Beer-brined

Added on by Josh Evans.

posted by Josh Evans

We've been brining all sorts of things for months, experimenting with different concentrations of salt, lengths of pickling, temperature and pressure. It turns out lactic fermentation is hugely versatile, working with all sorts of substrates and under various conditions. Then we started making 'brine' with liquids other than just water, and entered a whole new world of fermentation process and complexity of flavour.

One of our first trials: Cavalo nero kale in beer brine. We rolled the leaves, packed them tightly with a plate and weight, and poured over a brine of Herslev Bryghus Organic Stout and 2% salt.

At first the mixture bubbled gently as we expected. But after not too long we knew we had a new type of beast on our hands. The brine formed an impressive mycoderma – a type of mould (literally 'fungus skin') that often forms on fermenting wines and vinegars. I wonder if it formed so readily here because of the extra yeast in the beer. We removed it, but not before capturing its crinkled texture and bubbles of carbon dioxide effusing from below.

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A strange, alien landscape.

Luckily, when we skimmed off the mould and lifted out our weight and plate, we had beautiful, unspoiled beer-brined kale tops to try.

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The flavour is phenomenal – it fills the mouth like a good ripe cheese, with that savoury lacticness we know and love in kimchi. But the beer adds a whole new angle to the pickle: deep, barely sweet, and somehow overwhelmingly umami. Perhaps the yeast is autolysing or is being broken down by other enzymes from the bacteria, adding free amino acids to the mix. Kale is a great vehicle for the process, its mustardy cruciferous  notes enlivening as it takes on tang of the lactic acid and the richness of the beer.

The texture is supple yet crunchy, like a good kraut. One of its English names, dinosaur kale, makes even more sense now, the scale-like pattern of the leaves glistening in the brine.

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Reverse engineering meju

Added on by Ben Reade.
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by Ben Reade

Meju is a traditional Korean fermented soy bean cake which has been dried for around 6 weeks while molds (mostly Aspergillus sp.) and bacteria (commonly Bacillus sp.) break the macromolecular structure down. The resulting brick of fermented beans can then be added to salt-water brine (sometimes along with chili and wood charcoal) and left to ferment in ceramic crocks over long periods of time – the youngest I have tasted is 2 months and the oldest, seven years. Salt rich fermentations of protein (like this one) are excellent for producing umami taste (a passion of NFL). After the allotted fermentation period, the meju and brine will have turned into umami tasting doenjang and ganjang respectively. The removed block of doenjang will be mashed up and used as something similar to Japanese miso leaving the ganjang brine - which might be termed ‘soy sauce’.

So in late October, Nordic Food Lab had the pleasure to Turin for Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre, which together make one truly enormous event full of a larger diversity of foods than I have ever seen anywhere else – a neophile’s heaven. At the event I had the privilege to meet a Korean Buddhist Priestess (that kind of thing just happens there). This lady spoke about the importance of her spiritual philosophy in making traditional monastery foods and particularly about the importance of fermentation. When I saw what she had on her table I knew I absolutely HAD to get my hands on it – meju. I managed to persuade the priestess to part with the mysterious looking block, and she gave me some instructions on how best to deal with it, although a certain amount of the information was certainly lost in translation.

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When I asked the Priestess if she had inoculated the meju she assured me that she hadn’t, which made me intensely curious as to what microorganisms were growing on it. Upon closer inspection of the meju I could see how biodiverse the whole thing was, I can see at least four or five different molds growing (see above).  In order that I can get the most of the meju I have split it in parts, 1 half to be fermented in brine, another to use to inoculate a further batch of meju and various crumbs and interesting sections of the brick have been placed on petri dishes so I can breed up some of the species living on the bean-cake in order to have them analysed (some crumbs have been collected and kept as they are, also for further analysis).

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To make petri dishes for a growth of mold, a standard mix of dextrose (20g/1L), agar (15g/1L) and potato starch (4g/1L) is sterilized in a pressure cooker. It is then poured into sterile petri dishes which are cooled until they coagulate and then a small portion of the meju can be added to a few different dishes.  It is important that the lid of the petri dish is kept on the dish at all times, and when the meju was put in, this was done with as little exposure to the outside world as possible (i.e. don’t sneeze on it!). The tool used to take parts of the meju, was dipped into pure alcohol and then set alight before touching the pieces to be sampled. The lids of the dishes should be kept on the dishes at all times and as soon as the sample was put into the dish, it is labeled, dated and wrapped up with cling film.

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So, back to the two halves of the bean loaf, one of which is to be fermented into doenjang and ganjang, the other of which will be used a starter culture for more meju. Now to the 1100g block of meju: I was instructed by the Priestess to add 1.5 L of water and 500g sea salt with chili peppers and leave it to ferment for 2 months. As I have chopped it in half, I will be adjusting the recipe appropriately.

550g   Meju

250g   Sea salt

750g   Water

2          Chilis

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With the other half I wanted to use it to inoculate a new batch of Meju. I soaked 3 kg of organic white soybeans over night, and then boiled them slowly until they yielded easily to finger pressure. At this point the beans were drained and allowed to cool – they now weighed around 7 kg. Following this I mashed the beans with my hands until a paste was formed. I added into this the second half of the meju which I had turned into a coarse powder. This was then kneaded into four bricks of which will be dried on a cool shelf for the next week at which point they will be bound in straw and hung in a breezy place to cure over the following forty days. Then I will repeat this whole song and dance, just on a larger scale.

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