The latest stop in my culinary journey has landed me in the Research and Development and Fermentation Laboratory of Audrey, Sean Brock's new restaurant in Nashville. The lab manager, Elliot Silber, holds a degree in food chemistry from McGill University, in addition to being a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. He is passionate about science and sustainability and is always looking for ways to utilize the so-called waste products generated by the restaurant. Throughout the day, prep cooks bring their produce and protein trimmings to the lab to be turned into sauces, seasonings, condiments and beverages. Cantaloupe season has arrived in full force and we are turning buckets of cantaloupe rinds and seeds into a beverage called tepache.
Tepache is a traditional Mexican fermented probiotic drink which dates back to pre-Hispanic times. It is typically made from fermented pineapple rinds, cinnamon sticks and unrefined sugar known as piloncillo. It is a vibrant sweet-tart, slightly effervescent chilled beverage sold by street vendors from Chihuahua to Mexico City to Oaxaca.
Tepache is mildly alcoholic, with about a 0.5-2 percent alcohol content. The shorter the fermentation process, the lower the alcohol content. After fermentation, there will be some carbonation. Because of its low alcohol content, even children are allowed to drink it. Adults can increase the alcoholic content by allowing it to ferment longer or by mixing it with beer. Nowadays tepache is even finding its way into craft cocktails. Rice Vice, a sake bar in Nashville, serves a highball they call Ginjo-ka, a light, bubbly citrusy offering made with cantaloupe tepache, ginjo sake and fresh lime. Grey Sweater in Oklahoma City serves a low-alcohol Mula de Tepache made from tepache with chili pepper, fresh lime and ginger beer.
Like most fermented drinks and foods, tepache is rich in beneficial bacteria and probiotics as well as beneficial acids. The microorganisms associated with the production of tepache include various species of lactic acid bacteria, as well as acetic bacteria and yeasts. Lactic acid bacteria are the same microorganisms that are responsible for turning cabbage into sauerkraut and kimchi. These microorganisms are important because of their essential role in supporting gut health. Most tepache brews will also contain beneficial yeasts like saccharomyces boulardii, which is associated with increased enzymatic activity and better nutrient delivery in the gut. It plays a role in restoration of the gut barrier, which may be beneficial in treating leaky gut syndrome.
The fermentation process for making tepache is simple and quick, which makes it a beverage easily produced at home. A plus is that making tepache is a no-waste project, utilizing the rinds and seedy interiors, parts of the fruit typically thrown away.
Though tepache can be made with grocery-store brown sugar, it's best to use piloncillo cones, which can be found in Hispanic grocery stores. Conventional brown sugar is just purified white sugar with some molasses mixed back in. Piloncillo is unrefined and minimally processed. It is pure cane juice boiled down to a thick, crystalline syrup, which is poured into cone-shaped molds to harden (the name piloncillo derives from "pylon"). Piloncillo gives tepache a distinct floral note with mineral undertones. Because it's unrefined, piloncillo retains trace nutrients which conventional refined sugar doesn't have. However, it's still sugar, so enjoy in moderation.
Here are a few tips to ensure smooth fermentation and flavor:
1. Use a very ripe melon. Ripe fruit has higher sugar content, adding flavor and accelerating the fermentation.
2. Use organic melons when possible. Tepache utilizes the exterior rind, which often gets sprayed directly with chemicals.
4. Skim away any white foam that forms on the surface at the end of fermenting. Simply skim off the scum, and strain.
5. Even though tepache is fermented, it still tastes sweet, which means there's still plenty of sugar remaining in your brew. So drink small amounts, especially if you are diabetic or pre-diabetic.
This fizzy, refreshing fermented beverage is wonderful not only because of its flavor but because you are using what would otherwise be scraps.
1 large cantaloupe, honeydew or muskmelon
½ piloncillo cone, shaved with a microplane grater (or substitute ½ cup brown sugar)
1 Mexican cinnamon stick
Pinch of salt
Scrub the melon in cool water. Cut in half and scoop out and reserve the seeds. Cut the melon into chunks and reserve the rind. Transfer the rind and seeds into a gallon jar. Top off with the melon chunks or save them for another purpose.
In a small pot, toast the cinnamon over high heat, stirring constantly, until fragrant, one to two minutes. Add the water, piloncillo shavings and a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Once the sugar is mostly dissolved, remove from the heat and let cool to lukewarm.
Pour the spiced piloncillo syrup over the rinds and add more water until the rinds are completely covered. Position a small jar, fermentation weight, or water-filled resealable baggie over the melon rinds to submerge them and prevent mold from forming at the surface. To prevent bugs from finding their way into the jar, cover it with a breathable, tightly woven cloth secured tightly to the mouth of the jar with a rubber band or twine. Set the jar aside at room temperature in a shaded area and allow it to ferment until there is foam on the surface and the texture of the liquid is slightly viscous, two to four days. Stir and taste daily. The tepache will begin to bubble vigorously between one and five days. It should start to taste sweet and tangy in two to three days.
Discard the white foam that has developed on the surface.
When you like the flavor, strain the tepache over a cheesecloth-lined funnel into clean bottles, leaving 2 inches of head space at the top. You can drink it right away or store it in the refrigerator. (You can even reuse the peels and start a second batch). The tepache will keep for a few months in the refrigerator, however, it tastes best soon after it's ready to drink. If you leave the bottles in the refrigerator, vent them every 2 weeks to release built-up carbonation.
Serve well chilled.