Who ever said generation X needs everything ready-made? I've been a grandmother many times over and until my eldest was eighteen years old I never attempted to make bread or challah. Yet the people I would call youngsters today are turning their busy lives into a fermentation celebration frenzy.
Most men and women used to work out of their home before the COVID-19 epidemic struck. The home was a place where you came back in the evening to eat something (many people who could afford to, dined out after a tiring day at work. With both couples working, who had time to cook dinner?) So, the home was a place to relax after a busy day or week at the office. This standard of living changed when the pandemic struck. The home became the center of living and therefore people started to become creative whether it was doing self-home maintenance or spending more time in the kitchen. No longer did the prime chef and baker have to time their kitchen duty according to a strict work ethic clock. A dough could be put up in the morning and you could go back to your computer and then take a break to shape the loaves. Or if you wanted to make supper you could cut up the veggies that morning or during a lunch break for the soup or stew that you had a great new recipe for. As the time home became more drawn out, the recipes became longer and more complicated and this is how the new generation of home fermenters came to be.
Fermenting their own pickles, sauerkraut and other applicable veggies was only the start of a sophisticated time-consuming fermentation festival taking place in busy homes across the country. COVID-19 definitely contributed to this turn around and birth of a new kind of discovery of turning everyday ingredients into yeasty concoctions without ever using a piece of fresh or dry yeast. I have prided myself in the past with baking delicious yeast babkas and cinnamon Danishes but have never attempted to do such an all day and night task without the main ingredient, yeast. That was so backward to me, reminiscent of the history of bread baking that I once read when there was no such organism as yeast.
Yet, that is what this generation is not only attempting but actually succeeding in reaching for the stars in terms of the authenticity, flavor and texture of fermented foods and drinks. Many years ago, someone in my family undertook an interesting project of making wine. He bought an authentic barrel and the best grapes he could find. Unfortunately, his brew turned into an unexciting vinegar. This was my single experience with home brewed fermented food.
Two of my children are very busy, yes you could say they are busy at work and taking care of their families. However, this is not what I am writing about. Their endeavors of baking veritable sourdough bread has taken off beyond their wildest dreams. Since I am not an expert on this type of bread baking, I cannot hone you in on the minute details of this feat, but it is enough to tell you that it takes hours and hours of manual labor to succeed.
Baking sourdough bread begins with creating a sourdough starter which alone takes days. You can take some starter from your neighbor, but many sourdough bread bakers want to use their own starters so that the bread is their creation from start to finish.
Maybe I am not into the latest roundabout, but I have only recently heard of a new brew called kombucha tea. Just as you can buy sourdough in the store, so too can kombucha tea be purchased easily. However, no one can take away the satisfaction and awe of brewing and fermenting one’s own tea. In addition, fermented foods and drinks are so healthy. They are terrific for stomach problems and help you lose weight among other important health benefits including probiotics and good enzymes.
Even though I have never tried to make sourdough, sauerkraut or kombucha, I have made pickles many times. It all started when I went on a diet to lose some weight together with my husband. It wasn’t so much that we were that hungry, but the diet was very limiting on salt. We are pickle people whether it is adding it in dice to our egg or tuna salad or just munching them alone. We realized that our regular pickles were too salty for our diet. Thanks to google I just searched for a salt free pickle recipe and found one that uses vinegar, a drop of sugar but no salt. To eliminate some acidity, I substituted rice vinegar for the traditional stuff. The bottle that I buy at Trader Joe’s is the perfect size and after emptying the vinegar in the pot I fill the bottle up with water, add just a bit of sugar, boil it up with the rice vinegar and pour on it my little cukes that are waiting in the mason jar. Adding sliced onion, garlic cloves and pickling spices, finishes up this easy recipe which is left out overnight and then refrigerated until the color turns sour pickle green. (Only a few days.)
The reason I shared my pickle recipe with you is twofold. First of all, if you have never made pickles and find the job intimidating, I invite you to try it and see that I’m right and it’s easy. The second reason is I wanted to introduce you to the beauty of fermented food and drinks.
Now of course brewing kombucha is more time consuming and challenging but there are certain shortcuts that can be taken. For example, the magic ingredient that transforms regular sweetened tea into effervescent kombucha is SCOBY. This can be purchased or homemade.
SCOBY by definition is an abbreviation for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. It’s an indescribable organism that floats on the top of the tea. It sort of has the feeling of rubber and is the seal that prevents air and undesirable bacteria from getting into the kombucha while it ferments.
Some purchased kombucha tea will come with a small SCOBY on the top. The tea forms new SCOBY as it ferments, and this is how a new SCOBY is grown. When you are making your own kombucha, think of the SCOBY as the starter of sourdough bread. You can borrow a starter from your neighbor or create your own. So too you can grab some homemade kombucha from a friend that will have these little squiggly things floating inside the bottle. When using old kombucha to make a new batch make sure to use an unflavored tea.
I also like to compare kombucha with sourdough bread because you are not sure if it will work. My daughter has been baking sourdough for several years and she still admits that she cannot promise me a loaf for the weekend until the whole process is completed. “I am making sourdough for the Sabbath and would love to give you one, but don’t count on it since I never know if it will rise.” A bit of practical advice to anyone offering kombucha tea to a friend or relative. It’s better to surprise them with a mason jar of tea rather than plan on giving it to them in advance. And yes, please warn them that the strange rubbery raft floating in their mason jar is very important and should not be thrown away. You will always take it back and if you can get the mason jar as well, it will save you time, energy, and money in your future kombucha endeavors.
Good quality and great tasting kombucha teas can be purchased and might be the easier way out considering the extent of the work that making this tea entails. From the minute the tea bag is placed in the specially filtered water and mixed with sugar the tea creator must literally hold his or her breath. What will be the difference in the taste of your home brewed tea and vinegar? Unfortunately, whether wine making or fermented tea brewing, there can be a fine line between your wine and tea if it turns into a very sour and acidic vinegar.
For those folks who are challenged by trial and error the satisfaction that can be earned by fermenting your own kombucha tea is timeless. It can be flavored exactly the way you and your family would like, and the benefits of home brewing are amazing for the health of your family. I suggest you purchase a bottle of store bought professionally fermented kombucha tea initially so you can get the idea of how it is supposed to taste and then get going with trying to make it on your own. Additionally, you will experience a whole new vocabulary of words you never knew were part of the vernacular, for example, baby culture and SCOBY. Acquaint yourself with the science of fermentation, be it sourdough bread, pickling or kombucha tea; it’s never too late to learn.