Making Old Fashioned Corn Syrup

sugar

Not all plants have a use for the ones that for whatever reason don’t produce fruit. In the case of field corn, any stalk without an ear is prime for turning into corn syrup.

As field corn begins to develop ears it’s likely that you’ll notice a few that don’t. When that happens it’s time to make syrup.

Cut down the earless stalks at the base and give the wound a lick. Hopefully you taste a pleasant sweetness. That is the sugars destined for the ear that had nowhere else to go. Trim off the tassels and tear off the leaves.

Now there are two ways to go from here. The first is the low tech way- snip you corn stalks into smaller peices, throw them crush them well to access the juices. Then put in a pot and add water to cover and boil to extract the sugar. Boil the water down until it’s sweet then strain out the solids. Finish boiling into a syrup.

The more high tech way is to use a sugar cane press where you simply run the stalks through the press and the resulting liquid can be boiled down into syrup.

In both cases the sugar to water ratio is similar to making maple syrup. (What is that like 60:1 if I remember correctly.) Therefore you’ll need quite a few stalks to make a decent amount of syrup.

Making a Jam & Jelly Tradition

fruit, sugar

The first jelly I ever made was out of the wild foraging legend Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus. It was made from elderberry and sumac. And forever after making jelly and jam has been lashed tightly to such wild adventures as sudden stops along country roads and climbing up forgotten hillsides around the city in search of clearings covered in berries.

Fruit and berries, as we know, are among the most fleeting of the fleet, so preserving such limited time special flavors is special to the utmost. Due to their higher sugar content, mashing them up with enough liquid gives us a soda, a brew, and/ or ultimately vinegar. All of those products are expressions of the fruit or berry with the soft or hard kiss of fermentation attached to it. To preserve fruit’s fresher summery personality here comes sugar more.

70 degrees brix is the amount of sugar content honey needs to resist spoilage. A ripe apple alone only has upwards of maybe around 13 brix. By boiling the fruit we can concentrate the sugars, while also, naturally, adding sugar to also bump up the brix.

Jam

Jam is the fruit or berry cooked down slowly. To make it simply cook down the fruit (perhaps with a splash of water as necessary to keep it from burning) then add as much or as little sugar as you wish until it is dissolved, you may even add none. The more sugar the better it will be at preserving. 1:1 fruit to sugar is common, but too sweet for me. Gosh, I wanna be able to taste the fruit still, so 1: 1/2 suits me better if I do add some. Adding a slight pinch of salt too really lifts the flavor better than not.

Pectin

Those familiar with jelly making are likely aware of the distinct difference between jelly and jam and that’s the added ingredient of pectin. Pectin is a naturally occurring plant fiber that creates that gelatin “set” character rather than jam’s oozy one. Some ingredients contain enough of their own pectin that no additional pectin needs to be added. Most commonly we’ll head to the grocery stores to get little packets of it in powdered form when we’re attempting to make a jelly with something lacking ample enough pectin to set itself. However with some planning this isn’t absolutely necessary. Taking the fruits naturally high in pectin like underripe apples, rosehips, cranberries, and the rind of grapefruits, oranges, and lemons we can make our own. The first packaged pectin was made from scraps leftover from a large apple juice producer. Here’s the technique:

Chop up fruit scraps like cores, peels, and peices- everything- and place in a pot with enough water until it’s not quite covered. Bring to a boil, then take your time simmering everything until the apple parts are good and mushy. Then let it strain in a suspended cheesecloth overnight. The remaining liquid is your pectin that should work with about ¼ cup per a cup of jelly- though that’s a pretty open-ended estimate.

The downside to adding pectin whether powdered or homemade is that it will take on some of the flavor, which in a storebought sense is sort of tart appley. The upside is that we can make jelly out of anything- kombucha, coffee, wine, flower syrups…

Jelly

To make jelly, fruits and berries that have their own pectin first need boiled down to mush in order to access it, but regardless this generally goes for whatever you’re working with. Add enough water to cover your fruit and boil and simmer until the flavors are released. Then strain out the solids and the resulting juice can be measured then reboiled with roughly a 1:1 ratio of sugar. Whisk in pectin if needed. If using a storebought packet, follow their instructions. Check the “set” of the jelly by cooling off a small scoop of it on a metal spoon and popping it in the fridge or freezer to see if a film develops. Continue to simmer it until reaching the desired set.

Both jam and jelly can be preserved in jars passed through a hot water bath or just popped into the fridge. If a little mold pops up on the surface it’s usually no big deal to just scrape it off.

Preserving Foraged Flowers- Syrup & Drying

sugar

Late spring is a tremendous time of year when at any given time your olfactory can be flooded by an unsuspecting intoxicating plume. From roses and elderflowers (two personal favorite flavors), to dandelions and liden- there is a world of flavors wafting in the breeze. Making syrup from them is a way to preserve their fresh flavors for as many uses as you can muster.

Syrup Process

Remove as many green parts as you feel like by hand. Place flowers in a bowl and add enough water to cover. *The quantities of everything here are pretty relative, as who knows how much you get, etc.

Cold steep in the fridge for 24 or so hours. This method of extracting the flower flavor I think is the best. The cold temp successfully grabs the flower essence without taking on any planty or bitter flavors from the other plant parts, but also means you don’t have to be too thorough when removing the green parts.

Strain & measure your perfumed water. Add equal parts sugar and set them to simmer to not only reduce to a syrup but to concentrate the flower flavor. 

When you get to the consistency of syrup you desire, you can hot-bath can it in a mason jar or just store it in the fridge for quite a while, however be careful, making a little spritzer with seltzer and a dash of fire water is what summer porch sitting is all about, and your flower syrup may disappear quicker than you thought.

Additionally: Let winter get jealous when you pull out your dandelion or rose petals for scones, or other favorite baked good. Dried petals are the champion of brightening up deep winter baking. Why not fill up your cupboard now? If you’re into picking dandelion blossoms but hate separating them from the green parts just let them dry first and the petals pull out with ease.

Another thought: Try steeping your flowers in cream to either spin into ice cream, or use it in your coffee for whatever the people are into these days- lavender latte?

Sugar, Saccharification, & Homemade Reindeer Lichen-Malt Syrup

alcohol, fermentation, sugar

Question: how is potato vodka made? Like, how is a potato turned into alcohol? You need sugar right? Shred a potato into water, ferment it and what happens? Yuck. So where does all the sugar come from?

Alcohol made from grains uses malt to produce sugar. Malt is a grain that is sprouted for just a few days, then is dried and possibly roasted. A grain kernel contains mostly starches, which is that prized stuff we eat every day in various forms of flours. When the seed begins to make new life, those starches are converted into sugars (denaturing its bread-worthy-ness) through enzymes to assist in the growing of that new plant. What an amazing human moment this must have been to nibble on a just sprouted seed and taste a sweet kernel! (Here is a malt-making tutorial).

Similarly another likely result of curious human nibbling was in the case of moldy rice in Asia. The white fuzz later became referred to as koji and also converted the plentiful starches on grains into fermentable sugars.

While it’s probable you’d get some additional sugars from molding a potato in koji, I wouldn’t necessarily go about sprouting it. There has got to be a better way.

In both cases with the malted grains and with the koji-cultured grains a similar thing is occurring- the process of saccharification. By way of enzymatic activity present starches are being converted into sugars. But not only can they do it for their hosts but they actually hold the capacity of converting additional starches as well. This is known as its diastatic power. Any additional starches that get added, the brewing universe refers to as adjuncts. Therefore malt and koji can be used as the sugar-making “starter” which we add something else- possibly cheap, plentiful, and packed with starches- like the potato!

Or… lichen!

Why lichen? Reindeer lichen specifically, aside from being good landscaping for your model train set, has been found to be also packed with starches- packed as in 94% carbohydrates compared to the potato at 14%. A little inverted compared to the mushroom world, most lichens are edible, with the minority being problematic. The only drawback is that, in the case of reindeer moss, it also contains acids accumulated over time which can erode stone and when in your stomach, while it won’t kill you, doesn’t feel great. Therefore in order to make sugar from it we first we need to leach out the acid, which is easily done with the help of an alkaline water bath using lye, cal, or baking soda.

It’s done like this:

  1. Cover the lichen with water in a pot and add 1 teaspoon of lye, bring to a boil, turn off heat, and let soak for 24 hours.
  2. Drain and rinse.
  3. Take a small piece and dry it. Taste a nibble for any bitterness. If there is any, repeat steps until its gone. It should take 2-3 changes of water to do. When the coast is clear, proceed to drying the whole thing.

Supposedly history tells us that lichen’s hayday came during World War 2 when the supplies for sugar beets and potatoes were low, yet demand for alcohol was unwavering and spirits were made from lichen. However it never really took off as the processing of it was never cost effective. Prepared lichen could be crushed and used in bread, added to thicken soups and sauces, or we can go on to convert it into sugar, thusly:

  1. Combine crushed malt and crushed and dried lichen in a 1:1 ratio. (Note: this ratio was randomly picked to ensure the desired results)
  2. Heat water separately to 155 degrees, add to the grain and lichen mixture to cover liberally and hold at 150 degrees for 1-2 hours. Why you ask? Because the enzymes need to be broken down in order to be accessed and 150 degrees gelatinizes many things including grains. Note also that at 165 degrees all enzymes are destroyed. How shall I heat it may you ask? Perhaps a pot in the oven if your oven goes low enough, a pot in a dehydrator that goes high enough, maybe this handy incubator design, or a thick pot with a keen eye on stove and frequent stirring.
  3. (Optional). You can let the mixture cool overnight to allow more time for the enzymes to further breakdown the starches.
  4. Strain and squeeze excess liquid from the solids.

You can now either boil your sweet liquid into a molasses-like malt syrup or go ahead and brew it, distill it, or what have you.

Reindeer lichen, often referred to as Reindeer Moss, is fairly abundant in our region, especially in our nearby forests. One thing you should know is that reindeer lichen is extremely slow growing, about 3mm per a year. While expansive patches exist in Western Pennsylvania, it’s always worth considering such details to decide whether its worth it to harvest. My little harvest was to explore the rumor I’ve heard about lichen as a sugar and I hope you found it worth it.

How to Malt Homegrown Grain

alcohol, bread, Homegrown Grains, sugar

Malt is a grain that has been sprouted for a short period and halted in order to optimize its enzymic potential to convert starches into fermentable sugars. It can be a useful ingredient to have around for making sweet malt syrup, for baking, and for fermenting into alcohol.

This works on any grain, whether it be corn, millet, einkorn, wheat or other. Each grain differs in respect to its diastatic power, which is a measure of its potential enzymic activity.

Process

Soak grains in enough water to cover for about 10 hours.

Strain and put in a warmish place. We’re shooting for around 70-75 degrees. Rinse by covering with water and straining every 8 or so hours, stopping once some germination begins to show.


For optimal diastatic power we’re letting the sprouts develop until the acrospire is about the same length as the seed kernel. The acrospire is the little shoot that is the new plant as opposed to the rootlets. It grows in the opposite direction of the rootlets. If the kernel is allowed to continue growing it will eventually use the nutrients itself to assist its own growing and our diastatic power will be compromised.

Some “mixing” or turning with your hands may be helpful as the rootlets leg out in order to encourage uniform growth. In big malting operations they will rake them.

When the kernels are ready to halt their growing process dry them for 8-10 hours at 120 degrees. This produces a “green” malt. At this point the rootlets should flake off easily. It’s thought by some that they contribute bitter notes and are separated and removed before proceeding.
If additional flavor is desired move the malts to an oven at 170- 180 degrees and roast until the color and aroma suits you. Raising temperatures above 165 degrees destroys the enzymes however, not allowing the malts to contribute to any adjunct starches. This non-diastatic malt can be used to contribute sweetness, flavor, and possibly color to your bread, beer, or whatever recipes.

Diastatic malt (not dried or roasted above 165 degrees) can be combined with additional starches to make sugar through a mashing process that involves holding the crushed grain and adjunct at 150 degrees for 1-2 hours. Learn more about this and how to make a malt syrup here.

If milling and using for bread baking it is recommended to use nondiastatic malt, or use diastatic malt in small quantities (0.5 – 2% total flour weight) and only for breads with short fermentation times. Diastatic malt is a great energy source for yeasts however it can break down too many starches resulting in a gummy crumb.

*Most of these posts are resources for Ferment Pittsburgh’s monthly newsletter that features seasonal ideas, techniques, and musings. Consider jumping aboard?

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