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Failures in home fermentation

Posted: July 22, 2012 - 12:01am
Yellow water droplets  Polka Dot Images
Polka Dot Images
Yellow water droplets

Baking isn’t the only weird science that takes place in this kitchen; and beer isn’t the only homemade concoction born of fermentation.

Maybe a year and a half ago, I received the gift of sourdough starter. As a girl who enjoys her carbs, especially bread, and the occasional baking experiment, I was thrilled. But dealing with sourdough is all about process. Long, sometimes tedious processes.

I named my sourdough Audrey III (if you don’t get the reference, you are missing out) and she was with me for several months and several misshapen loaves of bread. These days, I am happy to leave sourdough baking to Daniel Martin of Wild Oven Bakehouse.

Sourdough needs to be fed — if you keep it at room temperature, this is every few days — once a week, if you keep it refrigerated. And with each meal of flour and water, the sourdough grows. This is fine if you are making loaves regularly, because for every cup you add, you take about a cup per loaf. But my enthusiasm for the process didn’t last and my baking didn’t keep up with Audrey III’s growth.

I used a 24-hour recipe for bread. You have to make a dough with a cup of Audrey III and a bunch more flour and water and, depending on the recipe, other ingredients. I didn’t have a fancy Kitchenaid mixer — those things come with a great attachment for kneading dough — so I was kneading by hand. Then you let it sit so it can rise for a really long time. Overnight at least. Then you knead it more. Then you let it rise again. Then you bake it.

I served my hard earned loaves at a dinner party at a friend’s house and got rave reviews. The crust was crusty and the middle was tangy and soft. It was still warm.

But even this praise and the delight in taking a bite of fresh-baked bread that your own hands kneaded and your own oven baked didn’t make me want to do it every day.

When I went on vacation, Audrey III got shuffled to the back of the refrigerator to be forgotten. I didn’t feed the sourdough for months and then there was this situation with a broken refrigerator and Audrey III met her demise. She was discarded after having yielding so few loaves.

It was a delicious journey but, in the end, a failure.

About a month and a half ago, a friend from my study-abroad days passed through Juneau on an Alaska bike-and-ferry trip; she came bearing kombucha and kombucha culture.

People say beer and wine are acquired tastes, but kombucha is unique in its taste, texture and its tendency to contain floating strains of culture.

Still, I first braved tasting (and enjoyed) kombucha when my friend Sarah Newsham made her own a few years ago and, having a short memory for failures in long-term projects, I decided I could take on this project.

While I was at work, my friend and my roommate brewed the first batch of Kombucha. This involves boiling about a gallon of water, brewing a bunch of black tea and adding a cup of sugar. Once it is cooled, you add the kombucha culture and, covered, let it ferment for 7-10 days (according to the instructions I had to look up on thekitchn.com after I forgot the oral instructions my friend left me with).

I looked up the instructions after the brew had been sitting for more than a month and a half. So, about 3 days ago.

I poured the now fermented (but with only trace alcohol) kombucha brew into glass bottles with lids and set the process in motion again with more tea.

But, as it turns out, when you let the kombucha ferment for too long, it can start to taste a little vinegary. We’ll call that another fermentation failure.

But the culture is still alive and I have high hopes for the next batch, which I will not be forgetting. I look forward to testing the kombucha straight, mixing it with juice and, my new amusement, with chia seeds. If you want to taste what I’m talking about, Rainbow Foods carries a cherry-chia kombucha that will either totally gross a person out or be an inspiration. For the inspired, kombucha brewers will typically yield a kombucha starter with each round, which can be used to begin a new batch by some new kitchen adventurer.

Whether kombucha brewing sticks and whether I again try my hand at sourdough bread baking, I see myself continuing to enjoy turning my kitchen into a bit of a mad scientist’s lab. Maybe homebrew beer or fruit wine is on the horizon?

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