Borscht is a pretty simple soup to make, and as far as I can tell from my travels in Eastern Europe, seems to have infinite variations.  At its best, it should be a simple hearty soup showcasing the beautiful color and flavor of beets

With homemade beet kvass in hand its really easy to assemble.  The kvass can either be strained to retain just the liquor or used whole retaining beet pieces.  A simple soup can be made by mixing kvass and beef or mushroom stock together in a a 1:1 ratio.

For a more elaborate soup saute onions, potatoes and carrots with a little bacon or other smoked pig product and then add stock and kvass.  Finish with salt, pepper and a healthy dose of chopped cabbage.  Serve with dill, sour cream and dark rye bread and enjoy!

An excellent link to borscht recipes and process can be found here.



Beet Kvass

One of the down sides of my travel to Estonia is that I’ve had to take a 4 month hiatus from brewing beer and baking bread (My apartment’s kitchen is tiny and lacks an oven).  But rest assured this doesn’t mean that I’m not fermenting things!

Over the past month I’ve been trying my best to embrace the vibrant food culture of Estonia and Eastern Europe, which is big on fermented foods of all sort, from beer and vodka, to sourdough, kefir, kvass and sauerkraut.  While trying to come up with a short list of dishes to try while I’m here I came across some interesting recipes for borscht that call for fermented beets.  Since I love beets, and all things fermented, this seemed right up my alley, and I decided I had to give it a try.

There are hundreds of variations on borscht, but a few things are constant.

  1. Beets… its not borscht if it isn’t red and made with ’em
  2. Broth or stock, this can be beef, mushroom, fish or vegetable, but there is usually a salty savory component
  3. A sour note, this can come from either naturally fermented beets or some other acid like lemon juice.  I’ve made it both ways and will say that the fermented soup was hands down the winner.


    Wear an apron cause these things stain!

So how do we go about fermenting vegetables like beets?  For a brewer it seems like a weird concept, but fortunately its ridiculously easy to do, and produces a wonderful sour liquid that can be drunk on its own as a refreshing beverage or used as the foundation for a knock yours socks off batch of borscht!

So let us begin!  You’ll need 3 medium sized red beets, water and food safe plastic container or a sauce pan you don’t mind sacrificing for a few days.  It will take between 2-5 days for the beets to ferment so if you want to make borscht plan accordingly.

Beets chopped and ready to go!

Beets chopped and ready to go!

  • Step 1. Peel the beets
  • Step 2. Dice the beets into cubes about 1/2″ in size
  • Step 3. Place the beets in a pan or other non-reactive food safe container
  • Step 4. Add water until the beets are covered by 1/2-1″ of water
  • Step 5. Place in room temperature area away from direct sunlight and wait and let the magic happen…

My beets took 3 days, but I didn’t make borscht until day 4.  The longer you wait the more sour the liquid will become.  Its really up to you when you think its ready, but I would suggest no more than 6 days.

Beets Day 1

Beets Day 1

Taste the liquid after 2 days taste daily until you’re satisfied, I found mine to be about as sour as lemonade.  I’ve heard that sometimes mold can develop on the surface of the liquid as it ferments but didn’t observe that myself. If this occurs, simply remove it with a clean spoon before using.

Beets Day 2!  Almost ready

Beets Day 2! Almost ready

I’m somewhat skeptical that its actually mold because of how acidic and anoxic the surface becomes during fermentation and imagine that those that report mold are actually seeing a pellicle formed by symbiotic yeast and bacteria. If in doubt throw it out, but there really is no reason to worry.

If you want to try the kvass as a drink, simply strain and chill, it will have a slight fizz to it and a wonderful sour-earthy flavor.

If using for soup retain the beets with the liquid and begin preparing your soup (recipe for borscht to follow). Terviseks!


Beets day 4, active fermentation has subsided and the kvass is ready

Rhubarb Fizz

I love Rhubarb!!!!IMG_4904

Rhubarb is one of the first harvests of the season and a sign that summer is on its way.  Since rhubarb is very seasonal and hard to find in most grocery stores I make a point of hoarding it when it is available.  I usually end up freezing gallons of it when I can or turning it into jam.  What I really like about rhubarb is its wonderful tart flavor, having a predilection for all things sour rhubarb is like manna from heaven.  It also coincidentally can make a fine carbonated beverage.

The basic process of making homemade soda is very simple and basically involves making a sweet solution and then adding yeast to consume some of the sugar and produce carbonation and a small amount of alcohol.  It is best made in small batches that can be consumed in about 2 weeks or less because over time the yeast will consume more sugar producing a more alcoholic beverage than you might otherwise want.  I strongly recommend that you bottle in plastic PET soda bottles instead of glass bottles as this allows you to judge the carbonation level and avoid exploding bottles.

This version of rhubarb fizz results in an off dry soda with a mild rhubarb flavor.  You can always increase the rhubarb or the sugar to taste.  For this recipe you will need the following equipment:

  • 6 1-Liter PET bottles with screw caps (I reuse club soda bottles)
  • Large stock pot (At least 2 gallons)
  • Smaller sauce pan (1 gallon)
  • Fine mesh strainer or cheese cloth
  • Funnel
  • Ladel

You will also need the following ingredients:

  • 3lbs of rhubarb
  • 1 1/2 cups white sugar
  • 1.5 gallons of de-clorinated water
  • Ginger bug (a culture of wild yeast and bacteria obtained from ginger root), or 1 pkg of champagne yeast
  • Juice of 1 small lemon


  1. Mix the rhubarb and 1 gallon of water in the large stock pot and heat gently until the rhubarb begins to break apart.  Do not boil.

    Rhubarb and water infusion

    Rhubarb and water infusion

  2. While the rhubarb is heating make a simple syrup by combing the remaining half gallon of water and the 1.5 cups of sugar in a small sauce pan.  Bring to a boil then let cool.
  3. Once the rhubarb has fallen apart into fine fibers turn off the heat and strain the liquid from the solids using a mesh strainer.  Retain the liquid and discard the pulp.

    Rhubarb has lost most of its structure and begun to fall apart. A little more heating and it is ready for straining

    Strained rhubarb solution

    Strained rhubarb solution

  4. Add the sugar solution to the rhubarb solution and allow to cool to 70 degrees F.
  5. Add a half cup of strained ginger bug solution or 1/4 tsp champagne yeast, stir until dissolved.
  6. Add lemon juice to taste.
  7. Using a funnel, fill the soda bottles until there is 2″ of head space (a ladle is handy).
  8. Screw the caps on tight and keep in a warm spot away from direct sunlight.
  9. Check the bottles every 12 hours or so and when they feel firm transfer to the refrigerator.
  10. Carefully open the bottles as they tend to be quite foamy, I advise doing this over the sink.
  11. Serve and enjoy!  Bottles can be re capped and refrigerated for up to about a week. You may want to let the drink de-gas for a minute or so as the yeast can sometimes give it a sulphury or yeasty aroma that some people do not prefer

Na Zadrowie!

Ginger bug

What is a ginger bug?

IMG_4905Ginger bug is a culture used in soda making that is basically analogous to the sourdough starter used in bread baking.  The “bug” is a collection of lactobacillus and wild yeast found on the skin of ginger root that ferment sugars producing acid, carbonation and small amounts of alcohol.  Ginger bug is traditionally used in making ginger beer but can also be used for a number of naturally carbonated sodas.  To my palate, ginger bug produces a better flavor than commercial yeast when used for soda making.


  • 1 wide mouth pint mason jar and band
  • cheese cloth or other fine mesh cloth


  • 3-4″ piece of ginger (organic is probably best)
  • Sugar


  1. Add 1 tbsp of sugar to 1 cup of water at room temp.  Stir and dissolve then add to the mason jar.
  2. Mince enough ginger to fill 1 tbsp and add to the jar.
  3. Cover with a cloth using the canning band or a rubber band
  4. Each day add an additional 1 tsp of minced ginger and 1 tsp of sugar.
  5. When the mixture begins to bubble (3 days to a week) it is active and can be used for soda making, use about a half cup of the strained liquid per gallon of soda.  Replenish the lost volume with water, ginger and sugar.
  6. Once active, you can reduce feeding to once every few days.  I’ve gone 4 days between feedings with no ill effects.
  7. Its a good idea to periodically add some fresh water and remove some solution so it doesn’t become to acidic or alcoholic.

How to make a sourdough starter

First off…

Why bother making sourdough?

Sourdough is the traditional way to make bread, prior to Louis Pasteur and sterile culture methods all bread and all beer was fermented using mixed bacterial and yeast cultures.  Sourdough culture is a complex mix of wild yeasts, Saccharomyces, and lactobacillus bacteria.  These microorganisms form a symbiotic community that digest flours and produce lactic acid and carbon dioxide which give sourdough its light texture and tangy flavor.   Sourdough has a number of advantages over conventional bread including: excellent artisinal texture, complex flavor and longer shelf life of finished product.  The major disadvantages of sourdough is that it takes much more time and attention than conventional bread made with bakers yeast.

Sourdough cultures can easily be ordered online and supposedly produce excellent results, but with a little effort it is possible to make a sourdough culture that is 100% unique and with care will save you from ever needing to purchase yeast.

There are many methods of starting sourdough, but the method I found to be the easiest was to simply mix flour and water and wait for the magic to happen…

Ok so its a bit more complex…

What flour?

I found that a whole grain organic flour is ideal.  I used rye flour because I really like the flavor of rye.  Rye is also good because its a little easier to mix than wheat is because its lower in gluten. 

What ratio of flour and water to use?

I started with a mix of 1/2 cup of rye flour (50 grams) to a little over 1/4 cup of warm water (50ml/50grams).  The ratio doesn’t matter for the microorganisms but it does matter for gaging the activity of the starter.  As I learned the first time I tried to make bread from my starter and ended up with a brick, its critical that your starter be active.  I mistook initial bubbling and signs of fermentation for leavening ability and ended up having to perform bread triage to get it to rise.  Using a thick starter helps gage activity because if sufficiently active it will approximately double in size every 4-10 hours.  A thinner starter may not double, no matter how active.

Feeding a new starter is also critical.  Once a starter shows visible signs of fermentation  you should feed it ideally twice per day in the same amounts (1/2 cup flour to 1/4 c water or 50grams flour to 50 grams water)  discarding approximately half of the starter so that it doesn’t exponentially multiply.  Discarded starter is great for making sourdough pancakes and can also be added to any bread recipe, just reduce the flour and liquid amounts slightly to accommodate for the additional volume from the starter.  I found a quart yogurt container loosely covered to be a nice vessel to hold mine it.  After a few days it should be regularly doubling in volume between feedings, meaning it is active enough to bake with.  For me this took about 2 weeks.

Once it is active, you may remove approximately half of it to start a loaf of bread, or keep doubling it until you have enough stater for your particular recipe.  Less starter in a recipe usually results in a longer rise time with more intense sourdough flavor, while more starter in a recipe will allow for faster rises but less flavor.  Same thing applies to temperature, warmer temps=less flavor/faster rise, while cold temps=more flavor/longer rise.

If you don’t bake that often and don’t want to keep feeding your starter so often you can refrigerate it for up to a month.  You should always feed a starter before refrigeration to make sure that the microbes have something to eat and feed it after removing it from refrigeration to make sure that it is still alive and viable.  To do this remove the starter from the fridge, discard half of the volume and then add flour and water in the appropriate proportions.  After 12 hours it should be visibly doubled in size.  If not keep discarding half and feeding it every 12 hours until it doubles.  I have found that plain old all purpose flour is really good for reviving starters and preferable to rye because it takes fewer feedings to regain vitality. Discarded starter is great for making sourdough pancakes and can also be added to any bread recipe, just reduce the flour and liquid amounts slightly to accommodate for the additional volume from the starter.

For more info on sourdough starters check out this excellent website:


Rye starter


Bubbling indicating active fermentation, but not necessarily leavening ability

Starter doubled in size

Starter doubled in size


Same starter as above. Surface has been scraped with a spoon revealing airy texture and leavening ability

Stay tuned for recipe tips on how to make tasty sourdough bread.


Beer Fests: How to do it right

Beer festivals are a wonderful opportunity to try some really special brews that aren’t part of a breweries normal line up.  After attending my first one last winter I noticed several people walking around with pretzel necklaces.  What a great idea!

Having snacks handy is nice for several reasons:

1) Eating food slows your absorption of alcohol

2) Pretzels are a great palate cleanser between beer tastings

3)Having something to munch on eliminates or reduces the need to find a food vendor and take time out of the main event.

With that said, I’ve subsequently made sure to always bring some sort of a pretzel necklace to the beer festivals I attend.  Typically I just use regular old pretzels, but for the St. Paul Beer Dabbler this past weekend I decided to get a bit more elaborate and try my hand and making some homemade soft pretzels.  And why not kick it up a notch and make them with beer?


Beer Pretzel

Beer is really easy to substitute for the liquid in any bread recipe and adds a wonderful depth of flavor.  In general, I’ve found that dark malty or roasty beers like stouts or porters work best, but I’ve also had success with brown ales and tried everything from High life to Guinness.  For this occasion I used a homemade Belgian Quad.  The combo of whole wheat, molasses and a rich beer  made for a wonderfully complex and delicious soft-pretzel.

Belgian Quad and dough

Belgian Quad and dough

The trick to great pretzels is soaking them in a strong base just before baking them at high temp.  This produces the distinctive dark brown color and unique salty and slightly bitter  flavor.  Lye solution is traditional, but NaOH is pretty potent and you really need to have protective gear to work with it.  Instead I opted for a baking soda solution which worked nicely.

The process to make pretzels is pretty easy, start with a good bread dough, I generally don’t follow recipes much for bread baking because after making a few hundred batches its like second nature, but if you need one this recipe from King Arthur Flour is a good place to start:

Once you have your dough the process is quite simple.  First roll the dough into a long cylinder about a half inch thick and maybe 18″ long.  Then form a circle with the two ends extending about 4″ each.  Twist the dough and then fold over.  (See pictures below).  Place on a floured piece of parchment paper and allow to rise 30 minutes.


Roll of dough- I find it helpful to not use too much flour when rolling it out otherwise it just slides across the surface



Twist the ends one time


Fold the dough over


Then press the ends down




Pretzels rising

While the formed pretzels are rising you can prepare the base solution.  Again lye is the traditional base of choice, but I chose baking soda because I had it on hand, and its safe to work with.  Some people mention baking the soda in the oven for an hour to produce a stronger base, but I found that regular old baking soda worked fine.

Bring 6 cups of water to a boil and add 1/4 cup of baking soda, stir until it dissolves and then allow to cool in a shallow pan; temp isn’t critical.  Begin preheating the oven to 450F and prepare baking pans lined with parchment paper to bake the pretzels on.  When the pretzels are done rising soak in the base solution for 4 minutes before transferring to the baking sheets, and topping with coarse salt (alternatively try adding some garlic powder and cayenne to spice things up).  Then bake for 12-15 minutes.



Soaking pretzels


Finished product


Author and the finished product

 After allowing to cool, I made a pretzel necklace with the beer pretzels, some hard pretzels and some individually wrapped cheese sticks using a hole punch and some heavy twine.