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.

Homemade Hominy – Nixtamalization

farm, Homegrown Grains

If I had to choose only one grain to grow it would be corn. Of the great variety of products corn can become, hominy is essential. Whether dent or flint, these corns are perfectly edible and are eaten as polenta and grits, but their kernel’s hull bind up niacin which causes deficiencies that lead to health conditions like Pellegra. In comes the innovative technique called nixtamalization. It was eventually discovered that corn soaked in an alkaline brine dissolved the hemicellulose walls of the corn and freed the niacin for human to ingest. Additionally the process softened the kernels and in some cases dramatically increased the minerals available and greatly reduced mycotoxins.

So how’s it done? Two ways of creating a proper alkaline brine is through the addition of lime (from stone) and lye (wood ash). Lime, also known as Cal, is limestone baked at a really high temperature (converting the calcium carbonate to calcium oxide), then when treated with water (where it becomes calcium hydroxide), and dehydrated to a fine white powder as lime or Cal. It naturally increases the kernel’s minerals when used in processing as well as influencing the familiar aromas we associate with tortillas. Lye on the other hand, being more widely accessible, was used by people who might not have had access to limestone deposits, as it is produced by soaking wood ash in soft water. There is food grade lye you can buy which works the same as a wood ash solution but lacks the mineral contribution provided by natural wood ash.

How its done

Get yourself some field corn, whether flint or dent, either will do. Your best bet is to grow it yourself if you can. But if you can’t, research the Open-pollinated varieties grown in your area. Popular out our way is Wapsi Valley, which is a dent corn pictured above (note the dents on the tops of the kernels). We found it by researching OP corn for feed for sale locally and learned more about the varieties, such as how they are actually delicious heirlooms. If you tell the farmer you buy the seed from that your eating it they may think your crazy as lots of people think it’s just for livestock anymore.

Either way, when you have some corn, weigh the threshed kernels and put them in a pot and cover with water to about 2-3 extra inches above the kernels. Add Cal at about 1 gram per every 100 grams of corn. If you’re looking for Cal, check out a grocery store from Central and South America. For the lye method see below.

Bring the pot to a simmer and let it go until the kernels are a little tender. It could take around 45 minutes, or more or less. Caution that boiling with Cal can create bitter flavors.

Remove pot from heat and let it sit for 24 hours.

Strain the kernels and give them a rinse while also massaging them. You now should be seeing the hulls wash off like whispy, soggy paper. The job is done. Wash off the husks according to what you intend to make. Retaining the hulls adds some gelatinization which is helpful in making thin products like tortillas.

The hominy can now be stored a couple different ways. They can be frozen as they are, or dehydrated and stored dry, in which you would soak them like any other grain before cooking or grinding them into hominy grits. You can also grind them fresh to make tortillas for dinner tonight!


Lye Method

If you’re using food grade lye use roughly the same ratio as above 1 gram lye for 100 grams of kernels. For information on food grade lye and/ or using wood ash itself you can refer to this post regarding lye and bagels. Sodium hydroxide, which is what pure lye is, in the right quantities can burn you so use care in avoiding skin contact with the lye brine if you’re using this method.

Cover threshed corn with water, add lye granules or lye brine, and bring to a boil.

Simmer for 30 minutes, turn off heat and steep for another 30 minutes.

Drain the lye water and soak in clean water for 30 minutes.

Change the water once again and bring to a boil one more time, and simmer until kernels are tender. Wash hulls as you wish.

*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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Baking with Lye – Pretzels & Bagels

bread, Homegrown Grains, homesteading

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.