Dairy, Fermenting, Recipes, Side dishes

Coleslaw Dressing with Yogurt

As some of you know, I’m away from my garden for a few weeks because of a family emergency. I have had to entrust the garden and greenhouse to the care of family members and neighbors at a critical time, but I appreciate their efforts to keep everything alive for me. I have no idea what I’ll find when I get back home at the end of the month, but I’ll be grateful for whatever survives. In the meantime, I thought I’d share a recipe with you.

In a recent post about making homemade yogurt, I alluded to a recipe for coleslaw dressing that has become a family favorite. I made coleslaw for a picnic in the park yesterday here in Denver and received many compliments, even though I wasn’t able to make the dressing with my homemade yogurt, which I think makes it even better.

The ingredients for the dressing can be mixed up days in advance, but I like to mix the dressing into the shredded cabbage shortly before serving, so it doesn’t get too watery.  I will say, however, that this dressing won’t make your cabbage go limp if you mix it up the day before. I had to do that for this picnic, and while the dressing did pull some water out of the cabbage, it was still crisp and the coleslaw was tasty.

Very few people shred their own cabbage these days when packaged coleslaw mix is so readily available at the store. I rarely shred a whole cabbage any more, either (although I did for the picnic on Saturday), unless I have one fresh from the garden. The food processor makes this less of a chore, but slicing can also be done with a sharp knife. The key is to get the cabbage into thin shreds. You always want to slice (both with the knife and the processor), not chop. Chopping bruises the cabbage and will cause it to release more water, thus making your coleslaw more at risk for decreased flavor and limp texture.

This recipe makes enough to dress about half a medium-sized, shredded cabbage and about 3 medium carrots, also shredded, or one large bag of pre-shredded coleslaw mix from the store. I always add 2-4 tablespoons of minced white or red onion to the cabbage and carrot mix before dressing. Too much onion will overpower the slaw, so be careful with it, but it’s a necessary addition to colelsaw in my opinion.

Coleslaw Dressing

(makes about 1 cup)

½ cup mayonnaise

½ cup plain yogurt*

2-3 tablespoons of sugar**

2-3 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar (I use my homemade apple vinegar for more probiotics)

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper


Mix thoroughly, until dressing is creamy and smooth. It should taste a little sweet but tangy. Toss with shredded cabbage, carrots, and minced onion until well mixed. Serve immediately or within 24 hrs. (It will get watery the longer it sits, but leftovers are good!)


*I think homemade yogurt really is best, and my son agrees with me, but any good quality plain yogurt will do. Greek yogurt will make a thicker dressing because the whey has been strained out of it. Why is homemade yogurt better? It’s tangier, and it contains more probiotics, which incidentally, aid in the digestion of the cabbage.

**You can substitute a different sweetener if you like. Honey or agave syrup would be fine. I have used both powdered and liquid Stevia and Splenda. Start with small amounts and taste as you go. For liquid Stevia, I recommend starting with about ¼ teaspoon and adding drop by drop to reach desired sweetness.

I don’t have my camera with me, so I wasn’t able to take a picture of the coleslaw I made on Friday night, but hey, you know what coleslaw looks like. You also know how a good, traditional coleslaw should taste: tangy, a little sweet, a little bite from the onion, and some good crunch from the cabbage and carrots. It’s a favorite salad with our family (my son says he’d be in heaven if he had a lifetime supply of the stuff always in his fridge). I especially like it as a side dish with oven-fried chicken, barbecued spareribs, or pulled pork. Follow the links for my recipes for those dishes in the archives.

Dairy, Fermenting

Homemade Yogurt

This is another installment in the “Fun with Dairy” series.  I’ve made yogurt at home for years.   Homemade yogurt is so much better than its store-bought counterpart, it’s astonishing. You can find any number of directions on the internet for making yogurt at home, and because of that, I’ve resisted blogging about making yogurt. But because so many people ask me how I do it, and because not all methods of making homemade yogurt are good ones, and because I’ve found a method that works without fail for me, I’ve decided to share it.

First, here’s what you need to make homemade yogurt:

Two pots, one large enough to hold the other, and the top one, the one you’ll cook the milk in, should be non-reactive (stainless steel, glass, enamel or porcelain-coated)

A candy thermometer (not strictly necessary but helpful)

A stainless steel spoon (don’t use wooden or silver spoons)

1-2 quarts of milk

1-2 tablespoons of plain, active-culture yogurt

Making yogurt isn’t difficult, but there are some important things to know. I’ve only had one failure in years of making it at home, and that one time was because my stove hood was dirty; the steam from the water jacket condensed on it, and a drop of dirty water fell into the milk.  That batch never thickened, and that little lesson taught me just how fragile lacto bacilli actually are. They do not like competition from other bacteria! (It also taught me to clean my stove hood before a yogurt-making session.) I’ve read about making yogurt in a crock pot.  I cook meat in my crock pot—and remember, lacto bacilli do not like competition from other bacteria.  It would be difficult and much more time consuming to sterilize the crock pot vessel than to use two separate pots.   I once tried making it on the stove without the water jacket, and the milk had a tendency to scorch before it got hot enough unless it was stirred constantly. So here’s the water jacket method I use, and it’s actually pretty easy. You can walk away from it and do other things while the milk is heating, and it will never scorch.

I fill my 13 quart stockpot 3/4 full with hot water, and start it heating on high. I invert my 6 quart stainless steel soup pot over that, stick my stainless steel spoon and candy thermometer into the boiling water, and let it boil for 10 minutes to sterilize the inverted pan and utensils.


Then I turn the top pan, draining the condensed steam out of it, and put it into the bottom pan, so I have a big double boiler. The thermometer and spoon go in the top pan along with 1 or 2 quarts of milk, depending on how big a batch of yogurt you want to make.  Milk of any fat content can be used, although more fat produces a thicker, creamier yogurt. I usually use 1% milk.

Then, with the large pot underneath boiling, the milk heats in the top pan. Stir and skim off the milk skin occasionally, until the milk reaches a temperature of 170-185 degrees. I live at altitude, so the best I can ever do is 180 in a water jacket set-up. This heating kills off any bacteria left in the milk that would interfere with the lactobacillus reproduction. I think this is less important with store-bought pasteurized milk, but I always do it anyway. (If you don’t have a candy thermometer, and have no plans to buy one, you want to heat the milk until it is very frothy.)

Then, the milk has to cool down to 110 degrees. It’s very important that the milk be cool enough when the yogurt culture is added, or the l. bacilli will die. It is also important that the milk be warm enough to wake up the yogurt culture. It’s kind of like Baby Bear’s porridge: it has to be just right. You can place the pan containing the milk into a bowl of cold water to hasten the cooling process if you’re in a hurry, but keep monitoring it, or it will cool too much and have to be reheated. I put mine on the cold marble slab in my kitchen and keep scooting the pan around on the slab to find another cool spot after 5 minutes or so. (Usually, I’m loading or unloading the dishwasher while I’m waiting for the milk to cool, so no time wasted there.) I’ve made yogurt without a thermometer, and I learned that the right temperature is just a little warmer than blood heat. If you’ve ever seen or heard of testing a baby’s bottled milk on your wrist to see if it’s the right temperature, this is the same thing. Just dribble a little of the milk on your wrist. For babies, the milk should feel neither cold or hot—that’s blood heat, about 98 degrees. For yogurt, the milk should feel warm, but not hot on your wrist. That should be about 110 degrees.

For the starter, use only plain, active-culture yogurt. It can’t have sugar or pectin or anything in it except milk or cream, and active l.bacillus cultures, but again, any level or percentage of fat in the starter yogurt is fine. I often use non-fat yogurt as my starter when I need a new culture.   Use 1 tablespoon yogurt as starter to each quart of milk.

Gently stir the yogurt into the heated and cooled milk, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and put the pan in a warm, cozy place to culture for 8-24 hours. Don’t move it or stir it while it is culturing. 8 hours will create a yogurt that firms up when cooled in the fridge, but a 24 hr. culturing period eliminates virtually all of the lactose in the milk because those beneficial critters eat it all up.

Some attention to the various ways to keep yogurt warm enough while it is culturing is in order here. A temperature of about 80 degrees is ideal. Some people put their yogurt in a warmed oven which is then turned off, but the light is left on.  Some folks with gas ovens say the pilot keeps the oven warm enough.  Others use heating pads (you have to have an old-fashioned one that doesn’t have an auto shut-off for this to work, and let’s face it, they’re a fire hazard), and still others are able to use the top of the fridge, which is usually warm. If the house is warm enough, the yogurt may be fine on the countertop.

My house tends to be cool, so I’ve worked out a couple of different methods that work for me at different times of the year. In the winter, when the heating stove is on, I park the pan, covered with its tight-fitting lid, on the slate hearth. In the summer, when the cooler is running, I put the pan in my laundry room (which doesn’t get any cool air from the swamp cooler) and stash it on top of or next to the big freezer, which pumps out a lot of heat. In the spring and fall when the laundry room is too cold or the heating stove is not yet in use, I use a drinks cooler. This is an easy method that can be used all year round. A portable cooler will keep heat or cold in, as required. In this case, we want to keep in heat. I fill the empty milk carton with the hot water from the big pan (the water jacket), stash it in the cooler next to the covered pan of yogurt and close the lid.  24 hours later: yogurt. No muss, no fuss.

When the yogurt has finished culturing  (it should be fairly solid, other than a bit of whey on top, when you tilt the pan), whisk the finished yogurt to smooth it out, then pour or dip it into clean containers, and chill in the fridge. Don’t worry if the yogurt seems thin after whisking. It thickens again as it cools. For Greek-style yogurt, you can drain it right away through a cheesecloth-lined colander if you wish, or cool it and drain it later. If you drain it long enough, you’ll end up with a yogurt cheese, a soft, spreadable cheese reminiscent of goat cheese, which can be served on crackers plain or flavored with herbs and other additions.

As the yogurt sits in the containers, whey rises to the top. This should just be stirred back into the yogurt unless the whey is desired for a different fermenting project. Always save a couple of tablespoons of yogurt for the next batch. The yogurt shouldn’t be more than a month old before it’s used for a new batch, or the lacto bacilli might die. If a batch of yogurt is too thin after chilling, it’s time to buy a new container of plain, active-culture yogurt at the store for a new starter. I do this about every 3-6 months. I guess the critters just get tired.

I am never without homemade yogurt in my fridge. We’re hearing a lot about probiotics these days and the health benefits of a strong immune system that’s boosted by probiotics. Homemade yogurt is probiotic, but more than that, it’s delicious.

I eat a small bowl of homemade yogurt every night. I usually mix a spoonful of one of my low-sugar jams (raspberry, peach, apricot, strawberry, nectarine, and various other combinations) into my yogurt, but my favorite thing to mix into it is homemade lemon curd. Tart, slightly sweet, creamy, lemony goodness. It’s dessert that’s good for you.


But I also do a lot of other things with my homemade yogurt. I use it in my coleslaw dressing, in my sourdough starter, as a replacement for sour cream if I’m out, in clafoutis (a wonderful French country dessert), in dips or as a spreadable cheese, and in many other dishes. At some point, I’ll pass along those recipes, but for now, I hope this post has given you the impetus to try making something really good for you at home. And just so you know, if the yogurt fails to culture for some reason, you can still make ricotta out of the milk, so nothing is wasted.



condiment, Dairy, Fermenting, Main dishes

Fun with Dairy: Homemade Sour Cream

This is the first part of a series I’m calling “Fun with Dairy.”  Part I:  Sour Cream.  I’ve discovered how to make sour cream, and I’m so enchanted with it, I have to share it with you.  In addition, I’ve made yogurt and ricotta cheese at home for years, and while I’ve resisted blogging about it thus far because there are plenty of instructions for making these things already on the internet, I’ve come to realize that not all of them are good instructions.  Sometimes those recipes are poorly written, and sometimes, there’s just a better way to do it, and sometimes, a combination of methods works better.  So, in future posts, I’ll deal with making yogurt, the foolproof way I’ve been making it for years, and ricotta cheese, which I make for my roasted eggplant lasagna.  There will be other “Fun with Dairy” posts in the future, but first, sour cream.  And as a bonus, at the end of this post is a recipe you can make with your delicious homemade sour cream.

I love sour cream, smooth and tangy.  I like to make veggie dips with it, and chip dips, and you cannot make stroganoff (see recipe below) without it.  And surprisingly, sour cream is ridiculously easy to make.

You only need three things to make sour cream at home:  a clean jar with a lid, some heavy (whipping) cream or half and half, and some buttermilk (cultured).  Oh, and a place on the counter to let the cream culture for a day or so.  Here’s how you do it.

Measure 1 cup of heavy whipping cream (or for lighter sour cream, less fat, 1 cup of half & half) into your clean jar.  Add ¼ cup of cultured buttermilk.  Put on the lid and tighten it.  Shake vigorously to incorporate the buttermilk into the cream or half & half.  Set the jar on your kitchen counter in plain sight where you won’t forget about it.  Wait 18-24 hours.  Open lid on jar.  The cream should have thickened enough to sit up on a spoon.  Taste it.  If it isn’t sour enough, you can leave it a few more hours, no more than 36 hours altogether.  Store in fridge.

Leftover buttermilk, which typically comes in quarts, can be portioned into smaller containers and frozen You can also make buttermilk salad dressing, the original ranch, which will probably be the subject of another post.  And if you add some cultured buttermilk to regular milk, you’ll get more buttermilk.  You’ll never have to buy buttermilk again.  More about that in another post.

After cooling in the fridge, the sour cream will thicken enough to actually mound on a spoon.  The lighter version made with half & half is as thick, and actually tastes more like commercial sour cream, as that made with heavy cream, which is richer-tasting.  Either version is good to use for a dip or anything else you’d use sour cream for (as a topping on burritos, nachos, or enchiladas, for example, or cheesecake).  In the pictures below, the photo on the left is of sour cream made with heavy whipping cream (you can see that it is yellower in the jar) and the photos in middle and on right are of light sour cream made with half & half and previously frozen buttermilk.


Recently, I used my homemade sour cream in some stroganoff.  Stroganoff is typically made with beef, but I used . . . yeah, you guessed it, bear.  If you haven’t made stroganoff in a while, or if you’ve never made it, it’s time to give this old standard another look.  But don’t make the imitation stuff with canned mushroom soup, please.  I have no doubt homemade sour cream would improve the taste, but do use fresh mushrooms.  This homemade sour cream (the heavy cream version) gave the sauce a rich, tangy flavor that the Mighty Bear Hunter and I really enjoyed.

Here’s an easy recipe made with an economy cut of beef:  round steak.  You can also use stew meat, you just have to cook it a little longer to get it tender.  Can you use other red meats besides beef?  If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know the answer is yes!  You can use venison, antelope, lamb, bison, elk, and, I imagine, moose (although that’s one meat I have yet to try.)


Beef Stroganoff

1 ½ lbs. round steak or stew meat, cut against the grain into 1/8 inch slices

3 tablespoons olive oil or butter

1 ½ cups beef or roasted vegetable stock

2 tablespoons ketchup (or 2 tablespoons ground dried tomato skins)

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon salt

8 oz. fresh mushrooms, sliced (any small variety will do)

3 tablespoons flour (if you’re gluten-free like me, you can use brown rice flour)

1 cup sour cream

Heat oil or butter (or combination thereof) in 10 skillet over medium-high heat.  Saute mushrooms and onions for about 5 minutes.  Remove from pan, reserve.  Add another tablespoon of oil or butter if needed, brown meat strips, add garlic, cook for about 30 seconds.  Don’t let the garlic burn!  Add 1 cup stock, stirring to get the browned bits off the bottom of the pan, add the mushrooms and onions and their liquid, and the ketchup or dried tomato skin powder,and  heat to boiling.  Reduce heat, cover with tight-fitting lid, and simmer until meat is tender, 1-1 ½ hours.

When meat is tender, shake reserved stock with flour in a lidded jar until well-mixed, stir gradually into simmering meat mixture.  Bring to boil, cook for one minute, then stir in sour cream, heat through but do not let it boil!  Take off heat, serve over cooked, hot egg noodles (3-4 cups).  Traditionally, hot egg noodles are tossed with a tablespoon of butter and sprinkled with 1 teaspoon poppy seeds (try chia seeds for more Omega-3 fatty acids) before serving.  Makes about 6 servings.


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.


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.


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).


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.)


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


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.


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!