About this blog

My photo
Wales, United Kingdom
In autumn 2010, my husband Ian and I both quit our jobs, sold our house and left the flatlands of the east for the mountains of Wales. Our goal is to create a more self-sufficient lifestyle in a place we actually like living. Whilst Ian will continue to earn some money as a freelancer, my part of the project is to reduce how much we spend by growing and making as much of what we need as possible. The purpose of this blog is to keep friends updated with how the grand project is progressing, but all are welcome here. If you're not a friend already, well perhaps you might become one.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Too many parsnips

I wouldn't have thought that such a thing was possible, but here we are in mid March, I have lots of parsnips still in the ground and they're all growing like crazy. At least, that was the situation a few days ago. Growing parsnips are not going to store for long, even if I lift them all and try various tricks I've read about, such as removing all the little roots, cutting the tops off and dipping the cut ends in wood ash (gives you a couple of weeks' storage, apparently). I needed to do something with these.

Just over 3 lb of parsnips

Of course, I could make a big batch of parsnip soup and freeze it, but it's getting to the time of year when I don't fancy thick, warming soups, and I suspect there might be quite a lot of it still there by the time I'm harvesting next year's parsnips. Besides, I had an idea...

I enjoy my home-brewing, but it bothers me a little that the main ingredient - sugar - is not something I've produced myself. What I'm doing is essentially buying sugar (either refined white or malt extract) to ferment, then adding foraged flavourings. However, parsnips are quite sweet and I've heard that parsnip wine can be pretty good. I wondered whether I might be able to brew a drink purely from the sugars in parsnips.

Estimates for the sugar concentration in parsnips range from 5% to 10% and I could reasonably hope they'd be at the upper end of that at this time of year. On the other hand, I probably wouldn't be able to extract it all, so that would bring it down a bit. A rule of thumb for potential alcohol content is that 1 lb of sugar gives 1% of alcohol in a 5 (UK) gallon batch. For my 3 lb parsnips, an upper estimate would be almost a third of a pound of sugar, so in one gallon that would be 5/3... about 1 ½%. You're not going to get drunk on that, but maybe enough to be worth a go. I subsequently found more parsnips - several monsters that I'd allowed to run to see last summer - which doubled the quantity, so I could be looking at up to about 3%. That would be good, but is probably very optimistic, given the likely inefficiency of extraction.

I looked up various sources of information on how to process the parsnips. Wine recipes recommended cooking fairly briefly, so the veg doesn't start to disintegrate and distribute tiny particles of parsnip throughout the liquid. Descriptions of how sugar beet is processed include finely chopped beet being passed through hot water... hm, hot doesn't sound like boiling, I wonder whether heating at a lower temperature might be the answer?

I sliced my parsnips fairly thinly, covered with water and brought to the boil, then reduced the heat to barely simmering, which I kept it at for about an hour. Sure enough, the parsnips were in no state to mash at the end of it, and the liquid tasted distinctly sweet. I strained the liquid off, hung the veg up in a jelly bag, then decided that was a waste of time and put it in the press instead. The strained liquid was about half a gallon, and I got another 2 ½ pints from the pressing, which I then brought back to the boil to sterilize (easier than sterilizing the press), which probably evaporated some off, so about ¾ gallon in total.

There were a few things I did for flavouring. First, I put a few of the parsnip slices in the oven and dry roasted them to caramelize some of the sugars, then added these to the pan. Secondly, I took another ingredient that makes a popular foragers' ale - nettles - and boiled up some of those separately. This allowed me to check whether the flavours work together (they do) before adding the nettle tea to the parsnip liquor. Nettles are only just appearing here, so I didn't get very many - about half a colander full. A few more would probably be better. Ginger is often added to nettle ale, and parsnip seeds, of which I have many, have a somewhat similar flavour, so I threw in a teaspoonful of those. I didn't think of that until near the end of processing, so they might have no impact on the flavour at all.

When the liquid cooled, I attempted to take a hydrometer reading, which was quite tricky as I don't have a proper flask and it kept sticking to the side of the bottle I was using. I think it read around 2% potential alcohol, which is about what I'd expect from the calculations.

The yeast is now doing its thing and the liquid is bubbling convincingly. My next decision is what to do about bottling. Usually, I'd wait for the primary fermentation to finish, then add a little sugar to each bottle to condition the beer - i.e. provide fuel for secondary fermentation so the beer's fizzy. However, the point of this experiment is to make a drink without using bought sugar, so I'd rather not do that. In the meantime, I have found another monster parsnip root, which might be the answer...


  1. Holy Moly! Never in a million years would this have occurred to me. You know, it seems that my British and Australian blogging buddies are very frequently making things like beer and wine... is that a common practice there? I've heard of people doing it during the depression here (during prohibition) but other than that I think it's a real niche hobby that people are either really, really into or else they've never tried it. Come to think of it, did y'all even have prohibition there? Just wondering if there's some sort of differing attitude about these sorts of pursuits in the American psyche.

    1. No, we didn't have prohibition here. I wonder if that made home brewing disreputable in America? It's a fairly popular hobby here - lots of people have tried it as some point or other. When getting started, it's not too difficult to get hold of second hand kit, as there's a lot of it sitting at the back of sheds gathering dust.

      People are more likely to try wine than beer, from foraged ingredients such as blackberries. Sloe gin is very popular, which isn't really brewing, but involves flavouring bought liquor with foraged berries (sloes). It goes with country walks, which I think may also be less popular in America, except for in parks? (I'm fairly sure your parks are orders of magnitude bigger than ours.)

      There are kits available for making beer, but that's just opening a tin and following instructions, which gets boring quite quickly. Some people get really into making beer from grain, but that's the kind of niche hobby you have on your side of the pond. I was really pleased to find out about the middle ground - starting from malt extract - which is quite easy but allows for a bit of creativity. This isn't widely known.

      Another area where I've seen a difference between the UK and America, but the other way round, is food preservation. We just don't have a tradition of home canning. Even the word is confusing, as we mean a sealed, metal thing when we say 'can'. We'd probably say 'bottling' for preservation in glass jars, if we did it. It's the same with dehydration - almost unheard of here. I wonder whether it's the pioneer tradition that you have.

    2. Hmmmm... very interesting. I'm sure the pioneer thing figures into the American tradition of food preservation, but I also think that the rural roots run deep over here. In most families, if you go back a generation or two you'll find a family farm. Foraging, on the other hand... I don't know anybody who's ever tried it. I'm not even sure where one would find edible plants that weren't put there on purpose - and the idea of gathering things on the roadside etc... it would frighten me since most areas like that are sprayed on a regular basis.

    3. I had no idea farming was so widespread over there. When I think of American agriculture, images of vast fields of grain come to mind (I think Hitchcock may be responsible for this - you know that scene in North by Northwest?) not little family farms. There are a few celebrity foragers - Ray Mears and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall come to mind - who've made foraging more popular recently. Come to think of it, America (or at least New York) has Steve Brill.

    4. Gosh, I've never heard of these "famous foragers" - maybe it's just me.

      Anyhow, these days most of our family farms have been taken over by huge multi-national conglomerates, but 100 years ago it was a completely different story. It would be sort of an interesting survey to take - how many generations back to find a farmer. On my dad's side you'd have to go back to Europe since his grandparents all came over here to work in the mining industry. But my mom's grandparents were all farmers.

    5. That would be an interesting survey, especially if you could do it on both sides of the Atlantic. I get a farmer in two generations - my dad's dad kept pigs. I say kept... I believe they got out pretty frequently. I don't know about my mum's side - certainly more than three generations and probably a lot more than that.


I don't know why Facebook thinks this is the most interesting text on the page - it's not, I assure you!

If you'd like to leave a comment, but it asks you to "Comment as" a load of options that don't relate to you, choose "Name/URL". You can type in your name and leave the URL blank.

Do leave a comment (unless the main point of your comment is to advertise your business, in which case it will be deleted). It's always nice to know I'm not talking to myself ;-)