Couple Ways to Preserve Stinging Nettles

fermentation, homesteading

Picking wild nettles is one of the essential traditions of spring. I’m certain the world will cease to turn the first year that nettle soup doesn’t make its way to the table. (As should be the case.) For nettles all year long here are a couple things to do.

Blanch & Freeze

Prepare a large pot with boiling water and enough salt that it tastes good to you. Leave enough extra room for when you plunge the nettle in. When you achieve a rolling boil add modest handfuls of nettle, pushing them down to submerge for about 2-4 minutes. Remove, strain, and place in iced water, or the coldest water you have and repeat as necessary until all of your nettle is blanched.

When all the nettle is done and cooled, strain them from the cold water bath and squeeze excess water out. I like to roughly chop it at this point. Next, divide the nettle into portions, put them into freezer bags, or other containers, and place in the freezer. These are great for adding straight away into dishes like stews or stuffing into ravioli all winter long.

Lacto-Ferment

A quick and natural ways to preserve nettle while influencing its unique nutritive qualities is a quick lacto-ferment. Just pack nettles into a jar with a sprinkle of salt (3% salt by volume brine is the general comfy amount) and top with water. Screw the lid lightly shut and let it bubble up at room temperature for a couple days. Thin leaves like these do have a tendency to get mushy and fall apart if left to ferment long enough so I prefer to move my fermented nettle to the fridge a couple days into the jar getting active.

Add to Sauerkraut

If you happen to have some sauerkraut lying around or are about to make a batch, sauerkraut works as a great “bed” for leaves like nettle to help resist them turning to mush. Mix fresh leaves in with your cabbage or kraut to make a fun seasonal variation.

Dry

I think drying is the best use for the big, late spring nettles. The small, delicate ones deserve to be eaten right away. The dried nettle are great as a seasoning or nourishing tea at any time. I like to take advantage of the new warm sunny rays and simply lay the nettle out in a single layer on newspaper, flipping and turning as I remember. The gently dried nettle can then be stored in jars.

Making Maple Mead from Sap

alcohol, fermentation

To make this mead you’ll need a plentiful amount of sap to work with. Maple mead is a great idea for a home tapper who gets overwhelmed with sap. This recipe is for those ambitious types who do their makings from scratch- go out there and tap those trees!

The sap itself can be quick to spoil. It is high in pectin which will, in time, make the sap into a weird jelly-ish texture, this then could invite mold or other unwanted microbial influence such as the fermenting away of the little amount of sugar presently available. The sap is only ever-so slightly sweet, 40:1 sugar ratio. Therefore it doesn’t have enough sugar to ferment into much alcohol just as is. However, by boiling it down we can concentrate the sugars into a beverage to produce a suitable amount of alcohol.

When making alcoholic beverages I prefer to get my measurements generally accurate, erring away from specifics but shooting for close enough- and for that I use a hydrometer. While not an advocate for buying too many things, I do think this instrument is worthwhile, and is only about $20 anyway.

Hydrometers measure sugar in terms of brix. And roughly converted about 1 degree brix can ferment into about 0.5% alcohol. Therefore for an average 5-6% beverage we’d need somewhere around 10-12 brix, for 10% we’d need about 20 brix, etc. For those who wish to eye-ball it rather than measure I’d recommend boiling down to about 1/10. The sap should taste sweet as juice. The sweeter, the higher alcohol you’ll likely get. However, there is too sweet that it won’t ferment. In that case you’ve made maple syrup- congrats.

Monitor your boiling, whether it’s indoors or outside. More information on boiling is given in the maple syrup post here. Regardless of your method do keep an eye on it to reach your desired brix level or finger-licking sweetness level. A burnt sap is a heartbreaker. Keep in mind too that the temperature of the liquid affects the hydrometer reading, so if you’re use a hydrometer with some hot sap here’s a handy calculator to use.

Once the liquid has reached your target, let it cool.

We have boiled to death any microbes previously in the sap and consequently have a pasteurized base, we now need to think about how to start it fermenting. This can be done by adding yeast, backslopping from an active brew, or reinstating wild yeast by leaving it open to the air. Inviting wild yeast can be assisted through vigorous and frequent stirring, however this can increase your chances of acetobacter (giving your final brew a hot acidic bite), but maybe it’ll work out?

Ferment to dry either continuing to use your hydrometer to get a reading below 0, or to wait until absolutely all bubbling activity has ceased. Rack then age in a clean carboy with an airlock for 3-6 months, or bottle away.

Ryazhenka – baked & yogurted milk

dairy, fermentation, homesteading

Since we are in oven season here is a recipe that you can’t miss to help warm your house and your spirits. It seems likely that this technique was developed by making full use of woodheated ovens. After a day of baking, a crock of milk was tossed in the residual heat, with the oven cover sealed, and left to slowly caramelize. The milk changes to a bronze-ish hue with brown caramel-y flavors as the sugars in the milk does its Malliard reaction thing. The baked milk is then inoculated with a lactic-acid culture and fermented into a delicious beverage.

The possibilities of this technique are great. I love the flavor of the baked milk and can be inoculated with everything from kefir, to sour cream. In this example I use yogurt as it’s my preference. The cultured product can then be drunken as is, perhaps spruced up with some maple syrup and cinnamon, or strained into a thick Greek-style yogurt. The choice is up to the maker.

But stay keen on the hidden treat of the crispy surface that develops on the milk as it bakes. That crispy, fatty, creamy cap deserves to rest on a slice of freshly baked bread and get eaten immediately.

Start with delicious milk.

Then bake it uncovered in the oven at 225 degrees for 6-8 hours or until it has reached a nice carmelized-ish hue, with a superbly crispy layer on top. The color of the milk can vary but you can determine its done-ness by a dark, crispy surface layer.

Quick snack break

Grab a freshly baked bread slice, scoop off the hot crispy top layer, add a sprinkle of salt. Swoon.

Making the yogurt

Let the baked milk cool. If you have a thermometer cool it to 120 degrees, if you’re low tech, test it by dipping a finger. When the temperature on your finger is hot but still comfortable you’re good to go.

Set up your jars or containers to ferment in. Basically anything with a lid. You can inoculate with a dollop of your favorite store bought live-culture yogurt or follow the instructions on purchased cultures. For this montage, I just put a dollop of already made yogurt into my quart mason jars.

Pour in the warm, baked milk, and stir everything up to incorporate the starter culture.

Incubation

My preferred yogurt incubator is a small cooler and hot water. I incubate at 120 degrees for 4 hours, and the little Playmate cooler handles the job smashingly.

I take my inoculated milk jars and place them in the cooler. It’s a good idea to pre-warm my cooler by filling it with hot water while the milk was cooling. Next fill the cooler with a new refresh of 120 degree hot water and fill it up to the height of the milk in the jars. My taps run at 120 degrees at their hottest making this an easy task. Otherwise you can heat up water on the stove.

Close the cooler lid and give it 4 hours of solitude.

Then pop the yogurt into the fridge to cool and firm up.

Straining Yogurt

There are a couple directions to go here. You can leave it as is. Ryazhenka is a cultured beverage so you can drink your yogurt as is, use it as yogurt, or strain it into something thicker. I like thick yogurt so I opt for a strain.

Using a clean, wet, and wrung out cloth, line a colander with a catch basin beneath for the whey that runs off. Since it’s winter I just throw this outside to avoid taking up too much refrigerator space. When it reaches a thickness you like it’s done. Greek yogurt perhaps? A thick dollop for my bigos?

A Beverage?

It also makes a delicious beverage with nothing more than a generous shake to distribute the thickness. Sometimes I’d add a dash of maple syrup and a pinch of salt for a wonderful treat. Cinnamon and ginger also suit it well.

Shio Marinaed Carrot Jerky &/or Beef Jerky

fermentation, homesteading, mold, Vegetable Fermentation

Shio Koji

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.

Fermented Apple Pie

baking, homesteading

This little trick I do highly recommend. It was discovered 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, it was soon forgotten about. About a year later while cleaning out the fridge the pie filling was rediscovered, followed by an investigative whiff. What a wonderful aroma! It was quickly baked into a pie and the fermented pies took flight.


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, don’t forget a good heap of vanilla ice cream to weave all the flavors together into a floating cloud of divine desserting. Enjoy!

Process

  1. 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!

*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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Homemade Vinegar

alcohol, homesteading, Vegetable Fermentation

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:

  1. start with a sugary liquid
  2. let the sugars ferment into alcohol by way of our friendly local wild yeast
  3. then with continued air exposure the alcohol will be eaten up by native acetobacter making it into vinegar. Boom!

An even simpler overview:

  1. crush fruit in your fermentation vessel of choice
  2. leave it be until it tastes like vinegar.
  3. 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.

Vinegar Processes

Tomato Vinegar

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.

Celery Vinegar

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.

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