Thursday, May 31, 2012

Master Food Preserver Program Update

Various batches of jelly, jam, and eight versions of mandarin oranges preserved in different kinds of syrup, 2012.
For those of you who have been following my progress in the Master Food Preserver Program, here's the latest news as I reported on Zester Daily.  Thanks for all the support.  And many thanks to those of you who have tireless tasted various batches of loquat butter, fresh goat cheese, and fruit leather.  Especially the fruit leather...

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Don't Smother Your Mother!

Vinegar "Mother" on table at Master Food Preserver Class, May 2012.
"Don't smother your mother!"

This is a phrase I never expected to utter except when trying to keep my children from burying me at the bottom of their dog pile.

It turns out to be crucial advice for making homemade vinegar as well.

I'd never thought much about vinegar before learning about it in my Master Food Preserver class.  In my mind, vinegar came in three categories-- white, red, and apple cider (with the later being my favorite.)  I knew that within these three categories individual vinegar quality ranged from disgusting to sublime.  I knew that vinegar is used to make salad dressing, pickles, and to clean dirty windows.

What I didn't know was the fact that vinegar is alive (or at least it came from a living source) and that it's the result of one of two processes-- either distillation or the magical process known as fermentation.

There are far more varieties of vinegar than I'd ever considered before-- including fruit vinegars, malt and beer vinegars, balsamic vinegars, sherry vinegars, and Asian vinegars (tamari and soy.)

Vinegar is composed of acetic acid, water, and a number of vitamins and other compounds that come from the source of the sugar from which it's made.  

Making vinegar via fermentation is a multi-step process.  Fruit-based vinegars require wild yeasts to convert the sugar in the fruit into alcohol.  In a starch-based vinegar, the starch is first converted to sugar and then the sugar is converted into alcohol.  The bacteria acetobacter aceti then converts the alcohol into acetic acid in the presence of oxygen.  The resulting product is vinegar.

Making vinegar at home requires three basic ingredients:
1.  Alcohol
2.  Oxygen
3.  Bacteria (acetobacter aceti)

Although it is possible (even preferable) to make delicious vinegar at home, you cannot be sure of it's acidity.  Homemade vinegar is great for salad dressing and marinades, but should not be used for canning or pickling, which requires using vinegar with a confirmed acid content of at least 5%.

That said, making vinegar at home is surprisingly easy.  As long as you have a "mother".

The mother is any vinegar that contains live bacteria.  If you feed it, the mother will continue to grow (as long as you don't smother it by adding too much alcohol to the mother at one time.)  Eventually, a thin film will form on top of the mother (this is cellulose).  It will thicken and eventually sink to the bottom of the container in which you keep it.  A mother that sinks is affectionately referred to as a "dead mother".

Of course the "dead mother" is not actually dead.  It is, in fact, very much alive and can be used as the starter for a new batch of vinegar.

What WILL kill your mother is pasteurization.  Most commercially produced vinegars are pasteurized to stop the growth of bacteria.  But you can buy live vinegars-- like Bragg apple cider vinegar-- and it can be used as a starter for making more vinegar.

I was given the gift of a small "mother" from the MFP graduate/instructor Karen Hobart during our class on vinegar-making.  I was told not to disturb the mother-- unless she was ready to eat.  My mother was a red wine mother, but Karen told me that I could feed my mother with white wine and eventually my mother would change color.

I found this idea intriguing so I decided to try it.  I've fed my red-wine mother with white wine once since I got it several weeks ago.  Sadly, I failed to follow Karen's instructions and mark the date of the feeding on the side of the jar.  I'm supposed to feed it every 1 1/2 to 2 weeks and I'm pretty sure it's due to be fed again soon.  At least it looks like it's ready.

I'm still in the midst of discovering the best way to make homemade vinegar so I'm not yet ready to put my process down in writing.  Until that day comes, check out this link to a great presentation about making vinegar from Mississippi State University.  It's a great place to start researching the process of vinegar-making.

If you're already an experienced vinegar-maker, I'd love to hear from you and swap stories about smothered mothers.  I haven't done this.  Yet.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Loquat Fruit Leather Revisited

Homemade loquat fruit leather, April 26, 2012.
Several weeks ago I wrote a post about Loquat Fruit Leather and expressed my after-the-fact reservations about making fruit leather out of loquats.  My greatest concern was that the loquat leather would never dry properly since it seemed so sticky when I took it out of the dehydrator.  Luckily, several weeks after completing the dehydration process and putting the loquat leather into a "conditioning" bag, I've realized that my loquat leather is just fine.  In fact, there was never anything wrong with it.

Regular readers of this blog know that I'm in the middle of taking a class to become a Master Food Preserver and that I've been doing a lot of experimentation as my "homework".  When I made loquat leather, I'd just heard a lecture about making fruit leather, but we only made it from super-sweet fruits like apples and strawberries.  Looking back on the experience, I think that my biggest problem with making loquat leather was that my tastebuds were expecting something similar to the leathers I'd tried in class.  Naturally, the fruit leathers from class were made using tested recipes and were selected because they used fruits that make ideal fruit leathers-- high in sugar and pectin and relatively low in fiber (as fruits go.)

I'm here to report that loquats are not one of these fruits.

I made three different batches of loquat fruit leather-- one made from nothing but loquats, one with added sugar, and one with a mixture of honey and sugar.  In the end, they all tasted pretty much the same, which was not super-sweet and a little mealy.

Lucikly, I had a great resource to turn to for advice.  One of the benefits of taking a Master Food Preserver class is having knowledgeable authorities available to answer my food preservation questions.  A few days after making my loquat leather,  I asked my teacher Chef Ernest Miller a lot of questions about fruit leather-- in fact, I fear I made a bit of a pest out of myself because I was so excited to get to the bottom of my fruit leather dilemma.

Within several minutes, Chef Miller solved my problem.  Here are his answers.

1.  Add applesauce to the loquat puree.  Loquats are too fibrous and don't have enough pectin to produce a proper fruit leather.

2.   Don't bother with "conditioning", which is the process of putting your dehydrated food into an airtight container for a period of time until the water reactivity of each individual piece of dried food reaches what's known as "equilibrium".

3.  Be sure to spread the puree thinner in the center of the tray because it will dry from the edges.  (I knew this, but apparently I didn't create a dramatic enough difference in thickness to overcome the drying problem.)

I'm hoping to be able to borrow the dehydrator again before the loquat season ends to test out this advice.  With any luck, I'll be able to publish a delicious apple-loquat leather recipe in the near future.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Planting our Summer Garden 2012

Strawberries ripening in the sun during their second season, April 2012.
Our Summer planting has been a long time coming this year.  We started planting over a month ago and just filled up most of our available garden space as of this past weekend.  The biggest challenge we faced this year was an inability to find decent plants of the varieties we wanted to grow.  It took trips to three different nurseries and a farmer's market to yield the crop list below.

We are still in search of Sweet 100 or Sweet 1,000 tomato plants because although we've tried other varieties of cherry tomatoes, these are always the best producers and biggest hits with the kids.  And there are some things worth waiting for.  I'm not sure that cherry tomatoes should be one of them, but that's how it's worked out.

Green beans and corn seem to love our new eco-friendly mulch, April 2012.
Summer Crops 2012:
  • Corn- "Sweet White"- 6 plants.  A token amount but enough for the girls to see how corn grows
  • Green Beans- "Blue Lake" and "Fancy French Thin"- 6 each
  • Tomatoes- "Mortgage Lifter", "Amish Paste", Arkansas Traveler, and San Marzanos (planted from seed and yet to sprout-- this could be trouble)- 6 plants plus unknown number of possible seedlings
  • Basil- 2 generic, but good looking plants from Trader Joe's and a fancier Italian version planted from seed.  At least 6 seedlings have sprouted, but still remain in their infancy.  Seed package now recycled and exact variety unknown.
  • Pimiento peppers- 3 plants.  These plants were especially hard to find.  I had almost given up when I discovered some beautiful specimens at the Montrose Farmer's Market.  Have I mentioned my fondness for pimiento cheese?
In other crop news...
  • The radishes we planted in late Winter are now petering out.
  • We lost one green bean plant (I think it was a "Fancy French Thin") to some varmint who ate it down to the stem.
  • The garden has benefitted from a recent mulching, courtesy of Wiseacre Farms, who donated eco-friendly recycled rubber mulch to our garden.
  • The mole is back from time to time, but hasn't yet caused any drastic crop damage. 
  • The strawberries are going strong in their second year and we're enjoying eating them off the plant-- one by one and warm from the heat of the sun.  They have yet to make it into the house.
Return of the mole hole, April 2012.