Fermenting

Science Experiment: Homemade Ginger Ale

Update:  December 21, 2014

I’ve updated again!  For making, feeding, storing, and maintaining your ginger bug, scroll down.  For the best ginger ale recipe and fermentation method, please click on Ginger Ale Update.

Update: February 21, 2014

I’ve been experimenting with the ratios and mixtures and fermenting times, and so far, my best result has been with my Sweeter Ginger Ale recipe given below.  I made some more with this mix this week, with only one alteration (I used only 2 tablespoons of fresh ginger in the hot mix with the sugar and water), and I ended up with the best batch ever.  I fermented it for 3 days by the heater, so it was nice and warm, and then when I had lots of small bubbles for a day and big bubbles for two days, I put it into the fridge without opening the jug.  I was using the glass gallon juice jug in the pictures below.  That seems to be the ideal container.  I chilled the jug in the fridge for a day before opening it, and I had so much carbonation when I opened it the next day, it sounded like a bottle of store-bought soda that had been shaken and then opened.  It didn’t spew, though!  I strained off a glass, and it had so much carbonation, it sat there and fizzed in the glass like a store-bought soda.  The flavor was delicious, gingery but not overwhelmingly so like some previous batches have been.  I’m so pleased with the recipe now, I wanted to share my update with you all.

I should also mention that I’ve been experimenting with how the ginger bug reacts after being stored in the fridge.  I’ve gone ten days between feedings, and my bug still seems healthy.  I always take it out and let it warm up for a few hours before I feed it, then let it sit overnight to work before I stash it in the fridge.  I have also noticed that it does just fine when I feed it only a tablespoon of raw sugar with a tablespoon of water occasionally if I am building up the volume of my bug before making a batch of ginger ale.  I did this when I was running low on ginger, and since it looked like there was plenty of ginger in the jar, I figured all the bug probably needed was a little sugar to feed the yeasts.  That seems to be the case.  I will continue to do this, feeding my bug every other time with just raw sugar and water, because I find that it becomes a little too strong with ginger otherwise.  End of update!  Original post (with Sweeter Ginger Ale recipe below) follows.

Original post:

As some of you know, I’ve been learning more about fermenting and culturing foods lately.  I’ve made yogurt and apple scrap vinegar for years.  Now, I’ve moved on to homemade ginger ale.  And it’s pretty darn good.  Dennis liked it, and while he’ll eat anything, he’s a bit picky about beverages, so his is an important endorsement.

I followed another blogger’s process (Wellness Mama), but I, and others, found the written directions somewhat confusing.  It was necessary to scroll through all the comments and read the contributions of followers to figure it all out, so I’ve decided to write the process down myself, using what I’ve learned about fermenting other foods, and hopefully making it clearer for myself and for a few other folks who want to try making their own fermented beverages.

Now, why make your own ginger ale rather than buying it?  For one thing, you won’t be getting any high fructose corn syrup in your homemade ginger ale.  You can sweeten it with whatever you like if it’s not sweet enough for you as is.  Secondly, because it is naturally fermented and carbonated, it contains some probiotic material that is good for your gut.  And finally, it contains real ginger, which has long been known as a healing agent, particularly good for stomach troubles.  And, I would add, it’s kind of fun to make.  Well, if you’re into food-related science experiments like me.

This is a two-step process.  First you have to make what’s known as a ginger “bug.”  I assume it’s called a bug because it is actually alive.  (Mmwha-ha-ha-ha . . . translation:  evil laugh.)   All the bug is, really, is an environment to keep the beneficial bacteria responsible for fermentation alive and well.  After you have the bug going, and it’s thriving, you’re ready to make ginger ale, another step in fermentation that produces the bubble and fizz of carbonation.  Oooh, fun stuff.

You need some containers, one for the bug, and one for the ginger ale.  For the bug, a quart glass jar is fine.  You need some nylon tulle, some breathable fabric, or a coffee filter (just as if you were making vinegar) and a big rubber band off a bunch of broccoli to hold your breathable fabric or coffee filter on the mouth of your jar.  For the ginger ale, you need a bigger jar.  Contrary to the original instructions from Wellness Mama, a half-gallon jar will not work.  The liquids add up to more than two quarts.  If you have a gallon-sized glass juice jug, or something between a half-gallon and a gallon, that will work.  You need a jar or jug with a tight-fitting lid to capture the fizz.

Ginger Bug

In your clean quart jar, combine:

2 cups of water

2 tablespoons of grated or chopped fresh ginger root (peeled if not organic)

2 tablespoons of sugar

You can use whatever sugar you have on hand.  I used raw sugar, and it worked very well, but others say you can use white table sugar; some recommend adding a teaspoon of molasses for color, flavor, and minerals if white sugar is used.  Sugar feeds the organisms on the raw ginger that create fermentation.

A word on water.  Some folks use filtered or bottled distilled water, and I would do this if I had chlorine in my water.  I have hard well water, and it worked just fine.

Cover your quart jar with the breathable material, secure it, and place it somewhere warm. My kitchen was cold when I started the bug, so I kept it near the heating stove, where it stayed about 78 degrees.  A warm, not hot, temperature encourages the growth of yeasts, etc. in your ginger bug.  If it’s cold, you’re more likely to get mold than fermentation, and you’ll have to throw it out and start over if you get mold.  Mold does not taste good.  This is what it looks like when you have the bug going.

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Now, every day for five days, add 1-2 tablespoons of grated or minced ginger root, 1-2 tablespoons of sugar, and 1-2 tablespoons of water to your bug, stirring well.  Some folks say you shouldn’t use a metal spoon, but this is just silly because you use a metal knife or food processor to chop the ginger.  Stirring with a metal spoon isn’t going to harm your bug, but if you are worried about it, by all means, use a wooden or plastic spoon.  (I wouldn’t use a silver or iron spoon, but who uses spoons like that to stir things like this anyway?)  The thing to remember is to use the same proportion of ginger to sugar to water each day.  Cover the bug, put it back in its cozy spot, and go on about your business.  In a day or two, you should start to see some foaming or bubbling, maybe hear a little hissing, see a little fizzing when you stir the bug.  That means your bug is fermenting, and all those little organisms (bugs) are growing.  Yay!  After five days of this, you are ready to make ginger ale.  (When you have used some of your ginger bug for ginger ale making, you need to add back ¼ cup of water, 2 tablespoons of sugar, and 2 tablespoons of fresh chopped ginger to the bug before storing it.)

But first, it is important not to let your ginger bug sit at room temperature more than about 5 days after it starts to ferment, because it could start to turn to vinegar (move from alcoholic fermentation to acetic fermentation) after that time.  If you want to hold your bug at readiness and not make ginger ale right away, you can put a tight lid on the jar and stash it in the fridge indefinitely, as long as you take it out and feed it once a week.

To feed your ginger bug, bring it out of the fridge, bring it to room temperature, add a tablespoon of minced/grated ginger, a tablespoon of sugar, and a tablespoon of water.  Let it sit out at least 8 hours in its cozy place, then it can be refrigerated again.  If you are using your ginger bug after resting in the fridge, take it out 8 hours before you want to use it to make ginger ale, feed it, and let it sit and get warm and active before adding it to the ginger ale ingredients.  Now, here are the directions for making ginger ale.

Homemade Ginger Ale

In a large sauce pan, heat:

2 tablespoons of grated or minced fresh ginger root (peeled if desired or if not organic)

½ cup sugar (raw/demerara, organic, or if white sugar is used, add 1 tablespoon molasses as well)

½ teaspoon sea salt (kosher salt is fine, and I don’t imagine that plain table salt would adversely affect the ginger ale)

3 cups of water (filtered or distilled if you have chlorinated water or if you think the mineral content of your water would produce a nasty taste)

Simmer for about 5 min. to dissolve sugar and infuse the water with the ginger.

Add:

5 cups of cool, filtered water (if filtering is necessary)

½ cup fresh lemon or lime juice or combination thereof

½ cup ginger bug

Make sure the water/sugar/ginger mixture is cool before adding ginger bug.  (You don’t want to cook the bugs!)  Mix well.  Pour into large jug and cap tightly.  (Again, a half-gallon jar will not work.  With 8 cups of water, ½ cup of juice, ½ cup of ginger bug, you have at least 9 cups of liquid, and that won’t fit in a half-gallon jar.)

Put this tightly capped jug in the warm, cozy place, and let it sit.  If your ginger bug has fermented properly and is active, the ginger ale should begin to bubble within a few hours.  Here’s what mine looked like (my second batch).

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Let it sit until bubbles just begin to diminish.  At this point, it’s ready to drink.  Chill the jug well before opening.

Now, here’s what’s going to happen when you open the lid on your ginger ale.  Just as with commercial sodas, there will be a loss of carbonation as soon as you open the jug.  I got a big hiss of escaping gas when I opened the lid on my gallon juice jug.  I tried to tighten it back down, but the gas kept escaping.  For this reason, it’s best not to open your ginger ale until you are ready to drink it, and then to pour it quickly through a strainer (so you aren’t chewing little bits of ginger, but save the ginger because you can use it in your next batch of ale) into glasses loaded with ice and whatever else, if anything, you want to put in the ginger ale (various kinds of alcohol spring immediately to mind) and drink it up right away.  If there is any left over, pour it off straight away into a smaller bottle and cap tightly.  It will not be as fizzy when you open it, but it will still taste good.  Here’s what my first batch looked like after I strained it off out of the big gallon juice jug.  (I saved the ginger and put it in the second batch with some additional fresh ginger to feed the fermentation.)

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It should be stored in the fridge, where it will keep indefinitely.  If stored at room temperature, it will eventually become alcoholic.  (Yeasts + sugar + time = booze.)

I should say a few words here about sweetness.  This stuff is not sweet.  It was not sweet enough for my son and husband until I stirred about a teaspoon of raw sugar into it.  It was sweet enough for me as is, and very refreshing.  But when I wanted something a little sweeter, I stirred about a half teaspoon of raw sugar into mine.  I also tried it with a little Splenda, which I use very sparingly these days, and it was quite good.

Because I wanted to see if I could produce a batch that would be sweet enough out of the jug for the family, I altered the recipe a bit.  Wellness Mama’s instructions add that you can adjust the volume of the recipe by using a ratio of ¼ cup sugar per 1 quart of water and adding ¼ cup ginger bug for each quart of water used.  I followed these directions for increasing the volume of my second batch but doubled the sugar and kept the amount of lemon/lime juice the same, since the first batch was very acidic.

Sweeter Ginger Ale

Simmer for 5 minutes:

1 quart water

4 tablespoons minced ginger

1 cup raw sugar

1 teaspoon sea salt

Add:

2 qts. cool water

½ cup lemon or lime juice (I used about ¼ cup lemon and ¼ lime juice)

¾ cup ginger bug

Mix well and pour off into gallon jug; cap tightly.  Let sit in warm place for 2-3 days.  Chill and strain before drinking.

I should note that this mixture bubbled up very quickly, producing a lot of carbon dioxide the very first day, but was not as fizzy as my first batch when the jug was opened.

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Given my experience with making vinegar (which also ferments), I believe it was the added sugar in this mix that caused a faster fermentation.  I also think that for great fizz, the mixture should have been drunk immediately, rather than chilled and stored for two days, as I did.  It’s also possible that the cap on my jug released carbonation.  I am using a glass gallon-sized apple juice jug with a metal, screw-on lid.  A bottle with a bail closure and rubber seal on the stopper might work better to contain the carbon dioxide.

These ratios produced a slightly sweeter ginger ale that no one needed to add sugar to, and everybody liked.  My son-in-law, who was born and raised in Nigeria, says he grew up drinking something very similar.  He was particularly appreciative of my homemade ginger ale and wants me to make it again for New Year’s Eve, when his mother and nephews will be visiting with us.

Wellness Mama cautions against over-fermentation to prevent the bottle from exploding.  Frankly, I think this is highly unlikely unless the bottle was made of very, very thin glass and the lid were truly air-tight.  This stuff would be more likely to blow the lid off.  However, I also think that if a jug is going to blow its lid, it’ll be because it doesn’t hold enough space for the gas.  When that space is full and gas is still being produced, it has to exhaust somehow.

I liked my first batch of ginger ale made following Wellness Mama’s directions, but we all liked the second batch best, made with more sugar and less lemon/lime juice.  I think it would be fine to eliminate the citrus juice altogether, and just add a twist of lemon or lime to the glass before drinking.

For my next batch, I think I’ll start with the original instructions, double the sugar, reduce the water by one cup, eliminate the citrus, and see if it will almost fill but not overflow a half gallon jar.  I’m curious to see if I will get more fizz from an almost full jar when it is opened.

At any rate, I’ll have fresh, homemade ginger ale for Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.  How fun is that?  For this nutcase food nerd/amateur scientist, it’s pretty darn fun.

 

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Canning, Fermenting, Recipes

Waste Not, Want Not

I grew up with that adage.  We had very little, so it was important not to waste what we did have, although I can’t say that as a child, I never wanted anything.  However, with those lessons in my pocket, I’ve learned to make things with what I once would have thrown away.  This post is about a couple of those things:  fruit vinegar and pectin stock.  And I’m not talking about steeping fruit or herbs in store-bought vinegar.  I’m talking about making vinegar from scratch.

For years, I threw away the apple peelings and cores from my applesauce and apple pie making.   I didn’t throw them in the garbage; they always went in the compost pile.  But still, I wasn’t utilizing them as I’ve since learned to do.  I’ve learned to make vinegar, really good vinegar, with my apple scraps.  I’ve also learned that other fruit scraps make delicious, exotic-tasting vinegars as well.

Apple is my basic vinegar-making fruit.  I use a lot of apple cider vinegar.  I like the taste of it for salads and in cooking, fruity and slightly sweet.  The idea that I could make vinegar from my apple scraps lit me up like a Christmas tree.  I made my first try in 2009, with peelings and cores from the first good crop of apples from our little tree in the garden.  That first batch of vinegar was rich and dark and delicious, and I was hooked.  I’ve experimented since then with other fruits as well:  peach, plum, grape, and blackberry.   Here’s the easy process for making vinegar from fruit scraps.  There are more difficult ways to do this, and you can add ingredients like sugar, but why bother when this method works reliably?  First, the basic instructions for apple, and then some tips for making other fruit vinegars, and finally, apple pectin stock for jelly-making.

Apple Scrap Vinegar

Allow your apple peelings, cores, and scraps to brown for several hours.  (This is convenient, because if you’re like me, you’re making applesauce or apple butter or apple pie filling, which is why you have the peels in the first place!)  Wash out a large jar and fill it with browned apple scraps. Don’t cram or crowd the jar but fill within a couple of inches of the neck; cover scraps with distilled water if your water is chlorinated.  Cover the jar with several thicknesses of cheesecloth, nylon tulle, or any other clean, breathable fabric you have on hand.  Secure the cloth around the neck of the jar with a rubber band, or if the fabric is not too thick, the ring portion of a 2-part canning lid.  This keeps fruit flies out of your vinegar-to-be.  Place the jar on a plate to catch any overflow during fermentation.

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You can leave the jar on your counter, on a shelf in the cupboard, anywhere out of direct sunlight but where you will remember to stir it every day.

And that’s it.  Stir it every day.  Let it sit.  In a few days or a week, you’ll notice some bubbling.  If you filled the jar a little too full, it might even bubble over onto the plate. If so, clean up the plate and outside of the jar, stir down the contents, and replace the cloth on top of the jar with a clean one.  (The only fruit that caused overflow for me was grapes, and I filled the jar too full to handle the amount of fermentation.)

In a week or so after fermentation begins, a grayish scum will begin to form on the top of the liquid in your jars.  This is the “mother” or “mother-of-vinegar” and it looks nasty but is just part of the process.  It’s hard to believe that this scum is what makes that beautiful clear amber liquid, but it does.  If any scraps float to the top of the jar and become moldy, fish them out.  But don’t let a couple of moldy scraps freak you out, because as the vinegar acidifies, it kills off any mold.  After a few weeks, you’ll begin to notice a vinegary smell coming from the jar.  You can stop stirring at this point and let the acidification process work.  When it smells good and strong, usually at least a month or maybe two, it’s time to taste.

Stir the jar once more and then strain the vinegar from the apple peels by pouring it all through a fine-mesh wire sieve into a clean glass bowl.  Let the peels drip for a couple of hours to get all the liquid off of them.  You can mash a little—it’s fine.  Don’t worry about any small particles still left in the vinegar.  You’re going to strain again, later.  When the vinegar has settled, pour a small amount into a spoon and taste it. It should taste strongly acidic and just slightly sweet.  If it isn’t strong enough, pour the vinegar back into the jar that held the peels and cover it once again with the cloth.  (You don’t need to put the peels back in the jar, just the vinegar.)  Let it sit for another week or longer, until the taste satisfies you.  The vinegar will continue to acidify as long as it has air because it is a living organism.  The “mother” will probably re-form.  This is a good sign that your vinegar is alive and working and will be very healthful when you begin to use it.

When the vinegar is strong enough to suit your taste, prepare your bottles.  These must be glass, and should have plastic or rubber stoppers, not metal.  (I use old olive oil bottles, lemonade bottles, any glass bottle with a plastic stopper.  Olive oil bottles with metal caps lined with plastic work fine.  Do not use cork.)  The bottles and stoppers should be washed in hot, soapy water and then immersed in boiling water for 10 minutes.   This sterilizes the bottles and will allow your raw vinegar to keep indefinitely.  (I just used up the last of my 2009 batch, and it was as good as the day I bottled it.)

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Strain the vinegar through several layers of cheesecloth or nylon tulle.  Pour into cooled, dry bottles and stopper tightly.  If you bottled your vinegar in clear bottles, it’s best to store them away from light.  Do not worry if the mother forms in the bottom of the bottles.  In fact, if you wish to, you can save the mother and add it to your next batch of vinegar the following year, speeding up the fermentation process.  Some people swear by the health-giving properties of mother-of-vinegar.  One sufferer from rheumatoid arthritis told me that the mother was helpful for reducing inflammation when applied to the joint.

You can follow this basic process with any fruit scraps to create exotic vinegars.  I have successfully made both peach and grape vinegars from peach peelings and grape skins leftover from jam-making.  With peelings from peaches that have been scalded to remove the skin more easily, it’s important to also add a few scraps, the bruises work fine, to the jar.  Scalding kills some of the enzymes or bacteria that start fermentation.  It might also be helpful to add a little sugar to the jar.  This year, I added a tablespoon of organic palm sugar to a quart jar of peach peelings to jump start fermentation, and it seems to have worked well.  Grapes will ferment readily on their own.  Make sure to give them a little extra room in the jar.  Currently, I also have plum pit vinegar and blackberry vinegar started.  For the plums, I used the pits of Santa Rosa red plums that were left from jam-making.  They are not freestones, so there was quite a bit of flesh left on the pits.  I put all the pits in a large jar and covered them liberally with distilled water.  This jar has developed a mother on top and is smelling like vinegar.  I started this jar on August 8th.  For the blackberry vinegar I started last week, I crushed two cups of my blackberries in a quart jar with a wooden spoon and covered them with about two and half cups of distilled water.  I also added the dregs, about two teaspoons, of two bottles of red wine, just because it seemed like a good idea.

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Always use distilled water for vinegar-making.  One year, I forgot to buy distilled water prior to apple processing day, and I didn’t have time to run to town to get any.  I used tap water.  I learned why I shouldn’t use tap water.  We have good well water, but it is hard, with a high mineral content.  The vinegar worked just fine, but the minerals caused it to be cloudy.  It took two years in the bottle to clarify, but it tastes good.

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What to do with the leftover peelings after the vinegar has drained away?  Now they go to the compost pile.  If I still raised chickens and pigs, they’d get a treat, but instead, I’m feeding the worms that feed my garden.  There’s small-scale environmental justice for you.

Apple Pectin Stock

I also use my apple cores and apple peelings for apple pectin stock.  Apples contain large amounts of natural pectin, which is why they used to be added to other fruits to help get a thicker preserve.  Crabapples in particular are rich in pectin, and there were many fruit and crabapple blends to be found on pioneer pantry shelves.  Besides crabapples, green apples contain the most pectin; so a good pie apple, like Pippin, Granny Smith, or my favorite, Gravenstein, will also make the best pectin stock.  Convenient, yes?  Apple pectin stock can be added to fruits that don’t have enough pectin on their own to set up in a jam or jelly, or fruits which must be peeled before preserving, such as peaches or mangoes, thus affecting the set.  Apple pectin stock is easy to make.  Here’s how I do it.

As the cores (and peels, when the vinegar-making jars are full) come off the peeler (we use the kind that peels and cores and slices at the same time), I drop them into a pot with acidulated water.  This is just water with several tablespoons of lemon juice added.  You can use bottled lemon juice for this, no need to squeeze fresh.  The lemon juice helps to keep the cores from browning.  Some browning is inevitable, but you don’t want your pectin stock brown if you can help it because it will darken the color of any light-colored fruit you add it to for jelling purposes.  Put just enough water in the pan to cover the cores, and as you have to add water, add a tablespoon more lemon juice for every couple of cups of water.

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When the pot is full, and you’ve cored all your apples, bring the pot to the boil and cook for about 20-30 min., or until the cores are tender.  Then strain the liquid through a fine-mesh wire strainer lined with a couple of layers of cheesecloth, nylon tulle, a tea-towel, a jellybag, or an old cotton pillowcase that you’ve dedicated for this purpose.   The liquid will be beige or a pale brown, and slightly viscous.  It will look and feel slick.  That’s what you want; it’s how you know you’ve extracted the pectin from the cores and peels.

When the liquid has all drained through, stir it and then it can be packaged for the freezer in 1 or 2 cup measures.  I use quart ziplock storage bags for this.  I lay them out on a cookie sheet in the freezer until they have frozen hard and flat, then gather them into gallon storage bags before I stash them on the fruit shelf.  This way, I have pectin stock all ready for next spring and summer’s jelly-making.  I add it to diced peaches for peach jam, and it sets up beautifully.  I’ve added it to wine for making wine jelly.  It can be used as a substitute for commercial pectins whenever the peel of a fruit has to be removed before jam or jelly-making.  Today, I used it for making jalapeno jelly, as pictured below.  I was surprised by how clear the jelly came out.  The color of the jelly comes from the nine  Santa Rosa plums I added instead of food coloring.  The plum skins also helped add pectin to the ingredients of the jelly, which have no pectin on their own.

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I love being able to use something I once threw away, like fruit scraps.  To me, finding a use for every bit I possibly can is wise stewardship of the resources I’ve been blessed with.  When I use my scraps, I’m respecting the earth that grew this food.  I’m giving thanks to the God who made me capable of picking, preparing, and preserving this food.   And I know that what I’ve made is healthful because I know exactly what went into my vinegars and jams.  No GMOs in this stuff!

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