26 October 2010

In which I cook with fungi and bacteria (and live to tell the tale)

When my sister was very young, she was informed (probably by a helpful older sibling) that the yeast in Mom's wonderful homemade bread was a living organism. A fungus, to be exact.

Talk about mind-blowing. Kind of like the moment you realize that adults still feel pain or that your parents sin. She was wary of eating bread for days afterwards.

Then once she'd recovered from the fungus shock, another helpful older sibling informed her that yogurt was populated by bacteria. Poor girl. Who knew that food was so . . . alive?

Anyway, here are two great ways to use freaky little organisms in your kitchen. I have been very pleased with the results.

Delicious Burger Buns
(a slight variation on this KAF recipe)

3/4 cup lukewarm water
2 tablespoons melted butter or olive oil
1 large egg
1 3/4 cups unbleached white flour
1 3/4 cups whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons raw sugar or white sugar
1 tablespoon instant (rapid-rise) yeast
1 1/4 teaspoons salt

1) Combine all ingredients in the bowl of your mixer, or in a large bowl if you are doing it by hand. Knead together to form a soft, smooth dough, about 5 minutes. You may need a bit more flour or water depending on how humid it is in your kitchen.
2) Cover the dough and let it rise for 60 to 90 minutes, until doubled. Deflate it gently and divide into 8 pieces, shaping each into a round bun and flattening to desired diameter; I make mine about 4 inches across. Place on a lightly greased baking sheet and let rise, covered, for 1 hour or until rounded and slightly puffy.
3) Preheat the oven to 375. (At this point, I like to brush some beaten egg white on top of the risen buns and sprinkle them with sesame seeds, but that is of course optional.) Either way, bake for 13 to 15 minutes, until golden.
4) Let cool on a wire rack and use for hamburgers, sloppy joes, or whatever you like. You could also shape them into "logs" rather than "rounds" to use for sausage or meatball sandwiches.

Homemade Yogurt
(with help from here, here, here, here, my dad, and good old trial-and-error)

2 quarts whole milk
1/4 to 1/3 cup yogurt with live and active cultures*
2 tablespoons dry powdered milk**

Special equipment: a trustworthy thermometer, several clean towels, and a pot big enough to hold all that milk-- and depending on your chosen method, either an empty oven or a heating pad

1) Heat milk to above 185 degrees, so that it is very hot and bubbling. You can do this in a big pot on the stove if you stir it frequently to keep it from burning at the bottom. I do it in my crockpot because I would be sure to burn it on the stove; if I turn it on high for two hours the milk is hot enough at the end. This step kills any "bad" bacteria that may be lurking in your milk.
2) Turn off the stove or crockpot, and let milk cool to between 100 and 115 degrees. For me, this takes about two more hours. You do not want the milk above 115 or the yogurt cultures will die, and you don't want it below 100 or they will clam up and go to sleep again.
3) Dump your starter and powdered milk into a large glass liquid measuring cup. Once the heated milk has cooled to the right temperature, skim off and discard the skin that has formed on top. (Don't freak out. It looks strange, but that is just what happens to scalded milk.) Ladle out a cup or two of the warm milk into the measuring cup, and whisk it with the starter. Pour it back into the pot and whisk well.
4) Now comes incubation, that your yogurt bacteria may be fruitful and multiply. I take out my crockpot insert and put on the lid, then wrap it up in several towels and put it into a slightly warmed oven. The oven should not be on anymore, just retaining the heat. Then I turn on the oven light and stick in some jars of very hot water to keep the yogurt company. Another way to incubate is to wrap the covered pot in towels and put it on a heating pad, set to the very lowest setting. I haven't tried that but have heard that it works. Or you can do what my dad does: incubate it in a cooler, surrounded with towels and with the heating pad on top. Whatever you do, the idea is to keep it toasty for at least 7 hours, up to 12 hours depending on how tangy you like it. I find that 7-8 hours is perfect for us, as far as texture and taste go.
5) After the incubation period is over, unwrap your pot of yogurt. Whisk it up again to insure a smooth texture. Ladle it into jars and chill; this step will thicken it even more. Voila, yogurt!

If your yogurt does not thicken the first time, don't worry. You can still put it in smoothies and bake with it! It should still taste fine. I am happy to help troubleshoot. :)

Speaking of kitchen organisms, I still need to get on that Alaskan sourdough starter. Simply haven't had time yet . . . it is patiently hanging out in the freezer until I can wake it up. Soon I hope!

*The very first time, I used organic whole milk yogurt from Stonyfield Farm. It has a variety of good strong cultures. It was pricey, but ever since then I simply use yogurt from the last homemade batch. And my homemade yogurt only costs 70 cents a quart, so it was completely worthwhile to get the cultures off to a good start.
**It helps to thicken the yogurt. Try it without, if you want, and see what happens.

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