Wednesday, December 7, 2016

What I've Learned About Culturing Foods

I have been culturing foods for about ten years now, I started with yogurt after reading about the many benefits of yogurt and how easy and healthier it is to make myself, I bought a book and a yogurt maker and culture and started making my first fermented food. I had times when I wasn't making yogurt and times when I was and I noticed the differences in my health. When I was expecting my first child I started to think about nourishing my body, and his, better and I started studying nutrition and new food options to develop my ability to nourish my families bodies. First I started making our bread and then I began throwing out the household and personal care chemicals and changing my cleaning and personal habits. Then I started adding more nutritious foods to our diet. I started making yogurt again, but I also made sauerkraut, and then kombucha, and then milk kefir, and then sourdough, and then water kefir. I love how my life has transformed. Instead of pouring over magazines trying to figure out how to make myself more attractive and spending countless hours at the mall searching for the perfect fitting skirt, I read books and blogs about improving the way I treat my body and I look and feel better as a result. Over the counter cosmetics never made my skin so smooth and dewy after washing, and I may not wear the latest trend, but wearing classic styles suits my simple lifestyle. I struggle with what I call stress-exhaustion, some may call it adrenal fatigue, but I haven't been diagnosed so I'm making my own prognosis. I shake at times, like an old person with Parkinson's disease, and get so wound up about small things at times that I feel like I'm going to explode. (Sensory overload?) I was abused as a small child and again as a young adult and I have learned that it has taken its toll on my nerves. Because I didn't lash out or act out very much, my damage turned inward and I had to do a lot of damage control over the years. As a result, outside stressors have to be kept at a minimal until I can heal. This means silly things like not having the latest boots or bag must be forgotten to make room for toddler tantrums and student loan debt. I'm not gonna lie and tell anyone that three years living this way has completely healed my body, it hasnt, and part of that might be because my family hasnt completely embraced the changes I've made and we still go out to fast food when I've been over-stressed and can't face making dinner and having noses turned up at it again. I haven't lost weight either, I've actually continued to gain it, and I'm still trying to pin-point what is causing it (in other words-is it stress, hormone imbalance, not enough water, too little sleep, too little exercise, too much processed food, too much emotional baggage... Probably all of the above, and I'm working on all of it.) What has happened is, I have felt more energetic, I have felt more upbeat, I have healthier skin, hair and nails, I have stronger teeth and gums, I think more clearly and remember short term better. Most importantly, I am able to play longer and more creatively with my darling son, and give my husband a foot rub or shoulder massage when he comes home without feeling overextended myself. Being there for the people I love most is my top priority and fermented foods help make that possible, so they are pretty important to me.

Over time I have learned a few things that others who are just starting may find helpful, so I'd like to share them here:

When Culturing an heirloom variety of yogurt the important thing to remember is to keep your starter going. Mine has to be recultured every seven days to maintain its viability. You can make a much as you want to, as long as you are able to maintain a steading temperature throughout the milk. It also doesn't matter what heat source you use to incubate a yogurt culture as long as it is a reliable and steading source.
When life happens and you only have about a cup of milk when it's time to make yogurt, just make a cup of yogurt to maintain your starter. One can always make more after grocery shopping. Whole milk makes the best tasting yogurt in my opinion and I like that I can buy grass-fed milk and make my own yogurt, which I can drain whey from to ferment vegetables with and then use the thicker yogurt for sour cream in some recipes or as topping for burritos etc. I love that I don't have to buy a whole carton of yogurt along with milk and sour cream and then something is bound to go to waste.

Sourdough or Wild Yeast 
Sourdough or Wild Yeast has been the easiest for me to maintain because it is so forgiving and uses simple, easy to store resources. When I moved most recently, I was so busy and tired I just couldn't bring myself to mess with my starter for two months and it died. When I was ready to start again I just took the 'hunk of dry dough' starter I had put in my freezer as back up. After rehydrating it and feeding it for about a week, I was on my merry bubbly way! 
I have found that fresh ground flour works best for feeding the yeast, although I have added some all-purpose einkorn flour additionally with very nice results. One day I took my starter out of the refrigerator and opened it to feed it and it bubbled up and started overflowing like a volcano as I held it over the sink. It was so alive and happy feeling I couldn't help laughing aloud with glee. I made the best waffles ever with that starter. 
I love working with sourdough because it's so laid back and experimental. I feel like I'm leisurely creating an original masterpiece everytime I bake with it. It also feels much more nourishing when I eat it. Sourdough or Wild Yeast would make a great job for a child. He/she could feed it each week and then make a big batch of pancakes or waffles for quick breakfasts during the week. Because sourdough/wild yeast is alive it has a personality, once you learn how your yeast reacts to different treatment, you will be able to recognize how much kneading, raising and heat to using when baking. Like many things, it just takes practice. Unfortunately most grandmother's are no longer offering a coarse in sourdough baking, so we have to do our own trial and error. I definitely believe it's worth it though.

I have found Kefir to be rather temperamental. My milk kefir grains did not look healthy or grow until I finally transitioned them to raw milk. I wasted a lot of organic milk with these because they weren't very balanced and I eventually threw them out in some rotten smelling milk, but the grains looked better than ever. It was rather exasperating for me. I now buy milk kefir from time to time when it goes on sale. Maple Hill makes a good whole grass-fed milk kefir and is often on sale in my area for about three dollars, so this is a better option for me.
Water Kefir has been much kinder to me. I like that it uses few cheap resources that are easy to keep long term. I found that if I culture only three tablespoons of grains in a quart of water with a quarter cup of Sucanat, I need to culture it about two to three days. I like using pasteurized juice to flavor it best. Spices are easily over done and create deposits I don't care to drink. I don't enjoy dry fruit in my beverage so it has to be filtered. Pasteurized juice is easy and tasty and it adds more sugar for the second fermentation so I don't have to do anything more to it. I like cherry juice, but my family didn't. My husband liked lemon zest flavor, but then you must filter out the zest before drinking (it's unpleasant to drink in the water kefir.) My son enjoyed the water kefir flavored with mango Naked juice. I drink the water kefir the most in my household; it's rather unfortunate my family doesn't enjoy it as much, but they didn't drink the milk kefir at all.

Fermented Vegetables 
The only thing I have learned about fermenting vegetables, that wasn't in a book, is to just trust your senses and don't be afraid. If there's no mold on it, it doesn't smell rotten, and it looks and tastes clean, then its safe to eat and there's no need to stress about it. Bad bacteria smells bad, good bacteria smells and tastes tangy and clean, how convenient right? God gave us senses for a good reason. 
The other thing I learned is using yogurt whey speeds things along and gives fermenting vegetables a good bacteria boost without additional cost. The only store bought fermented foods that are as good as home ferments are refrigerated, not pasteurized and don't have vinegar in them. Wild fermented vegetables seem to have gained in popularity recently; I see them in regular grocery stores more often, so it's possible to buy if you don't have the time to wait for fermentation.

I can attest to the healing benefits of fermented foods, sometimes we are sick and don't even know it. Since I have started fermenting my own foods; and eating them on a regular basis, I have found more energy to play with my toddler, a clearer mind to remember what I'm doing from one room to the next, and less severe symptoms of regular illness such as cold and flu and allergies. 
It is so empowring to be able to make my own fermented foods. Much like learning to drive and then owning my own car, fermenting my own food gives freedom and another outlet for my creativity that in turn nourishes my family's bodies as well as my own. It is one way I can take care of my family's health on a personal level, and I love being able to do something that helps my loved ones feel better quicker. When someone has an upset stomach, instead of reaching for the pink sludge, I go to my fridge and pull out kefir or yogurt and bone broth. If someone has the sniffles, I get out a jar of pickles and the fresh orange juice. It's so simple and it really works. Hopefully we won't see anymore month long chest colds (usually in me) so far so good at least.

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