Offered each fall, Sterling College’s Value Added Products course is a broad introduction and overview of various techniques used to improve the market value of agricultural products. From apple products and lacto-fermentation, to meat and dairy, the syllabus blends hands-on experience with visits from guest speakers on entrepreneurship and food safety and field trips to operations of varying scale. The course’s “independent final project” is designed to encourage students to dive deeper into one product of particular interest. Over the course of the semester, students are expected to research and create their actual product, being prepared to share their new understanding and sample results with a twenty-minute presentation and six to eight page paper. Last Friday, we shared what we’d learned:
(1) Hailey McNichols: Goat Milk Soap
Hailey took the road less traveled by experimenting with a non-food product: goat milk soap. She gathered the ingredients, including caustic lye, and found a local mentor willing to introduce her to milking goats. As a take-away, Hailey warns want-to-be soap makers to start slow and simple. She hopes to experiment with scents and essential oils in future efforts. Remember: freeze your goat milk into cubes before adding the lye! This keeps the temperature lower, saving your prized milk from burning.
Taylor laughed as he recalled thinking cheddar would be an “easy cheese” to make. He manufactured his own press, but found that as the curds drained and settled, tension did not remain constant. In the future, Taylor believes a weighted press will be more effective. After four weeks of basement curing in its hand-painted wax coating, Taylor’s cheese certainly had that sharp cheddar taste. He noted the risks of using raw milk, and encouraged others to investigate their source’s management practices. To that end, Taylor used milk sourced from our very own Farm Manager, Gwyneth Harris.
(3) Ariel Drouault: Preserved Lemons
Ariel is a man of many cultures, having grown up in Paris, traversed the United States, and explored other countries. With this, he has developed a keen appreciation for traditional ethnic cuisines worldwide. His preserved lemons are a staple in North African households, classically prepared with chicken and other spices in a tagine. Ariel says his ideal market is with adventurous eaters looking to expand their palate, because those that already know the flavors and joys of preserved lemons…well, they probably don’t need Ariel’s help.
(4) Bianca Caputo: Bulgarian & Greek Yogurt
Bianca’s interest in yogurt came after our hands-on dairy class, where we made Bulgarian and Greek varieties of yogurt, fresh cheeses, and ice cream. Using the heirloom cultures from our instructor, Anna Mays, Bianca ran various trials to hone in on the perfect texture. Comparing notes with fellow student and yogurt maker, Jesse Keck, Bianca experimented with different methods of heating her milk and cooling her cultured product. She found that by letting the milk simmer longer in the heating process, more water would evaporate, making for a thicker product with less whey. Turns out mixing the whey with your cultured product exacerbates the yogurt’s sourness without improving texture.
(5) Sage Gingerich: Fried Chicken
Sage turned on the overhead fan, brought the lard to a bubble, and walked us through the process of frying chicken in the Houston kitchen. Much of her investigation centered on the start-up costs and fees associated with selling her product at farmer’s markets. She described certain loopholes to save on overhead cost: Because you can process but not butcher chickens on farm, Sage plans to break birds down at her farmer’s market booth and fry pieces fresh for retail sale. She expects this will both save on processing fees and entice more customers, though the smell of freshly fried chicken may prove more appealing than seeing a chicken cut to pieces.
(6) McKenzie McCann: Sourdough Bread
McKenzie used whole wheat and starter culture from Bread & Puppet Theater in her Sourdough investigation. She spoke to the large cultural variation in breads from place to place, noting that even in Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy, The Hunger Games, each district has its own distinct bread product! She calls her finished product “neolithic,” describing its dense texture and whole-wheat color. A tip for using whole wheat: soften the bran first with a steam bath.
(7) Jes Scribner: Kombucha
The first step in Jes’ kombucha brewing process was a school-wide email asking for SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) babies. If you need ‘em, we got ‘em! Feasting on loose-leaf tea blends and organic sugar cane, the two donor SCOBYs quickly multiplied. Jes brought samples of SCOBYs gone wrong and shared wisdom on troubleshooting when your “booch” is not brewing. She warns future home kombucha brewers to steer clear of highly processed or scented teas. While Earl Grey is a known SCOBY killer, Jes found that chai teas also damage the cultures and create a poor finished product.
(8) Sophie Shillue: Beef Jerky
Having reaped the benefits of beef jerky as a source of protein on the trail, Sophie hoped to fill voids in Vermont’s local beef jerky market. Neither of the two most popular Vermont jerky products indicates where their beef is sourced, nor touts organic, grass-fed, or sustainable agriculture practices as part of their brand. Sophie thinks that by using and advertising more responsible sourced meats, she might be able to charge higher prices than her competitors, and perhaps convince them, too, of the importance of sustainably raised meats. Sophie warns that the heat of the oven is not suitable for the dehydration process, and would hope to sell her product in single serving sizes to cut sodium intake and appeal to ultra-light backpackers.
Written by Jes Scribner.