Natto 2: Fermentation Boogaloo

For the second edition of making natto, I traded my homemade incubator (styrofoam cooler with a light bulb) for a slow cooker. You can read about that in the post How to Ferment Natto. This one didn’t go so well.

Natto needs a stable temperature between 100-113 F for optimal fermentation. Slow cookers, even on the warm setting, will get too hot with the lid closed. So I placed a dish towel over the slow cooker and set the control to WARM.

At first it was losing too much heat, so I added a second dish towel. This seemed to be working. It was keeping a perfect temperature of 106 F for the first 8 hours. Then I went to sleep. When I woke up and checked on the natto, the temperature had jumped to 131 F. I was able to get the temperature back down to a safe range for the last few hours, but the damage was done.

Natto that exceeds the optimal temperature range doesn’t have the slimy gooey texture that makes it natto. It tastes rather bland and boring. I’m thinking that the high temperatures either killed or greatly damaged the natto culture.

Natto too hot!

You can see that the natto started at 106 F and then spiked to 131 F. Not sure if the humidity plays a role in natto fermentation, but you can see it got to 99% under the dish towels. Not sure why it spiked. I’m guessing that the water bath evaporated and this made the inside of the slow cooker hotter. This is an old slow cooker I got at a yard sale for $5.

I suppose at this point, I could pimp out my slow cooker by adding some electronics to get an optimal temperature, but I have zero skills in electronics. Plus I already have that working incubator method. But I do like the elegance of using the slow cooker.

Making Dairy Kefir is Super Easy

I started making dairy kefir again in December and I’m loving it. Not only do I like the taste, but I’m no longer buying containers of yogurt, which means I’m saving money. And unlike the crap kefir products sold at Whole Fools and other grocery stores, I don’t use low-fat milk. Full fat dairy for me! Just be sure NOT to buy ultra-pasteurized. Regular pasteurized or raw is what the kefir grains want.

Once you’ve acquired some kefir grains, you’ll need a jar and a non-metal strainer. Unlike yogurt which requires a temperature range of 105°F to 112°F, kefir ferments just fine at room temperature.

Making dairy kefir is super easy if you have good grains. Here are the basic instructions on how it is done.

#1 Add Grains To Empty Jar

I don’t measure anything. I’ve used between 50 grams and 100 grams. It all works.

Milk kefir

#2 Add Milk, Cover and Wait

Fill jar with milk. Don’t use ultra-pasteurized. Cover with lid, but not too tight and then wait 1-3 days. The ferment is finished when the kefir is as thick is you like. Ferments will go faster in a warm kitchen and slower when it is cold. If your kitchen is too cold, then sitting the jar on a heating pad set on low might jump start the ferment.

milk kefir ferment

#3 Filter and Jar

Once the kefir is ready, grab your non-metal filter and separate. Jar the kefir and place in the refrigerator. As for the grains, start your next ferment. If you don’t need to start the next ferment, place the grains in a jar with a small amount of milk, cover and place in the frig.

filter kefir

kefir grains

#4 Drink

I like drinking kefir plain or as a smoothie with blended blueberries.

Troubleshooting and Sourcing

If you are having trouble with your kefir, check out this FAQ. The basic rule I use for ferments that are slow is to increase the temperature. A heating pad can kick start ferments in cold kitchens.

As for sourcing, I got my most recent grains locally. These grains are growing about 10% in size with every ferment, which means I’ve been able to give grains away to friends here in Seattle. If you aren’t a Seattle friend, have no fear, it looks like Amazon is selling grains. The link below is a from Lifetime Kefir, which has good reviews

Kefir Grains – Living Probiotic Enriched

Making Ghee in a Slow Cooker

For my latest batch of ghee or clarified butter, depending upon where you draw the line, I put away the saucepan and plugged in the slow cooker. I loaded up the slow cooker with 2 pounds of unsalted butter and put it on low with the lid off.

butter in crock pot

melted butter

Once the milk solids separate and it develops a dark yellow color, filter and jar.

I used cheese cloth, which didn’t remove all the milk solids. I also tried a coffee filter, but that didn’t allow the ghee through at all. I also experimented with a gold mesh tea filter, which did a fine job. On other websites, you will see times for making ghee in a slow cooker range from 2 to 8 hours. Mine was closer to 8 hours.

ghee

ghee ready

Two pounds of butter made 2 pint jars full of ghee.

DIY Standing Desk – The $22 IKEA Solution

Back in April, I built my own standing desk using boxes. It was a cheap hack, but it didn’t work for long, because the boxes began to warp after a week. Although I am still not convinced that a standing desk is superior to a sitting one, I was inspired by a link in the most recent Wired magazine. They highlighted a tutorial that explained how to build your own standing desk for just $22 using items found at IKEA.

I followed the instructions and now I have a standing desk. I’m pretty sure this one isn’t going to warp like my box solution. The only piece of information missing from the tutorial was the size of the wood screws. I made a lucky guess and selected #10 x 1-3/4. They fit perfectly. Below is a photo of the desk now. I may lower the keyboard stand.

TUTORIAL: A standing desk for $22

Standing Desk version 2.0

Making Paneer

When I first read the recipe for paneer, my initial thought was “it can’t be that easy”. So I checked a few other recipes and confirmed that it was really a ridiculously easy thing to make. QFC had a gallon of full fat milk marked down to 99 cents. Perfect price for practice!

Here is my first attempt at paneer. I might need a little more practice with the presentation, but it tastes good. My next batch will use the spice recommendations in this video. But for now, I need to acquire some spinach to make Palak Paneer.

MacGyver Humidifier

During my trip to Ohio, I noticed an interesting pattern regarding my nighttime headaches. When I stayed with my mom, with the exception of the gluten poisoning night, I didn’t get headaches. When I stayed with my sister, I got headaches. My mom runs a humidifier in the house, whereas my sister doesn’t. Sounds like I just discovered my next test.

Before running out to buy a humidifier, I checked online to see if anyone had built their own. In the description of this video, there is a link to a homemade humidifier from 1918.

1918 Homemade Humidifier

1918 Homemade Humidifier

The premise is you hang a towel down into water. The water will wick up the towel. Air will pass through the towel and humidify the air. At least that is how I understand the theory. My room is very dry right right now. On Tuesday I had a brutal headache, so I decided to try my hand at this project.

MacGyver Humidifier

MacGyver Humidifier

I was skeptical it would work, but after about an hour I could feel the water making its way several inches up the towel. Pretty cool. I really hesitate to get excited, but I had amazing night of sleep last night. Testing will continue.

My Fermentation Station

A few weeks ago I came to the obvious conclusion that making fermented vegetables was a hobby that I was not going to get tired of anytime soon. I also realized that I was eating and gifting these ferments faster than I could make them. I needed to ramp up production.

Bring On The Buckets!

When I toured Firefly Kitchens, I learned they used food grade plastic buckets to prepare their ferments. Doing this allows you to make far greater quantities than standard kitchen bowls. So I went to Home Depot and purchased two buckets.

You want to use the 2 gallon white buckets that are in the paint section (not the orange Homer buckets). They are made by Argee Corp out of Santee, CA. I contacted the company and confirmed with them that these buckets are food grade quality. Unless you have a problem with flies, you do not need to buy separate lids. These buckets are for preparation and not the ferment itself.

ferment buckets

Ghost Sauerkraut Reboot and Killer Kimchi (yeah, I’m tweaking the recipes again!)

Boxes Are Better Than Towels

I started this hobby by covering up jars with kitchen towels. More ferments meant more towels. Pretty soon I was using half my kitchen towels. Then I switched to using paper bags turned upside down. That was better, but I figured out that turning over an empty box worked better. With a single box, I could cover multiple ferments.

ferment box

10 pounds of ferments under a single box.

Scheduling Multiple Ferments

When I was doing a single kimchi ferment, I would just remember the date. Since sauerkrauts take longer, that date could get forgotten. Then I started doing multiple ferments with staggered start dates. At first I used little slips of paper, but they tended to get lost or would fall off the table.

What I needed was a single fermentation schedule that wouldn’t get blown off the table whenever I opened a window. A quick search online for “printable calendars” got me exactly what I needed. I printed out the current month and the following month. Both calendars were taped to the top of the box. Now at a moments notice I can see when each ferment started and its current age.

ferment schedule

CS=Cortido Sauerkraut, KM=kimchi, GP=Ghost Pepper Sauerkraut, DS=Dill Sauerkraut

Potato Masher To the Rescue!

It is common to use wooden blocks to crush vegetables down for easy packing. I looked around my kitchen for something similar. Turns out the potato masher was perfect. I use the masher in the buckets right before I pack the veggies into the jars for fermentation.

ferment masher

Potato Mashing the Kimchi!

Ghetto Crocks

A good fermentation crock can run over $100. I needed something a little more budget. Around ten years ago, I acquired a set of ceramic coffee storage canisters. As my coffee consumption dropped, I used fewer and fewer of the containers, until eventually all but one was in storage. A new hobby means a new function for these canisters.

ferment crocks

Each “ghetto crock” can hold over 3 pounds of packed veggies.

Conclusion

My upgraded fermentation station has really streamlined making kimchi and sauerkraut. Right now I have over 10 pounds of vegetables fermenting.

Rendering Lard in a Crock Pot

My latest kitchen project was rendering lard using my Crock Pot. After all, lard is healthy. Using the slow cooker allowed me to leave the house and even go to sleep while it did its magic. Note that I had hoped to be finished with my lard before bedtime, but miscalculated how long it would take.

How to Render Lard in a Crock Pot

  1. Source some pork fat at the Farmers Market. Look for leaf lard or back fat.
  2. It will most likely be frozen, so set it out and allow it to partially thaw.
  3. Once it is soft enough to chop, cut it into little cubes.
  4. Toss cubes into Crock Pot and put it onto the Low setting.
  5. As it heats up, the solid fat becomes liquid. Several hours later, the fat will have separated from the hardened stuff.

  6. Remove and throw out the hardened stuff.
  7. Filter the liquid lard through a cheese cloth or coffee filter and into jars.
  8. Place the jars into the refrigerator or freezer.

My one tip would be to start this project in the morning. I foolishly started it in the afternoon and then woke up twice to monitor the progress. My 2 pounds of pork fat took about 12 hours. I may have been able to speed this up by cutting the cubes smaller. Learn your Crock Pot and adjust your start time accordingly.

The 2 pounds of pork fat yielded me almost 2 full pint jars of lard.

pork fat

Pork Fat from the Farmers Market

Cut pork fat into cubes.

pork cubes into slow cooker

Pork fat cubes make it into Crock Pot.

rendering lard

Rendering Lard

lard

Finished lard.

cooled lard

After cooling, the lard will look like this.

You can also use your Crock Pot to render beef tallow.

Making Pickles Without Cheating

Last year I made pickles for the first time. The problem was I did the cheat method. It wasn’t a true lacto-fermentation. All I did was dump pickling cucumbers into old pickle juice. Bathing cucumbers in pickling juice is not the same as making pickles. What I took in pride in doing last year now seems embarrassing.

Well, two weeks ago I did it correctly. Dill, garlic, sea salt and patience. The result was much better tasting. Some of the best pickles I have ever had.

If you are interested in learning more about making fermented foods, I recommend the book Wild Fermentation. This book also has the foundation I started with when I began making kimchi.

Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods
Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods by Sandor Ellix Katz

Project Lightbox

My goal is to start putting better photos up on INeedCoffee, so I decided I needed to get a lightbox. A lightbox should give me a nice clean surface with minimal shadows. They sell lightboxes, but I liked the idea of making my own. I used the tutorial How to Make An Inexpensive Light Tent – DIY by Darren Rowse for guidance.

I hope I did the box right. Below is a photo I took of my hand gripper. I’d like my photographer friends to critique my setup and photos. This is new territory for me. The box is covered with the whitest fabric I could find. It is a 60% polyester/40% cotton. The light is a 100 watt GE Reveal, which is a full spectrum bulb.

Using the auto-fix option in Windows Live Photo Gallery, the image lightened up.

Photo Gallery for Lightbox – Day 1