Natural soda? You heard me! We are going to MacGyver some honest to goodness soda out of nothing but a ginger root, water, sugar, fruit juice and a paper clip. Okay. No paper clip. But still, this is going to be pretty gosh darn amazing.
In order to make our own natural soda, we are going to first need to make a soda starter culture known as a “ginger bug”. We will then use our ginger bug to make a carbonated soda with pronounceable ingredients and no preservatives. Why? Because it is fun and even slightly mad. That’s how we roll.
What is a ginger bug? It is basically a lacto-fermented culture for making soda such as ginger beer. It can also be used in combination with any juice to make flavored sodas such as: orange soda, grape soda, root beer, and cherry soda. The lactobacillus bacteria, naturally present in the skin of ginger root, converts lactose sugars into carbon gas (bubbles) and lactic acid and even makes up a small portion of the gut flora aiding in digestion in humans. It helps to create soda pop you don't have to be afraid to give to your children --always a plus in my book.
You will need:
• 1 organic, fresh, whole ginger root with the peel/skins intact (not ground, not crystallized)
• unprocessed sugar (rapadura or sucanat; sugar still containing its minerals and molasses)
• 2-quart glass or ceramic jar
• flour sack towel (breathable, but will keep insects out)
• rubber band
• 1 1/2 quarts of de-chlorinated cold water
To de-chlorinate water, simply set out the water needed for 24-hours and the chlorine should evaporate from your average tap water. Alternatively, you can use filtered water. Chlorine may inhibit the growth of lactobacillus, the good bacteria, necessary to make a ginger bug.
If you are unable to find sucanat or rapadura sugar in your area, you may use white sugar with molasses added. I would suggest a 4:1 ratio of white sugar to molasses. Most "health food" or "whole food" stores carry unprocessed sugars like sucanat and rapadura so give your local store a try.
Let's get started on this ginger bug (Photo above right)!
First, finely chop about two inches of raw ginger root with the peel/skin still on. Add the chopped ginger and two tablespoons (2 Tbsp.) of sucanat/rapadura sugar to your 2-quart jar of dechlorinated water and stir. Cover your jar with either finely woven cheesecloth or a flour sack towel and secure it with a rubber band. Keep your jar in a dark spot that is not too warm and not too cool so that the ginger bug can begin to activate. The goldilocks of spots if you will.
Every day for the next four to eight days, feed your ginger bug two teaspoons (2 tsp.) of finely chopped ginger (with the skin intact) and two teaspoons (2 tsp.) of sucanat/rapadura sugar and stir well. In order to encourage your ginger bug to consume the sugar you add and create carbonation, do your best to remember to stir the mixture at least twice a day, perhaps more.
You will know your ginger bug is "activated" when three things happen: there are visible bubbles at the top of the mixture, the mixture makes an obvious fizzing noise when stirred, and the ginger bug gives off a light and slightly sweet aroma. Making a ginger bug never seems to be an exact science and one really needs to get a feel for what to look for by caring for a bug. Just like with any yeast or bacteria culture, you get to know what good looks like and what bad looks like.
Did your ginger bug not activate? Keep going. Perhaps it just needs an extra few days activate. Temperature affects the speed in which a ginger bug grows and thrives. Cool temperatures can slow a ginger bug down whereas warmer temperatures can speed it up. I have also noticed that a few days of high humidity can ruin a whole batch of ginger bug by producing an ideal environment for mold. Yuck! Throw out anything curiously mold-like and start over. For the price of a ginger root, there's no need to risk it.
Now that you have your very own healthy ginger bug going, let's make some natural soda! The only new items you will need to make soda are a gallon-sized glass or ceramic jar and a fruit juice of your choice. No additional sugar is needed because the ginger bug will feed on the sugars naturally present in the fruit juice.
If you do not have a gallon-sized jar handy, get creative. A friend once told me she found a gallon-sized glass pickle jar at Costco. You could also ask local bakeries or restaurants if they have any spare large glass jars… the worst thing they can do is look at you like you’re crazy. Or if you don't really fancy looking like a madman, you can always split the recipe into smaller jars.
Now for the easy part. Simply add one cup (1 cup) of your strained ginger bug to one (1) scant gallon of fruit juice of your choice. Cover the jar with a breathable cloth and let the mixture sit at room temperature for 24-hours. Remember to stir the mixture at least twice during the first 24-hours, or "first fermentation". Once your first 24-hours are up, pour and bottle your mixture into sterilized, sealing brewing bottles. Mason jars may work, but the seal may not be sufficient enough to keep the carbonation in and you also risk an exploding glass jar.
It is somewhat counter intuitive, but keep your newly bottled soda out at room temperature for another 12-24 hours before refrigerating or consuming. This will ensure you get a real fizzy soda by allowing the carbonation to build up a little. I certainly wouldn't leave any fruit soda out at room temperature any longer than 24-hours after bottling for fear of over-carbonation explosions.
Also, take a sip to test out any “sodas” before serving them to children. It would be a good idea to invest in a hydrometer to measure potential alcohol levels if you plan to make soda often. A good rule of thumb is that if it tastes alcoholic, it is alcoholic. Fruit juices tend to go alcoholic quickly after the first 24-hours. Those home brews are pretty sneaky! I once finished drinking a whole bottle of mango “soda” before realizing I was drunk! If anyone needs a darn good mango wine recipe though, I’ve got one.
• Clean Your Bottles and Equipment: Wash all your equipment and bottles with soap and hot water, and thoroughly rinse.
• Use Bottles Meant For Carbonation: Only make fermented sodas in bottles intended for carbonation. Soda bottles and glass swing-top bottles are specifically designed to withstand the pressure of carbonation. Other bottles, even the original container the cider came in, can break or shatter under the pressure.
• Refrigerate When Carbonated: Test for desired carbonation and sweetness and refrigerate the soda as soon as it gets to where you like it. Refrigeration slows the bacteria and prevents the soda from over-carbonating. There is some margin for error here, but if left un-refrigerated, the pressure will continue to build and the bottles will eventually break.
• Open Soda Bottles Over The Sink… or with a towel over the bottle… or open them slowly… Once I forgot and the soda foamed right out of the bottle like a cartoon fountain! I had sticky mango soda all over the counter, down the cabinets, on me, on the floor, and I'm sure a good amount on the ceiling as well. Hindsight truly is 20/20.
Sarah lives with her husband and young daughter in an old Californian gold-rush town and is learning to be more self-reliant though gardening, animal husbandry, and by making things from scratch. Join her journey from the very beginning and learn along with her on her family's farm blog:
Photo to the right: Lacto-fermented soda
Photos by Sarah Cuthill