Brewing With Egil: To Leaven or Not To Leaven?

By now, most of you should have at least a vague understanding of the brewing process I’ve speculatively identified in the Viking age. Of course, most of that work has been book research tied together with a handful of demonstrative experiments.

My next “phase” is to begin drilling down and deeply analyzing each step of the process. Is that the right grain? What’s the angle on that bucket supposed to be? Should I try to get a custom lava flow produced so that I can correctly mimic the mineral composition of the basalt quernstone finds prevalent in the Viking era?

Will this stuff ever be good?

These questions will all be answered in due time.

To recap my process:

1) Biscuit: A “biscuit” consisting of a combination possibly including grains (primarily barley and oats), legumes, oil seeds (flax and false flax), local herbs, and salt is produced. The ingredients are mixed together in some proportion (possibly according to individual household taste), steeped in water for a time, dried over a kiln or fire, ground into flour, turned into a biscuit, and baked until dry.

2) Food/Medicine: Biscuits are mixed with hot water, or heated with water, until a liquid results. That liquid, if unfermented, can serve as a quick food item (think chicken stock or broth); when fermented (by being poured into a specialized bucket dedicated to the task), the resultant liquid may be used as a medicine.

3) Booze: The leftovers from medicine production are “grut” or “gruit,” and will consist of brewing dregs – spent grain, settled yeast, and herbs. If a yeast raft is floating on top of the medicine, that could be scooped off and used to start an alcoholic drink. It is also possible that sweet liquor could be dumped into the medicine bucket on top of the dregs of a previous batch. In either case, exudates from the medicinal beverage are used to start alcohols – using any combination of honey, fruit, and grain sugars.

Today, I’m going to attack a portion of #1: the biscuits. Since I recently ran out of my biscuit supply, I figured this would be a good time to experiment with a couple of items in the production technique!

It's cool, nature. I don't really need any more bacon.

It’s cool, nature. I don’t really need any more bacon.

So this was originally going to be an experiment in more “proper” grain drying techniques. I was going to construct a pseudo malting kiln in line with the specifications of the era, and fuel it with the proper items – typically local hardwoods, plant detritus, and dung.

Perhaps it’s for the best that my plans were snowed out – I’m not sure if my tastebuds are prepared to handle the delicate cornucopia of flavor that can only be provided by a good shit-smoked malt.

Another time.

Fortunately, I have other questions to answer. As you will remember, I’ve made a biscuit product before. Trouble is, I’ve been working from whole grain in the husk – and I have no real way to de-husk the grain. Consequently, I’ve been grinding husk along with the grain whenever I produce flour – and the husks radically change the consistency and flavor of the biscuit.

Viking-era querns would very likely be much better about separating grain from husk. I’ve been using a food processor to make flour, and the blades shred the husk material. A basalt quern is more analogous to my modern malt mill – it “squeezes” the grains out of the husks and then continues to grind them away. The husks should be left far more intact than they would be with a food processor, and consequently you’ll get a much smoother dough. This is corroborated by Viking-era bread finds, which very rarely show very minimal contamination with husks. This implies some kind of fairly adequate bolting/winnowing process that separates grain and husk quite adequately.

To deal with this, I’m trying out a different grain: gluten-free steel-cut oats. This also has the advantage of being safe for my fiancee to consume, should she desire so. Ideally, I’d find gluten-free sproutable oats – they would actually undergo a fairly vigorous malting during the soaking. Those are hard to find, though, and I have the steel-cut version available to me – so that’s what I’m using until I can find a suitable replacement.

I’ve also been curious about prospective biscuit preparation and drying methods. Archaeological evidence has been interpreted to indicate unleavened biscuit products – but the root texts I’ve considered describe a sourdough processing method. Perhaps it’s possible that the biscuit finds are actually sour-leavened – after all, sourdoughs are much more dense than pure yeast doughs, so they may appear to look unleavened in archaeological finds.

Then there’s the matter of metal contamination. Evidence shows that many of these biscuit breads exhibit small holes contaminated with iron. The current interpretation is that the biscuits were baked, and then strung or carried on some sort of iron wire hanger. Seems to me, though, that you could make your dough, put it in disks on some wire, string the wire across a cooking fire, and have the biscuits dry while you do other things. Serves to explain the iron contamination, and seems to fit a little better into the idea of a home processing system – it makes use of already-active cooking or hearth fires that we know were present in the home.

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The first step is to mix and soak the ingredients. Here, I’m going with a roughly equal proportion of grains and “other stuff.”

By volume, I’ve got a mix of 3 parts steel-cut oats, 2 parts flax seeds, and 1 part imported Icelandic herbs (well, it was 1/2 part, but they were dried – so I figured that after soaking, it’d be closer to 1 part).

This is sort of a callback to the Talmudic instructions: equal parts grains and safflower. In this case, my “equal part” of non-grain is a combination of oil seeds and herbs – both are found in Viking-era “breads.”

To steep the stuff, I’ve chosen to use saltwater. I don’t yet have a solid grasp of Viking-era salt production techniques (but keep an eye out for my “Cooking With Njall” series, debuting soon!), and my current understanding is that salt was somewhat harder to get in Iceland than in other places. Seawater, however, would be plentiful – and since the grains have to be soaked in water, it kind of makes sense to me that they may just used seawater. The Atlantic is roughly 3.5% salt, so I mixed up a brine in that concentration (35 g of salt per liter), and added enough of it to the mix to cover the grains.

As you can see above, I started with ~1/2 L of dry ingredients, and after two days of soaking, it nearly doubled in volume! I’m not sure how long they’d steep the grains, but something like “until all the water is absorbed or the grains stop soaking up more” seems like a reasonable metric. Easy visual indicator. That’s what I went with.

After that, the grains are dried and ground into flour.

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This is where the fuel experiment would have happened, but as it New Yorked all over my yard, I was relegated to my very non-Viking electric oven. A temperature of 250 F seemed reasonable, and I kept the door cracked to keep constant airflow. The idea was to attempt to emulate something of the convection system of a kiln. In the future, I’m going to build a small-scale replica of an appropriate kiln or oven, in order to properly dry this grain.

One thing to note is that we don’t tend to find grain kilns in the Scandinavian countries themselves. Most sizable kilns seem to be concentrated in northern Scotland; this implies to me a transition towards a more centralized quasi-industrial production system later in the Viking era (around the mid-10th century). Earlier, it’s plausible that small-scale grain processing was done using the same facilities that were available in the home. Ultimately, if you’ve got a heat source, you can dry grain somehow. It’s conceivable that Viking-era cooking fires and/or sunken ovens could pull double duty as grain drying devices.

Once the grains were dried, I pulverized them in my coffee mill. Terribly Viking, I know. Quern stones from the era appear to be made of dense sandstone (called “gritstone” today) or lava rock – particularly basalt. The majority of finds of rotary hand querns are basalt, actually. Soon as I have a source of basalt, there will be a hand quern.

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At this point, I decide to run another little experiment: leavened or unleavened biscuits? I prepared two batches of dough.

The first was 1/2 c flour and 1/3 cup of water with a bit of yogurt whey and bread yeast. This was mixed thoroughly, covered, and left at room temperature for 24 hours.

The second was prepared the next day, right before baking: 1/2 c flour, 1/3 c water. Knead into a dough.

Both had the consistency of wet clay, though the sour-leavened dough felt somewhat lighter and spongier than the unleavened dough. Each log of dough was shaped into 7 biscuits, each approximately 5 cm in diameter and 0.5 cm thick, in accordance with the majority proportion of Viking-era “bread” finds.

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I wanted to see if there was any difference in the resilience of the two doughs when baked on wires. If the biscuits were actually baked directly on some kind of metallic wire, they’d need to be resilient enough to stay put during baking.

Archaeological finds suggest iron wire, but I didn’t have any locally available. The Norse did have copper, and I could find untreated uncoated copper wire – so that’s what I went with for now. I strung the two different batches of biscuit along copper wires, attached them to the oven, and allowed them to dry (again at 250 F).

This drying method would seem to fit with the home processing scale likely in place earlier in the era. You’d probably be working up small-ish batches of biscuit, and it might not necessitate taking a trip out to a communal bread oven or otherwise taking up a lot of cooking space. String them on some wires over an already in-use fire, though, and you can make very efficient use of space and heat.

In the first picture, the unleavened biscuits are at the front, and the sour-leavened biscuits are at the back. In the second picture, sour-leavened biscuits are on the left, and unleavened are on the right.

As you can see, the sour-leavened biscuits did not hold up to being baked directly on a wire – 4 out of 7 fell off during baking. However, the unleavened biscuits held up like champs – every single biscuit remained on the wire during the entire process. This seems to mesh pretty well with the archaeological finds – unleavened breads exhibiting small holes contaminated with iron.

You can see in the third picture that the “bread” has a coarse, mealy texture. The biscuit is resilient, but yields to being bitten. There was a very slight taste difference between the leavened and unleavened biscuits, but nothing really worth noting. They were mostly identical apart from the differences in resilience.

So what happens if I mash the stuff?

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It’s surprisingly not bad! One biscuit cooked in 1 cup of hot water yields a rich broth-like beverage. Two biscuits per cup makes a porridge-like substance. Seems to be a versatile and easy-to-use food package. Need broth? Throw a biscuit in a bowl and heat it with water. Want something thicker? Another biscuit.

The broth itself had a toasty aroma with a hint of spice, and a hint of rich sweetness. It reminded me very vaguely of liquid gingerbread. The flavor was quite pleasant – warm, with a good thick mouthfeel, hints of nutty and toasty flavors, and a slight background of some kind of unidentifiable spice. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Ensure – and really, that makes sense with my “nutritional beverage base” take on things.

I’ve got plenty of biscuits leftover – more than enough to try fermenting the stuff and testing it out.

While small, these experiments serve as a proof-of-concept for some small, technical parts of the process – the biscuit base could indeed be made unleavened from a mixture of grains, oil seeds, and herbs, and be successfully baked after being strung on metallic wire.

This has also confirmed for me that, most likely, the dough was not leavened prior to being baked. Of course, it’s also possible that a more thorough leavening could change things – but why go through all that extra effort when not leavening just works?

Of course, there’s a lot of equipment to change up. A proper kiln, a lava quern, soapstone bowls for heating – but the principle seems to be viable. From here, the liquid could be fermented, and the exudate used for alcohol production.

Next time, I’m going to work on drilling down some more fermentation specifics. For now, though, keep your feet warm and your cups full!

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3 comments on “Brewing With Egil: To Leaven or Not To Leaven?

  1. […] “ealu,” revived from a previous batch using 2 small grain/flax “crackers” (remember those?) and 3 cups of water; the stuff was fermented overnight, and then some of the dregs were used to […]

  2. […] small that I really think about a starter biscuit more than I do an actual source of grain sugar. Remember how I’ve been hypothesizing about Viking-era “breads” really being used a…? This may be the sort of thing I’m looking at here. And remember how I’ve talked about […]

  3. […] You can malt your own grain using sprouting barley or whole oats; barley is easier to find. Soak the barley in water for a couple of days (changing the water a couple of times) until it’s fat, then heap it up and turn it periodically until it starts to sprout. Drying the grain can be achieved in a smoker or on a grill using wood and peat (and dung if you’re adventurous). Grinding grain can be accomplished with a food processor – or if you’re feeling adventurous, a concrete rotary quern modeled on historical example. This will produce a coarse flour which can be made into unleavened biscuits. […]

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