A Bacterium by Any Other Name

A Bacterium by Any Other Name

Ferment Probiotic
Helianthus annuus scientific name for Sunflower
A sunflower, or Helianthus annuus. 2 names are better than 1 when it comes to communication about the natural world.
Some Bacteria Are Scary

I was reading the wonderful Harold McGee’s story on salt-rising bread in an old Lucky Peach (a magazine which I, much like a romance novel heroine, was slow to love but now realize is meant for me), when I had a thought. Why the hell are bacteria names so unapproachable?  I have a linguistic past; I love languages and learning to pronounce new words. I enjoy googling for the goods, finding pronunciation guides, sounding things out and writing them phonetically when we’re talking about anything from literature to food (a lifetime of proud nerdery, thank you very much). But bacteria names can be so, well, intimidating for those of us who haven’t been trained in the languages of science and worse than that, they so frequently don’t evoke anything at all.

Conversations about Bacteria in Our Food

Before any panties gather themselves into bunches, let me be clear—this isn’t anti-intellectualism or anti-latinism or anti-science-ism. It is merely acceptance that the way we talk about things matters. Would our canis lupus familiaris be such a beloved part of our family if we called her that rather than pup, dog or Laika? If I made pesto from ocimum basilicum (rather than basil) would it smell as sweet? And a garden full of Helianthus annuus doesn’t evoke nearly as much as its common name, Sunflower. Even if these plants would tempt us organoleptically and my pup would be as snuggly, we may not be as prone to talk about them fondly to others, or to feel as connected to them. Our plants and pets have common names because they are things that we talk about in our day to day. We connect with them, and we’re aware of their value and meaning.

Language matters.  The way we talk about things impacts the way we think about them and vice versa, which is partially why it’s extraordinarily important that we have correct scientific terms. Official language is important. The language of science is important.  But popular language is also important as a way of creating a sense of connection. I’ve seen people wield the scientifically correct names of bacteria like weapons in groups of less knowledgeable fermenters—a way of saying, “Clearly, I know more than you do about this topic.” (BTW, those people are sometimes the ones spouting the worst, scientifically unsupported nonsense.) I’ve also seen extremely well-informed microbiologists speak to groups of eager learners who were happy and eager to  know the correct scientific names for the bacteria responsible for their fermentation activities. I’m not saying nix the science, I’m saying let’s have both.

Dog with stuffing all around it
My canis lupis familiaris. A non-abstract part of my life. I call her dog, pup, Laika and jerk (when she pulls apart toys in 3 minutes flat).
Combatting Bacteria-phobia with Common Sense Language

Perhaps the raging bacteriophobia that plagues our nation could be, in some small part, combatted by a little bit of linguistic familiarity with the microbes that play such an integral part of our lives, whether or not we’re aware of it.

This point was driven home to me last week when I saw Neil Tyson give his energetic lecture on science and culture. One thing I love about NDGT is that he clearly understands that science can be communicated in a way that is both approachable and correct. During his lecture, he gently ribbed his biologist counterparts by noting the way that they name thing versus the way physicists name things. The name The Big Bang evokes something. It tells you what happened and it opens the door to a conversation. The name Hypnum curvifolium (carpet moss) for most of us, seems like a discussion we weren’t invited to participate in.

Perhaps we can bestow complementary monikers on our body microbes to create a more inclusive environment for conversations about our symbionts and the role they play in our personal and planetary well-being.

I have a special love for leuconostoc mesenteroides, since it is often responsible for the kickoff of vegetable fermentation. Just for fun, I’m going to start calling it Leuc (“Look” with a hard ‘k’ sound at the end). Like “Look, there are bubbles in my jar so I know my sauerkraut is fermenting.”

What do you think? What would you name your favorite bacterium if you were trying to befriend it with language?

Turn Your Salty Ferments Into Seasonings

Turn Your Salty Ferments Into Seasonings

Easy fermenting Equipment Gluten-Free Paleo Probiotic Recipes using Ferments Vegan Vegetable Vegetarian

Make spice powder from kimchi or kraut

Have you ever made a batch of kimchi or kraut that just came out too salty? Maybe you changed measuring spoons, switched brands of salt or followed a new recipe written by someone who just doesn’t share your taste preferences. That always bums me out. There are ways to avoid it (always use the same salt and weigh rather than measure, never switch measuring spoons, etc), but sometimes it just happens. It’s not the end of the world, either. Most overly salted things can be served in small portions with larger portions of unsalted food (rice/grains, salad, eggs, etc) and you’ll never notice. You can also mix in some fresh (unsalted) veggies and let it ferment for another few days to a week. The texture will be uneven, but the saltiness will be diminished.

My new favorite thing to do with over-salted ferments is to turn them into seasoning. Lots of people dehydrate their fermented vegetables and you can get a nice crispy snack out of them that way. There are a couple things I don’t love about dehydrated ferments, though. First, and this may just be a personal thing, I would rather just eat my ferments hydrated most of the time, so it’s not really worth the effort for me.  Secondly, the vegetables are incredibly salty once you’ve sucked out the balancing and bulking water element. That’s actually what gave me this idea. If they’re already going to be salty, why not use them as you would salt?

Turn ferments into salty snacks
Space the fermented vegetables evenly on the dehydrator trays and try to keep like sized pieces on the same tray when possible.

I definitely do this with ferments that have a perfect salt level. It’s still fun and definitely still tasty. It also works well for ferments that have gone a bit soft in the back of the fridge. My very favorite version of this is the one pictured; the one I make with pesto-chi. But there are no bad choices here. Krauts of all kinds, kimchis and pickles of all varieties lend themselves to this process.

If you dehydrate below 110°F (43.3° C), you’ll keep the probiotic bacteria alive (although they won’t be active until the have access to some liquid again). If not, you’ll just be making something super tasty to sprinkle over pasta and soup or use as a meat rub.

Click through for the recipe

Tartine Bread Giveaway

Tartine Bread Giveaway

Basics Easy fermenting Frugal Fermentation Giveaway Vegan Vegetarian
Colorful loaf of Tartine bread recipe
Imperfection makes this sourdough loaf tastier, in my (biased) opinion.

For two whole weeks, we’ve talked about one thing: Tartine Bread (Gluten-Free and Paleo friends, no worries! We haven’t become a full gluten blog! We’re still a full fermentation blog!). Still, believe it or not, we’ve only scratched the surface of the goodness that is Tartine Bread. I recommend that you buy the book, or at least, that you grab a copy of it from your local library. It’s worth it. The photos are excellent, the instructions and details are fascinating and the fermentation information is rock solid.

Crumb on a sourdough loaf
Fermentation makes dough bubbles!

One of you, though, can win it here! Just use the Rafflecopter below to win a copy. Continental US only. Contest ends Monday, March 9th at 11:59pm EST.

Good luck and please let me know in the comments how you’re doing on each step of this process. The links to every step are at the bottom of this post.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Win a copy of Tartine Bread and learn sourdough

Sourdough Starter School, Step 6: Bake It! (Tartine)

Sourdough Starter School, Step 6: Bake It! (Tartine)

Basics Easy fermenting Frugal Fermentation Vegetable Vegetarian

Tartine Sourdough Bread Step 6

Baking Sourdough Bread

Equipment needed for the actual baking (finally) of the Tartine Bread Country Bread:

  • Cast iron combo cooker or dutch oven
  • Leftover rice flour/wheat flour mix
  • Clean kitchen shears or a razor
  • A place to cool your bread

You’ve let your bread rise at a slowed rate in the fridge for 10ish (and up to 12) hours, so that means you’re ready to score and bake it. Pull one of the dough balls out of the fridge and lightly sprinkle it with with some of the remaining rice flour mixture from yesterday. Place your cast iron cooker (both pieces) in the oven and heat it to 500°F. I have a thermometer in my oven, so I know that when my oven says pre-heating is over, it’s lying. Let the oven (and the cast iron cooker) heat for 20 minutes before you move on to the next step, even if your oven tells you it’s ready earlier.

Scoring sourdough bread
Try cutting with a blade and a pair of scissors to see what works for you
Scoring bread with kitchen shears or scissors
Scoring the bread with kitchen shears does an imperfect job, but it’s easier than dealing with a razor blade.

Scoring dough for people who are terrible at scoring dough

Using very thick oven mitts, pull the shallow piece (skillet) only of the cast iron cooker out of the oven and place it on your stove. Invert the dough into the skillet. Now is the time to score your loaf. I am also terrible at this. A lame (a scoring tool that literally translates to “blade”) or straight razor is the tool of choice for experienced bakers, but I always end up butchering the surface with a straight razor, so I usually use kitchen shears to snip 4 shallow cuts, one on each “side” of the circular loaf. As you can see, I don’t do either method particularly well, but man, are these breads beautiful. You have two loaves to play with, so you can try a different way with each. Scoring is really important because it lets the bread “vent.” If you don’t score, your loaf won’t bake up beautifully and you may get a loaf that cracks a big ol’ crater somewhere else. Work quickly so that you can get that hot pan and bread back in the oven ASAP.

Steamed but not crusty sourdough bread
After 20 minutes, remove the “lid” and put your half-baked loaf back in the oven to brown and crisp


Sourdough Starter School, Step 5: Divide, Shape and Final Rise (Tartine)

Sourdough Starter School, Step 5: Divide, Shape and Final Rise (Tartine)

Basics Easy fermenting Ferment Frugal Fermentation Vegan Vegetarian

Let me give it to you straight. I SUCK at shaping bread loaves. Chad Robertson provides excellent instructions and photos in Tartine Bread, but handy-ness skipped a generation I’m just bad at it. You know what, though? It’s fine. These loaves are so good, you can be the worst shaper ever (oh, I also suck at scoring, and that also doesn’t matter) and still end up with something that you want to take home to mom and dad. Still, you gotta try, right? So here’s what we’re doing, now that you dough has gone through bulk fermentation and it’s looking smooth as silk, we’re going to divide, shape and let it rise.


Divide sourdough bread without a bench scraper
One cut, right down the middle.

Gently pull your dough out onto a large, clean, smooth, unfloured surface (I use a big cutting board). It should pull away from the sides and bottom of the container easily and in 1 large piece. If you have a bench scraper, you can use it to divide your dough blob into two, roughly even halves. If you don’t (I don’t, and it’s fine), use a large, chef’s knife. Just press straight down in one, decisive stroke until the blade hits the board, and hold the knife there with one hand while pulling the other half away, supporting it from the bottom.  Pull it apart until you have two, separate dough blobs. Lightly sprinkle the top of the blobs with flour mixture.

First shaping of sourdough bread
My version of the first shaping. Not a ton of surface tension, but it still gives glorious bread.

Gather one blob up, working quickly and not pulling at it or pushing at, just gently scooping, flip it, so that the floured side is now down on the cutting board. Repeat with the other blob, moving it to the second work area as you flip. Your goal right now is to create the right shape while not mixing any more flour into the dough, so don’t go kneading or working the dough. Take your misshapen dough piece by the cut edge, and tuck that under. You don’t want any of the newly added flour getting in to the dough, if you can avoid it.


1st Shaping: Roberston has great instructions for folding your dough ball under around the edges, using a bench scraper and your hands, to create surface tension and a nice, smooth ball of dough. I just use my hands, and I kind of pull left with my left hand while tucking with my right hand as the dough ball rotates. It gets you to a pretty smooth ball. Once you’ve got a ball, set it aside, sprinkle it with flour mixture and cover it with a clean kitchen towel. Repeat with the other dough ball. Let it rest for a half hour.

Let the dough rest and flatten before sprinkling it with flour and beginning to shape it.
The dough could be a little bit flatter than it is here before beginning final shaping. Note the edges are rounded. That’s a good thing.

Final shaping: when you come back, your dough will have flattened out a bit. The edges should still be rounded. If they’re flat or if the dough is way spread out and shapeless, that may mean you didn’t turn enough during bulk fermentation. In any case, the fix is to reshape it how you just did (pulling with left hand, tucking with right) and letting it sit for another 30 to 40 minutes before moving on.

Step by step shaping of a naturally leavened boule
North, east, west, south and a flip!

If it looks right, you’re ready for the final shape. Gather the dough ball in your hands and quickly flip it, so that the flour side is down on your surface. (I like to gather it by getting as much in my hands as possible without actually pulling on it. Then, when I know I’ve got a good handle, I pull it all up at once, so the part touching/slightly sticking to the cutting board and then turn it and lightly place the floured side down.)

For this whole folding process, you want to be gentle. Don’t push too hard because you want to keep the CO2 that was created during fermentation trapped in the dough. Without it, you’ll have some flat loaves.

Final shaping of sourdough step 5

Picture it as a compass, with South being near your belly. Working quickly, pull the south side towards you, then fold it back up over as if you’re folding a piece of paper into thirds. Hold it there with a finger, then grab the right side of the dough (east on your compass) and fold that over, just as you did with the previous fold. Then do the same with the left side (west) and finally, take the edge furthest from you (north) and fold it almost all the way down to the edge closest to you. Lightly press it in, the flip the whole thing over and cup your hands around the sides of the dough, gently tucking it under to form a ball.

sourdough Ready to head into the bowl for final rise.
Ready to head into the bowl for final rise.

Grab 2 bowls, each big enough to fit a dough ball with a few inches of headspace at the top. Lay a clean kitchen towel tautly across the top and dust it with flour mixture. Brush off any excess and press it into the bowl. Repeat with the other bowl. Invert each loaf into a bowl, smooth side down. Pull the protruding sides of the towel up and gently place them on top of the loaves. Put the bowls in the fridge. Allow it to chill there for 10 to 12 hours. The final rise will happen while you go about your business.

See you tomorrow for the final step: Baking!

Want to start from the starter?

Sourdough Starter School, Step 4: Making the Dough and Bulk Fermentation

Sourdough Starter School, Step 4: Making the Dough and Bulk Fermentation

Basics Easy fermenting Frugal Fermentation Vegan Vegetarian

Sourdough recipes make delicious, perfect bread

You made your leaven? You put it in a glass of water and it floated for a while? Cool! We’re ready to go then. First up in Tartine Bread is a step that’s likely much easier than what you’ve done in the past. No stand mixer. No elbow grease, just some light hand-mixing to start.

Dissolving the leaven into warm water for sourdough bread
Dissolving the leaven into warm water for sourdough bread

Tartine Country Bread Dough

Makes 2 loaves. Very closely adapted from Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread

  • 200 g leaven
  • 700 ml, plus 50 grams filtered water, heated to 80°F (26.7°C)*
  • 900 g all-purpose flour
  • 100 g whole wheat flour
  • 20 g salt

Using your (very clean) hands, dissolve the leaven into the first 700 grams of water in a large bowl. Add both flours, and mix with your hands until all the flour is absorbed. This will be a very shaggy, dryish dough and you might think you’ve messed it up because the flour doesn’t seem to be quite fully in there. Just do the best you possibly can, and work out any lumps. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula and scrape any excess dough off of your hands and back into the mix.

Set the dough aside at room temp for 25 to 40 minutes. (Don’t skip this!) Add the salt and the remaining 50 g of 80°F water and squeeze the dough through your fingers to incorporate the salt. Take advantage of the addition of water, to mix in any little dry bits that didn’t quite get in there cohesively the first time. It’s totally fine for little pieces to break off while you’re squeezing. Just mix them back in and they reintegrate themselves.

After squeezing this way for a couple minutes, the salt should be incorporated, and the dough should pull together pretty easily.

A finished dough will have  a smooth surface, bubbles throughout (check the sides and bottom of your container). It should feel silky to the touch and be light in textured, especially compared to the density it had when you first put it in the bowl.
A finished dough will have a smooth surface, bubbles throughout (check the sides and bottom of your container). It should feel silky to the touch and be light in texture, especially compared to the thick, dense dough that you first put it in the bowl.

Bulk Fermentation

Pull the dough together into a cohesive mass and move it into a thick glass bowl or thick plastic container.  Cover the container with a cloth. The goal here is to insulate it fairly well so it maintains temperature. This is the bulk rise, and if you’re doing it the way I do, it will take about 12 hours. For the first 2 to 3 hours, you’ll want to “turn” the bread every 30 to 45 minutes. Do this by sticking a water-dampened hand along the side of the container down to the bottom. Gently grab the dough at the bottom of the container and pull it up and over the top of the surface dough. Do this so that in each “turn” you’ve flipped the dough from top to bottom. If you’re around and awake for the remaining 9 hours of fermentation, you can repeat this process ever hour or hour and a half. I usually do this part overnight, or while I’m at work, so I just do a few turns in the first few hours, as described, and then do another (EXTREMELY GENTLE) turn or two in the last 2 t0 3 hours before the next step.

During bulk fermentation, you’ll see bubbles develop around the sides of the container, and the dough itself will expand, smooth out, and in Robertson’s perfect words, become more “billowy.” During your last turn, the dough should pull away from the sides of the container with ease. It should be lighter and silkier. Don’t press it too much or you’ll push out the gas that will later make your bread rise beautifully. Just gently turn the dough onto itself without compressing it and you’ll be alright.

At hour 10 or 12, you notice all of the above descriptors in your dough, and you’ll know it’s time to divide and shape. Those, my friends, are tricks for tomorrow!

After your final turn, you should see bubbles throughout the dough before moving on to the next step
After your final turn, you should see bubbles throughout the dough before moving on to the next step