Stalking the wild yeast
Well happy new year dear readers! If you’ve been following, I’m sure you’ve noticed a marked slowing in posts. As you may have imagined, this comes with a change in life direction. It’s not a drastic change—I haven’t decided to manufacture pharmaceuticals or start a Newt-supporting website or anything—but it’s a change all the same. We needed something that’s ours, that we can control, grow, and be sure of. Autumn 2011 was a hard time, but we may have found it. I’m not going to jinx myself here, but I hope to have some good news in not too long.
In the meantime, let me talk about a topic I’ve been thinking about throughout the autumn and winter:
Capturing yeast, and moldy rice
Exciting, yes? Actually, capturing yeast is not that hard. There are a myriad of instructions for doing this for various purposes, some of which include a deep forest, a moldy rice ball, and stirring a solution for a month. Not to disparage Gil Carandang—he’s a genius! But any breadmaker will tell you that all it takes is an open window. Put a doughball on your windowsill for a while, cover and keep warm and it will rise—this is natural yeast in action.
Of course there are more focused ways of cultivating particular strains and flavors: mixing fruit with sugar, setting rice or rice wash water out, or basically anything that creates a sugary solution with access to open air, then allow the strains to multiply.
Now, moldy rice. I always threw everything out that had even a spot of mold on it. All molds were the same—they ended up in the garbage can. If you start to play with yeasts, though, you start to realize that molds are not all created equal. The white ones are just a natural outgrowth, and should be stirred back in. Yellow is questionable, not good. Anything orange, green, blue, violet, brown, or black and your whole batch is bad.
There is also a completely different strain of molds called koji, which you have already eaten if you’ve ever had soy, miso, or sake, so don’t be grossed out. Koji convert starches in carb-heavy or protein-heavy foods into sugars, which can then be digested by yeasts into acohol if you’re making sake.
So basically a lot of Japanese food involves leaving food out for yeasts, or making it moldy.
What you get is a complete reversal of how you’ve thought about the putrefaction process. Put a bunch of whole fruit in a bucket and let them sit there for ten days and what do you get? I bet you’re thinking you get a moldy stinking mess. But if you start stirring every couple of days after ten days, you get delicious vinegar in a few months.
How about if you put some raw and a little cooked rice in de-chlorinated water? It starts to smell after a couple days. Most people would throw it out. But let your nose do the work—it tells you that this funny-tasting stuff isn’t dangerous. What you’re making is a rice/yeast blend that forms the base for traditional homemade sake, and it smells different each day as different organisms multiply. If you look, you can see bubbles of CO2 in the picture–this is a little less than a week in.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making sake! Making anything over 1% alcohol is illegal in Japan. In fact, I got turned on to homemade sake, called doburoku, by a friend who served some at his house. I promptly called the police and had my friend incarcerated. So of course I’m not doing this myself! I’m just experimenting with yeasts.
If one were to attempt the illegal, though, they would add some koji-innoculated rice to the rice/yeast mixture and put it in a bottle with an airlock. I definitely do not have a bottle bubbling in the hallway right now.
Something else you can do with koji-innoculated rice is make shio-koji. Shio-koji is just 200 grams of koji rice, 60 grams of salt, and enough dechlorinated water to cover the mess. Let it sit for ten days (seven in the summer), and you have an extremely bioactive fermentation starter and seasoning. I’m just getting started on that one, so I hope to have some recipes in a few weeks…
- Japanese store that makes and sells koji, great explanations in English: http://kojiya.jp/koji/index.html
- An Intro to Sake (esquire.com)
- Does Red Yeast Rice Work? (ask.metafilter.com)