I’m bracing myself for my first fail (out of two food fermentations so far) – but I feel surprisingly fine with it, keeping in mind that I’m trying to be more forgiving of not-perfect results and to learn from my mistakes. Let’s go back to the beginning. Since I picked up The Art of Fermentation, I’ve been flabbergasted by the idea that one can make miso at home, with minimal effort and just three ingredients. First element of making miso – soybeans, right? Wrong, apparently! It seems that miso can be made with basically any bean. I thought it would be fun to experiment with one of the beautiful, heirloom varieties that are occasionally available at my local market from Rancho Gordo. This week, there was one last bag of Yellow Eye beans on the shelf – so these lovely beans it would be. Next up – the mold. I started reading about koji, a strain of the fungus Aspergillus oryzae, because I was interested in making saki. Here is Sandor Katz’s description of growing koji:
“Before I started growing koji, I would never have believed it possible to fall in love with a mold.”
Descriptions of its aroma range from sweet to slightly cheesy to floral. From what I’ve gathered, it is usually grown on a grain (generally rice) that has been inoculated with the mold. Growing it yourself is possible with a starter, and desirable if you are making anything that requires large quantities. But, it also requires holding the rice and blossoming mold at 90 F for multiple days, which can be done with an oven and a pilot light but seemed like a lot of variables for my first time out of the gate. I thought it might be a good idea to start my journey into fermenting with mold with a culture grown by experts so I can see how it is supposed to look, taste, and act. Luckily, the lovely people at GEM Cultures, in Washington State ship koji mold, dried on beautifully separated and dehydrated grains of rice, ready to use. The final element of making miso – salt. I decided to start with a shorter fermenting sweet miso, which uses less salt and more koji than the longer fermenting kinds and requires a fermentation time of approximately 1 month (instead of 6-12 months or longer for saltier miso). Sandor Katz recommends using 6% salt in a sweet miso fermentation, based on the combined weight of the dried beans and koji. Off I go! Apologies that all measurements are by weight, I thought it was safer in my first go round to be as precise as possible to see where I might go wrong. I suppose if I were more professional, I would have then measured all of these into cups and tablespoons. Alas – next time! Ingredients:
- 214 g Yellow Eye beans
- 214 g dried brown rice koji
- 25 g kosher salt
The night before I planned to make my miso, I soaked the beans in enough water to cover by one inch. This went into the refrigerator until I was ready to cook, about 14 hours later. I boiled the beans until they were soft enough to press to mush between my fingers (I tested a couple of beans to try and make sure), about an hour and 15 minutes. I noticed a few firmer beans in the next step, so I might boil for longer next time. I drained the beans in a colander set over a bowl, saving the cooking water. Next, I used my immersion blender to puree the beans to a relatively smooth consistency. I tested the temperature of the mash several times, stirring in between, until the mash was at about 120 F (Sandor Katz notes that the temperature must be below 140 F and in any event cool enough to comfortably mix with your fingers). Then, I mixed in the koji. The aroma of the mixture was delightful – savory, funky, complex. Finally, once the soaking water had cooled to 118 F (again, below 140 F), I mixed 1 cup with the salt in a separate bowl to create a brine. This was my mistake! When I do this again, I will start with a much smaller amount of water, maybe 1/4 cup, and add more to the mash as needed. As it was, when I mixed the brine with the mash, I got a mix with a consistency that seemed much too thin. Oh well – no turning back now. After giving everything a good mix, I packed my bean gruel into my snazzy new half-gallon fermenting jar with airlock (pictured at the top), sprinkled approximately one teaspoon of extra salt on top to prevent mold formation, covered with a square of wax paper and weighted it down with my new ceramic weights (jar and weights from Cultures for Health). Confession, I was going to save this jar for a kimchi ferment because I didn’t want to tie it up for a whole month before I can make another batch. but, after the first batch I think a half-gallon is far too small! So, even though I don’t think this ferment requires an airlock, I don’t mind committing this jar to my miso experiment. PS – we have a big bottle of star san (sanitizer) that we use for beer brewing, but I didn’t want to mix up a batch with a lot of water just to fill this teeny airlock, so I thought I’d use vodka (a trick I’ve seen homebrewers use instead of sanitizer). Except, that old bottle of vodka that preceded me in this apartment and we never drink in the freezer has mysteriously disappeared, so I used gin. Let’s see what happens. I’ll check back in on this batch about once a week until it looks like it’s done (or an irretrievable disaster – whichever happens first).