First attempt at homemade miso. Part I

A little less than a year ago, on a trip up to Vermont I was introduced to miso. No, not the first time I’d had miso in my life but first time I’d scooped it out of a jar and put it into a bowl of hot water with grains and veggies to transform it into a soup. Since then I’ve kept my home stocked with one or more varieties of miso. And, through one of those cosmic convergences, the second issue of Lucky Peach had a short piece on the different types of misos, some of which were hard to come by in the US. This got me fantasizing about making my own miso.

Although one might argue that it would be sensible to pursue following a recipe for one’s first attempt at miso, I disagree. What recipes exist are going to be for misos that I can get at the store which will be far superior. To take those on as a first project would, in my mind, be equivalent to making a Pinot Noir as a first attempt at wine making, rather than starting off with a wine based on local fruit; even if it’s mediocre, hey, not like you’d get decent apricot wine at your local liquor store anyway, right?

The first step towards making miso is to make koji. What’s koji? Good question. Koji is the term for a grain/legume that has been overgrown with koji-kin, a.k.a. Aspergillus oryzae, a type of mold. Took me too long to figure that out. You can buy ready made koji, which is what got me a little confused to begin with in terms of what it was. Now, if you believe the recipes, you need to start the culture on steamed rice. To which I said pfft. We’re talking about a mushroom forming mycelium, which needs food and enough air pockets to spread around. Which means, no, a solid lump of cooked rice isn’t going to do it (to be fair, some subtle flavors might be lost is cooking vs. steaming). Also, you can grow a. oryzae on anything that it will grow on (thank you tautology), magically transforming it into koji.

What I find interesting is that it seems quite possible that what you want from the koji might not be the mold itself. Apparently you can make miso from koji which is dry. Plus you miso seems to require a lot of salt (for comparison, a teaspoon of salt is about 5g). That level of salt kills just about everything. But that wouldn’t deactivate the enzymes that were already created by the mold. At the same time, you’d prevent other mold or bacteria taking up residence in the miso while it ages, for 6-12 months minimum but in some cases several years.

Back to the kitchen, this miso is made with black beluga lentils and forbidden rice, a miso I’m unlikely to find in any store. Cooked both until reasonably soft (separately, to make sure neither turned to mush while the other was still working on getting soft). Mixed the two in a ratio of one-to-one, approximately four cups each, in a large metal bowl. Sprinkled a little koji-kin on it (from www.grapeandgranary.com, the “sake homebrew kit” from Vision Brewing). Covered the bowl with a high thread count cheese cloth and put it in the oven, where it got a short burst of heat (170 deg) and then left to it’s own devices overnight.

That was Sunday night. For the next two days, twice a day, I’d take the bowl out of the oven and take a knife to the surface of the rice and lentil mix, basically tilling it, much as one would soil. By this morning, the mold was most definitely apparent… as was the smell. Egads, this was not a pleasant part of the project. I was a bit afraid as to what might meet me in when I got home from work. Turns out, the process was like stincky cheese in reverse. Although strong, the aroma had shifted to something much more food-like. Given that the mold had pretty much infiltrated every part of the rice/lentil mix possible, I called the koji done and took my hand blender to it, making it into a smooth paste. Based on what I’ve read, what I have is a little more moist than what I’m aiming for but with the A/C on, that shouldn’t last long. Added salt and transferred everything into a glass container. Coated the surface with an eight inch thick layer of salt to discourage any new microflora from taking up residence on this fine nutrient mass, placed some wax paper on top and then covered the mouth of the the container with cheesecloth for now.

Now I just need to get some small stones to put weight on the surface. After that, it’s waiting for a few months to see what happens.

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Raw Vegan Cheese: The Science Begins

While I’m not vegan myself, thus certainly not raw vegan, the idea fascinates me. Plus some of what I’ve seen raw vegan chefs have come up with certainly challenges assumptions about what is and is not necessary in terms of creating tasty food.

When it comes to raw vegan cheese, there seem to be two categories of recipes out there. The first, actually creates a product that can be called cheese; an example can be found here. Before you get uppity about what the term “cheese” means, consider the following: you would call a bowl of baby spinach with shredded carrots “spinach salad” and you would also call a mix of tuna, mayo, and celery “tuna salad.” If you can justify why both things desire to be called “salad” but only mammal based milk products can qualify as “cheese”… you should go to grad school. Back to the topic at hand. The second type of raw vegan cheese recipe can be found here (I feel that this is an example of why people mock raw vegans; calling it a walnut spread would keep that from happening).

There is a place in Brooklyn called Dr. Cow that makes aged raw vegan cheeses. They are pretty serious, selling nationwide, making a variety of cheeses. And this is what go my brain working. If you look at the selection, the main thing that is different is what nuts and/or seeds they are made of. Obviously, the main ingredient is going to affect the flavor, much like basic white cheese made from cow’s milk tastes quite a bit different from that made from goat’s milk or sheep’s milk. But when you go to the store, your mostly choosing from a wide selection of cow’s milk cheeses, each with a distinct flavor and texture profile. So what I wondered is: can a similar process be applied to nut/seed based cheeses?

And thus I placed an order with the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company for two basic types of bacteria used in cheese making: mesophilic and thermophilic. Why yes, the packets do contain lactose. And yes, I can still claim veganness here on account of lactose used as an ingredient being produced industrially by bacteria, not extracted from milk (which would be crazy expensive). The main difference between the two seems to be the temperature at which the two types like to grow (guess which one prefers higher temperatures). I’ve resisted getting ahead of myself in reading up on their other fine virtues since the two things I was interested in where:

1. Would these grow in a nut based environment? Reason to believe that they could but theory v. reality can be harsh.

2. Would there be any obvious difference in flavor produced by the two?

A secondary level of inquiry concerned which would grow better in its nutty medium in the temperature range that I have in the apartment (72-80).

With that in mind, yesterday I made a batch of cashew medium. First, cashews into food processor to make a reasonably fine, even powder. Then into the BlendTec went:

1 cup boiled and cooled to room temperature water

3 cups of cashew powder (firmly packed, like brown sugar)

Let the miracle machine do its business max speed until it stopped blending because the cashews and water formed a smooth, thick paste (going for a creamy cream cheese with this project).

Had two, clean, one pint yogurt containers ready, each filled with their respective bacteria powders (dissolved in one teaspoon of water for even distribution). Spooned out the cashew paste into each container, added about a half teaspoon of kosher salt and blended (each with a different spoon, obviously). And then both containers got sealed and went into the pantry.

What’s happening with them now?

Both cultures are alive and doing their fermenting thing (yay!). How can I tell? Both have a gentle lactic acid smell. However, it is clear that the mesophilic culture is doing better at room temperature. Much fuller aroma compared to the thermophilic culture which has but a slight hint of something other than cashews.

And so the development of both will continue at room temperature for another 24hrs. After that, one, or both, might get transferred to the fridge to continue ripening there.

The Microflora Menagerie Thus Far

Ginger beer:

Got dehydrated ginger beer plant from here which is composed of Brevibacterium vermiforme and Saccharomyces florentinus (thus making it a SCOBY). This is relevant as apparently there is a number of places that sell “ginger beer plant” which is just overpriced yeast for brewing. There’s an interesting article in the New Scientist about an English dude who studied ginger beer plant and got samples from all over the world and the common microflora in all of them were the aforementioned bacterium and yeast.

Why is this “authenticity” important? To some extent, it isn’t, at least not to me. The main reason why I care is that it would be interesting to have different flavor profiles, depending on which SCOBY gets used, much as one gets different flavor profiles from different grape varieties. After all, the reason not to simply using only yeast is because the bacteria produce their own set of organic acids and other compounds and thus impart a flavor beyond ethanol.

Right now, I’m brewing a second batch. Had one bottle of the first batch and it was quite nice. Definitely different from ‘ginger beer’ I’ve had thus far. There are some sour spectrum flavors which are interesting. The next step is comparing how ‘aging in the fridge for two weeks’ ginger beer tastes like versus ‘aging for a week’ ginger beer tastes like. A project that would be a more authentic experiment if the process were the same in both cases… which it wasn’t, if for no other reason than the first batch was the first rehydration of the ginger beer plant.

Water kefir:

Or, tibicos. Another SCOBY. Unlike ginger beer plant, this one doesn’t seem to have a common bacterial and/or yeast profile from what I understand. To some extent, it seems like ginger beer plant might be a specific variety of tibicos. Certainly they look quite similar. The main difference seems to be that the ginger beer plant grains float up to the top of the brew while tibicos grains hang out at the bottom, suggesting that the composition of the SCOBYs is different.

Thus far I’m still ‘reviving’ them from their dehydration. Another difference from the ginger beer plant which went right to work, these seem to be taking their time in getting going.

As a side not, I find it interesting that they are sold as “water kefir” grains and not tibicos. Seems like a marketing thing. Kefir already has a “healthy drink” aura about it. It’s unclear to me that this particular combination of bacteria and yeast has any particular health benefits but I’ll be looking into that once there is a batch ready for drinking.

Kombucha:

This is a culture that I am growing from a bottle of G.T.’s brand kombucha. Already made one batch before moving to Miami and it was pretty awesome. Basically at full concentration, it tasted like a sweet fruit vinegar, reminiscent of apple cider. I’d used a jasmine green tea for it. Unfortunately, that SCOBY died. But not in vain! I learned that you cannot grow kombucha on rooibus tea. This might be because: 1) rooibus has some antimicrobial properties that killed either the bacterial and/or the yeast portion of the kombucha culture, or 2) kombucha in fact needs caffeine to thrive. I’m rather fond of the second hypothesis. A culture that decides to stake a claim on caffeinated beverages. Once this new culture forms a nice solid colony, I’ll try a batch on yerba mate that I bought recently.

Interesting side note, the particular variety of kombucha I’m using has the bacterium Bacillus coagulans, which is apparently added to animal feed because it boosts the immune system. This fact, more than anything else, would suggest to me that it does, in fact, have beneficial properties. The yeast is Saccharomyces boulardii. What I find interesting about this species is that apparently it sets up camp in your gut and entices E. coli to attach to it, rather than to your intestinal lining. Seems like a handy yeast to have around.

I’ll have more to say about kombucha in the coming week or so, including links to relevant studies.

Sauerkraut:

First batch ever. Shredded a small head of organic red cabbage, put it in a jar, layering some salt and muddling it every few inches. Topped the whole thing off with water. And then sealed the jar.

What? Yes, sealed it. Why? For science! To see how much gas is produced. The answer: quite a bit in the first 24 hours. Made the mistake of unscrewing it in my pantry, not over the sink. Oops. As you might imagine, bright pink liquid squirted all over the place. BUT the sealing might have worked to my advantage in terms of pushing fermentation in the direction I wanted. In case it’s been a while since you’ve slept through organic chemistry, when carbon dioxide dissolves in water it makes an organic acid. Given that desirable fermentation involves bacteria that like acidic environments, this probably helped give these and advantage over their competitors. It certainly softened up the cabbage quite nicely.

Since then, in the past week and a half, the wide mouth of the mason jar has had a small mason jar filled with water as the cover. This did require adding extra water every other day as the air in this apartment is dry enough as to make the loose seal result in significant evaporation. Today I filled the jar up to the top with water and resealed it tightly. Tomorrow I’ll unscrew it and see how much gas formed this time around. If the fermentation has gotten where I think it should have, the answer should be relatively little gas. In the meantime, the smell seems to be that of fresh sauerkraut, which is encouraging… and yummy.

Preserved lemons:

A North African project. Apparently a fast ferment that makes the whole lemon eatable, as in the rind as well. Lemons are quartered, salted, and muddled. Topped off with water. Apparently, unlike with other ferments, having some bits float above the water level is not a problem. We’ll see. Fortunately, the kind of mold that seems to grow on citrus is fairly easy to spot. I used organic lemons which had a nice thin rind so I have high hopes of the fermentation magic to work here, in contrast to thicker rinds where I might be worried about full penetration of whatever chemical magic must happen.

Yogurt:

Fairly basic. Got organic low fat Greek style yogurt, put a heaping tablespoon into a half gallon of low fat milk, whisked it, left it in a covered pot for the night and… yogurt. Milk just at room temperature. I suspect that if I weren’t using it for smoothies, I’d actually want to heat it so it would ‘set’ properly. As it is, I enjoy the simplicity.

Those are the ongoing projects. Tomorrow I’ll write up the exciting NEW projects that got started today. Stay tuned.