I've killed my mother.
But, then, so will you, too, eventually, if you get into fermentation, as more and more people are doing every day, motivated by the health and economic benefits of DIY culinary microbiology.
In the world of fermentation, a "mother" is the progenitor of homemade vinegar: a floating raft of cellulose and acetic acid bacteria capable of performing magic. It is blobby and gelatinous, and generally pretty hardy.
But kill it you can. And kill it you likely shall, at least once.
Fermented foods are, after all, very much alive, and as such, as Austin Durant, the San Diego–based founder of the internationally active Fermenters Club, reminded me, "They're still subject to the laws of nature."
And they die.
But that's part of the appeal of this ancient art, practiced in every corner of the globe since humans first began to conquer the feast-or-famine vagaries of the food cycle—think yogurt and cheese, beer and pickles, even chocolate and coffee, sriracha and salsa. A method of preservation that relies on naturally occurring bacteria, fermentation carries few actual risks, but does require that the practitioner face down some of their (now) culturally ingrained fears. Like is it safe to eat foods that haven't been refrigerated, sometimes not even for months? And can bacteria really be good for you?
The answers are yes and yes. When Durant— who will hold the second annual San Diego Fermentation Festival January 31 at the Coastal Roots Farm in Encinitas—teaches fermentation classes, these are the points he hits hard.
"I have a six-point bullet list," he says. "It's called Why to Make and Eat Fermented Foods. I tell people, 'Because they're healthy, easy, safe, economical and ecological—and delicious.'"For newbie fermenters, vinegar is one of the easiest starter projects. Begin with a good bottle of red or white wine, and mix it with a cup or so of unpasteurized vinegar (like Bragg's apple cider vinegar) in a lidded crock or large glass jar. Cover it, using a cloth with a dense weave if you don't have the lidded crock, and let the mixture rest undisturbed in a cool, dark place. In about a month, the live bacteria—the mother—present in the unpasteurized starter vinegar will have converted the wine's alcohol, leaving distinctively tart, flavorful vinegar behind, plus a new mother: the thickened, somewhat flabby layer floating on top. Welcome to the culture club! "It's addictive," says Durant of getting into fermentation.
How to keep that new mother healthy? Feed it regularly, adding the dregs from your nearly empty wine bottles and glasses, replenishing the volume that you draw away as vinegar (a turkey baster dipped below the surface of the mother works great for this purpose). Over time, your mother will continue to multiply, forming new layers one right on top of another. And properly fed, it can live for years. But periodically, you'll want to peel away and discard its oldest, nearly spent layers. The young, fresh mothers, though, can be shared to start successive batches of vinegar. "Historically, fermentation is a communal project," Durant says.
As for a good follow-up act, he suggests kombucha, a project where the economic benefits of DIY quickly become apparent. To gain the maximum health benefits of kombucha (which stokes your own healthy gut flora, aiding in digestion and even feel-good serotonin production), one should drink about a pint or more of the popular elixir a day. At about $4–$7 dollars per eight-ounce bottle (on average), the costs of buying retail quickly add up.
"If you're a regular 'booch drinker," Durant says, "brewing about a gallon a week is good."
Durant favors, and teaches, a more complicated continuous-brewing method, but rookies can simply start by mixing a bottle of plain-flavored, store-bought kombucha in a large glass jar with seven cups of freshly brewed and cooled black tea (made with four tea bags) sweetened with ½-cup of granulated white sugar. Secure a dish towel over the jar's neck with a rubber band, and let the mixture rest undisturbed for two weeks to a month.
Through the glass, you'll witness a fascinating science experiment. Kombucha is the byproduct of latent SCOBY—a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, from the bottle of starter kombucha—feasting on the sugars, phenols and tannins of the sweetened tea. That jellyfish-like blob gaining girth in the jar? That's your new SCOBY, sometimes also called a kombucha mushroom, now ready for proper kombucha brewing. Add it and two cups of the liquid from the jar to a gallon of sweetened black tea (brewed with eight tea bags and 1 cup of sugar), cover and set aside for a week or more, tasting after the first week to judge when the brew has soured to your liking.
"When it's done is a matter of taste," says Durant.
Next up: To add fizz and flavor to your kombucha by fermenting it a second time, this time anaerobically. Reserving two cups of kombucha and your SCOBY for your next 'booch batch, distribute the remaining kombucha between quart-sized Mason jars, filtering it through a coffee filter if desired. Add fresh fruit, herbs and spices (like sliced green apple with sprigs of coriander and a knob of peeled ginger), leaving an inch or so of space at the top of each jar. Twist the lids on tightly, and set aside. Deprived of oxygen, the latent bacteria in the kombucha will metabolize the remaining and newly added sugars, producing carbon dioxide. But a word of warning: Inside the jars, pressure can build quickly, so monitor closely and exercise prudence. Exploding glass: totally not funny.
Once you've mastered vinegar and kombucha? Durant suggests moving on to pickles and sauerkraut, both byproducts of lacto-fermentation, the conversion of sugars into lactic acid via the lactobacillus bacteria naturally present on the skins of most vegetables. "You can't beat a garlic dill pickle," says Durant, who posts recipes, and workshop schedules, on The Fermenters Club blog for rookies seeking tutelage. "And sauerkraut is even easier, since there's no brine: the shredded cabbage makes its own as it sweats out its water content."
Sauerkraut and pickles aside, though, ask Durant his favorite fermented food, and he'll admit that it's kimchi. "Which just means 'pickle' in Korean," he laughs. "There are hundreds of different kinds, using all different types of vegetables, usually flavored with soy and fish sauce—more fermented products—plus garlic and pepper paste. In the fall and winter, I make an incredible one with pumpkin."
At the January festival, Durant and his fellow fermenters will be demonstrating—and offering tastings of—several different recipes for fermented foods, including more complex projects, like miso and sourdough. They'll cover common problems ("Airborne mold growing on top is very normal") and ways to troubleshoot them ("Just scoop it away and remember, 'It's fine under the brine.'") For those intimidated by growing cultures from scratch, there'll be SCOBY and vinegar mothers for sale, along with other fermentation starters like dairy and water kefir grains, and even jun SCOBY, used to brew jun, a mild, honey-sweetened, green-tea version of kombucha, which Durant says may soon be the next big trend in home brewing.
Miss the festival, though, and you can still get schooled on fermentation via one of The Fermenters Club workshops, held regularly all over San Diego.
"I'm still doing 101-level workshops," Durant says. "I could do one every other week, and I'd still be able to fill every class with newcomers. Fermenting is becoming that popular."
Which means, I'm probably no longer the only one out there having mother issues.
• Always work with clean equipment. "Soap and water is all that's necessary," says Durant, who reminds students that only canning requires equipment that has been sterilized before use. "You want to create a competitive bacterial environment."
• Cover your fermenting mixture with a clean, dense-weave cloth or dish towel to keep out dust and pests. "Fruit flies love kombucha," says Durant.
• Pay attention to temperature. "The higher the heat, the faster the fermentation goes," says Austin. Optimum temperature is between 70˚ and 75˚F. The cool months of winter are a natural fit for fermentation.
• Experiment with flavors.
• Panic. "Sometimes things just don't work out as you've intended," Durant says. "Remember, you're working with live ingredients."
• Get squeamish. Growing SCOBY—pancake-like and usually a cream tan color—looks rather revolting, and both floating and sinking SCOBYs are normal. So are thin, sludge-like tentacles descending from the SCOBY, and wispy strands in the kombucha. What's not normal? Black, white or green mold. When in doubt, throw it out.
• Sterilize. When you're ready to stop/slow fermentation, simply twist a lid onto your jars and place in the refrigerator. It's alive ... Alive!