Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Ginger Beer: Taste Test

Whoa there, ginger!

A wee while ago, I made my first ever batch of ginger beer. Having spent the last two weeks maturing, it was now time to unearth it and subject it to the taste test.

The bottle was popped into the fridge the night before, so it was well and truly chilled. There was sediment at the bottom, so the bottle was tipped upside down to distribute it evenly through the liquid. Popping the cap, there was the strong smell of yeast. Lots of fizz too, so the cap's sealed well.

The colour looked just like a commercial brew; a good, earthy downbeat yellow colour. Still plenty of fizz after five minutes. Some floaties - just tiny pieces of ginger (I'm hoping).

And how did it taste? Fizzy. Not very sweet - in fact, rather dry and crisp. The ginger flavour was slight but it was very warming and spicy. It was a little disappointing, a six out of ten.

I have my second batch due for bottling this weekend. I've tinkered with the recipe somewhat, in an attempt to improve upon this batch; I've doubled the daily dosage ginger from one to two teaspoons to try to enhance the ginger flavour. I'm also considering increasing the sugar content that goes into the beer solution, as well as adding honey (I'm still working out how much of that to add - I'm doing this purely to add a little depth to the beer's flavour). It's been a fun little experiment and one I look forward to carrying on with. I'll add to this post when batch v1.1 is due for sampling - fingers crossed!

Interesting Tidbits from the Internets

In an attempt to de-clutter my bookmarks, and mimicking the style of Boing Boing's weekly roundup, I bring you some links to interesting food-related articles and posts I've picked up in the course of wandering the internet:
  • Build your own outdoor pizza oven Link

  • Car-baked chocolate chip cookies Link

  • Cooking with rockstars Link

  • Learn about tea Link

  • Scotch-ostrich-egg Link

  • An oldie: super-expensive marmalade Link

  • Make your own concrete kitchen benchtop Link

  • - a web community for video recipe sharing Link

  • The annual "Build a Better Burger" competition - burger recipes galore! Link

  • Do you taste what I taste? The physiology of wine tasting Link

  • 8 Foods you should eat everyday Link

  • The Simpsons: food clips Link

Friday, September 14, 2007

From the Kai Lab: Bacon!

From the top: UK & US pork cuts (pics courtesy of Wikipedia)

If pork is the king of meats, then bacon would be like Princess Diana: loved by everyone, not around for long but enjoyed to the utmost while it was (I'm not sure where Dodi Fayed fits in here - a good foreign sausage, perhaps?).

Lovely bacon takes effort to find and can be rather expensive. Store-bought bacon, while not as pricey, doesn't cook well, releasing water and foam the moment it hits the pan. As for the taste, well, there's a good reason why you don't come across many poems titled, "Ode to Bog-Standard Bacon".

Imagine my delight then, when a few weeks ago I came across this intriguing post (via Metafilter) showing how you could make your own wet cure, resulting in the best tasting bacon in existence. It seemed relatively straightforward too, so with that it was off to the butcher and the supermarket.

I bought half a pork belly which I then cut in half again at home. A pork belly makes for great streaky bacon, as you can see below.

The ingredients: with two pieces of belly to play with, I decided on using Dave's maple syrup mix on the first piece:

1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup salt
1/2 cup brown sugar

and with the other, manuka honey (3/4 cup) and salt (1/3 cup). Honey is ideally suited for use in a wet cure. It serves the dual purpose of adding flavour, as well as being hygroscopic, which allows it to absorb moisture from the meat (more on this later). Working in action with the salt, this would prove to be a very effective cure.

Combine your ingredients and then rub into the raw pork bellies.

Once your belly is coated, pop it inside a sealable bag. Lay on a flat surface inside your fridge - its home for the next seven days - and turn the bag every two days. Oh, and don't use the crappy, over-priced "zip slide" bags you can see in the picture below. The wet cure seeped out of the end where the zipper-thingy was located.

Time for a science lesson. As mentioned before, the salt and honey serve to lower the moisture content in the meat. This will hopefully prevent bacterial spoilage and maximise the effectiveness of the smoking process. Salt is a deliquescent material; that is, it absorbs moisture from a material and forms a liquid solution.

In the case of the honey, there are two principal sugars involved in achieving this end, glucose and fructose. According to Peter Brey from Airborne Honey, the amount and ratios of these two sugars varies from honey type to honey type. Fructose is hygroscopic and glucose is not. In the initial instance, the fructose would absorb moisture from the bacon up to a point of equilibrium.

In terms of imparting flavour, Peter suggests putting some thought into the honey you choose. Mild-flavoured honeys would not add any flavour other than sweetness, while medium-flavoured honeys could add a certain "something" and strong-flavoured honeys could make or break the flavour.

The amount of liquid in the bags increased markedly as the week progressed. At weeks end, they came out of the fridge, were drained and the bellies removed from their bags. Looking at them both, the pieces had shrunk considerably in size and were noticeably darker in appearance (see below), with the maple syrup-cured belly being the most changed.

At this stage, you should rinse them thoroughly, place them uncovered on a rack, and put them back in the fridge for twenty four hours. What's going to happen here is the development of the pellicle on the surface of the meat. This is a sticky, tacky layer that will perform a few key functions. Firstly, it seals the moisture remaining in the flesh; it prevents oils and fats in the flesh from rising to the surface and spoiling during smoking; and lastly, it provides a layer for the smoke to adhere to (information courtesy of Jay Harlow).

With the twenty four hours up, it's time for the hot smoking! Ordinarily, I would have used my little smoker, but I needed to be able to maintain a low heat for a longer period of time than it would have allowed. So with the beta-bacon in hand, it was off to Kerry's house to use his gas barbecue for the hot smoking process.

I planned on using different wood chips to smoke the meat; manuka chips for the manuka honey-flavoured bacon, and apple wood for the maple syrup-flavoured bacon. The apple wood isn't as strongly scented as manuka chips, ideal if I didn't want to overwhelm the flavour of the maple syrup.

Kerry lined the grill plate with foil and placed the first batch of wood shavings on top. These were formed into a mound, so as to prevent it from catching alight. The barbecue was lit, and kept at a low heat. Once the mound of chips started to smoke, the rack supporting the first pork belly was placed over the top.

Place your meat skin-side up so the smoke will rise and permeate the meat. Also, as the heat rises, the substantial layer of fat and collagen will gradually melt, basting the belly. We're trying here to achieve an internal temperature of 70 degrees celsius (150-ish fahrenheit) - use a meat thermometer and poke it in the thickest part of the belly. Put the lid back down when you're finished so the smoke can work its magic.

Voila! Looking like this, it's little wonder the ancient Spartans ate it four times a day, believing it helped them to victory in so many battles*. Now, it could be eaten as is, but we are making bacon after all. Allow to cool and then cut to the thickness your heart (medical premiums up to date, hmm?) desires. Pop into a heated pan - no oil needed, there's quite a bit of fat on the belly - and fry away.

patently untrue
And here we have the end product: thick slices of the most juicy, flavoursome bacon you will have this year.

Both pieces came out tasting wonderful. The maple syrup-flavoured bacon had a rich, sweet flavour with a pleasantly salty aftertaste. The manuka honey-flavoured bacon had a delicious woody flavour enhanced by smoking, with a distinct honeyed aftertaste. Both were smoked perfectly. This is now going to be a regular occurrence in my household - who can resist proper bacon! Let me add too, with hand over heart, that I will never buy bacon from a supermarket again. It would be interesting to try this with free range pork, or better still, wild pork - interesting flavours to be had from those two quarters.

A big "huzzah!" to the following folk: Kerry for the use of his barbecue and his smoking skills; the helpful (and hot!) Irish lady with the gorgeous accent at the PPCS meat store in Hastings; Peter Bray from Airborne Honey; and Dave Selden at BS Brewing, his home-made bacon being the inspiration for this post.

PS. For the curious and those with a bit of time on your hands: bacon placemats!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Field Trip: Foxton Fizz Factory

With my home-made ginger beer quietly seething in a cool, dark place, I got to thinking about glass-bottled soft drinks in general. Not particularly common today, they were everywhere when I was growing up. This was the mid-seventies, a time when flares flapped proudly around ankles, and men were hairier than was probably necessary. This was a time when regional soft drink manufacturers were common place all over New Zealand. I can remember being taken on a trip to the Curly Top soft drink factory in Hastings as a littlie. But over time, faced with stiff competition from the larger international brands, these little bottlers began to fold.

Foxton Fizz, first produced in 1918, is one of the few genuine traditional soft drink manufacturers to have survived those times. I remember seeing their product in dairies when I was studying at Massey during the nineties, so imagine my surprise recently when I saw some being sold at the Maranui cafe in Lyall Bay.

Last week, while I was in Palmerston North, it seemed the perfect opportunity to pop over to Foxton in the hope of an impromptu factory tour. I turned up unannounced and was met by busy co-owner, Jeremy Randerson. He very kindly showed me around his operation and talked briefly about its history and his time there.

Jeremy has owned the company with his associates for the last fifteen months. It is essentially a one-man operation but given the seasonal nature of consumption, part-timers are brought in to assist when business is brisk. The soft drinks are distributed throughout the Manawatu, and to some outlets in Taranaki and the Waikato. The product range comprises kola, creaming soda (teh best!), lime, lemonade, raspberry, cocktail, ginger beer, soda water and tonic water. The water used to make the soft drinks used to come from the plant's own bore but now it uses the town's bore supply.

The charm of Foxton Fizz lies in its use of glass bottles, harkening back to the "good old days". These are recyclable - bottles are returned to the factory to be sterilised and reused. The glass is now sourced overseas due to problems obtaining the correct size here. Glass has key features making it eminently superior to plastic: its obvious reusability; less impact on the environment compared to plastic production and disposal; and soft drinks store longer, with little loss of carbonation. In the future, Jeremy wants to implement a returns feature, the payment of a small sum for returning empty bottles for reuse. South Australia, he said, has a returns policy on a wide range of materials making recycling more attractive to the consumer, as well as guaranteeing a return and industry viability to recycling businesses.

I got to wander around the plant, taking photos, while Jeremy attended to business. The factory is a small outfit with a mix of old and new technology. Of particular interest were the many crates, printed with the names of now defunct regional soft drink manufacturers (for a look at the names, see the flickr slideshow below). After a good look around, I said goodbye and walked out with a mixed crate of goodies under my arm (at a good price, too - the mark-up cafes and dairies put on them are eye watering!).
And my personal favourite from the range?

Here's a slideshow of the factory and it's fine products:

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

The Flickr photoset can be seen here. Take a look too, at this vintage Foxton Fizz advertising material courtesy of NZ caravan and holiday site, Retro Camping.

A big thanks to Jeremy for letting me explore his fantastic plant! The Foxton Fizz factory is located at 8 Whyte Street in Foxton, phone (06) 363 8271 - now, go buy some! Better yet, ask your dairy or cafe to get some in stock.

Monday, September 10, 2007

From the Kai Lab: Ginger Beer

Ginger beer: nature's own champagne! This spicy, yet refreshing drink shares the same esteemed position in my book as properly cured bacon, Valrhona chocolate and being groped on a crowded bus. There are a gazillion recipes available, most of which are very similar. This delicious combination of ginger, lemon and sugar is easily made as you'll soon see.

You're going to need:
Bottles - plastic screw-top soft drink bottles will work very well. However, I used a dozen 330ml glass Tui stubby bottles. The size is convenient - you'll easily consume the contents and won't end up with half-consumed bottles of beer.

Bottle steriliser - obtained from your local home brew store; 250 grams cost me $6 (you're only going to use a few teaspoons of it with this batch)

Large jar and some fabric to cover it (muslin or similar - DO NOT use a jar lid or anything solid - the bug you're going to make needs to breathe)


Large pot

To make the ginger beer bug:
1.5 teaspoons of dried yeast (I got mine from the home brew store, although you can buy the same kind from your supermarket)

2 teaspoons of ground ginger

2 teaspoons of sugar

600 ml of water (try and use spring or bore water - your town supply will have chlorine in it and while the amount is minute, it may impede the development of the bug)

To make the beer:
3.5 litres of water (see above for water)

500 grams of sugar

The juice of 2 lemons

Let's make the bug: place the yeast, ginger, sugar and water together in the jar and mix. Cover with your fabric and place somewhere warm. After twenty four hours, feed the bug a teaspoon of ground ginger and a teaspoon of sugar. Do this everyday for ten days. You should see it slowly bubbling away, the gas being carbon dioxide, a product of the yeast feeding on the sugar. Note the layer of sediment below.

On the tenth day, prepare your bottles. Clean and soak in the sterilising solution. It wouldn't hurt to put your other tools, like the funnel, into the solution too. When done, thoroughly rinse with cold water.

To make the beer, place one litre of water and the sugar into a big pot; heat gently, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat, add the rest of the water and the lemon juice.

This next step is a little tricky: pour off the liquid in the jar, while trying not to disturb the sediment. Strain this liquid through some cloth into the pot. Resist the urge to assist the liquid by squeezing the cloth - you want the liquid reaonably clean.

Give the liquid in the pot a quick stir. Pour the mixture into the bottles

Once poured, cap your bottles. Incidentally, I found my bottle capper for $20 on Trademe, and it came with a big bag of caps. Don't press down too hard or the bottle neck will break (I lost one on my second attempt).

Once your bottles are all securely capped, store them somewhere cool and dark (retirement home managers tend to get a bit narky if you take them there, so try somewhere else). Keep them there for a couple of weeks and for goodness sake, don't shake them.

Wondering what to do with the bug? Divide it, place the other half into another jar and continue to feed them both as before - you'll soon have twice the beer you started with! Better still, give one of them away.

Once the two weeks is up, pull the bottles out (as many as you need) and chill thoroughly - this stops the activity of the yeast in its tracks. Before you open your bottle, tip it upside down so as to allow the layer of sediment that's formed to be evenly dispersed throughout the bottle (if you're a bit squeamish about this sort of thing (*snort*), you could decant the bottle or simply filter it through a napkin as you pour it into your glass). Now open and and enjoy! It should be pointed out that it'll be quite fizzy when it's opened and will pour out of the top unbidden - it's not called nature's champagne for nothing.

So what does it taste like? Is it like a bought one? Stay tuned as my first batch (v1.0) will be sampled this coming Sunday...

Look at these rioting students rampaging through the streets of Dunedin - if only they'd had some refreshing ginger beer instead...

Fancy a little experimentation? Add honey at the beer preparation stage, preferably something mild so it won't compete with the flavour of the ginger. Also, adding a teaspoon of liquid honey with your daily dosing of sugar and ginger makes the beer taste incredibly smooth (hat tip: Kerry). With my next batch, I might try using root ginger, to see if there's a significant difference in taste.

Addendum: found a great ginger beer at my local farmers market - "Honey Buzzz - Honey 'n' Ginger Beer" one of the great products produced by Hawkes Bay microbrewer, K.E.A. Brewing ltd (Williams St, Hastings).
Also, if you're using glass bottles, make sure they don't have a thread. The bottle capper has difficulty getting a good grip because the thread is in the way. My bottles did and that was the reason why I had breakage, not to mention some difficulty making an effective seal.