Monday, 9 July 2018

Adventures in Fermented Foods

Since I came out of hospital in early May after a serious post-operative infection, I have been researching the benefits of fermented foods. What sparked me off was the fact that I was on a high dose of two different oral antibiotics for a couple of weeks after I came home, and it was playing havoc with my gut. I have recently become very interested in the whole new area of research into the gut microbiome and how it profoundly influences our general health, and I have discovered that after antibiotics, it can take two years or more for your gut microbiome to recover, and for some people, it never recovers. This can cause long-term health problems, and not just confined to digestive disorders. We need this vast army of micro-organisms living in our gut to help us digest our food and to keep us in good health, and these ancient fermented foods are enjoying a revival as people recognise just how healthy they are.

There is something wonderful about the link with the past that one feels, when making these ultra-natural, tasty and nutritious foods! Perhaps they were developed originally by accident, from the natural yeasts and bacteria in the environment, but people soon realised that they were an excellent way of preserving foods in the pre-refrigeration age. It is only in our modern scientific world that the facts have been revealed as to why they are so good for us, feeding the gut microbiome which is an essential component of good health.

I think there is something of a reaction going on to the over-processed, over-packaged and additive-loaded foods in Western culture, and people are getting increasingly concerned at the rise in certain diseases now proved to be linked to this unhealthy diet – notably obesity which leads to many serious conditions such as heart disease, stroke, type II diabetes which is now reaching epidemic proportions, and bowel cancer, the second largest cancer killer. I am a colon cancer survivor and I wonder if I could have avoided it had I taken greater care over what I was putting in my mouth all those years? – although several of the professionals involved in my treatment reassured me that it was a complete lottery and anyone could get it. We don’t know, of course, just what, and how many, harmful substances are in what we might consider to be “healthy” foods because they are everywhere in our environment, through chemicals in agriculture, etc., and perhaps in the very air we breathe.


A friend came over recently, armed with a lot of information for me – she has researched this subject in depth, having suffered considerable digestive problems in recent years, and she is now much better, having adjusted her diet and also started eating fermented foods with all their probiotic benefits. She brought some kefir grains for me to start making my own kefir, which is a fermented milk drink, something like drinkable yoghurt, but containing a much wider variety of friendly bacteria.

My kefir has been going very well, and I’m making a new batch every 24 hours. It’s a good thing my hubby is on it as well now, because otherwise I’d be inundated with the stuff! I have to say that since I started drinking it every day, I have felt better than I’ve felt for ages and my nails have stopped splitting! We are hoping that it will be beneficial for my hubby’s diverticular disease as well. It has numerous health benefits.

Here are some pictures of how I make my kefir.

After 24 hours, sitting on the kitchen counter, covered with a piece of kitchen paper, the kefir is ready to be strained and can be drunk straight away, or decanted into a bottle and stored in the fridge. I have two small glass jars that I fill each day.

Here is the kefir being strained into a jug. You can see the grains in the sieve, and the empty jar ready make the next batch – no need to wash it in between. I just wipe around the top of the jar with kitchen paper.

Here are the grains closer up. They look a bit like miniature cauliflower florets, or like cottage cheese.

They are made up of colonies of friendly bacteria and yeasts. In the jar with the milk, they convert the milk into kefir. They feed on the lactose and ferment the milk; many people who are lactose intolerant are able to drink kefir because the grains digest it away. They grow in the process, and I now have quite a lot. I store the spare ones in a jar in the fridge, filled with milk. Refrigeration slows the fermentation down but doesn’t stop it; the grains continue to grow slowly, and once a week I strain them off and replace the milk. I can give them away to anyone who wants them, and when I’ve got enough I am going to try drying them; this way they can be preserved for about a year. It’s always good to keep some spare grains in case something goes wrong and you lose a batch.

Strained kefir in the jug, and the grains replaced in the glass jars ready to be topped up with fresh milk.

Kefir grows best in whole milk rather than skimmed or semi-skimmed. I read somewhere that the saturated fat in the whole milk is converted into short chain fatty acids which are better for you, but I don’t know the full details of the science of this.

Starting the next batch of kefir. The jars have been topped up with more whole milk. They just need to be covered with kitchen paper or a cloth secured with an elastic band, and stood on the counter at room temperature. It is important not to seal the tops but cover them with a breathable cover, because some carbon dioxide is given off and this gas needs to escape.

It’s all happening pretty fast in this hot weather! Sometimes kefir can take 48 hours to ferment the milk but at the moment it’s ready after 24 hours.

Any excess kefir can be strained through cheesecloth and made into kefir cheese (delicious) and the whey is full of goodness and has numerous uses too. Here is a batch of kefir just after pouring it into a sieve lined with cheesecloth, over a bowl.

To keep the flies out (apparently fruit flies love kefir, and you certainly don’t want their eggs in it) I cover it with a plate, and fold the excess cheesecloth over the top. It only takes a few hours for the whey to drip through into the bowl.

I squeeze the last bit of whey out of the cloth once it’s done, and then scrape the cheese from the cloth into a bowl, cover it and put it in the fridge. It is a lovely sharp-flavoured cream cheese that can be eaten as it is, or other flavourings can be added, such as herbs (I haven’t tried this yet).


This is my original starter. I followed some instructions from a selection of websites I found, but without the benefit of many pictures, so I wasn’t sure how it should look.

My early attempts at sourdough bread were quite successful, although the starter didn’t seem excessively bubbly or lively.

The bread rose well, and seemed to keep its shape quite well after the final proving.

I bought myself some bannetons (proving baskets traditionally used for sourdough), and these support the dough during its final proving.

However, I’ve had a couple of disasters with it recently, with the loaves spreading out and ending up like flying saucers. I found that when I tipped them out onto the baking sheet immediately prior to baking, they would immediately spread, and not keep their shape.

Something was clearly going wrong, and I did some further online research, and found some excellent Youtube videos, on how to make the starter from scratch, and how to bake a successful sourdough loaf. There were several things that I wasn’t doing right.

My starter didn’t look right at all, and it had a slightly odd smell, but I didn’t know how it was meant to smell! It did make sourdough bread, even if it was flat and rather tough to eat, but the flavour was still excellent.

I found that if you prove the dough for too long, it will fail to keep its shape. Lately, I was having to prove it for longer and longer in order to get it to rise at all, which made me suspect that my starter was no longer as active as it should have been.

I discovered that you are supposed to remove and discard some starter before you feed it each time, so that it doesn’t end up consisting of too much exhausted material that the wild yeasts have already digested. I wasn’t doing this.

When using my old starter, it was accumulating in volume quite a bit with all the feeding, and I wasn’t making that much bread, and I discovered some good recipes for using the excess to make other things – I made some absolutely delicious pancakes with it, and some savoury crackers.

The first time I made these, I forgot to add the sea salt on top just before baking, so with this batch, I added it, but never again – it made the biscuits far too salty! I am trying to scrape them off before eating them and it’s quite difficult – they are stuck on pretty fast!

Like sourdough bread, they are full of resistant starch which is a lot better for you than the high-GI carbohydrate in regular bread, and should be helpful in weight loss too. They are so delicious, and go particularly well with the kefir cheese. They are very quick to make.

I cut this particular batch with a new set of cutters that I bought for about 50p at the recent village fete we went to. They are a series of shapes – fluted circles, stars and hearts, that all nest together inside a box, the top and bottom of which both consist of two cutters! A very clever little design, and I couldn’t resist it!

When people discard some starter before feeding it, they often throw this excess away, I think this was rather a waste, especially if you can make nice things with it, which are very nutritious, like the sourdough itself.

A couple of days ago I decided to throw away the remaining starter that I had, and begin again.

You would not normally expect to see much activity until about the fourth or fifth day of feeding, but because the weather is so hot at the moment, my new batch seems to be going berserk with activity even by Day 2!

You can see the carbon dioxide bubbles forming as it ferments – this is just flour and water being acted upon by the natural yeasts in the air all around us, and on the surface of the grains used to make the flour – a completely natural process. It had doubled in size since I started it. All this activity had taken place less than 24 hours after I started it. I began with all whole rye flour and water, and for its first feeding (no discarding of starter at this stage) I used white bread flour, and it seemed to really like that! As stated on one of the websites, after a few hours the starter had subsided quite a bit, but this is normal. I shall continue to feed it and discard some on a daily basis until the weekend, when I am sure it will be ready to use to bake bread. It’s looking much more like the videos than the previous lot ever did.

People online often name their starter – after all, it’s a living thing, needing feeding and watering – so I have named mine Esmeralda! Here is a picture of her, all dolled up for the camera.

She is a mere infant – only a couple of days old. People continue to use the same starter for many years and there’s no reason for it to go off if you look after it properly.

For a home baker like myself who is probably only going to bake once a week, feeding an established starter every day is going to produce far too much. I have found out that I can keep it in the fridge, and feed it only once a week. As with the kefir, refrigeration will not kill the bacteria and yeasts but it will slow the fermentation process down, and make it more manageable.

I am quite sure that from now on, I am going to be a lot more successful with my sourdough. The previous batches did taste good, although they were so flat!

Another thing I discovered I was doing wrong, in addition to proving the dough for too long, was that I was not moulding it properly before its final proving. Kneading and moulding the dough encourages the formation of the gluten chains which give the bread its structure. You need to form a “skin” or gluten membrane around the final loaf, to give it some tension and prevent it from spreading. Watching several videos, I have now learned how to do this, and I am sure I shall be more successful from now on.

When you bake the bread, you have to introduce some steam into the oven. Commercial bakers have steam ovens, but for us domestic bakers, we need to put a roasting tin of boiling water into the oven at the beginning of the bake. The steam stops a crust from forming too soon on the bread. For the first eight minutes or so of baking, the dough will continue to rise, and if a crust forms too soon, it can crack and the bread can end up misshapen. The surface of the loaf is traditionally slashed with a very sharp blade immediately before baking, and these cuts spread as the dough rises in the oven, opening up to expose the darker colour of the bread in contrast with the floured exterior. This makes the bread very attractive, and some people have developed this into an art form with carefully placed decorative cuts. This is something I am determined to perfect.

There will be further progress reports and pictures as time goes on, and hopefully I will perfect my technique in time. Watch this space to see if Esmerelda and I can come up with the goods!


  1. Very interesting post, will be interested to read any follow ups on the sour dough and the starter. Have been reading your blog for a while with interest and it's great to see your health is improving and the kitty videos are lovely to watch, take care, Jackie

    1. Thank you, Jackie! There should be more about sourdough in the coming days.


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