Ferment Pittsburgh’s Justin Lubecki, together with his brother Nick, began a farming project in Spring 2017 an hour north of Pittsburgh to explore what it meant to feed themselves throughout the year. Experimenting with crops and traditional farming techniques the challenge then carries over to the kitchen to process, preserve, and eat them naturally.
Shio koji is a slurry using koji rice, water, and salt that is left to ferment. The mixture matures with time into a sweet, salty, umami porridge that is perfect for using as a marinade as the enzymes in the koji asssist in tenderizing the ingredients. If you’re not familiar with koji, it is a fungus, usually grown on a grain with certain enzymes that are responsible for the unique flavors in products like miso, sake, and shoyu. I like to use the shio for almost any meat, including all poultry or even different vegetables to add another dimension to my cooking.
Making shio is very easy. I combine dry koji to water at a 1:2 ratio. Add 1 tbs salt per 2 cups of mixture, or to your preference. Pop it all in a mason jar with lid fixed snug, give it a shake, and let it do its thing at room temperature.
If you’d like to get well acquainted with it, taste it every couple of days and note how it changes. After about 2 weeks you should be at a decent spot of maturity to do some marinating. However feel free to go as long as you wish.
Making homemade clay is another great chance to interact with the natural world around us and help us get to know our surroundings even better. It doesn’t require any special equipment and even a general knowledge can produce a good quality clay for endless hours of fun. I love clay as an off-season activity, especially as the forest floor lies barren any hike can become a scouting mission. Clay also comes with the added benefit of adding another potentially fermented skill to your fermentation-arsenal, through it’s bacterial breakdown during aging.
Clay is possible to find in many regions. The best places to look are areas where there is running water such as a stream, creek, or a river. Running water washes away the less dense soil particles revealing the strong water-holding layer of clay. It can be a lot of different colors such as grey, white, orange, and red, and has a slick, plastic-y appearance when wet. When it is bone dry, it’s noticeable by its cracking.
In addition to running water, construction cuttings into the earth, such as roadwork and building foundations are also great places to hunt for clay.
When you find an area that may contain usable amounts of clay, test it first by taking a handful and kneading it in your hand. Add water if necessary and test its malleability. The properties of clay will vary from location to location. If you can roll it into a coil and bend it into a ring then you have found yourself some good quality clay to work with. My favorite places with the best success have been hillsides with deep creeks cutting through them. Often the clay is easily visible just by looking at the stratification of the soil layers.
In all cases when harvesting from nature its essential to be mindful and respectful to the place were taking from. Take only what you need and be thoughtful to not influence unnecessary destruction. The great thing about making your own clay is how easily it will return to back to the earth.
Fill up your container, whether a bag or bucket. Any “debris” such as sticks and rocks and such we will filter out later, no worries if there’s stuff in it. It may be dry or wet, either way is fine. A stick, rock, trowel, or your own paws should be sufficient to dig with.
Unload your collected clay into a large container, at least twice the size of your amount of clay. Add enough water to the container to achieve a loose slurry, it should look like chocolate milk, maybe with sticks and leaves in it. Stir it up well. If there are chunks holding together, break them up with your hands. Let rest overnight to give the water a chance to really soak in.
When you return to the slurry, check to make sure all the chunks are broken up and all the clay is dissolved into the water. Give it another good stir. When the clay is fully dissolved into the slurry you are ready for straining.
Prepare your straining apparatus. We are not necessarily looking for a tight sieve, some netting will do fine. While we want to remove any stones and forest debris, we still want some variable sized particles, just not anything noticeably big. Sand and larger (relative to clay) particles known as grog actually provide strength to clay, and helps prevent cracking and warping by influencing a more even dry. I have strained through a kitchen sieve, a dehydrator tray, and a whole variety of fabric, plastic, and metal mesh. Give the clay a good stir to loosen up anything sunk to the bottom then pour over the sieve.
At this point you should have some clean clay slurry and all we have left to do is dry off the water. Depending on the amount of excess water you may be able to skim some off the top as the clay settles down. Check for clear water on the surface.
You can blow a fan indoors or place the clay outside in the sun. In either case be mindful of surface drying and stir the clay periodically as needed to keep it working uniformly. Keep an eye on it and over the course of a few days you should see it thickening up. Watch it and play with it until you have reached a good workable consistency. Consider erring on the side of “wetter” as it’s easier to remove moisture than to add it back, but both are still possible.
Aging & Fermentation
The longer that clay is aged for the more potential it has to be broken down into finer particles that can be made into finer ceramics. Aging clay in an environment where it won’t lose moisture- such as in a plastic bag or a lidded bucket, allows the slow penetration of water in the clay particles that makes them smaller in size, and thus increases the clay’s plasticity.
During the aging of clay it can also sour. This is when bacteria present in the clay continue to decompose it. Through the process, amino acids are released which bond particles to further increase its plasticity. As the bacteria works the acidity also increases which brings particles closer together and forms a colloidal gel, which creates a very strong lattice giving the clay favorable strength. A rotten or moldy clay is prized for these reasons inspiring people to add all sorts of things like beer, vinegar, and milk to their clays. A rott-y clay can be used as a “starter” to inoculate new batches. I inoculated my clay with bacillus subtilus, a bacteria used to make the fermented food natto, but is also occurs naturally in the soil. I mixed it into the slurry during the “drying” phase, right after “sieving”, to experiment with this breaking down. And how’d it go? Who knows, but it’s about a year later and regardless the clay feels great!
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This little trick I do highly recommend. I discovered it a few years back after a friend gave me a container of apple pie filling she had leftover. Determined to not let it go to waste at first, I soon forgot about it. About a year later while cleaning out the fridge I came across the pie filling and took a whiff. What a wonderful aroma! I quickly baked it up and have loved fermented pies ever since.
The technique is not complicated. I’ve only done this with fruit pies so I recommend starting there. Make your filling as you usually would. Then pack it and leave it out on the counter to ferment. We made one recently that couldn’t have sat for longer than two weeks and I thought the flavor was excellent. I think the fermentation opens up a bouquet of floral aromas. The flavor was somewhat citrusy with a pleasant additional fermenty tang. A nice benefit is that the fermentation eats up some of the sugar in your pie recipe so it’ll be a tad less sweet.
Finally, a good heap of vanilla ice cream really wove all the flavors together into a floating cloud of divine desserting. Enjoy!
- Make apple pie filling per your favorite recipe, spices and all, but be sure to slice the apples thinly. The goal is to get them to give off enough liquid and become pliable, so that they can be submerged in their sugary brine.
2. Pack into a container with a lid to macerate overnight or for the day, just until the apples soften.
3. Once the apples are soft enough, pack them beneath their brine just like with sauerkraut. Ferment at room temperature for 1-2 weeks or more. Perhaps you’d like to move them to the fridge and forget to really deepen their flavor.
4. Bake as usual with your favorite pie crust recipe.
5. Enjoy the warm and tangy pie with a heap of vanilla ice cream!
Making vinegar from scratch can be such a sinch, and coupled with its indispensability in the kitchen, makes it a worthwhile endeavor. The process of getting to vinegar is simple:
- start with a sugary liquid
- let the sugars ferment into alcohol by way of our friendly local wild yeast
- then with continued air exposure the alcohol will be eaten up by native acetobacter making it into vinegar. Boom!
An even simpler overview:
- crush fruit in your fermentation vessel of choice
- leave it be until it tastes like vinegar.
- strain the solids. So easy!
What can be made into vinegar?
Damaged fruit and vegetables, including scraps like cores, skins and other odds and ends are excellent candidates for turning into vinegar. High sugar content is helpful, though there’s way to make it out of just about anything.
Step 1: Preparing the mash
Choose what you would like to make vinegar out of and then make a puree out of it. If your ingredients can’t provide enough liquid themselves, it’s okay to add water until it becomes a loose slurry. However keep in mind that our goal is to have as much sugar as we can, as it’ll impact the strength of the final vinegar. If you add water you may want to consider adding some sugar as well. More on that below:
Controlling the final acidity of your homemade vinegar
Being able to control the final acidity of our vinegar will help us ensure a smoother transition with less fungal threats and provide us with a consistent product to rely on for our culinary projects. Generally the vinegar we buy from the grocery stores are 5% acidity.
The percentage of acidity is roughly the same as percent alcohol. That means a 5% alcohol can make about a 5% acidity vinegar. Since the sugars present in our original mixture will ferment into alcohol, the amount of sugar then is directly responsible our final strength of acidity.
sugar –> alcohol –> vinegar
I use a hydrometer I bought for $20 that measures sugar in liquid through Brix. 1° Brix is about 0.5% alcohol. Additionally my napkin math says that 12g of sugar per a quart of liquid equals 1 brix, so 24 grams equals 1% alcohol, aka 1% vinegar. That estimate can be handy to bulk up the potency of your vinegar, balance a watered-down mixture, or if you want to make vinegar from something that doesn’t really have any sugar to offer, such as celery.
Step 2: Fermenting
Once you have your sugar content in order, now comes the fine art of wild fermentation. In order to employ the native wild yeast you really don’t have to do anything. The common line of thought is to place a cloth over the top of your fermentation vessel, fixed on with a rubber band or string so there is a constant contact with air. However when using ripe fruit or old vegetables I just place a loose fitting lid over the container. The wild yeast are likely well colonized already on your ingredients that all you really need to worry about is the off-gasing from the fermentation not blowing off the lid. When I used to employ the cloth-cover technique my vinegar mixtures often would dry out before they completed.
Either way, there should be some bubbling activity of the wild yeast converting the sugars into alcohol within a few days. To expedite this process simply stir the mash occasionally to incorporate air. Also, keep in mind that the temperature during the fermentation will affect its speed. The warmer the faster.
Once the bubbling subsides, the yeast will have consumed as much sugar as they can and you’ve achieved maximum alcohol. At this point you can strain out the solids. Exposure to air is more important now than it was before. Acetobacter cruise the air looking for alcohol to devour up, and we hope they do. Basically our goal now is to make our alcoholic beverage “go bad.”
Finishing the vinegar
So let’s say you’ve pureed or mashed your fruit, altered the sugar content to your preference, and let it ferment to its heart’s content. Now the bubbling has subsided, which means the wild yeast have consumed all the fermentable sugars available to them and you’re at max levels of alcohol content. When does the vinegar happen?
That part, if doing naturally through wild methods is up to nature. It can sour immediately or may take weeks, or even months to do. And the only way to know is to periodically taste it. Now, there is a trick if you want to push it along. Acetobacter loves to hang out, so if you introduce it, it will find your alcohol party. You can be casual and leave an open container of vinegar next to your soon-to-be vinegar, or you can pour a splash in like a starter culture. Either way, shoot for a raw vinegar to do it with.
One final important note for once you finally have achieved your vinegar and it’s delicious and sour to you. Put a lid on it. Our natural, raw vinegar will actually disperse its acidic acid into the air overtime and eventually become a dull, faintly flavored water. Just toss it in a mason jar with a lid or similar and it’ll last a long long time.
What if weird things begin to grow on it?
The cool thing about vinegar, especially if we make sure to make one with sufficient final acidity is that once it becomes vinegar it’s no longer a hospitable environment for insects and mold. Consider how vinegar is used as a natural cleaner. I have heard of many cases, and then done my own vinegars, that were left in an open container with no cover and allowed to progress as nature willed it. After enough time I pulled off the gnarly top and had wonderful vinegar underneath. Not that I’m recommending this to anyone, but what a fun story to tell.
Most likely if your fermenting mash develops a growth it will be a white film called kahm. Do not despair, kahm is harmless, and is typically a product of lower sugar levels. You can always add more sugar, but when the vinegar finally develops it’s likely the kahm will die and settle into the lees.
When in season tomatoes are a great candidate for vinegar. I slice and crush my overripe and split heirloom tomatoes. The last time I did this I got a reading of 6 Brix and the tomatoes provided plenty of their own liquid. If I ferment until all bubbling activity has ceased (0 Brix) I’ll get a 3% alcohol tomato “wine.” So letting that continue it’ll be a 3% vinegar. That’s not too bad, and I can assume even if you don’t measure, if you’re using ripe tomatoes you’ll get something similar. If I wanted to shoot for 5% acidity I could just add 48 grams of sugar to my quart of mashed tomatoes to get that additional 2% more.
Puree enough celery for a quart of mash. This will vary but may take roughly one full head, then top it off with water just enough to cover. Stir in 120 grams of sugar until it is dissolved. Then on with the fermentation.
During those rough stretches of winter when the temperature gets to 0 and below and everyone doubles down inside their homes, we have a rare opportunity where I live in Pennsylvania to not only do a little pond ice skating but to let nature concentrate my brews through freeze distillation. Freeze distilling is in line with all of the great methods of “natural technology” where you really don’t have do anything. All the work is in making your alcoholic beverage as you usually do and letting nature do the rest.
Lye has many important uses known well to soap-makers and also to plumbers for its corrosive properties in clearing clogged drain pipes. However counter-intuitive it might seem at first lye has an essential part in the production of food products like pretzels and bagels, creating their infamous color, texture, and flavor. Here we’ll discuss using both wood ash and store bought granules.
Being a part of a generation who largely had traditions that go as far back as a Betty Crocker cookbook, how do we rebirth something that might be already lost? I gave it my best shot- by making the oldest living relative I had one of his favorite foods (kielbasa) and making changes every year until I came on a recipe he liked.
Having a good grasp on incubation is very helpful when making mold type ferments like tempeh and koji, or for reproducing your own spores for future use. And in the end the “art” of incubation doesn’t require much more than what you probably already have lying around the house.
I’ve always admired the meticulously detailed approach wine making takes with their ingredient. Conversely I love the simplicity of sauerkraut’s process which takes no special knowledge or skill. Here we might just have found a meeting of both worlds- a flavor enhancing method that begs for our laziness.