Summer Urban Homestead Failures: Exploding Beer Bottles

Somehow in last week’s roundup of the summer’s failures I blocked out of my memory the most exasperating: exploding beer bottles.

I think I may have had a contaminated siphon hose which passed on some nasty, yeasty bacterial bug to every single bottle of two batches of beer I had made this summer. Three of those bottles over-carbonated to the point that they became beer grenades and exploded. One blew up on the kitchen counter and the other two in the garage. Having had a bottle explode in my hand a few years ago (wild fermented ginger beer–a bad idea) I can tell you that bottle grenades aren’t funny.

So having had three bottles explode and all the other bottles I opened showing signs of over-carbonation, I had the dilemma of what to do next. String my bow and shoot arrows at them from a distance? Call in the homebrew bomb squad?

I decided to don a heavy jacket (in 90ºF + temperatures) and safety goggles and uncap each one in the sink. The second to last bottle gave me a cooling beer shower.

Time to clean our messy kitchen and go on a sanitation campaign.

Gadget Love: The Johnson Temperature Controller

A friend of mine gave me a chest freezer recently and I augmented it with a handy gizmo, a Johnson temperature controller. The temperature controller allows me to run the freezer at any temperature between 30 and 80ºF. It works by cycling on and off the power to the freezer as needed. You just stick the copper probe in the freezer and adjust the dial to the desired temperature. So far I’ve thought of the following uses:

  • Proof bread overnight at 54ºF. I used to proof my dough in my refrigerator, but the chest freezer, running at this higher temperature thanks to the temperature controller, results in a more active proofing.
  • Make lagers (which ferment at low temperatures).
  • Make ales in hot weather. The house gets too hot to make beer in the summertime. Now I can make a batch or two without having to worry about the weather. 
  • Use the chest freezer as a backup when I need to repair the gasket on our Scandinavian refrigerator YET AGAIN!

Not wanting to be a profligate energy user I only use the chest freezer periodically.

Now if only I could lower the temperature of the whole house which, thanks to the first heatwave of the summer, is now warm enough to make yogurt!  

    Easy to Make & Delicious Fermented Veggies

    Inspiration hit at Camp Ramshackle and I finally made fermented vegetables. I loosely followed the Golden recipe from The Versatile Vegetable by Miranda Barrett and Colleen Pollard with cabbage, golden beets, carrots, celery, ginger, lemon and garlic. I omitted the Granny Smith apple because every person/book I consulted said use only the freshest apples and my stash had been sitting for quite some time.
    I made a stop at Culture Club in Pasadena and spoke with super helpful Elaina who set me up with a Pickl-It jar, some Caldwell’s Vegetable Starter Culture and some guidance (reiterating to use only the freshest apple).
    I shredded up the vegetables, stirred in the starter and left the vegetables to ferment for ten days. When I pulled the jar out and popped the lid, I had a brief flash from the Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life when the Grim Reaper visits the farm house to inform the dinner guests that they died from the salmon mousse. I told my family I loved them and took a forkful. A delicious forkful and then other. I live to tell the tale.
    I am enjoying the last of my first batch and plan on starting another. I even brought some for a camping dinner for friends on Santa Cruz Island. I’m happy to say not only did all the dinner guests survive, they also thought it was delicious.

    Is Kombucha Safe?

    We love to ferment things, with one notable exception: kombucha. During the last kombucha craze, in the mid-90s, we picked up a “SCOBY” blob and dutifully fed it tea and sugar until we stumbled upon an article written by mycologist Paul Stamets, “The Manchurian Mushroom: My Adventures with “The Blob.” In that article Stamets tells a convoluted story of having a kombucha culture tested by a lab. He didn’t tell the lab what it was.The lab was very excited about the results on this mystery substance, and Stamets soon finds himself “sitting in a board room of a pharmaceutical company with lawyers and contracts discussing the particulars of patents, sub-licensing agreements, market territories, and dollars running into the millions—if FDA approval was granted for a novel drug.

    Then the folks in the meeting turn to Stamets and ask him to reveal the identity of this culture:

    I told them that, as best as we had been able to determine, from analyses by several independent mycologists, that the Blob was a polyculture of at least two yeasts and two bacteria, living synergistically.

    The silence was deafening.

    “Say what?”

    Perplexed looks crossed their faces, soon followed by exasperated expressions of deep disappointment. Which of the organisms are producing the potentially novel antibiotic? Was it one or several? Was it one in response to the presence of another organism? Was it one in response to several organisms? The sheer numbers of permutations would complicate trials and given the FDA’s disposition, a polyculture is de facto contaminated.

    The meeting was abruptly adjourned.

    So kombucha does indeed have medicinal properties–including “novel antibiotic” properties– but therein lies the problem. Stamets concudes,

    Those who might benefit from Kombucha need a credible and experienced professional who could best prescribe and administer it. I do not see the advantage of taking Kombucha by people in good health. Given the detrimental effects seen from prolonged exposure to antibiotics, the repeated, long term use of Kombucha may cause its own universe of problems. I wonder about those people who have adverse reactions to antibiotics? What about those with sensitivity to the microorganisms in Kombucha? I personally believe it is morally reprehensible to pass on this colony to sick or healthy friends when, to date, so little is known about its proper use. At present there are no credible, recent studies as to the safety or usefulness of Kombucha, despite decades of hype.

    Stamets also expreses concern over contamination. A German study found three out of 32 samples of kombucha cultures taken from German households to be contaminated with Penicillium spp. and Candida albicans. While describing the contamination rate as “low” (nearly 1 out of 10 samples seems high to us) it goes on to recommended that immunosuppresed individuals buy commercial kombucha instead of making it at home. A literature review conducted by the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth in the UK concludes, “the largely undetermined benefits do not outweigh the documented risks of kombucha,” said risks including, “suspected liver damage, metabolic acidosis and cutaneous anthrax infections.”

    We’re all for fermented foods, and support the home fermentation of classic pro-biotics like yogurt, sourdough and lacto fermented vegetables. The last thing we want is for people to get spooked away from home fermentation. But kombucha is different. The problem, as Stamets notes, is that kombucha’s sugar and tea medium is a kind of open house for cultures, some good, some bad. Yogurt, sourdough and salt brines are very selective mediums in which to ferment things. With komucha it’s much more of a crap shoot.

    Basically, like Stamets, we’re intrigued with the notion of kombucha being tested as a medicine and used with care by both western medical types as well as herbalists. And even if we were guaranteed a pure culture and a solid methodology for keeping the culture uncontaminated, we’d still be too leery its antibiotic properties to consider it a casual beverage. So we just don’t do the kombucha thing.

    Back on the Yogurt Train: How to Make Yogurt

    This is how I want my yogurt.
    Dadiah, traditional West Sumatran water buffalo yogurt, fermented in bamboo segments. Courtesy of Wikimedia. Photo by Meutia Chaeran.
    Mrs. Homegrown here:
    One reason I make a lot of my own stuff is because I’m trying to avoid plastic packaging. And as I’m sure you know, that’s pretty much impossible these days–but I do what I can. Lately I’ve realized that one consistent source of waste plastic in our kitchen comes in the form of yogurt tubs. This is a little silly, because we know how to make yogurt. In fact, I do believe we covered it in our book.
    Thing is, back in the day when we made yogurt, it was Erik’s job. When he slacked on it, I didn’t even consider picking it up. Chalk it up to the mysteries of division of labor in a household.
    Anyway, we went to see Mark Frauenfelder talk about his great new book, Made by Hand, and one of things he mentioned was how much he and his family are digging making their own yogurt–and how cost effective it’s been for them. He inspired me to get back on the yogurt train.
    It’s so darn easy, we should all be on the yogurt train. One great thing about it is that it not only saves money, but it saves packaging, and gives you more bang for your milk buck. We only use milk for coffee around here, so sometimes our milk goes bad. Now we make most of it into yogurt and there’s no waste, no excess packaging. And if we make some of that yogurt into yogurt cheese or use it instead of sour cream, that saves more packaging.
    How to Make Yogurt:
    Here’s how I’m making yogurt these days–it might vary a little from Erik’s methodologies in our book, but all yogurt making is basically the same. You’ll need a cooler for this.
    Gather together:
    1. A cooler to keep the yogurt warm while it ferments. I’m sure there are many ways to keep yogurt warm, but I find the cooler straightforward, and that’s what I’m going to describe here. We make two quarts at a time in a little six pack cooler.
    2. Very clean canning-type jars
    3. Hot water bottle (optional)
    4. Towel(s) for insulation
    5. Your last store bought container of yogurt. You need live yogurt to start the culture, only a few spoonfuls. The label should say something about containing live, active cultures. You’ll need 1 Tablespoon of live yogurt for every quart of milk you’re transforming.
    6. Milk, of course. Make sure your milk doesn’t say “Ultra Pasturized” or UP on the label. That stuff is just nasty. Otherwise, you can use whole, 2%, 1% — and even skim, I presume, though I’ve never tried it. How much milk? As much as you want. But it seems to me that for the trouble, a quart would be the minimum it would be worthwhile making. After all, it keeps a long time. 
    The procedure:
    • Heat milk gently to 180 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’ve got a thermometer, great. If you don’t, 180F is where the milk starts to simmer. Just watch for those first tiny bubbles to start rising. When they do, turn off the heat. (Heating the milk makes for thicker yogurt. You could skip this step if you like. I would skip it if I got my hands on some nice raw milk.)
    • Let the milk cool down to about 110F. This is the only hard part–waiting for it to cool. 110F is about as hot as a hot bath. You can put your finger in it and keep it there.
    • While you’re waiting, boil water to heat your jars. I like to fill my jars with boiling water, cap them, and let them sit until it’s time to use them, at which point I pour the water out. I know it’s not really sterilization, but it’s something, and it pre-heats the jars, which is important. You could also pull the jars straight from a hot dishwasher, or actually boil them. Also, you’ll want to pre-heat your cooler. Pour hot water in it as well and let it sit until the last moment. And fill up your hot water bottle, if you have one.
    • Stir in 1 Tablespoon of yogurt for every quart of milk in your pot. Use no more than that. Stir until dissolved.
    • Transfer the inoculated milk into warm jars, cap them, and stuff them into the warm cooler (which you’ve emptied of water). Do all this fast so you don’t lose much heat. Your mission is to fill the cooler up, so there’s no empty space, with some combination of jars of yogurt, towels and heating devices like hot water bottles or lacking one of those, just more jars filled with hot water. My routine is to put 2 quart jars in a six pack cooler, slide a hot water bottle between them, and pack the top of the cooler with an old towel, so that I can just barely manage to lock the lid in place.
    • The goal is to keep the yogurt very warm for about 8-12 hours. You might not be able to keep it at 110F the whole time, but it should be in that neighborhood. Certainly above body temperature. My set up described above seems to do that well enough. I’ve never checked the temp. inside, fearing to lose the heat. It just works.
    • After 8-12 hours the milk in the jars should look yogurty and taste yogurty. It might not appear thick enough, but remember that it is quite warm. It will thicken some after it goes in the fridge.
    • If it doesn’t look yogurty at all, add a smidge more starter, rewarm the cooler and everything, and try it again for another 8 hours. Consider that your starter–your store bought yogurt–may not be alive. Either that or the cooler wasn’t warm enough.

    Bread and Transformation

    I’ve not tried Reinhart’s baking method (even though I once had one of his books out of the library), but I like this 2008 Ted talk on the alchemical symbolism of bread. If you’re either a baking or brewing geek like me it’s worth a view.

    The baking method I’ve used for over a decade is from Nancy Silverton’s book Breads from the La Brea Bakery. You use a sourdough starter and at least half the flour must be white to get it to leaven properly. I’ve had great results, but would like to someday make a loaf entirely from whole wheat with a sourdough starter. Reinhart, in his book Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor claims to be able to do just that and not end up with a hockey puck. If you’ve tried his method (and gone through his very lengthy directions) leave a comment!

    Red Cabbage Kraut


    Homegrown Neighbor here:

    Red cabbage sauerkraut is my new favorite condiment. I put it on everything including stir-fry, pasta, eggs, salads and soups. The kraut is salty so it is a great addition. No need to add salt or soy sauce to anything- kraut will kick up the flavor.

    Then of course there is the color. Sure, I could eat ordinary green cabbage kraut. But where is the fun and excitement in that? Green cabbage turns grey and colorless when it is fermented. Red cabbage however, turns a bright shade of purplish pink. The liquid around it dyes all of your food. I like to eat it on eggs. It stains the egg whites a lovely shade of blue and purple. Plus I’m sure the bright color represents some kind of potent cancer fighting compound. Brightly colored fruits and vegetables are good for you. Artificially colored foods, not so much.
    And of course sauerkraut is a naturally fermented food. This means it contains live bacteria. Don’t worry- bacteria are everywhere, you just have to cultivate the good kind. And kraut is full of lactobaccili, a beneficial bacteria in this case. I had never liked the sauerkraut I tried as a child. But now I am converted. I think if the kraut on my hot dog when I was a kid was bright pink, I would have liked it a lot better.
    This is my weird and wonderful urban farmer breakfast: raw kale, pinto beans, a spoonful of homemade pesto, eggs and kraut. Trust me, its delicious. I need a nutrition packed breakfast to go clean the chicken coop and garden all day.
    I got my kraut making ideas and recipes from Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods.

    Also, thanks to the neighbors for letting me use their sauerkraut crock. I have also made smaller batches in a simple glass bowl. So there is no specialized equipment required. Just try fermenting something delicious.

    Kimchi Secrets Revealed

    Kimchi champion Granny Choe at Krautfest 2009 – photo from Eating L.A.

    The last time I tried to make the spicy Korean fermented cabbage dish known as kimchi it was such a disaster that Mrs. Homegrown exiled the batch to the back porch where it rotted for a good two months before we got around to sending it to the landfill. At Krautfest 2009, which we helped organize back in September, we had the great privilege of learning to make kimchi from kimchi entrepreneur Oghee “Granny” Choe. And thankfully, Pat over at Eating L.A. has put Granny Choe’s recipe online for all to enjoy here. Having tasted Granny Choe’s kimchi, I can tell you that it’s not to be missed even for the kimchi-phobic.

    You can order Granny Choe’s kimchi online at grannychoe.com.

    Granny Choe also has a nice recipe for a savory kimchi pancake here.

    Here’s some photos of Krautfest 2009 via Mark Frauenfelder.

    Brewing Demo

    Hogarth’s formula: beer=good, gin=bad

    Homegrown Evolution will be conducting an informal beer brewing demo as part of an art opening in Eagle Rock this weekend. Curated by Nate Garcia, Needle in a Haystack brings together an eclectic group of artists exploring community and public space, including our comrade Ari Kletzky of Islands of L.A., with whom we’ll be interacting during the course of the show.

    At the opening, on Saturday January 24th we’ll be demonstrating how to make a batch of beer with malt extract, a process that anyone can do in their own kitchen. The beer will ferment in the gallery and be served on February 28th at the closing party. We’ll be setting up around 6 p.m. and we should be finished brewing by 9 p.m. or so. The event is at the Center for the Arts, Eagle Rock which is located at 2225 Colorado Boulevard.

    Stay tuned for more fermentation workshops in the near future.