This time of year our family likes to bulk up on probiotics. With cold and flu season underway, we’ve been taking a proactive approach by upping our fermentation game through our diet. By eating a variety of fermented foods, we’re increasing our probiotics, this way we don’t have to rely on a flu shot to keep us healthy. We do this by adding fermented foods to each meal and sipping on probiotic beverages throughout the day.
To see just how simple this can be, here’s an example of what we eat in a typical day (BONUS: link includes a delicious, gut-friendly recipe for a coconut milk smoothie).
Hands down, our favorite probiotic beverage is water kefir. We think it tastes the best and it’s also the easiest to make at home! Never heard of water kefir? Sure, it’s not as well known as Kombucha, but definitely rising in popularity as the new kid on the block. You may have seen it in grocery stores under the label “Kevita”. Water kefir is made from kefir “grains” (which aren’t grains at all, but tiny colonies of bacteria and yeast) that look like little clear clusters of cauliflower. These grains feed on sugar and in return, produce a carbonated and lacto-fermented beverage containing gut-friendly probiotics.
When buying from the grocery store, you can expect to shell out close to five bucks per bottle, not a luxury I can afford every day. But for the cost of 3-4 bottles of store-bought water kefir, you can make it from home, indefinitely. All you need are kefir grains, some organic sugar, and a cozy half-gallon jar that your grains will call “home”.
Better yet, kefir grains often grow and double in size, making a wonderful gift for your “fermenty friends." Once you have your grains, you’re ready to begin.
Oftentimes, kefir grains come dehydrated, and will take 3 to 5 days to rehydrate. Follow the instructions included with your grains prior to making your first batch.
Step 1: Add ½ cup organic sugar and one cup boiling water to a clean, half-gallon sized mason jar. Stir/swirl until sugar is dissolved then top off with cold water (an additional 7 cups).
Step 2: Add kefir grains to sugar water, cover with a coffee filter and secure with a rubber or metal band.
Step 3: Place jar in a warm spot in your home, we put ours on top of the refrigerator (68-75 degrees is ideal). Allow to ferment for 24-48 hours*.
Step 4: After 24-48 hours, strain water kefir through a non-metallic, fine mesh colander, collecting the grains in the strainer. Store water kefir in the refrigerator and sip the probiotic benefits daily.
Step 5: Using the collected kefir grains, follow steps 1-4 to begin your next batch.
If your grains grow and double in size, you can make a gallon or more at a time (increase the sugar to 1 cup). If ½ gallon is too much, you can gift half your grains to a friend and make one quart at a time (decrease sugar to ¼ cup). Ideally, you should have ¼ cup grains per half-gallon vessel.
You’ve made your water kefir (pretty simple, right?), but the fun isn’t over yet. You can drink your water kefir as is, or flavor it a myriad of delicious ways.
Peach Italian Soda. Toss half an organic frozen peach (or other fruit) into the jar with the grains to flavor the kefir while it’s fermenting.
Probiotic Lemonade. Pour water kefir into a cup and add a splash of organic lemon juice - my husband thinks this tastes just like the neon-colored gatorade he used to drink on a daily basis!
Ginger-Lime. Squeeze ¼ of a lime into your water kefir and a splash of organic ginger juice (this is my current obsession) — if you’re feeling crazy, add a splash of organic vodka for a faux Moscow Mule.
Fizzy Kefir (any flavor). If you’d like a bubbly, carbonated drink, follow these directions for second fermenting your water kefir.
Fermenting time and temperature. Kefir will ferment faster or slower depending on the temperature of your home. If kefir tastes too sweet, allow it to ferment an additional 12-24 hours and taste again. If kefir tastes “yeasty”, make a fresh batch and taste after 12-24 hours.
Type of sugar to feed your grains. There are many different sugars that can be used when making water kefir. I use organic evaporated cane juice. Sugars that are higher in minerals can sometimes cause damage to the kefir grains, but are great to use in moderation to add minerals to sluggish grains. It’s not recommended to use honey as it contains its own bacteria, this may cause grains to die. Read this article for more information on different sugars.
New kefir grains. If your water kefir is tasting “off” (too sweet or too sour) and you ordered kefir grains through the mail, make two or three batches of kefir before throwing in the towel. Kefir grains can easily become out of balance, and may take a few "feedings” (batches) before regulating the proper bacteria:yeast ratio.
Bubbles and carbonation. Oftentimes tiny bubbles will float to the surface during fermentation, this is completely normal. However, a lack of bubbles is also OK. For soda-like carbonation to occur you will have to do a second ferment in an airtight bottle, such as the flip-top bottles in the photo above (called grolsh bottles).
Kefir has an off-putting odor. Water kefir should have a nice, slightly sweet aroma or it may smell slightly sour (but never unpleasant). If your grains are new, give them a few batches for the bacteria:yeast ratio to normalize. Next look at the fermenting time and temperature (see above). If kefir is still smelling “yeasty”, try adding ⅛ of a washed, organic lemon while fermenting the next couple batches. This will help normalize the yeast by increasing the acidity.
Cloudy looking kefir. It’s normal for water kefir to appear cloudy during fermentation. Some grains turn water cloudy, some don’t. Both are normal.
Multiplying grains. It’s common for water kefir grains to grow and double in size, although this doesn’t always happen. To promote the growth of your grains it’s important to use filtered water. You can also try adding one of the following during fermentation: a few, unsulfered organic raisins, ½ tsp organic molasses or half a washed, pastured egg shell. The mineral content in these items can help encourage grains to grow.
Over-mineralization. If your grains become slimy, mushy or begin to break apart it’s possible your grains are getting too many minerals. This can also cause your water kefir to be syrupy. If you have high mineral content in your water, be sure your sugar doesn’t also have high mineral content (coconut sugar, maple syrup, brown sugar, etc.).
Over-fermentation. What if you forget about your water kefir for more than 48 hours? Chances are, if it’s only been a few days, they’re fine. Taste the water kefir, and if it’s not too strong, enjoy it and start a new batch right away as it’s likely your grains are very hungry! If you forgot about your kefir for more than 6 days, it's unlikely your grains will recover. But try a few batches and see if you can revive them. If not, you’ll have to buy more grains and start again. (Sad, sad day.)
Storing kefir grains. It’s possible to store kefir grains for up to 3 weeks in the refrigerator. Simply make a fresh batch of sugar water, add kefir grains, secure a coffee filter on top and place in the refrigerator. The cold temperature will slow down fermentation. For longer storage, you can dehydrate your grains and keep in the refrigerator for up to 6 months (see below).
Dehydrating kefir grains. To dehydrate grains simply rinse with filtered water, place on unbleached parchment paper and leave out at room temperature for 3-5 days. Store in a ziplock bag in the refrigerator. This is perfect if you want to take a break from making kefir for a while, if you want to give kefir grains as a gift, or if you want to have some backup grains "just incase".
Congratulations! You’re now helping improve your gut health by introducing probiotics in a healthy, and delicious way. Let us know your favorite flavors or share your new flavoring discoveries.
Kelsey Steffen is a aspiring farmer, wife, mom of four, and homeschool educator in northern Idaho. Join Kelsey and her family over at Full of Days as they blog about life in the Steffen household, and follow along on Facebook and Twitter. Read all of Kelsey’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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