Sometimes the grandeur of bread makes the grains feel unrecognizable from the labored summer months caring for it, processing it, and cleaning it. Porridge makes me feel closest to my grains. Tortilla retains an intimate connection too. I remember reading a long time ago somewhere that a bread baker was the first specialized profession. It’s easy to understand for anyone who’s tried to consistently integrate the time intensive task into their daily life. Before bread “technology” became widely accessible, porridge was the primary way people consumed their staple grains.
It’s believable to say that porridge is the rough stone that was smoothened into bread by the running waters of time, fermented porridge actually! Before porridge maybe there were handgathered kernels chewed between your teeth. Actually doing this yourself is a jolting time warp worth doing to reset your racing clock. It’s become an annual moment after harvest for us to hand thresh a small bowlful of kernels and eat them as is, just to remember. Next I’d imagine was progressing to crushing kernels between stones, earth’s teeth, and maybe add some earth tears like water, and there you’d have a porridge. Uncooked it would be a chewy mush. With enough time it would ferment and soften more, maybe making it easier to eat and introducing humans to their first versions of a sourdough starter. With a little added flour, cook a fermented porridge into a flatbread and there’s a leavened bread. Add a little more ground grain for an even firmer dough and with more time and a cook, you got yourself a loaf.
Fermented porridge can be made from any grain: wheat, rye, corn, oats, rice, and so-on. It can be cracked, ground, whole, or even just sifted bran. A hand cranked meat grinder works great for cracked grain and often pop up in the tool sections of thrift stores for a couple bucks. It’s possible to crack them too by laying the grains on a hard flat surface, draping a towel over them, and pressing hard on them with bottom of a jar, a rolling pin, or maybe a rock.
The prep work is easy, just covering your prepared grain with a generous amount of water or milk or nut/ seed “milk” to keep it submerged for a prolonged soak- a couple hours or a couple days or weeks at room temp depending how funky you’re feeling. The fermentation will help breakdown grain characteristics that inhibit digestion. In the morning, heat it in a pot until boiling, then lowering it to a short simmer, keep an eye on it all the while in case some extra liquid needs added along the way. The final consistency is up to you. Depending on where you’re trying to take your day, add a splash or nob of fat (buddder/ oil/ maybe bacon), pinch o salt, and any seasonings and delights (like those summer time berries you dehydrated or a potato) before cooking. For a quicker fermentation turn around you can backslop today’s porridge into a new one just like splashing in a starter. What an easy vehicle for any adventure.
Remember the rye bread recipe for traditional style pumpernickel from a few months ago? This one? The recipe used “scalding” which was heating a porridge situation until it was at least 160 degrees at which point the flour released its starches and gelatinized. In pumpernickel, this is what gave the gluten-lacking rye bread some bonding to help it hold its shape. This is the same process that occurs when cooking the porridge, transforming it into a lovely cohesive mush rather than water and grain that sit separately in a bowl like oil and water. It’s also the same process used for making injera which is a mixing of “fermented porridge” and scalded porridge to help the thin batter hold together.
The same grains- whether cracked, ground, whole, or bran, but this time also adding old baked bread to the list, when covered with water and left to ferment is the beverage associated with Eastern European origin called kvass. There are a million variations to this beverage (including versions without grain), with many adding some kind of additional sugar whether it be cane, fruit, berries, vegetables, juice, honey, sorghum, or maple in order to get a spritely effervescent and maybe alcoholic beverage. Where’s the line between fermented porridge and kvass? Doesn’t seem like there is much of one, just don’t boil your kvass or you’ll lose the fire in that firewater. What’s the difference between beer and kvass? Beer gets most of its sugar out of its grains by sprouting them first (aka malting) and steeping them at a specific temperature (mashing), kvass is a little lazier and ferments things as they are with no special processes (although malt still may be used). It almost feels like kvass is a brew made of collected leftovers.
Winter is a good time to perch a brew of kvass on your radiators as if it were your hearth. To make it add cracked grains, old bread, and as much sweetener of choice as suits you. Dress it up with any other flavors and seasonings that inspire you. Don’t forget a little splash of sourdough starter to help get everything rolling (not required). Let the wild yeast ferment it at room temperature till it’s actively bubbling. Remember it’s winter so be patient. Then strain out the contents and enjoy.
(I suppose you can also not strain out the contents and warm it up into a nice porridge! Boom.)