Fementation: Homemade Mead

Eek! I thought I’d posted this ages ago! Seems like a holiday week appropriate post though. Enjoy!

My first fermentation experiment was making sourdough bread but The Art Of Fermentation had inspired me to keep playing with the amazing transformations possible with fermenting. Although Sandor Ellix Katz does an excellent job of making fermentation sounding accessible (full review here) I wanted to try something fairly simple.

One of the book’s earliest chapters deals with simple alcohol fermentation: mead, wine, and cider. Mead seemed pretty foolproof: start with raw honey, shake the jar daily, and wait. As with most things, you can make the process more complicated but this seemed like a perfectly feasible experimental set up.

The first thing I needed was raw honey. Although you can use pasteurized honey, this requires the addition of yeasts since the yeasts that are naturally found in honey have been destroyed. Raw honey can often be found at farmers markets and at some natural foods stores. I ordered mine from My Local Nectar, a new online marketplace where beekeepers can sell their honey. I purchased a small jar from Buchanan Bees (run by my friend Adam Buchanan, founder of My Local Nectar) and was ready to give mead a shot.

I didn’t want to start with too big of a batch so I started with a medium jar (I think it was a salsa jar), 1/4 c. honey, and 1 c. water. And then, I loosely put the lid on the jar and waited. Every time I walked by the jar, I gave it a shake. I was never really sure if anything was happening and I don’t have a hydrometer to measure the alcohol content. A little pressure seemed to build which was supposed to happen but it was all a little questionable. Supposedly after 10 days or so, the mead should be “light” and drinkable although not very alcoholic.

Last night marked 11 days and I caved, pouring myself a glass of this honey water that had been sitting on my counter for over a week. I admit, I was a little nervous. Katz had made me feel pretty confident that I probably wouldn’t get sick but I admit I was a little nervous.

The mead was sweet and it didn’t seem very alcoholic but I don’t have much knowledge of mead to compare it to. There is a winery in Palisade that makes mead, I guess I’m going to have to go sample some to know how mine stacks up and what adjustments I need to make before another (perhaps larger?) batch.

On The Page: The Art Of Fermentation

I have a slew of books to plow through that I already owned but after reading Michael Pollan’s Cooked, I found myself really interested in fermentation. Maybe it’s me being a science geek but I just wanted to learn more! I started baking sourdough bread but I still wanted to know more so I could experiment. Finally, I caved and bought Sandor Ellix Katz’s The Art of Fermentation.

The Art of Fermentation isn’t a cookbook. Although it contains a ton of general guides to trying different types of ferments, it does not contain classic “recipes.” Instead, Katz organizes ferments into general categories and examines how they developed throughout the world. He is clear that there is no one specific way to make any ferment and encourages the home fermenter to experiment and find a taste profile that works for them. While The Art of Fermentation discusses purchased cultures, Katz is clearly a fan of wild fermentation (he also wrote a book called Wild Fermentation).

It might seem like a boring read but I read this cover to cover. The book begins with an exploration of why we might care about fermentation; this “why” of fermenting sets the tone for the entire book. Chapter 1 is entitled “Fermentation as a Coevolutionary Force” and discusses how our digestive tracts evolved along with bacterial communities inside us and in our foods. Chapter 2 discusses the benefits of fermentation to us. Historically, the primary benefit of fermentation was the preservation of food. In our modern world, refrigeration has largely removed this imperative however those interested in more self-reliant living paradigms (modern homesteaders, preppers, etc.) may be interested in fermentation for this reason. Fermentation also is believed to have health benefits. Although the science is still developming, Katz cites peer reviewed studies that point towards boosted immune response, increased nutrient bioavailability, detoxification, and maintenance of flora in the gut. Plus, as Katz points out, the results are pretty darn delicious. It is clear that Katz is a fermentation evangelist and is interested in the entire range of fermentation procedures practiced around the world.

In nearly each and every chapter I found something that I wanted to try making (or at least find someone who had made the live culture ferment to try). I read about wines, meads, cheeses, prosciutto, I read about grain fermentations we would never normally learn about in America, I read about the history of beer like beverages in Africa, and about sauerkraut. It was incredibly hard to not feel like I could make all of the things. (I mean, I can, but I have a full time job and I only need to be growing so many things in my food on top of having worms in my laundry room.) Katz makes fermentation sound so achievable for the average person that The Art of Fermentation is powerfully inspiring. He is also realistic about the number of fermentation projects any one person can handle and encourages home fermenters to barter for ferments made by others.

I am really impressed with The Art of Fermentation (and kind of bummed that I couldn’t make it to Denver last weekend to hear Katz speak at the Cultured Colorado Festival). I am excited to be sharing some of my experimentation inspired by the book over the next few months here on 3Up Adventures (and follow me on Twitter and Instagram for more real time updates). I really recommend this book to anyone but if you’re interested in the intersection between food and science this is for you. Or, if you’re interested in re-learning some fading food traditions that make us more self-sufficient, this book is for you. Or, if you’re looking for ways to make a wider variety of healthful foods, this book is for you.

Homegrown Sourdough Bread

After I read Michael Pollan’s Cooked, I developed a minor obsession with fermentation. I had attempted to make sourdough bread when I lived in Idaho but it just didn’t ever really go well. I tried to make it with water straight out of the tap but I have since learned that the chlorine (or chloramine) in city water might interfere with yeast growth (which totally makes sense!).

I started with a 50:50 flour water mixture (1/2 c. each) using water I brought home from the water cooler at school. In retrospect the jar was too small but it seemed like such a neat little package to start with!

The second day I added another 1/2 c. water and a 1/2 c. flour. The next day, I fed the starter again in the late afternoon. I was starting to be skeptical about whether anything was going to work, yet again. I went into the kitchen in the evening to make tea and there were bubbles! It was alive!

By the next morning, the starter had exploded on the counter. There was plenty enough still in the jar to salvage so I moved it to a larger bowl and measured some out to make bread! I used this recipe and the result was unmitigated failure. It didn’t rise. There was a hunk of solid dough just sitting there. I didn’t use non-chlorinated water, which might have been the issue, I’m not sure.

I did some more research and found this post on Pinch My Salt that described how to make a “sponge” and THEN mixing up the dough. Finally I was on to something.

My first “sponge”:

The loaves themselves seemed a little flat. But they were clearly bread!

I slightly overbaked them but they were pretty delicious for the first few hours!

I tried again, making the bread into one loaf. It didn’t brown very well but oh my god it is so freaking good!

I’ve never been a sourdough fan but this has really great flavor. I can see myself going back to a commercial yeasted bread in the future but I’m having fun experimenting right now!