Friday, February 15, 2013

Fact: Yogurt is more fun when it's spelled "Yoghurt".

   It's true! I'm a yoghurt-making hippie. Sue me!
   Yoghurt, or yogurt as it's spelled by boring people who don't like to throw in a silent H whenever opportunity presents, is a delicious concoction that can be made by stirring a starter culture into milk and letting it sit in a warm place for a few hours. You can then refrigerate it for a little while and then insert it into your face with a spoon. Yay! You could also hang it in cheesecloth until it gets thick and creamy and pudding-like or even longer until it resembles cream cheese, then sprinkle it with a pinch of course salt and chives and why aren't you already scrolling down for a recipe??
   The thing about yoghurt is that these days it is sold in your supermarkets under the hazy and guilt-laden grey cloud of "health food." Whether you spring for the wee little cartons of fruit-on-the-bottom fancy-arsed greek fancy lowfat whatever else fancy yoghurt, or settle for the even more miniscule cartons of Yoplait that advertise themselves as a weight loss plan in and of themselves, you are spending too much money on inferior yoghurt!
   You are spending too much money because you can make really high quality yoghurt with a gallon of milk and a starter culture. And by starter culture I mean one of those little plastic cartons of yoghurt. You need yoghurt to make yoghurt! I don't know about you but I find that hilarious.
   Not only is it cheaper, but homemade yoghurt it is also much better for you than Yoplait. This may or may not matter to you, and I sometimes have doubts about the merits of vilifying certain ingredients, but if you're one of those people who cares: some of the ingredients in Yoplait are a little disturbing if not downright vile. Your average carton contains:
  • Kosher gelatin- This is typically make from the bones and hooves of large mammals, like cows and horses, although I've heard it can be derived from plants. This makes Yoplait unsuitable for many vegetarians. My dad points out that somewhere in the world there is a rabbi who spends his free time standing around blessing gelatin.
  • HFCS- High fructose corn syrup has been getting a lot of media coverage lately. It is basically a corn product containing high amounts of a type of sugar that your body stores right quick in your muffin tops. 
  • Artificial food dyes- These particular ones are usually derived from petroleum. 
  • Natural and artificial flavors. Created from god-knows-what in a lab somewhere by someone with the job title of "Flavorist." Ever met somebody at speed-dating who tells you they're a Flavorist? Me neither. I can only assume they spend all their time in dimly lit, cavernous stainless-steel labs, grinning maniacally over flasks of bubbling natural and artificial flavors. I have never used natural and artificial flavors as an ingredient in any kind of home cooking. I don't know how to make it. I can't find it at my grocery store. I don't even know where to look! So I found a yoghurt making method that doesn't require it. What a relief, right?
   Making yoghurt at home is super easy. It's hardly even fair to call it cooking. It would, however, help to have a thermometer around with temperatures ranging at least from 75 to 170 degrees. This isn't necessary, but I find it helpful since I make yoghurt often. I will give you a temperature guide as well as some sensory clues, so there's no need for anyone to panic. There are a couple methods that I use interchangeably, so this is less of a recipe and more of a guide. Also, there are a lot of numbers and options and things. Don't get scared! Be super brave and try the recipe. If today is not a super-brave kind of day, bake cookies instead. I won't judge you.

As for lessons learned today... You can actually make all kinds of things at home you normally would have to shell out for at the store. You don't have to be superman/superwoman to impress yourself and others (mom) with your culinary talent.
Let's make some yoghurt.

Yoghurt making a la Starving Artists
What do I need?
  • Some milk. I usually end up using about a half gallon at a time. Whole milk is said to work best and it tastes rich and yummy. If you want to experiment with 2% be my guest, however it will come out  little runnier and not so creamy. You should probably really be honing your technique before working with skim. Goat's and sheep's milk are excellent. I have read that for soy yoghurt you need to buy powdered cultures. I am not that dedicated, but please tell me your soy yoghurt stories.
  • Some mason jars would be great... they can be reused. Really, any reasonably heatproof container with a tight-fitting lid should work. However, I kind of am maybe a little in love with mason jars so that's what I use. *A quick note on sterilizing* If you are afraid of scary bacteria, you can sterilize your jars, lids, pots, spoons, and life with a very diluted bleach solution (please do not attempt to actually sterilize your life as that would be really time-consuming and probably disastrous). I don't find this necessary. For me, washing them in hot water with dish soap and allowing them to air-dry is plenty good enough. The choice is yours.
  • A medium saucepan (Or possibly a big stockpot, or both. I'll explain, I promise.)
  • Some yoghurt. Buy one of those miniscule cartons, you don't need much. Make sure it has "Live and active cultures" in the ingredients list! You only need this the first time you make yoghurt, after which you can use your own homemade yoghurt as a starter.
  • A thermometer. Optional but I like mine. It was cheap and I actually use it pretty regularly.
  • Sugar, vanilla, and/or any flavors or fruit you want in your yoghurt. All this is optional but I always have to make a jar of oversweetened gloppy vanilla for boyfriend.
  • Some way of incubating your yoghurt. This might be a heating pad and a blanket, a really low temp oven, a dehydrator, or the aforementioned giant pot and a blanket. I have actually scavenged our soft cozy heated blankie for hours for my foul yoghurt-making schemes. Find what works for you.
How do I make all this junk I gathered into yoghurt?
  1. Heat your milk. There are a couple of ways to do this. You could do it in the microwave (I assume, I've never actually done that) already distributed in mason jars. You could pour it into your medium saucepan, measured out by the mason jar full, and heat it on the stove. One of my favorite ways is to pour your milk into your jars and set them, lids off, in a big stock pot with enough cool water to come most of the way up the sides (the water needs to be cool so you don't crack your jars) and then stick it on the stove. Whatever method you choose, you want your milk to reach a temperature between 160 and 180 degrees F. If you don't have a thermometer, the water will be beginning to boil. The milk will be starting to get foamy like a latte (mmm) and a skin may form on the top. At this point, turn off whatever was heating your milk. 
  2. Stir in your sugar now or forever hold your peace. Pour the hot milk into your jars if it is not there already. Cap your jars tightly.
  3. Let your jars cool. There are also a couple of options for this. You could put them in the fridge but then you put whatever other food you have in there at a risk. You could put them on the counter but it takes forever for them to cool there and when it comes to delicious tangy yoghurt I don't have that kind of patience. My favorite is to put them out on the porch since I live in the Northwest and it never stops raining and is friggin cold all the friggin time. Occasionally check on the jars' temperature. You want them to cool down to between 90 and 120 degrees farenheit. At this point the jars are quite comfortable to handle and you should be confident you could hold one for a few minutes without it being uncomfortably hot.
  4. At this point, you stir in the yoghurt starter. Stir it in REALLY WELL. I had a whole batch not take once because my starter just hung out in a chunk at the bottom. You want to stir in a round teaspoonful. I don't particularly measure this, I just use my regular flatware teaspon. The yoghurt should now be between 80 and 110 degrees and very comfortable to handle. Cap your jars tightly.
  5. Incubate!! Your yoghurt needs to maintain a temperature betweeen 80 and 115 degrees F (I have best luck around 95) for between 4 and 24 hours. Occasionally check the temperature of your yoghurt: notably warm but very comfortable to handle, or 80-115 degrees F. A temperature above 120 degrees F might kill your hungry little yoghurt bacteria. I leave mine be for as long as I can stand, usually about 12 hours. You have a lot of options for this, and I haven't thought of them all. Here are some that I have had success with:
    • If you heated your milk in jars in a big pot, keep that pot of hot water warm. When your jars are ready to be incubated, adjust the water temperature in the pot to 80-120 degrees F and put your jars back in. Cover your pot and wrap it in a blanket.
    • Put your jars on a heating pad on a low setting and wrap them in a towel.
    • Wrap them in your heated blanket set on a low setting (I use low, 2 or 3 out of 10)and then shiver and regret it all night.
    • Put them in a dehydrator... I don't have a dehydrator so the logistics of that are up to you.
    • If your oven has a low enough setting, use your oven. Alternately, some people say their oven gets warm enough with just the light on.
    • Use a yoghurt incubator. 
  6. Refrigerate your yoghurt. You want to chill it for an hour or so to thicken it up.
  7. Extra credit: Strain your yoghurt into greek yoghurt or yoghurt cheese. Line a colander with a few layers of cheesecloth, set it over a bowl, and dump your yoghurt into it. Rubberband the cheesecloth over the yoghurt and put it in the fridge. Let it strain until desired thickness is reached... anywhere from 15 minutes for a creamier yoghurt to a few hours for yoghurt cheese. 
  8. Put it in your face with a spoon. YAY!



Friday, February 8, 2013

The fear, fancy and fun of fermentation... My bread addiction and my sauerkraut disaster

   Fermentation is really cool.
   When I first struck out on my own, I vowed to stop buying store bread. "Too expensive," I sniffed, "And way better homemade anyway."
   And you know what? I've never once regretted that decision, even though I made it whilst drunk off the memory of my mother's sweet, soft, chewy potato bread she would pull steaming from her big noisy bread machine during Louisiana's cooler months. I have never once forgotten that particular recipe. I ate it by the inch-thick slice, spread with salty butter and a drizzle of honey, and lord have mercy if I'm not drooling on my keyboard at the memory. Those little bubbles, she told to me, were yeast farts. She showed me the little beige yeast granules and explained that the yeast woke up in warm water, ate the flour and sugar, and farted out all those perfect little airy bubbles. I was hardly a prim child, and this revelation provided us a good laugh and did not deter me from taking another slice. Mmm... Yeast farts.
   So when I moved away from my magical bread-baking mother and her bread machine, naturally the first bread I made was a potato bread. I saw it as a white bread with conscience, although whether or not that's a reasonable way to see it is highly debatable if not downright preposterous. It was not my mother's potato bread, but... It was pretty good! It gave me confidence. It convinced boyfriend that bread need not grace our future grocery lists.
   Next I tried whole wheat bread.
   Not such a hit.
   Whole wheat bread tends to want to be conditioned in some way to soften the dough. It requires patience, longer rise times, more liquid, and sometimes a compromise on the strictness of 100% whole wheat. My first loaf was dense, hard, and undersalted, resulting in a very subtle metallic taste. We ate it anyway because we are stubborn creative like that. We got pretty far through it with sandwiches and toast with jam and then we discovered a park near the house that has ducks. They gave rave reviews.
   I have since gained a good amount of experience making bread and learned quite a few things.

  1. Follow your instincts. If it looks like it hasn't risen enough, it probably hasn't risen enough. The only exception to this I follow is to do with doneness... Try letting your bread get a little browner than you think it should. Better to have a crispy, dark crust than a gooey blob of bluck floating in the middle of your otherwise beautiful loaf.
  2. Let your bread rise for a really long time! Don't go into a bread making project expecting to be cutting into a steaming slice within the hour.
  3. Whole wheat things are good. They have all kinds of nutrients and fiber and good shit that keeps you healthy. You know what else is good? Fat, sugar, and carbs. It's all about balance. Sometimes I put whole wheat flour in my cookies. Stop looking at me like that, it's true! And you know what? It tastes good. Boyfriend doesn't even notice!
  4. One of my favorite bread recipes is a no-knead bread. It's everyone else's favorite too. Slow-fermented and chewy, it stands up to stews and cheese and it's heavenly with fig jam. However... It's no-knead and that kinda makes me sad. I like shedding any jewels below the shoulder and getting wrist-deep in smooth, stretchy, tacky, warm baby-butt bread dough. All I'm saying is, don't be afraid to get a little flour on your face and don't feel pressured to invest in electric mixers and bread machines (ALL THE MONIES). Just poke it a little, squish it around... you'll get used to it.
  5. Bread is not (necesarily) your waistline's (only) worst enemy.
  6. Finally, not all fermentation is scary. 
   I say not all because some fermentation is terrifying. I tried making sauerkraut a few weeks ago. Yeah, salty rotten cabbage. Delicious.
   To be fair, I didn't use the right tools, I didn't know what I was doing, I let it sit too long without tasting it, and I don't actually know what sauerkraut is supposed to taste like.
   Nevertheless, after 4 or 5 days of leaky cabbage juice all over my counter, I gave it a sniff. It smelled like moldy yogurt, gasoline, and failure. Says I, "Maybe that's just what sauerkraut is supposed to smell like!" So I steeled myself and took a taste. It tasted about how it smelled, except replace the moldy yogurt with moldy death and toxic waste. 
   It took some serious willpower to get it all into the dumpster. We only barely had the courage to reuse the jars. 
   I'm sticking with bread for a while before I try that one again.
   So as for homework... Eat some yogurt with live and active cultures in the ingredients list. Pick up some yeast! Give bread a chance.  If bread still scares you, start with a recipe for overnight cinnamon rolls. I made those for boyfriend's last birthday and your efforts will be appreciated. They are so delicious it's hard to be afraid of them! If they flop, make bread pudding and TRY AGAIN! Sometimes your bread won't turn out like you hoped, but experiment and make things anyway. Kneading bread is cheap therapy and warm loaves of bread are so rewarding to hold in your flour-covered hands.

   Here is the aforementioned no-knead bread. I don't know where I got it from, but it's been floating around the internet for a few months and you might have even seen it before. It's best to assemble a few days and up to two weeks ahead of time in a big ol fat tupperware with a lid so you can just shtonk it in the fridge and pull out a hunk when you want some bread. 

No-knead Artisan Bread
makes 3 1-lb loaves
  • 3 cups warm water- you should be able to put your hand in it and think "Ahhh. Nice and warm." but if you leave your hand there you should be confident it will not become uncomfortably hot.
  • 1 1/2 tbsp course salt- Course salt is really nice to have. If you don't have it, don't be sad but do consider aquiring some. In the meantime, use table salt but use a little less of it. Try about 3/4 tbsp.
  • 1 1/2 tbsp yeast- If you are using packets of yeast... maybe you should be sad. Ok, don't be sad, but do get a jar. Unless you are only baking bread this one time which is a little lame. In any case, math is hard, you do it yourself. One packet is equal to 2 1/4 tsp of yeast.
  • 6 1/2 - 7 cups of All Purpose flour- This recipe doesn't want bread flour. All purpose is cheaper at my grocery anyway so it's a win-win. If you want to experiment with bread flour, whole wheat flour, buckwheat flour, amaranth flour, millet flour, flower flour... do it. I'm not standing in your kitchen watching you bake and even if I was I wouldn't be offended. I would be delighted!
  • A li'l bit of cornmeal for dusting your baking stone
  • A baking stone is handy and makes for a good crust. It's also incredibly snazzy if you get it into your head to make a pizza. However, you can use a cookie sheet or pretty much whatever knd of heatproof vessel your li'l heart desires, so long as it holds your dough and doesn't burst into flames in a 450 degree oven. 
  • A pie plate, cake pan, jellyroll, or some form of baking dish that can hold a few cups of water. You also need the few cups of water that go in it.
  • A big ol tupperware... a mixing bowl and some plastic wrap will also do fine.
  • Put your 3 cups of warm water in your big ol tupperware. Sprinkle on your 1 1/2 tbsp yeast. Let it wake up a few minutes.
  • Stir in your 1 1/2 tbsp salt and 6 1/2 cups of your flour.
  • Loosely cover it and stick it in the refrigerator for between 1 and 14 days. Alternately, loosely cover and let it bubble on the counter for 2 hours. Don't do what I did and let it bubble on the counter for 6 hours until most of it crawls onto the glass tabletop and refuses to come off.
  • When you are ready to bake, dust your hands and the dough surface with your remaining flour. Pull off a grapefruit-sized or one-pound chunk, or about 1/3 of your dough. 
  • Adding flour to your hands and the dough, pull the surface taut, tucking the dough under itself. This should create a nice round ball of dough with a stretched, smooth surface. 
  • Flour the counter and let it sit out for about 20 or 30 minutes. It will still look too small. This is OK!
  • Sprinkle a little cornmeal on your baking stone or what have you and place it in the oven. Below it place your dish with a few cups of water in it. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees F.
  • When the oven is preheated, you can prepare your cute little dough lump for baking. Sprinkle flour all over it and smooth it out. Next, slice into the top, in any pattern you so choose. Make nice deep 1/4 to 1/2 inch cuts. I usually make a #, some people prefer an X. I see no reason why you couldn't get creative and do a :) or a <3. The smiley face might come out looking creepy.
  • Pick up your super artistic dough lump and slid it onto your baking stone. If you have a peel, props to you, your life is easier than mine. 
  • Bake that sucka for about 30 minutes. Check on it occasionally if that's fun for you. Definitely keep an eye on it after 25 minutes. When it looks done, it's done.
  • It's super tempting, but don't stick a knife in it till it's cooled for 10 or 15 minutes. 
  • Eat it however you want, and/or share it. Bread is actually a superb gift (that's not even a joke).
Happy baking!