Monday, February 16, 2015

Can’t Wait Until Gardening Season? Here are 10 Great Resources to Get You Started!

I admit that even though it is still bitterly cold where I live, I have been dreaming of gardening again.  Maybe it’s the longer days with more sunlight.  Maybe it’s the garden supplies and the seeds that I am starting to see in stores, or my seed catalogs calling my name on my desk.  Maybe it’s the microgreens that I started growing about a week ago in front of my living room window.  Or perhaps it’s merely due to the fact that I am just getting tired of the cold and dreary weather of winter.

Whatever the reason, I am quite ready for Spring to arrive.  It will still be awhile before I can actually get things growing in my garden, probably about 2½-3 months from now (I envy you, Warm-Climate-Dwellers!), but I can start planning and preparing for the coming garden season now. 

As I was thinking about springtime and gardening, I thought that I would share with you some great resources to help you start planning for your garden too.  I advocate organic and ecological gardening methods here at Day by Day Homesteading, so the following resources have that focus.

1.  Best Tips for Starting Seeds Indoors from Mother Earth News- This is a great article to learn the basics of seed starting, and I even learned a few new tips myself from reading it.  To learn more about seed starting, you can also read my post on seed starting that I wrote last February.

2.  Healthy Soil- I cannot stress enough that healthy soil is so much more than just a place to hold your plants.   Healthy soil is an entire complex ecosystem!  If you don’t have healthy living soil, you won’t have very healthy plants.  Healthy soil is good for the plants themselves and for you when you eat those healthy plants.  Restoring Your Soil: Tips to Make Your Garden Greener from Gaiam Life gives many good tips on how to improve your soil for a healthy and more productive garden.

3.  Sheet Mulching (also known as “Lasagna Gardening”)- Sheet mulching is a great way to build healthy soil quickly using layers of different organic materials.   To see great examples of how easy it is to use this method, watch these videos.   A tip:  If you have a choice to use hay or straw as one of your layers, I recommend using straw instead of hay.  The difference between these is that hay contains seeds, which you don’t want in whatever mulch you will be growing in.

4.  No Dig Gardening- A good gardening method to dramatically reduce weeding, and increase soil fertility and productivity.

5.  Straw Bale Gardening- This gardening method can be used to grow plants just about anywhere- even on rooftops!  I personally used this innovative gardening technique to grow my very first garden, and it worked beautifully!  I highly recommend that if you would like to explore this gardening technique that you buy the book Straw Bale Gardens by author Joel Karsten to use as a reference.

6.  Herb Spiral- permaculture (video)- I really love my herb spiral!  With an herb spiral, you can grow many plants in a small space, and it allows you to take advantage of microclimates that exist within the spiral to grow a variety of plants that have different growing requirements. 

I especially enjoy growing herbs in mine, but you can certainly grow a variety of plants in an herb spiral, including lettuce and strawberries!  One of the many great things about an herb spiral is that it can be constructed in less than a day.

7.  Making a keyhole garden bed- Keyhole beds are nice because the design allows you to reach everything from either the center of your garden or from the outside, as well as reducing the amount of space that you would otherwise devote to paths.  Many folks are even creating raised versions of these garden beds so that they don't need to bend over when they work in their garden or harvest.  

In Lesotho, they are building the raised bed versions to help families grow their own food despite the  drought conditions that often occur there and to prevent soil erosion as they grow crops.  

Check out the keyhole bed that I created last year.

8.  Hugelkultur-  An interesting name, but a very cool concept for building a raised garden bed!  The concept involves burying a pile of wood logs and then growing your plants on the sides and the top of that “mound.”  The result is a raised garden bed that holds moisture extremely well, and creates a very productive growing space.

This is something that I haven’t tried yet, but I have a tree in my backyard that was trimmed last fall (with all of the logs just sitting back by my garage right now), so I am thinking that this would be a perfect way to use at least some of that wood!

9.  Small-Space Gardening-  I am a firm believer that everyone can grow something, no matter how much space you have.  Even growing microgreens, sprouts indoors or herbs in pots on your windowsill is still something that you don’t have to buy from the store and that you will know how it was grown.  And, it will actually be fresh when you eat it, unlike most of the produce in grocery stores that was harvested days ago (if it’s even that fresh).  I have a lot of interest in growing things in smaller spaces, since I don’t have the largest yard, but I am also interested in how we all can make our lives more sustainable wherever we live, including in urban areas.

10.  Permaculture- Ah permaculture, how do I love thee?  Permaculture is what helped bring me from a doom and gloom outlook to one where there is hope and empowerment to help change the world (although I still do have my moments of frustration with the status quo from time to time).  Yes, it involves gardening techniques, such as many of those that I have described above, but it is also an entire design approach for living more in harmony with nature.

Our world today is wrapped up in a lot of fear mongering, and many times, we are tempted to feel powerless to stop the horrible things that are happening.  Permaculture offers many practical solutions to help us meet many of our challenges that we face in today’s world.   To learn more, I highly encourage you to check out the permaculture link above, as well as the post that I wrote about Why Permaculture is Truly Awesome.

Are you inspired yet?  I can’t wait to start planting, can you?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Gluten-Free Sourdough Bread: My Journey Toward Finding Deliciousness (and Lessons for My Gluten-Eating Comrades)

Ah, bread!  It was my favorite food group before I had to go gluten-free.  However, for a long time, I found that in order to simplify my diet, I needed to avoid eating bread when I was in the beginning stages of my gluten-free diet and early on in my journey to regain my health.  I’m happy to say that I am now far enough along in my health journey that I can enjoy bread again, the gluten-free way.

The topic of eating grains in our world today is filled with controversy.  Many are now asking if we should all be eating a Paleo diet and avoiding all grains as well as many other starches.  Are grains inherently indigestible and harmful to our health? 

It is true that everyone has unique health and dietary needs, and I would urge you to listen to your own body (and, in many cases, health practitioners) concerning what is best for you to eat.  It may be that for some, avoiding all grains at least for a time may be extremely beneficial to help you to heal.  I do believe, however, that the story about grains may not be as simple as we are generally being told, and there may still be a way for us to enjoy grains in a healthier way.  Let your body be your guide.  If you feel horrible after eating something, by all means, you probably should avoid it (or at least for awhile).

The issue of gluten vs. gluten-free grains is an important issue for many people today, and many have resolved that a great deal of our dietary ills today have to do with the consumption of gluten-based grains.  Having been on a gluten-free diet for the last nine years or so, I have learned quite a lot about many of the negative effects of gluten, but it turns out that the issue of the inability to digest gluten is likely more complicated than the simple question of “Do you want gluten with that?”

Those Grains Today…
I am by no means an expert on the topic of grains and nutrition, but I have learned a few things about modern wheat and other grains over the last few years:

1.)  The wheat of today that is used to make a great deal of the foods in the Standard American Diet is not the same wheat of yesteryear that our ancestors once ate.  Through traditional plant breeding techniques (i.e., non-genetic modification) that have occurred over the last several decades, certain varieties of wheat were bred to be resistant to various types of diseases that historically plagued wheat (a problem exacerbated by the practice of huge swaths of mononculture wheat farming, of course). 

Efforts were also made to make wheat more “nutritious” by increasing the protein content of wheat, and this has inherently changed the wheat that most people are consuming so dramatically that it barely resembles the original varieties of wheat, such as Einkorn.  In fact, the ancient varieties of wheat such as Einkorn contain many fewer chromosomes in their DNA than the modern varieties of wheat that are present in most grain-based foods today.   

These changes in the wheat that humans are currently cultivating have made it pretty difficult for many people to digest, and in fact, it has been said that the modern wheat varieties may even have a drug-like effect on the human brain and may cause problems with our thinking and digestion (there’s that gut-brain connection that many of us keep hearing about).  For many folks like myself, these effects can even lead to autoimmune problems and other immune-related issues.  Some experts even say that modern wheat isn’t really fit for any human consumption, period.  All I know is that there sure have been a lot of changes made to the staple grain that has historically been referred to as “the staff of life.”

2.)  There is also a major issue with how we typically prepare (or rather, don’t prepare) our grains today.  Traditionally, most grains (as well as nuts and seeds) went through a process of soaking, sprouting, or fermenting (such as what occurs during the process of preparing traditional sourdough bread).  The advantage of these traditional preparation processes of grain preparation is that the indigestible, enzyme-inhibiting components of grains, known as protease inhibitors, get broken down, as well as the anti-nutrient component called phytic acid that reduces the absorption of minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc.    Our bodies have to work much harder to digest these foods when the proper preparation of grains does not occur, and for many folks, this can even trigger bad digestive issues and or immune problems (it is now known that half of our immune system is located in our digestive tract.). 

The “pre-digestion” processes of soaking, sprouting, and fermenting make grains, nuts, and seeds much more digestible and easier to assimilate the nutrition that these foods contain.  Since very few of us have ever eaten properly soaked, sprouted, or fermented grains (beer excluded), this lack of proper grain preparation likely presents a big problem for many people. 

So, the issue of consuming grains is likely not simply a matter of gluten vs. gluten-free, or even whether the grains are organic or non-GMO, but we must also consider whether the grain, bread, etc., has been properly prepared so that your body can digest it and utilize the food in the first place.  The latter issue is much more difficult to address through commercially available bread and other grain-based products, although I am starting to notice a few sprouted grain products here or there when I visit grocery stores. 

Very few of us have eaten true sourdough bread before.  I’m not talking about most of the so called breads that are labeled as “sourdough” that can be purchased in a typical grocery store.  The majority of these “sourdough” breads will actually have some bakers yeast added to them in addition to the sourdough culture.  Adding the bakers yeast speeds up the baking process, but you end up missing out on many of the critical health benefits that true sourdough bread offers.

True sourdough bread takes time.  From start to finish, the process can take a number of days to get a viable starter culture going and to allow it to become active enough to bake with.  Then, it takes a good portion of a day (or longer) for the bread dough to rise prior to baking.   To me, one of the best parts of sourdough bread, besides the delicious flavor that is imparted to the bread, is that it is created through a culture that contains both wild yeasts and bacteria in a symbiotic relationship, similar to that which is present in other lacto-fermented foods and beverages like kombucha.    

While there is debate concerning whether any of the living cultures remain in the bread after it is baked, you will still end up with a bread that is much more easily digested and nutritious, since the cultures have “pre-digested” the flour during the fermentation and rising processes.  Since the bread dough is fermented, much of the phytic acid and the protease inhibitors are dramatically reduced or eliminated. Some folks even claim that this process can break down difficult to digest proteins like gluten if the dough is given enough time to ferment.  I cannot personally verify that claim, so I choose to stick to using all gluten-free flour when I make my sourdough bread, but long-fermented sourdough bread might be an option if you are willing to explore that process.  If you are very sensitive to wheat and/or gluten, I would strongly recommend doing a lot of research on the subject before experimenting with that technique in an attempt to break down the gluten and other proteins in wheat flour.

All bread used to be made using the sourdough technique until the advent of bakers yeast in the 1800s.  Due to all of the nuances involved with the process of sourdough bread baking, bakers yeast quickly became the favored method of baking by bread makers.  It made the industrial process of baking bread speedier and more “efficient” for the bread baking business.  However, in the process of making this industrialized bread, you no longer get the pre-digestion of the grains and the anti-nutrient components never get reduced or neutralized.  This is a recipe for digestive problems of all sorts.  Not only that, but the bread produced in this industrial fashion simply does not contain the depth of flavor that you get in real sourdough bread.  That can only come through fermentation of the dough, and the longer that you can ferment it, the better.   Just don’t let your bread dough become an episode of I Love Lucy and let it take over your oven and your kitchen! 

My Gluten-Free Sourdough Bread Baking Adventure
I was determined to find a way to make my own gluten-free sourdough bread for several reasons.  Most of all, I wanted to start baking my own gluten-free bread at home.  If any of you reading this eats a gluten-free diet and routinely buys commercial gluten-free breads, then you know that not only are such breads fairly expensive, but it can be difficult to find gluten-free bread that actually tastes good.  Bread that is not just okay and utilitarian, but something that you really enjoy eating.  In my viewpoint, that is how food should be, especially if we happen to have food sensitivities.  I say, “Away with you, bland foods!”  The foods that we can have should rock our taste buds and leave even non-food-sensitive folks loving it! 

The truth is that although there are now more gluten-free bread options on the market than ever before, and they are certainly getting better and more flavorful, it can still be difficult to find a brand that you like.  Many are very bland tasting, and some even easily crumble apart.  Even when you finally find a flavorful and soft gluten-free commercial bread, it can be difficult to find gluten-free bread that doesn’t contain some sort of ingredient that you would prefer to avoid.  Some even contain GMO ingredients, which makes having food limitations even more of a challenge!

At first, I was intimidated by the idea of baking my own gluten-free yeast bread.  It sounded too difficult to do.  For a long time, the only type of bread that I made myself were quick breads that required no yeast.  Then, I tried baking some gluten-free yeast bread but I didn’t really like the results.  That bread was flat- literally flat.  It didn’t really rise much at all.  This might possibly have been due to the fact that I was using older yeast that could have been past its prime and may not have been too viable anymore.   The finished product was also kind of bland tasting.  After that mediocre attempt, I put my bread baking aspirations aside for awhile.

Then one day, I decided to investigate the possibility of baking gluten-free sourdough bread to see if I could do it successfully.  I had tried my hand a number of years ago at making sourdough bread using whole wheat flour before starting on a gluten-free diet, and I somehow ended up with something that resembled bread.  Therefore, I concluded that it might be possible to bake a gluten-free version. 

As many of you who regularly read this blog know, I like to experiment with wild fermentation.  I really enjoy making and consuming these foods for their health benefits, such as the probiotic cultures and digestive support, and I really like the flavor of these foods and beverages.  Sourdough bread has been one of my favorite cultured food projects thus far.   

The gluten-free sourdough bread that I make using this recipe is healthy, hearty, and tastes absolutely awesome when it is warm and toasted with melted grassfed butter on it.  It is now one of my favorite breakfast foods, and I actually prefer it to all of the commercial gluten-free breads that I have tried so far.  The flavor is just superior to all of the commercial breads that I have tried (my gluten-eating husband even likes it).  And, because it is produced through the process of wild fermentation, containing a veritable ecosystem of beneficial yeasts and bacteria, the storage life is much longer than breads made with bakers yeast, by many days.  

For more information on the many benefits of sourdough bread, I recommend these two articles from Cookus Interruptus and

An active gluten-free sourdough starter.  You can see the bubbles 
around the edges of the jar, indicating the viable action of the 
yeasts and bacteria in the culture.

The Process
The concept of creating a sourdough starter really isn’t that much different from other types of wild fermentation: you mix together the ingredients to create an optimal environment for your selected culture to thrive in, give it the right environment for it to ferment in (such as a warm, but not hot, place), add some time and patience, and you should end up with a viable culture.  To make sourdough starters, you basically need some good quality water (non-chlorinated/filtered is best for cultures- chemicals can kill your culture, and they aren’t really good for you either), and some flour. 

For my gluten-free comrades reading this, you will, of course, be using gluten-free varieties of flour to make your starter, with one caveat: when making your sourdough starter, avoid using the flour mixes that contain xanthan gum or guar gum already added.  It doesn’t give reliable results.  I have personally had a lot of success using straight sorghum flour for this purpose, but you could also try another gluten-free single type of flour. The recipe that I have been using gives some good tips for this.  

Then, when your starter is ready and you mix it in with the rest of your flour to make your bread dough, you can then add your pre-mixed flour blends with the typical gluten-free thickeners like xanthan gum or guar gum.   I personally have had good success using the Gluten Free Perfect Flour Blend from Namaste Foods (no product affiliations here- I just have had success using it), but feel free to experiment and see which flour blends you like.

The sorghum flour that I used to make the gluten-free sourdough starter
with, and the gluten-free flour blends that I add when I make the bread dough.

A few more tips that should make your gluten-free sourdough bread baking easier:

1.)  Your gluten-free starter will be likely be thinner and more fluid in consistency than the typical wheat-based flour that you may be used to if you have made a wheat flour based sourdough starter in the past.  This is likely due to the fact that gluten-free flours on their own without the additional thickeners simply do not contain the elasticity that gluten lends to wheat flour.    Accept it, roll with it, and carry on. 

Gluten-free baking is in a class all of its own.  Don’t let it intimidate you.  Just accept that it is a different process than gluten/wheat flour baking and move forward with your gluten-free baking adventures. 

If you are on a gluten-free diet, I want to encourage you to not feel sorry for yourself that you must eat differently than “everybody else.”  Enjoy the healthy alternative of using flours that won’t make you ill, and that you can actually make some really tasty food with.  You can do this, and it is very possible to have delicious food that contains no gluten in it.  Repeat that last sentence to yourself over and over if you must. 

Yes, eating a gluten-free diet is an adjustment, but it can still be very tasty if you are willing to learn and try new things.  Learn to love and embrace all of the tasty foods that you can eat instead of focusing on all of the foods that you can no longer eat.  There is literally an entire planet of food out there that contains no gluten.  You never know what tasty foods you might discover if you decide to step outside of the Standard American Diet food box!

2.)  The recipe that I have been using to successfully make gluten-free sourdough bread can be found here.  I will not repeat that recipe here at Day by Day Homesteading, since the author of that article does an excellent job of walking readers through this process.  However, one thing that I noticed is that I have needed to bake the bread for an hour to an hour and 20 or 30 minutes or so.  Check and monitor the internal temperature of the bread with a food thermometer to determine when it is at least 200 degrees F and the crust is browned to your liking. 

I’m not sure if the need for extra baking time is just due to the quirks of my own oven, but I recommend baking it for the amount of time given in the recipe, and then check it every 5-10 minutes or so to see if it is done to your liking.  It takes much longer than regular yeast added breads to burn this bread, so you have a lot of room to play around with.

3.  In general, I eat this bread as toast with butter on it for breakfast.  I have not tried it yet as sandwich bread, but you certainly could if you can get it to rise and bake to the texture of your liking.  Try it and see what you think.  You may find that you just like to eat it as toast as I do, but everyone is different.  Either way, it makes a very delicious bread!

4.  If you have extra starter after baking your bread, you can continue to feed it with flour and water and keep it going continually if you like, similar to the process of making continuous brew style kombucha.  This is useful if you would like to have a continuous starter to always make bread with.  However, since a sourdough starter needs continual care and needs to be fed everyday (I feed mine with equal portions of sorghum flour and filtered water, with ¼ to 1/3 cup of each), you may wish to take a break from this process from time to time.  In that case, just feed it with the flour and water, stir, and keep it in an enclosed container such as a mason jar with a lid in your refrigerator.  

It is ideal to feed your starter every few days when it is in the refrigerator, but I have left mine “alone” to fend for itself in the fridge when I have gone on vacation for a week or so, and I have been able to revive it after several days once I have taken it out of the fridge and started feeding it again daily.   Reviving your starter after a period in the refrigerator can be tricky, and you’ll have to experiment to see under which conditions your starter does best in.  A sourdough starter can potentially be a little finicky, just like a pet.

I hope that you will give sourdough bread baking a try, especially if you need to stick to eating a gluten-free diet.  It may just change your relationship with bread, forever!