If you've spent the majority of your time at home over the past year, it's likely you've started a coronavirus project. What's even more likely is that your project is making sourdough bread. The pandemic's lockdown spurred a 2020 baking craze, which in turn led to flour and yeast shortages, and the resulting media attention brought on even more excited bakers. Home bakers turned sourdough tutorials into their side hustles, and celebrities also got in on the baking craze. On FoodPrint — a website focused on the entire food system — our primer on making the fermented dough and ways to use the discarded portions quickly became one of our top viewed posts after we published it last year.
Which is all to say, sourdough is kind of old news. Unfortunately, COVID-19 isn't. Despite the rise in vaccination and decreased infections, experts suggest limiting activities outside of home to continue to keep virus infection rates low. So you might need a new cooking project. May we suggest you make 2021 the year of kombucha, yogurt, sausage-making or homemade miso? A quick #cookingproject search on Instagram shows people making homemade pasta, bagels, and hot dog rolls. If you love baking, but want a new dough, try taking on the multi-step process of making puff pastry. If you enjoy the fermentation step of sourdough, think about DIY yogurt or kombucha.
Yes, TikTokers will continue to throw out-of-season recipes at us (#fetapasta with February tomatoes, what?!) eyeing for trend-setting glory. But as we're heading into this next phase of the pandemic, we're still all about waste-free recipes and sustainably-minded cooking. We suggest these tried-and-true cooking projects to help you reduce waste, preserve food, and keep your fingers (and mind) busy this year, and any time you want a cooking project.
Learn how to make yogurt
If the multi-day process of making a sourdough starter was too much for you to take on, but you like the idea of making some of your kitchen staples from scratch, think about making homemade yogurt. This is a hands-off project, which is great for anyone who has less time right now (uhh, me!), plus you can make a healthier, more flavorful, and less expensive alternative to supermarket yogurt when you control the process. All you need to get started is good quality milk and some good quality yogurt with live cultures in it. If you follow the process properly — most importantly not letting the milk heat up too much — you can have homemade yogurt in as little as four hours. After that, play around with the texture or add flavorings, and enjoy the world of yogurt making.
And if you happen to have a lot of extra milk or heavy cream, or you simply want more homemade dairy products, it's just as easy to make fresh buttermilk, ricotta, paneer, cultured butter and more using pantry ingredients like lemon juice and vinegar.
Learn to brew kombucha
Another cooking project popular with fermentation DIYers is making kombucha. Have you ever sipped on a bottle and wondered, "Fizzy, sour, funky. How do they do it?" Armed with the right information, time, and a kombucha starter, you too can figure out how to make the traditional Manchurian drink. First, you'll need to procure a SCOBY, the symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast used to "start" or brew kombucha. If you have a friend already brewing kombucha, ask for a piece of their SCOBY. If not, you can pick up a kombucha kit online, or make your own, starting with some store-bought kombucha.
While brewing kombucha can become quite a project — using a double ferment to increase carbonation, exploring other styles of SCOBY fermentation, such as Jun tea — the basic process is simple. To brew kombucha, steep tea, sugar and the SCOBY starter together for seven days to a month, until the tea is lighter in color and the flavor is less sweet and more vinegary. After that, the SCOBY, which will continue to grow as the kombucha brews, can be used to make additional batches of the drink. Kombucha brewing can also be a regular part of your waste-free kitchen. Make the most of leftover and overripe fruit to flavor your kombucha, or add in leftover herb stems and other aromatics.
How to make puff pastry
If the precision of making sourdough was exactly your style, then kick things up a notch and learn how to make puff pastry and other laminated doughs this year. The basic ingredients of puff pastry are simple: flour, butter, salt. The complicated part is the technique: lamination, in which you wrap a block of butter in a dough, then follow a series of folds and turns to create a dough that will bake into an insanely flaky pastry. The complicated part isn't so complicated, you just need to control the temperature (keep your ingredients cold), follow the process and have a lot of time, enough to allow the dough to rest in between each fold.
If that's not challenging enough, switch things up and try reverse puff, creating a sheet of butter that will be wrapped around a piece of dough. Whichever style you make, puff pastry is perfect for making croissants and other classic pastry recipes. It's also a great dough to make quick hand pies or turnovers filled with leftovers like roasted vegetables, fruits or meat.
Learn different food preservation methods
While quick-pickling and jamming should be skills in any waste-free cook's repertoire, preservation methods can get more complicated and highly specific quickly. Using fermentation ingredients like Japanese koji (rice inoculated with a fermentation culture) or nigari (magnesium chloride), you can get into more serious preservation techniques. If you have some good quality soybeans, koji and salt, plus about six months, you can make your own miso. Koji is also a great way to pickle vegetables and preserve other foods, and it's also used in making soy sauce, sake and other traditional Japanese ingredients. For a more meditative experience, pick up the art of hoshigaki, helping your stash of persimmons dry out through a traditional hanging and massaging technique.
And preservation doesn't have to be about fruits and vegetables. If you end up with quality meat from a local butcher, maybe it will be time to learn the art of sausage making. Once you are ready for salami or other preserved sausages, you can use fermentation techniques, like dry curing, to help preserve them.
Cook through a cookbook
Instead of picking a cooking project, why not pick a cookbook project? Make like "Julie and Julia," and cook your way through an entire cookbook. If you want to master all the breads after sourdough, work your way through "The Bread Bible," and bake everything from pizza dough and ciabatta to crumpets and bagels. If you gave up a big trip in the last year due to COVID-19, delve into a book devoted to your favorite vacation locale. Do you have a favorite food blogger, or are you trying to eat more plant-based foods? Find a cookbook that really sparks your interest and commit to cooking the whole thing.
A few pointers to get you through it. Make a plan. Take note of all of the recipes before you start and decide how many you need to cook each week or month to get through your book. Instead of going from page 1 to end, keep seasonality in mind and break up pantry basics and complicated recipes to help keep a steady flow to your cooking. Find a friend to cook through the book with you, or to cook through their own book. Plan a socially-distanced park meet-up to share some of your creations.