One of my favorite bloggers, Lindsay from Love and Olive Oil, has recently begun pushing herself out of her culinary comfort zone by taking on one particularly intimidating dish each month. Of course, I also take on challenging recipes, but she actually sticks with them until she gets them right.
Most of these dishes are intimidating because they really are very difficult. They’re the kind of recipes where you end up swearing and throwing plates, then sending your spouse to the store for another two dozen eggs and five more pounds of sugar. And since misery loves company, she’s invited readers to try each challenge along with her.
The March challenge was croissants, April was macarons. Don’t bother checking the archives; I didn’t attempt either one.
But May’s challenge is ginger ale, and that caught my attention. Regular readers are aware of my love of ginger, interest in all things homebrewing, and dislike of things that are too sweet. Obviously, homemade ginger ale is right up my alley.
I still probably should have followed the recipe.
How to make ginger ale
For those following along at home, I used Alton Brown’s Ginger Ale recipe, though I can’t say whether it’s better than any other. I chose it only because it called for baker’s yeast, which I had on hand, instead of requiring that I go out and purchase champagne yeast or catch and culture wild yeasts.
I made a number of changes, but they were mostly bad ideas, and you should not attempt to replicate them.
Fresh ginger is a must. You can get special ginger graters, or run it through your juicer, or use a standard grater and then squeeze out the pulp. I, being lazy, just chopped it coarsely, tossed it in the blender with a cup or two of water, and pulverized it. After I let it steep for an hour, I poured it through a strainer to get out the fibers. Much easier.
I did not bother to peel my ginger, which may be why my ginger ale has a slightly pinkish cast. I shudder to think of other possible explanations.
The recipe also called for 6 ounces of sugar. I cut that in half. It shouldn’t affect the carbonation — that’s still more than the yeast can go through in the 48 hours we’re letting it ferment. If I decide the finished product needs more sweetness, it’s easy enough to add a splash of simple syrup. Heck, I can make a couple of herb-infused simple syrups and pretend that I did the whole thing on purpose to make things more sophisticated.
The recipe called for 2 T of lemon juice. I used a bit more, and then tossed some zest in for good measure. 18 hours later, I discovered that the apple juice bottle I’d used had completely inflated and was likely to explode before pressure got high enough for proper carbonation.
As I transferred the ginger ale to another bottle (this time, one that had contained an actual carbonated beverage), I tasted it and decided the zest was a bad idea. Too much bitterness. I scooped out as much as I could before capping the new bottle.
Traditional ginger beer was fermented with something called a “ginger beer plant.” This was not actually a plant, but a slimy mass of yeasts, bacteria, and assorted other microbeasties, much like the scoby (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) used to brew kombucha. If you’re interested and enjoy reading 120-year-old scientific journals, there’s a great study from 1892, complete with illustrations.
H. Marshall Ward’s “The Ginger-Beer Plant, and the Organisms Composing it: A Contribution to the Study of Fermentation-Yeasts and Bacteria,” from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. B (1887-1895). 1892-01-01. 183:125–197 Available online, as a PDF, EPUB, Kindle, Daisy, DjVu, and plain text at archive.org/details/philtrans03540404
While you may still be able to get ginger-beer plants (or just use the sludge from the bottom of a bottle of kombucha) it’s much simpler to carbonate with commercial yeast. This recipe used ordinary active dry baker’s yeast. If you’re making hard ginger beer, I’d go with a yeast intended for making beer or wine (available at homebrewing stores or online).
(Why does the kind of yeast matter? See my post on Beer Tasting at the Yeast Factory.)
The fun part is watching it bubble. The less fun part is scrubbing sugar water and bits of bottle off the walls after it explodes. Everyone says to use a plastic bottle, and that seems sound — exploding plastic is less deadly than glass. And it seems obvious in retrospect, but use one that actually held a carbonated beverage, be it a 2-liter soda bottle or a 750 ml. bottle of effervescent spring water.
Once your drink is bottled and the cap is on tight, put it in a sturdy plastic bag (those reusable plastic grocery sacks would be good), then put that in another plastic bag. Maybe even one of those plastic reusable grocery sacks. Really: these things explode all the time. Do you really want to spend your weekend scrubbing sugar water and tiny bits of plastic off every surface in your kitchen? No, you do not.
Also, leave an inch or two of air (“headspace”) in the bottle. Why? Because yeast is active at around room temperature, but you can’d dissolve as much carbon dioxide in room temperature liquid as you can when the liquid is chilled. So while your bottle is sitting at room temperature, the yeasts keep producing carbon dioxide, and it dissolves into the ginger ale. Once the ginger ale is saturated, the rest of the carbon dioxide has to go somewhere, and we’ve already discussed how we feel about exploding bottles. So the excess carbon dioxide goes into the headspace.
How much carbon dioxide can an inch or two of headspace hold? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Far more than if the bottle was full of liquid. So the carbon dioxide packs into the headspace, building up pressure. Once you decide there’s enough (the bottle will feel hard when you squeeze it) you put the bottle into the fridge. The cold stops the yeast from building up any more pressure, but it also cools the ginger ale, allowing it to absorb more carbon dioxide. (Bonus: theoretically, it should dissolve even faster if you put the bottle on its side, so more liquid surface area is in contact with the gas bubble. Shaking it would make for even more surface area, but I’m pretty sure it would also make the bottle explode. Isn’t science fun?)
And that’s where my ginger ale is right now: sitting on its side in the fridge, absorbing carbon dioxide, getting fizzy, awaiting the moment of truth.