Making Mead

I am on a quest to make a mead that my husband will like…. and that I will like too. I know a lot of mead makers, but the sad truth is that most meads are too hot, meaning that there are too many phenols and they overpower the subtilties of the honey resulting in drinks that taste more like fingernail polish remover than the drink of the gods. If you are a mead maker and you are insulted, I mean no disrespect – I’m just being honest. Now let’s talk about the happiness that is mead.

I made my first mead last January in honor of a dear friend who had passed away last year. Ken Stout made some of the most amazing meads I have ever had the pleasure of tasting. Ken was like a mad scientist in the kitchen on brew days, throwing random amounts of various spices or fruits in his mead must. Nothing was ever measured nor written down, and no two batches ever came out the same. Once he gave me his basic recipe. I took that recipe and made a gallon of mead from a random wildflower honey I got at the grocery store. The mead came out tasting like fingernail polish remover. It is sitting in a wine rack aging now. I don’t know what Ken the Meadmeister did that made his mead so darned good and I guess I never will. Hopefully after a year or so of aging the phenols will dissipate and it will taste nice, but in the meantime I decided to try something different.

Some friends of mine up in North Carolina make lovely, sweet mead in large quantities that they share at various events we go to sometimes. I called my buddies to get some advice. The first thing they told me was to not bother boiling the must – just mix your honey and water then toss in the rest of the ingredients. The second thing that makes their mead special is that they add tea leaves to the must – it helps clear the mead. And finally, they stop the fermentation after six weeks by adding crushed Campden tablets. By leaving many of the fermentable sugars in their mead it results in the delicate sweetness of their meads.

I tried their method with a local wildflower honey from a source I trust. While that was fermenting I heard Ken Shramm, champion mead maker extraordinaire, interviewed on the Basic Brewing podcast. He had lots of great advice and so I decided to read his book The Compleat Meadmaker in an effort to make the elusive great mead. I learned that two of the things I had read in recipes and had seen people do can have negative effects on the overall flavor of mead: boiling the must and using the wrong type of yeast.  There are lots of other little things he talks about in the book and if you are seriously interested in mead making you really must read it yourself.

My second batch, the unboiled, wildflower mead, came out tasting okay. It was ready to bottle by six weeks without using Campden tablets to stop the fermentation. It still had a bit of a phenol flavor, but was much better than my first attempt. One of the things that Mr. Schramm recommended to make a good wine great was to oak it. I happend to have some untoasted French oak chips, so I put 1/4 cup of them in a muslin bag and let it sit in the mead a few days. Since the chips have more surface area touching the mead than a barrel would have, it only took a few days for the mead to take on a slight oak flavor. I am happy with that mead, but I still wanted something better.

My hubby and I decided to up our yeast game. Until around May of this year we had been using relatively cheap, dry yeasts for our beer, wine, cider, and mead. So we did some research and went to our local home brew store with a laundry list of yeasts we wanted to try, mostly from White Labs or Wyeast. For mead and wine I ended up with White Labs WLP720 Sweet Mead/Wine yeast.  The main difference between the dry yeasts and the liquid yeasts is that the liquid ones are live, active cultures.

For all my little experiments I only brew one gallon at a time. I really don’t want to spend a tremendous amount of money on something that ends up tasting nasty, so one gallon batches suit me fine, at least until I figure out what works best. I didn’t want to use the whole tube of my fancy new yeast on one gallon of mead (it can ferment up to five gallons), so I split it between a single variety mead must (using purple starthistle honey) and a gallon of blueberry wine (using organic berries we had picked at a local farm). Using another bit of advice from Mr. Schramm’s book, I made a yeast starter and let the yeast multiply for 24 hours before pitching it in the mead and wine.  This allows the yeast to multiply and boosts the little critters’ ability to eat up the fermentable sugars and turn them into alcohol.

My blueberry wine was ready to bottle after six or seven weeks, but my mead lingered on actively fermenting. After two months I decided it was time to at least rack the mead off of the sediment. We tasted it and I must say, it is really good! The flavor of the honey is still perceptible with a slight citrus flavor and  no phenol flavor or aromas. Eureka!!!

But how to stop the fermentation? I could go with the Campden tablet thing, but I really didn’t want to add chemicals to this delicate mead. Then I remembered that a friend of mine in Charleston told me that he used sunshine to stop his mead fermentation. Anything you read about brewing or fermenting always includes a line about keeping your precious ferments away from light. I decided to give it a try and it worked!

Stopping Fermentation with Sunshine
Stopping Fermentation with Sunshine

I left the mead out on my deck all day yesterday to soak up the South Carolina sun. It is still nice and warm here and the mead may have gotten up to 90 degrees or so. It was still fermenting away most of the day. Every once in a while I would go by and shake the jug a little to help degas the mead. Then around dark I brought it inside. We have an opossum that visits once in a while and I wouldn’t want him tempted by this jug of liquid gold. This morning I got up thinking I would set it outside again today, but when I looked at the airlock the liquid had gotten sucked back into the chamber closest to the mead. I’ve only ever seen that happen when fermentation is completely finished. So yea for sunshine!!!

The mead still isn’t clear. I had added tea leaves in the beginning, but it is still cloudy. My first couple of meads were clear by this point. So I just added another tea bag to the mead and 1/4 cup of French oak chips. Hopefully I’ll be bottling it in a couple of days!


Muscadine Wine

Tomorrow evening I will be teaching a Muscadine Wine class in coordination with Augusta Locally Grown and the West End Market & Bakery in Augusta.  I sat down yesterday to write up a handout for my class and thought about how lucky we are to live in an area of such abundant, year-round produce.

Wild Muscadine Grape Leaves
Wild Muscadine Grape Leaves

The ice storm we had back in February broke a lot of my neighbors vine covered trees over onto my property. I’m not so happy with the trees, but those vines were wild muscadine vines. About a month ago I pulled a tarp underneath the vine-laden trees and shook the grapes out of them. I gathered several pounds of wild grapes and made a batch of wine that I’ll use tomorrow night to demonstrate how to rack the wine from one container to another.  I’ll be using a blueberry wine that’s been fermenting away for a couple of months to show them how to bottle the wine.  The blueberries were from a local farm where my hubby and I went and picked them ourselves. I love taking things that are foraged, that I’ve grown or at least picked myself and turning them into something wonderful and complex that can be enjoyed months later!

I’m sure we’ll have a good time tomorrow night and I hope to have some pictures taken so that I can post them here. I think my next class will be on Kefir or Mead, Cider & Ciser. I’ll let you know when I get it scheduled!

Okra Pickles and Fermented Green Tomatoes

As Fall is finally hitting us here along the South Carolina-Georgia border, my CSA basket has been filled with a lot of okra the past few weeks. Like many Southerners, I love okra. I love to fry it with a crispy coating of seasoned rice flour, I love to bake it at high heat after massaging it with olive oil and sea salt, and I love to pickle it (Sorry, I just can’t stand it in gumbo. I don’t have many texture issues, but the sliminess it produces in gumbo is one of them.). While perusing Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation I found that fermented okra can be quite a lovely thing. Since I had eaten all the fried okra I could care for this summer, I decided to give it a try.

I took a suggestion from Katz’s book and trimmed the stems a little bit, leaving the caps intact on the okra, stuffed them in jars with a couple of cloves of garlic, some pickling spices, a jalapeno, and covered it with brine. I let them ferment on the kitchen counter for three days and tried them. They hadn’t quite achieved the texture I was going for, so I left them for about another week. Over that next week, the slime from the okra came forth and the white mold-looking (although it isn’t mold and is perfectly safe) gunk that can sometimes accumulate on top of fermented veggies showed up. I scraped off the gunk, poured out the liquid, washed off my okra and put them in a fresh batch of brine and popped them in the fridge. They are a little slimy, but I’m happy with how they turned out.

My garden is pretty much done for the summer, though there are a few green cherry tomatoes still growing on one of my tomato vines. I am going to pick those this morning and ferment them as well. I hear that fermented green tomatoes turn into a very sour delight that I can’t wait to try!

Kimchi, kimchee, gimchi!

However you spell it, it’s a whole lot of wonderfulness. Kimchi is a traditional dish from Korea with a history that dates back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The word kimchi means “pickle” in Korean, and therefore is used to describe a variety of lacto-fermented foods. The kind that is most commonly known here in the States uses Napa cabbage and hot, ground pepper as two of its main ingredients. There are loads of other ingredients you can use, of course using the produce that is in season in your local area is always the best.

Kimchi Demo at the Augusta Veggie Food Truck
Kimchi Demo at the Augusta Veggie Food Truck

With that in mind I got together with the folks at Augusta Locally Grown to do a Kimchi Cooking Demo at their Veggie Food Truck market. It went very well – lots of folks tried it and the majority of them enjoyed it (even those who had never heard of kimchi, much less previously tried it). I want to share with any of you who might read this little blog how I make my kimchi. Regular cabbage is in season here in the Central Savannah River Area (CSRA) and I’ve not been able to find locally grown Napa cabbage, so I cheat a little a use the regular cabbage.

Ingredients (Makes about 7 quarts of Kimchi):

For salting cabbage:

3 heads cabbage
1/2 cup Kosher salt


2 cups shredded radishes
1 cup shredded carrots
9 or 10 green onions, chopped
2 bell peppers, sliced
2 banana peppers, sliced


1/2 cup garlic cloves (24 garlic cloves), minced
2 teaspoon ginger, minced
1/2 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup fermented salted shrimp (saeujeot) with the salty brine
1/2 – 2 cups hot pepper flakes (gochugaru), depending on taste


1. Quarter each head of cabbage and dunk each quarter under water to get all the leaves wet. Sprinkle salt on all the leaves, pulling them apart to get salt on each leaf and let them rest for a couple of hours.

2. While the cabbage is resting, shred the carrots and radishes, mince the garlic and ginger, chop the onions, and slice the peppers.

3. Mix the spices and extra veggies into a paste.

4. When the cabbage is all rested, rinse the salt off and smear with the spice paste.

5. Roll the cabbage up into little packets and place into jars or a fermentation crock. Pack them down very tightly, use a pestle or a large spoon to crush it a little and let the juices flow. Leave an inch of space at the top of the container. Make sure the lids are put on loosely because the action of fermentation will release gases.

6. Let it sit at room temperature overnight and let the juices start to fill the jar. If by morning the kimchi isn’t covered by liquid, add a mild salt brine (1-4 tbsp of salt to a quart of water, depending on your taste) to cover the veggies.

7. Let sit at room temperature a day or two to start fermentation. You will start to see bubbles in the liquid and smell a funky smell – don’t worry, your kimchi is fermenting! Taste your kimchi every day or so until you are happy with the flavor, then put it in the fridge to stall the fermentation. It will last in the fridge for several months.

8. Enjoy your yummy kimchi and make it as often as you want!


Several months ago I decided that I wanted to make my own kombucha. I had bought some from a lady at my local online farmers market a couple of years ago and I couldn’t help but remember how she talked about how easy and affordable it was to make. Being the nerd that I am, I did some research and found out that one used to be able to buy a bottle of kombucha, pour it into a jar of sweet tea, wait a few weeks and then enjoy your own homebrewed buch as well as having a lovely SCOBY to use thereafter. But due to an FDA regulation that was enacted a few years ago, the commercially marketed kombucha that you buy nowadays has been filtered to the point that it cannot propagate a new SCOBY and, therefore, it is really only good to drink that one time. I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to pay $3.00 or more for one drink it better lead to a buzz down the road. I decided to go online and purchase a SCOBY so that I could make my own yummy, nutritious kombucha.

For those who may not be too familiar with the acronym, SCOBY is short for a Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast. In other words, it’s a fermentation culture. If you look at a SCOBY through the side of a clear glass jar, it can look kind of like a jellyfish… an alien jellyfish even. Shortly after I made my first batch of buch we had a major ice storm and were without electricity for a few days. I knew that the kombucha was supposed to stay between **76°-82°**. If it gets too much cooler, it can grow mold. When we got our power back on I was afraid that it had gone moldy, but I contacted the person I got it from, sent her some pictures and it was actually fine.
I originally brewed my buch in a one gallon jar that I covered with a coffee filter held in place with a rubber band. Like anything brewing with yeast, you have to keep light, especially sunlight off of it. I eventually found an old water cooler at an antique store and snatched it for less than $30! I cleaned it up and replaced the spigot. Then I placed a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), a small amount of brewed kombucha, and a LOT of organic sweet tea in the cooler… did I mention that my old water cooler/new kombucha continuous brewer holds five gallons?

So now I drink around three glasses of kombucha each day, especially if I’m out working in the yard. It’s so yummy and refreshing!

Recently it started getting acidic very quickly. You see, SCOBYs reproduce every so often. That’s really great if you want to set up several jars or continuous brewers, or if you want to share SCOBYs with your friends. I hadn’t taken a good look at my SCOBY since setting up my continuous brewer, so you can imagine my surprise when I found that it had reproduced many times and I had SCOBYs about 6” in thickness and around 14” in diameter! No wonder the buch was so acidic! So now I need to thin them down. I think I’ll take on that challenge this weekend.

No Till Garden

One of my neighbors recently had to put her 93 year old mother in a nursing home (poor thing is in too bad of health to ever come home again) and decided to tear down the massive wheelchair ramp to her front door. I scavenged some of the wood from her and built a raised bed about 2′ high.
raised beds
I had heard about lasagna gardening (aka no till gardening) and did some homework. The concept is that you lay down layers of leaves, grass clippings, food waste, etc. to compost into fabulous, nutrient rich soil. I began my layers with thick cardboard to keep all the weeds underneath from growing up in my raised bed. Then I began filling it with leaves, food waste, manure, more leaves, composted food from my compost barrel, and topped it all off with some high quality organic topsoil. I also went to a local bait shop and bought around 100 red worms and gave them a new home in the raised bed. With all that organic material, those worms should be churning out lots of worm castings to make the soil super rich.
Yesterday I transplanted some of the seedlings I started a few weeks ago, like spinach, kale, collard greens, and mustard greens. I have a little gardening stool that I sat on to do my planting. It worked wonderfully! No sore back or knees!
I also figured out the best thing to start seeds in… empty cardboard toilet paper rolls. I think I saw someone suggest this on Pinterest, so I started saving my spent toilet paper and paper towel rolls. I cut the toilet paper rolls in two and the paper towel rolls into four pieces, filled them with organic seed starting mix and planted my seeds. I screwed up a bit, because I planted kale, cauliflower and cabbage at the same time, but did not keep good track of what I planted where. I was using the toilet paper rolls and K-cups in two different plastic bins. Anyway, I transplanted one set of seedlings from the toilet paper rolls (I think it was kale) into the raised bed yesterday and it was so much simpler than anything else I’ve ever used. The cardboard was damp, as it should be, and rolled off of the soil leaving the roots completely intact in the seed starting soil. I’ll be saving all my toilet paper rolls from now on! I’ll just take better care when it comes to labeling things.

These are mostly K-cups, but there are a couple of toilet paper rolls on the right.
These are mostly K-cups, but there are a couple of toilet paper rolls on the right.

Getting the Most Out of a Half Gallon of Cream & Three Cabbages

I am happy that in my state I can buy raw milk and cream. After tasting raw milk the first time I knew I would never be happy drinking pasteurized milk again! The cream is also wonderfully delicious. It isn’t as thick as the ultra-pasteurized heavy whipping cream that I used to buy, but it is luscious and naturally sweet. I can only buy it in half-gallon jugs, though. The ultra-pasteurized stuff will stay good in the fridge for over a month, the raw cream goes off a good bit sooner than that. There’s only so much creme brûlée and ice cream my hubby and I can eat so I had to find another way to use this amazing product.

I had seen a pin on Pinterest about making butter in a stand mixer, so I decided to try it. I did some research and found that in some traditional societies, the cream was allowed to go off before making butter out of it. The enzymes released when the cream begins to sour makes digestion easier on us and gives a nice flavor to the butter. So the next time I bought a half-gallon of cream, I let it go sour then put it in my stand mixer, covered it with a towel, set it on high speed and let it go. With the raw cream it took about twenty minutes for it to first turn into whipped cream and then separate into butter and buttermilk.

The buttermilk is not the cultured buttermilk that you can buy in stores – it is true buttermilk. My grandparents and great grandparents always ate cornbread crumbled up in their buttermilk, but I never did like it. But now I know that’s because it was the nasty cultured stuff. Real buttermilk has tiny flecks of butter that melt on your tongue as soon as they touch it. It is amazing! You can save your buttermilk and enjoy drinking it (I made cornbread from scratch and gorged myself on it with my buttermilk for a day or so).

But what if you really aren’t interested in buttermilk? There is another option. You can slowly heat the buttermilk to 180 degrees Fahrenheit (stirring constantly), add about three drops of liquid renet and watch the liquid separate into curds & whey. Line a colander with several layers of cheesecloth or a clean tea towel, set the colander over a bowl and pour the curds & whey into the cheesecloth. Leave the curds to drain for about an hour (less if you want them soft). Save the whey in jars for use later. Add a little salt to the curds and fresh herbs if you like. The cheese is a bit like ricotta, but I ate mine with gluten-free crackers.

Fresh cheese and butter from half gallon of cream.
Fresh cheese and butter from half gallon of cream.

I had about 2 1/2 quarts of whey left over. Whey is an amazing liquid! It is highly nutritious (this is where the whey protein many people use in their protein shakes come from). It is also great for food preservation. In Medieval Iceland, it was saved in barrels and fermented for a year or two and drank in lieu of ale. And it is good for the compost if you can’t figure out what else to do with it. I wanted to make lacto-fermented sauerkraut. It is less smelly and easier than traditional fermented sauerkraut.

At my local farmers market I found the most fantastic cabbage. Three of these heads filled a large trash bag and I looked like Santa hauling these babies to my car. I washed and cut the cabbage small enough to fit in my food processor and shredded it into tiny bits.

One giant head of cabbage.
One giant head of cabbage.

For Traditional Sour Kraut the ingredients are as follows:
1 head cabbage, shredded
1 Tbsp Kosher salt
4 Tbsp whey
1 Tbsp Caraway Seeds

For Latin American Sour Kraut the recipe is as follows:
1 head cabbage, shredded
1 cup carrots, shredded
1 large onion, quartered and thinly sliced
1 Tbsp Kosher salt
1 Tbsp dried oregano
4 Tbsp whey
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes

Ingredients for Latin American Sour Kraut.
Ingredients for Latin American Sour Kraut.

I mixed the ingredients together in a very large bowl (I used a 6 quart bowl) and pounded it with a stone pestal (you can also use a kitchen mallet) till the juices started flowing, about 8-10 minutes. This reduced the cabbage mixture from 6 quarts to 4 quarts.

Pounding away at the kraut mixture.
Pounding away at the kraut mixture.

After my arms were tired, I spooned the kraut into jars. Then push the solids down far enough to let the juice rise above the top. Make sure to leave an inch of empty space at the top. Don’t forget this step!

Press the kraut underneath the juice.
Press the kraut underneath the juice.

Leave the jars sitting on your counter at room temperature for three days. After this you can put the jars in the refrigerator. It lasts months in cold storage. Don’t worry about the green juice, it clears up as it ferments.
So, from a half-gallon of cream, three heads of cabbage and a few more minor ingredients, you can enjoy around 16 Tbsps of fresh butter, around 2/3 cup of fresh cheese, and nine quarts of sauerkraut! I still have one quart of whey left. I think I’ll get some more cabbage or something else to ferment for the winter.

UPDATE (5/10/15):

I made a LOT of fermented veggies since that first experiment making  sauerkraut. I have come to prefer to fermented veggies without the whey. Whey is a great booster for folks fermenting veggies in the far north, like Maine or Scandinavia, but for where I live in the American South, it is unnecessary. The whey speeds up the time it takes to get fermentation started, but here in South Carolina I usually start seeing bubbles form after 12-24 hours (depending on the temperature and the particular vegetables being fermented). Another reason I’ve stopped using whey is that it imparts a flavor that I am not very fond of. In addition, I find that the time I listed, 3 days, isn’t really long enough for the veggies to ferment for my taste. I now leave things fermenting from one week to two months. You can start tasting your ferment after three days, if you’d like and keep trying it every day or two until the flavor is where you want it, then put it in the fridge to slow it down. So get to a farmers market (or better yet, your garden), grab some fresh veggies, and ferment them!

The Fundamentals of Fermentation