Sarah Conezio and Isaiah Billington, owners of Pennsylvania-based Keepwell Vinegar and sister brand White Rose Miso, want chefs and home cooks alike to think about their fermented products the same way they think about other groceries. After all, we source our produce from farmers markets, meat from sustainable butchers and cheese from knowledgeable cheesemongers, but what about our pantry items? If you check the labels on your soy sauce and vinegar bottles, the information might not line up with the same local food values.
Conezio and Billington, who met in the pastry kitchen at Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, said unlike the savory side of the business, pastry cooks don’t spend all day prepping for service once they’ve baked bread and churned ice cream, so the team was often responsible for experiments in fermentation. As a locally sourced restaurant, Woodberry Kitchen couldn’t serve anything but root vegetables in the winter unless they preserved ingredients over the spring and summer.
Billington ended up running the fermentation, canning and pickling arm of the business. They realized that a lot of restaurants with programs like theirs were concerned about provenance, but using the same white vinegar a fast food joint did. Together with Conezio, he soon realized there was a need for locally sourced pantry items that could bring unique flavors to chefs’ toolboxes without relying on fancy ingredients or tons of sugar and salt.
So the couple moved north and started working with the farmers in the area to make vinegar. It wasn’t necessarily their intention to end up with 25 varieties, but it was hard to say no when farmers offered them great products. “There are a lot of people with a lot of fermentable sugar around in the world,” said Billington, “Whether that be maple syrup, sorghum juice, grapes, apples, wine, honey, even root vegetables and, of course, grain – if somebody’s got it we just take it.”
Because they can’t exactly plan how much of a given item they’re going to source when working so closely with farms, they end up with things like persimmon vinegar, which came when a grower was eager to unload the fruit. Working with small producers is also how they developed innovative products like single varietal York apple cider vinegar and Petit Manseng white wine vinegar, made from grapes grown on Kent Island in the Chesapeake Bay.
The miso came about because a lot of the individual farmers are also grain growers, especially Small Valley Milling in Central Pennsylvania and Next Step Produce in Maryland. Miso is traditionally made with soy beans and rice koji, but White Rose is using everything from farro to nuts and even sunchokes. Miso also fits in with the vinegar production because both require minimal infrastructure and technology, employ thoughtful fuel consumption and create shelf stable products.
Conezio and Billington are making culturally important foods like soy sauce and miso as outsiders to the culture and they are very conscious of the history and meaning around the production and final results. Billington referenced how gochujang, a fermented Korean chile paste, is made the way it is because of the order of the growing season for soybeans, grains and peppers in Korea. They are trying to take what is known about these ancient techniques and honor the process with the ingredients they have.
“When I was younger, I was well educated in the liberal arts and I was really caught up,” said Billington. “I think that there’s always homework to do to make sure that you’re staying abreast of critical race theory and understanding what the conversation is.”
As a small company, the pair are the only employees and are happy to cap their growth if they become too big for their current operation. They don’t have children, so if the company has longevity they will eventually want to bring on an employee that they can pay fairly and who can add their own input. Most important to them, along with sourcing locally, is to tailor their best practices to the farmers and keep up their support for the environment and human rights.
So how should cooks who aren’t used to working with such high quality and flavorful vinegars, or using miso for anything but soup, best deploy Keepwell’s wares in their kitchen? Billington advises starting with something you know like white wine or apple cider vinegar and to see how their version amps up any dish. As for miso, after using it to enhance broths and stews, try it in a compound butter to finish steaks or mix it with some fat and pasta water for a creamy and rich pasta sauce that, in the words of Billington, is “unbelievably good.”
Keepwell ships all of its products nationwide and can be found in retail stores and restaurants in Pennsylvania, Maryland, DC and New York.
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