Fermenting fermenting


I jumped on the fermentation fad some months ago and now it has got me firmly in its grip.

It started with a friend giving me a half rye / half wholemeal 100% hydration sour-dough starter more than a year ago. I hadn’t baked bread since I lived in Darwin in ’99 but the starter got me going again. Maybe it is because I am a feeder by nature but for the starter to survive, it needs to be fed or baked with every week or so and I couldn’t stand the idea of the thing turning grey, exuding a layer of alcohol and then finally dying on me*. I quickly fell into the rhythm of reactivating it every Saturday, mixing the dough for an overnight rise in the fridge Saturday evening, loafing and getting the second rise in sometime on Sunday and baking either in the afternoon or early evening later that day. These days, I switch between 100% dark rye sour-dough or a half and half white rye. Occasionally I make double the batch so we can have pizza for Sunday lunch. To be honest, it’s got to a point where I don’t feel quite right if I haven’t baked each week.

I started making my own kimchi not long after baking became a lifestyle choice. I’d gone through periods of buying kimchi from Asian groceries and it occurred to me it couldn’t be that difficult to make seeing as Korean BBQ restaurants seem happy to keep refilling your kimchi plate. Turns out, the only tricky bit is not eating it all before it gets to its peak taste after around 3 weeks in the fridge (fun fact: the Koreans have specially made kimchi fridges). There are a variety of methods for making kimchi but mine is really simple: chop the wombok and for every kilo of the vegetable: massage 1 tbsp of salt into it, add a quarter onion or two spring-onions, 4 powdered dry chillies, 2.5 large garlic cloves and a teaspoon of brown sugar. Press into a jar and leave it out for a couple of days. It should then be stored in the fridge (where it will continue to make farty garlicky cabbage smells) for at least a couple of weeks before eating. The only other thing to consider is that wombok is seasonal and prices go crazy in the off season. It’s around $1.99 per kilo currently which is cheapish but it still means you’re forking out around $5 for an average sized 2.5 kilo wombok. That’s nothing of course compared to the great wombok shortage of 2010.

A Reuben sandwich in the fantastic True North Cafe in Coburg got me making sauerkraut as well. My latest batch which I am still working steadily through was from 7 kilos of cabbage (1 white, 1 red) given out for free by a dumpling food-stall at the end of Easter Confest. I’m not sure what the food-miles bottom-line is seeing as I lugged those cabbages back 5.5 hours from NSW. Anyway, for sauerkraut I chop the cabbage a lot finer than for kimchi (but still very coarse by European standards). I then massage in 1 tbsp of salt for every kilo of cabbage. I added allspice berries in to my last batch but I will return to the traditional bay leaves and peppercorns for my next one as the flavour is better (I’d just run out of bay leaves). The difference between sauerkraut and kimchi is the fermentation period. I fermented my last batch for 28 days using an olive-oil layer as an airlock. Every time I poured the oil on, the kraut bubbled enough in the next 12 hours to push the oil out of my fermenting jar. Next time, I’ll make sure I leave a good four fingers of space to the top of the jar so I don’t have to keep cleaning up after it and losing some good oil at the same time. I can’t fault the taste though, the sauerkraut is an intense red, very complex, tart and still quite crunchy. I pretty much eat either sauerkraut or kimchi with every meal**.

My latest successful venture has been tempeh which is a whole other level of complexity. The thing that got me started was the price of tempeh in the supermarket – I couldn’t believe that kilo for kilo tempeh ($15.40) could cost more than minced pork ($11.00). I mean, they feed soy-beans to the pigs! Tempeh requires a tempeh culture which can be bought in Australia but is extremely expensive. I got mine from Indonesia and while $20 for 200 grams of starter seems pricey – you only need around 4 grams of starter and 500 grams of raw soybeans to make a kilo of tempeh. This means the raw ingredients cost*** of tempeh is around $3.00 a kilo. Plus the taste of fresh unpasteurised tempeh compared to store bought tempeh is akin to the difference between Kraft singles and a properly aged cheddar. I won’t go over the steps to make tempeh but my method is pretty much as per this page except my incubator is an old esky wrapped in a wool blanket, half filled with water and a fish-tank heater as the heat source. It’s not pretty but it works and one of the cats likes to sit on it.

I’ve also ventured into making chinese rice wine which was terrible and rather more successfully dosas (soaked, processed and then fermented red lentils and brown rice). And I’ve made a couple of batches of yoghurt too. But none of those habits have stuck. At least not yet. But then, I’m not sure I can afford another fermentation habit.

* to my credit, I haven’t named my starter (yet)

** turns out the health benefits are real (at least for me). My gut which never recovered from India seems to have recovered. And my immunity is far better – I usually catch lots of colds which then linger for a long time and that hasn’t happened in quite some time.

** labour costs are significant however just because it is such a pain hulling soybeans! I am still experimenting with this – the dulled food-processor blade method seems promising.

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