but water kefir really does seem to decrease appetite. I don’t vouch for this effect because I do not find any scientific literature on it except the one animal-model reference below,  but try it for yourself and see what you think.

Your grains will multiply steadily and always need food. If you want to store them for awhile, put the jar in the refrigerator immediately after adding fresh sugar water and they will keep about two weeks. For longer storage, drain them every two weeks and add fresh sugar water. You’ll soon have plenty of grains to give to friends.  Internet sources tell you to add dried fruit and eggshells for minerals, but I have never done that and my grains multiply  just fine. It might be that the coconut sugar I use provides the grains with any minerals that they need. My grains are tan rather than white after several generations in coconut sugar.

In the picture below, what looks like a film on the surface is actually a haze of tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide bursting.

One caveat: I can’t find reliable data on this but judging from its effect on me I think that my homebrew kefir has substantially more alcohol that most SCOBY-brewed products, maybe as much as 2-3%. This might not sound like much, but you don’t want to work or drive on the amount of alcohol in a standard 12oz glass. I keep this for evening enjoyment. But I may be incorrect about this,or brewing conditions may affect the ethanol content. Here’s a marvelously nerdy article analyzing the components of water kefir:

I can’t stop talking about the marvelous Noma Guide to Fermentation. It doesn’t address water kefir specifically, but I’m curious about the possibilities of cooked-down kefir essence used in the way that the Noma people use kombucha essence. It might also be possible to grow out water kefir grains in other fluids such as juices. After making a few batches of standard water kefir, you will have plenty of grains with which to experiment.

Many internet sources that discuss water kefir give references for its health benefits. However, I spent a cold gray afternoon indoors looking up those references and found that, as I had suspected, nearly all of them actually refer to milk kefir. I don’t find a lot of data on whether water kefir contains the same microorganisms as the milk product, and certainly its nutrient content is different. Here are a few references on water kefir specifically.

Inhibition of metastasis of breast cancer cells in vitro and in vivo in a mouse model:

Isolation of a novel bifidabacterium strain with probiotic potential from water kefir:

Analysis of organisms from water kefir, showing that its biotic complexity is higher than previously realized:

Evaluation of Lactobacilli strains found in water kefir for probiotic potential:

Anti-obesity effects in an animal model of water-soluble polysaccharides found in the matrix of kefir grains:

This last one is particularly interesting because the mice given kefir matrix exopolysaccharides showed anti-obesity effects on an excessive diet and also showed higher levels of Akkermansia bacteria in their feces. Other data ( ) indicates that the presence of Akkermansia species in both rats and humans inversely correlates with obesity, probably via interactions with the gut epithelium. Please don’t try to make too much of this: the science of the biome is in its infancy and we know very little about how to impact it for specific effects. So I can only say that water kefir won’t hurt you and may have some beneficial effect.