As much as I enjoy fiddly and/or labor-intensive food projects, I have always stayed away from fermentation. What a bother, I thought. Making pickles? Just use vinegar. Homemade yogurt? Why bother – buy it in the store. But as with many things, all that bother isn’t much bother at all if you have a little knowledge.
Having none myself, I turned to Amanda, who runs a great blog about fermentation called Phickle. She also teaches fermentation classes. I was — and still am — keen to try her kimchi class, but the best fit for my schedule was her fermentation basics class, in which we learned about lacto-pickles, a type of Finnish yogurt called viili, and sourdough.
Amanda gave us some of her finished carrot, turnip, and green bean lacto-pickles to try, and it was a major eye-opener. They have a salty, tangy complex flavor, yet they were simply vegetables in plain salt water when she started six weeks ago. Often I skip eating pickles because of garlic mouth, but lacto-pickles can easily be made garlic-free. There is nothing difficult about making them. And they’re yummay!
The Gentleman agreed to come along to the class, which was supercool of him. These are our jars of vegetables in salt water, along with some celery seed and juniper berries. Right now they’re sitting covered in my living room, covered by cloth napkins, fermenting away. In two weeks we’ll have pickles!
I like everything spicy, so the one with the jalapenos is mine.
I liked Amanda’s opening statement, which is basically this: bacteria is your friend. It is everywhere. Our bodies have waaaay more bacteria than cells. To hate bacteria is to hate yourself. All of this is to say that we should not worry about eating fermented food. When they’re spoiled, you will know because they look gross and taste gross. Really, really gross.
Amanda talking about fermentation. The Gent thought I should take this photo. I thought it was sort of grim lighting and composition, but here you go – a faithful chronicle of the event.
I have never been a big fan of sanitizing or living hermetically. I know that bacteria really are everywhere. I ride the city bus. I cuddle my dog, whose paws walk the streets of Philadelphia. I seldom use nasty chemical cleaning products. And guess what – I rarely get sick. You just gotta live. And the microbiome of our guts are being shown more and more to have major effects on our health. Diversity is good. So even without knowing the science behind it, I am totally on board with the idea of consuming more bacterial flora. Ferments help us do that.
[Stepping down from soapbox.]
Next up in our lesson is viili, an ancient Finnish secret. Smear this stuff in a bowl, add milk, cover at room temp, and 24 hours later you have yogurt. Awesomesauce. Amanda gave us each a little viili starter in a jar, so on the way home from class I went out to buy some local whole milk in a glass bottle. I will begin making it tomorrow. (I normally only have Lactaid at home, which won’t work since the viili starter ferments lactose. That fermenting should help reduce the lactose, which is good because the Gent and I are both lactose intolerant.)
Viili starter – our take-home.
Finally, we moved on to sourdough. My brain was already whirring with how I was going to keep my viili starter alive – you have to feed it once a week. So the idea of doing the same thing for a sourdough starter made me feel like I was taking on the burden of houseplants, something I have long known not to do. Not even the best of intentions can prevent plant death at Chez Julie.
My take-home jars, sourdough in the foreground
I’m not huge on breadmaking, nor really on bread eating, so I don’t think I’m going to bother keeping the sourdough alive for too long. But I’m at least going to keep feeding it until I have enough to make one loaf. Give it a shot. I like the idea that this is Philly sourdough, that the bacteria in Philly will take over the starter in short order, no matter where the starter originated.
What a great bit of food knowledge to have in my arsenal! I am far from an expert, but I feel like I got the basics down to the point that I’d feel comfortable venturing forth on my own with it. Thanks, Amanda! Great class.