The mushroom lab is complete! Mike has some micelium started. When it is mature, he will be hanging up his shingle on Etsy, selling mycelium syringes and substrate to fellow mycologists. We are still waiting on some much-needed supplies, but like everything else, there are “supply chain issues.” Soon, though.
This lab is the culmination of over a decade of dreaming and planning. So many times we were discouraged, thinking it would never happen. The false starts, the lack of funds; it has truly been an uphill struggle.
Then one day a couple months ago a random thought completely unrelated to mushrooms led to a flurry of manifestations. Brilliant ideas started coming. Outside-of-the-box thinking helped us to work around the obstacles in our path, and suddenly it all just fell into place. And here we are, soon-to-be entrepreneurs!
It’s the end of January, and we are chomping at the bit to get this business started. Fortunately, the lab isn’t just about mushrooms. Mike and I have had so much fun playing with different ferments while waiting to launch. So far we have experimented with:
Lacto Fermented baby carrots
Lacto Fermented garlic cloves
We have had many successes, and a few spectacular failures. Most heartbreaking was the loss of our kefir grains. Our grains were multiplying and we were able to make a gallon of kefir at a time. Some close-to-spoiling milk tainted the grains, and they took on that “off” flavor, making subsequent batches equally nasty. We just received some new grains on Wednesday and are starting over again. Keeping a family of 7 in kefir is quite a challenge.
Tepache is a Mexican fermented pineapple drink, and it is awesome and healthy! The best part is only the skin and core of the pineapple is used, along with some spices and a bit of brown sugar, so it is nearly free to make. Mike has designed an awesome system for brewing, which makes the entire process super easy. I am considering a YouTube video on tepache making.
We had a lot of fun making wine. We lost a batch of white wine because we were keeping it too warm. Being beginners, we started off making wine using just frozen juice from the grocery store. I am so looking forward to using fresh fruit from the homestead: Blackberries, mulberries, and elderberries are on the roster this summer. Mike racked off the first batch into two one-gallon jugs. We bottled one jug and left the other one for an extra week/10 days. The difference in flavor and clarity was amazing. It’s a simple dry grape table wine, nothing fancy. But quite tasty. We are looking forward to honing our skills and making some awesome wine. As soon as we get a quart of local honey, we will be venturing into making mead, which is wine made with honey.
Lacto Fermented Baby Carrots and Garlic
Next to lacto fermented sauerkraut, the baby carrots are a family favorite. Lacto fermented veggies are packed with healthy probiotics for gut health. The fermenting process not only keeps the produce from losing any nutrients (as opposed to cooking or canning), it actually makes the nutrients more bioavailable. I have not fermented garlic all by itself before. Can’t wait to start using it to boost our immunities.
Update: I just checked the garlic. The entire lab was filled with its pungent aroma. Absolutely perfect. The baby carrots are crunchy, slightly sour, and delicious. The new kefir? Not so much. It was spoiled again. I think we may have an issue with fluctuating temps in the lab. But as Ma Ingalls said: “There is no great loss without some small gain.” Still, though, out of everything we’ve been doing the kefir is everyone’s favorite. So there are seven very disappointed people here on the Homestead.
Many people are familiar with beet kvass, a fermented drink made from beets. Another traditional kvass is made from rye bread. Quite honestly, we didn’t care for it very much. At some point we are going to try again with some homemade rye bread and see if we can’t improve it the next time.
Rye and Sourdough Bread
I am especially excited about being able to make bread again. This rye bread recipe was my uncle’s from when he was a baker in the 60s-70s. I felt so honored to be able to bring this family recipe back to life, especially as my lovely Uncle Louis had recently passed.
The sourdough bread was a bit more challenging. I don’t think it will be a part of my regular repertoire, as I simply don’t have the time right now to nurture the starter on a daily basis. If I had a full kitchen and was baking bread several times a week, I would definitely incorporate the sourdough, but it’s just too much right now with my job. I can go several days without having a chance to tend to it. Sourdough bread is a fairly complicated endeavor, especially when working in a makeshift kitchen. My two loaves were flat and ugly, but quite delicious.
February should be quite a busy month. Mike will soon be getting the last few things he needs to launch his Etsy shop. I have done some basic setup on Etsy for him, but we still have a lot of work to do on it before it goes live. We will also be revamping his Facebook page. And then there’s Instagram, which I truly don’t understand. TikTok, Spotify, YouTube……it will definitely be a learning process.
My granddaughter received a neat little Vlogging camera for Christmas. I am hoping to borrow it and start making some simple “how to” videos for YouTube. Again, a big learning curve for me. I am at the age where I simply hand my electronic devices over to my kids to set them up for me.
We will be working on some more wine soon. There is a scoby in the fridge just waiting for us to start some kombucha. And my winter greenhouse has been terribly neglected. I will be venturing in there today after a two-week absence; I should have a ton of kale, greens, radishes, and beets to pick.
It is nearly time to start my seeds for spring. I have a mini greenhouse within the big greenhouse with shelving, heat pads, and lights. It’s hard to believe that spring is just around the corner already.
There are just so many different projects here in the pipeline for us. Lack of time seems to be our biggest obstacle right now. There is so much we want to do, and yet there are still only 24 hours in a day. I look forward to the day I am able to retire and spend my days having fun, doing all the things I am passionate about.
If you have any questions or comments about any of our projects, I would love to chat with you about them. Please contact me and I will be happy to discuss what we are doing here on the Homestead!
My oldest son Mike is a fungiphile. Ten years ago, he built a very rudimentary mushroom-growing setup and was immediately hooked on all things mycologic. When we moved to Kentucky, a landlord dangled a carrot of grants available for starting a new mushroom business (using his alleged political clout to expedite the process), which never materialized. The letdown was devastating, but Mike’s dream never died.
Fast-forward to 2021: We are now settled on our Homestead. Money is not nearly as tight as it was back then. And most importantly, over the last 10 years we have been able to snipe nearly everything to outfit a full laboratory for pennies on the dollar. Hospital auctions, garage sales, and pawn shops have yielded incredible finds that we would have never been able to afford otherwise. Guy at the pawn shop had no idea what he had: We got a fully functional autoclave for $40.00! These types of things happened with amazing regularity. To us, it was a confirmation that at the right time, this dream would be manifested.
Mike is now literally weeks to months away from actually launching his business, and I couldn’t be more excited for him. He (with help from my brilliant grandkids–yay unschooling!) has done every bit of work himself: Wiring and plumbing, insulation, drywall and painting, installing cabinets and appliances, and even designing a built-in base for his hospital-grade flow hood. The flow hood needed a new filter ($400.00 and several months’ delivery!!!), but that was the biggest expense as far as equipment went. We still need to install flooring and trim, but that will be a larger expense, and we are waiting until we find a really good deal on some laminate flooring.
Starting off, his plans are to produce sterilized substrate and mycelium syringes for home mushroom growers. At first, he is going to concentrate on the basic edible mushrooms: Oyster, Bella, Shitake, etc. As production ramps up, he will start branching out into some more exotic gourmet and medicinal mushrooms. There are even ornamental mushrooms that glow in the dark!
We have some nebulous plans for simple growing kits for homeschoolers. Honestly, there are so many possible avenues here, we’re not sure where we’re going to end up with this!
Oak logs will be inoculated with Shitake mycelium, and in two years we will begin harvesting fresh Shitakes! Excess product will be dehydrated and powdered with spice blends for gourmet cooking.
The laboratory will not just be for mushrooms, however. Tiny house (camper!) living has put a big crimp in many of my hobbies: Lacto fermenting veggies and making kefir, kombucha, and yogurt. Once we are up and running, I hope to produce some YouTube how-to videos on these processes.
We will now have room for our distiller, which will allow us to make our own essential oils and hydrosols. Looking forward to foraged honeysuckle and mint oil and the ability to produce our own salves, lotions, etc.
Wine and beer brewing are also on the drawing board. I’m really excited to make some wine with the blackberries and mulberries on the property next year. When we lived in Kentucky, Justin made a batch of blackberry wine. It was so incredible, Jenny and I could not keep out of it, and we ended up drinking most of his wine in a very short period of time. It’s about time I replaced it! And being a craft beer snob, I look forward to Justin experimenting with brewing some low-alcohol probiotic beers.
Our old well house was falling apart, and the new laboratory was placed directly behind it. Mike has fashioned a new sturdy well house, which will be painted and roofed to match. This spring Justin and I will work on landscaping around the lab, and there are future plans for a mud room.
I’m just so proud of Mike for working so hard to get things put together. I am also amazed that the less we fretted about it and tried to force things to happen, the easier the process became. By the time we got to the point where we actually had a building, the entirety of the lab was sitting in our huge garage, just waiting for a place to call home. A couple crazy call weeks at work provided the money needed to purchase the insulation, drywall, and paint. A stranger unexpectedly gifted us the exact kind of stove Mike wanted. The entire kitchen (upper and lower cabinets, countertop, pantry, and sink) was found locally for $100.00. Office desk and chair were 10.00. Filing cabinets were 10.00. We found a pristine leather loveseat at Habitat for Humanity for $50.00. Even the miniblinds were sniped at an auction for just a couple of dollars.
Shortly, it will be time to purchase the consumables for production. Costs for that should be fairly reasonable, so we should be able to get what he needs pretty quickly. In the meantime, I will be working on setting up an Etsy account for him and beefing up his social media presence.
All in all, it’s been a wild ride watching Mike’s dream fall into place. We have lugged a lot of equipment to many different houses, knowing that eventually it would all come together, but not knowing when. Can’t wait to see what’s next…
Lacto fermentation is the unbelievably healthy and delicious answer to the age-old gardener’s question: What am I going to do with all these cucumbers?
If you are an experienced fermenter and would simply like to view the recipe, I have posted it here. If you want to keep reading, the recipe is also at the end of this article.
There are two reasons I don’t can pickles right now: First, I don’t have the facilities to do it easily. Second, my canned pickles are awful. Always have been. Mushy and too salty. My late mother-in-law’s bread and butter pickle recipe is the only exception. Our kitchen is temporary, and not conducive to prepping large amounts of food, so I can’t make bread and butter pickles in the traditional way.
Lacto Fermentation: A healthy alternative
I discovered lacto fermentation several years ago, and was immediately intrigued. If you’ve ever had fresh homemade sauerkraut or kimchi, you have enjoyed the results of lacto fermentation. My first timid foray into lacto fermentation was sauerkraut, and it was a smashing success.
Lactobacillus is our friend
People have been safely preserving food using lacto fermentation for centuries. While leaving freshly picked produce at room temperature for several days seems counterintuitive to safe storage practices, the science is straightforward.
During the lacto fermentation process, sugars naturally found in fruits and vegetables are consumed by Lactobacillus and converted into lactic acid. Lactic acid kills the dangerous bacteria and preserves the food. The fermentation process actually boosts the nutrients and enzymes 2-3x over raw, fresh vegetables! A healthy gut flora is crucial to overall good health. Lacto fermented foods are packed full of healthy probiotics, and are so much tastier than taking a probiotic pill!
Making lacto fermented foods is super easy and fun. There are recipes all over the internet, and several different ways to achieve great results. Some use salt, some use whey (the watery stuff sitting on top of yogurt, cottage cheese, etc.), and some use a combination of both. I have had my best success with a 2% salt brine.
Overall, the process is simple, and can be as expensive or cheap as you desire. I will use bread and butter pickles as my example, but the method is pretty much the same for all produce. I have made pickles, sauerkraut (incredible!!), salsa (the best!), baby carrots with dill and garlic, turnips, and blackberries.
Freshly picked, organic produce will deliver the best nutrition, but I have done this with regular store-bought food and it has turned out fine. Just use the freshest produce available to you.
First, you will want to make a brine for your pickles. You can use a scale to measure exact weights and figure the salt to water ratio, but I’ll make it easy for you. For most lacto fermented foods, you will want a 2% brine, which means 2% of the weight of the solution will be salt. Here’s the shortcut: Boil some water, preferably filtered, but not chlorinated water (Chlorine will kill the Lactobacillus and allow the bad bacteria to flourish). Measure out 3 cups of boiled water into a large glass bowl. Add 2.5 teaspoons of pink Himalayan salt, stir well until the salt dissolves, and cool. You now have a 2% brine. Set it aside.
Thoroughly wash and prepare your food. I peel the cucumbers, then use a mandoline (also spelled mandolin) to slice them as thinly as I can. I find the thinner the better for this particular recipe, but everyone has different tastes. Experiment! I also thinly slice some onions and mix them in with the cukes. If you don’t have a mandoline, a sharp knife and a cutting board will get the job done. The mandoline just makes the job much faster and your cucumber chips will be nice and uniform. A decent mandoline is around $30.00. The following is a non-negotiable: If you get a mandoline, you MUST get the safety cutting gloves. Sliced off a fingertip once. You do NOT want to experience this.
Take a clean wide-mouth Mason jar and add half your spices and garlic and an oak, grape, or horseradish leaf (You can tear a large leaf into smaller pieces and use just a portion of it). These are options, but they help keep the pickles crisp. Loosely fill the Mason jar to about 2″ away from the top, then tamp down gently with a wooden or silicone utensil. Do not use metal. Your cucumbers should fill approximately half the jar. Add the second half of your spices, garlic, and another leaf, the rest of the cucumbers and onions, and tamp down again, adding cucumbers and gently but firmly compressing until you are about 2″ away from the lip.
Now you will want to pour some of the brine solution into your prepared Mason jar. Add the brine until you are an inch away from the lip of the jar. Because lacto fermentation works anaerobically (in an oxygen-free environment), it is important to release the air bubbles that are trapped. Try to get a fair amount of bubbles to release, but don’t stress over this step. As the pickles ferment on your counter, they will naturally bubble and release the rest of the air. The best way to work the air bubbles out is is to use a long wooden or silicone utensil to gently push the pickles around and compress them. You just need to be able to get down into the cucumbers so the brine can thoroughly replace the air bubbles and the spices can mingle with the brine. You will find that as you do this, the now-golden brine level will naturally lower. When this happens, simply add more brine until you get to about a 1.5″ headspace and stir again to release more bubbles.
Important Safety Tip
One of the most important things in lacto fermentation is to keep the food UNDER the brine; remember, the process will only be successful in an oxygen-free environment. Exposing the produce to air can cause mold to form at the top, producing strings of mold growing down into your ferment. But not to worry. Unlike traditional canning, where botulism can be undetectable, if you have mold growing in your ferment, YOU WILL KNOW IT!
To keep your food under the brine, you have several options. I like to add another oak, grape, or horseradish leaf after all the produce has been packed in. I also find a cabbage leaf works very well, as it can be cut to fit snugly down in the neck of the jar and the large outer leaves are pretty rigid.
Next, the whole thing needs to be weighed down and vented. There are many products available to do this. I have heavy glass weights that fit down into the neck of the jar and hold everything very nicely. I use simple silicone airlock valves. These items are relatively inexpensive (around $30.00 to make six quart jar setups), but if you’re just trying out the process and don’t want to spend anything, you can find a nice, smooth rock that fits the neck, scrub the living heck out of it, and (gently, please!) drop it in. Just remember that doing it this way can cause some frustrating issues. It is easier for the food to work its way up to the top and possibly contaminate your jar. The pricier items definitely offer better control of the outcome and offer an improved ease of process. Once I have better kitchen/storage options, I will probably invest in a quality setup. But right now, my moderately-priced supplies are serving me quite well. To buy everything you need to make six quart-sized ferments at a time is around $50.00. If you have the jars and lids it’s only around $30.00. There are also complete kits, ranging from $30.00 or so up to well over $100.00.
The Waiting is the Hardest Part
It is almost time to commence fermentation! Check your brine one more time, and either add or remove brine until you get to approximately 1″ of headspace.
Because the fermentation process produces carbon dioxide, a tight-fitting lid would be an explosive, dangerous mess. The lid must not only release the pressure from the CO2 inside the jar, it must also prevent outside air from entering and contaminating your ferment. My inexpensive silicone airlock valve lids perform this task well. Going really cheap? In the beginning, I just used a couple layers of plastic wrap, screwed on with a wide-mouth lid, and manually released the pressure as the plastic wrap started to bulge outward by removing the ring and readjusting the plastic wrap. Not ideal, a bit messy at times, but workable.
Now you will put the jar in a darkened corner on your counter, out of direct sunlight. If you need to, loosely wrap a kitchen towel around the sides of the jar. It is a good idea to place a tray of some sort underneath, as the fermentation process can sometimes cause the brine to overflow a bit.
As the jar sits on the counter for a day or two, you will start to notice bubbles forming. I like to just swirl the upright jar around a bit once or twice a day to release the bubbles. If you see that your airlock valves are starting to bulge a little, simply release the gas. I also like to take the lid off once a day to make sure everything is still under the brine. If a couple of pieces slip through and are floating on the surface, simply remove them. As long as you don’t see any thin, wispy mold, you are fine.
Depending on room temperature, the fermentation process usually takes anywhere from 3-7 days. On day 3, you will want to start tasting! Lacto fermented foods have a tangy flavor, with a light refreshing fizziness to them. As the jar sits on the counter, the tanginess and fizziness will become stronger. The ideal level of both is entirely up to you and your taste buds.
Once you have decided that your pickles are “done,” remove the airlock valve lid, take out the weight, and discard the top leaf. At this time, you will put the pickles in the refrigerator. I find that sometimes the pickles continue to emit a little CO2 the first day or so in the fridge, so I like to keep the airlock valve lids on for a day. Then I replace them with regular wide-mouth lids and rings.
As your pickles age in the refrigerator, you will find that the flavors meld and become richer. Your month-old pickles will be even more delicious than your freshly-made ones–if they last that long. I ate a whole pint jar myself over the course of about two weeks while recovering from COVID!
While lacto fermented foods don’t last as long as traditionally canned foods, they do last a lot longer than fresh produce sitting in your fridge. They also have the benefit of increasing the bioavailability of the nutrients of the food, much of which can be lost during traditional canning or cooking. Shelf life is around 4-18 months, with six months being the average.
The Recipe: Ingredients
2-4 pickling cucumbers, washed, peeled, and thinly sliced (1/8″-1/4″)
1 medium onion, sliced very thin
1/2 to 1 bulb of garlic, peeled and lightly crushed–we fight over the garlic; it’s delicious! I always put in at least a full bulb.
3 cups of 2% brine (2.5 tsp pink Himalayan salt dissolved in 3 cups of boiled, cooled filtered/non-chlorinated water)
2 tsp mustard seeds, divided
2″ piece of fresh turmeric root, divided (Our local stores don’t have this; I substituted 1 tsp powdered turmeric, divided, with no problems)
A couple grape, oak, or horseradish leaves (optional, but enhances crispiness)
The Recipe: Assembly
Sprinkle half the spices and garlic into the bottom of a clean quart Mason jar. Add a leaf.
Pack the Mason jar loosely to 2″ from the lip with the cucumber/onion mix. Use a non-metallic utensil to gently tamp the produce down.
Add the second half of your spices and garlic, and another leaf.
Continue adding cucumbers/onions till the jar is full, then tamp down again. Add cucumbers until the jar is nearly full, then fill the jar to within 1″ of the lip with your brine.
Use the utensil to gently loosen the air bubbles trapped in the jar and compress the vegetables. Add brine to maintain a headspace of around 1.5″
Use another leaf to cover all the vegetables and loosely tuck it into the neck of the jar. Place the glass weight and gently press down until it is submerged. Add brine if necessary.
Wipe rim with a clean, damp cloth, place airlock lid and ring and set in a darkened corner of your kitchen, on a small tray. Loosely wrap in a kitchen towel if you don’t have a dark corner.
Gently swirl and check vegetables daily. You will notice bubbles rising in the jar. Release pressure as needed and make sure all vegetables remain submerged. Remove any pieces that float to the surface.
On day three, it is time to start tasting! As the mixture sits on the counter, it will become more fizzy and tangy. Depending on room temperature, the entire process takes between 3-7 days. I usually like to leave my jars out for 4-5 days.
Once the pickles are to your liking, remove the glass weight and replace the airlock with a regular Mason jar lid and place in the fridge. If you are able to stay out of them, they get better as they age.
Go Forth And Experiment!
The nice thing about lacto fermentation is as long as you have a 2% brine, you can mix and match your veggies and spices to your heart’s content. Want to add ginger and its amazing immune-boosting/anti-inflammatory punch? Go for it. Allergic to garlic? Leave it out. The possible combinations of produce and spices are only limited by your imagination. Enjoy!