Fermented foods and drinks are having a moment of popularity right now and maybe you’re considering integrating them into your own routine. Fermented foods contain probiotics – “good” bacteria like the ones that live in our digestive system – and we first learned about the health benefits around 1900, when Nobel Prize-winning Elie Metchnikoff hypothesized consuming them helped protect our intestines from bad bacteria. Scientific trials began in the 1930s to test the idea and since then we’ve discovered a multitude of effects. According to the article “Probiotics and their fermented food products are beneficial for health” published in Journal of Applied Microbiology:
Some of the beneficial effect of lactic acid bacteria consumption include: (i) improving intestinal tract health; (ii) enhancing the immune system, synthesizing and enhancing the bioavailability of nutrients; (iii) reducing symptoms of lactose intolerance, decreasing the prevalence of allergy in susceptible individuals; and (iv) reducing risk of certain cancers.
Yogurt and dairy kefir are good sources of probiotics, but many people are vegan, dairy intolerant, or perhaps just trying to limit the quantity of dairy in their meals to maintain a good balance in the body. Other fermented foods include sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha – all things I only enjoy in very, very small doses. But I was reading The Autoimmune Paleo Cookbook and learned about a different fermented beverage: water kefir.
You may already be familiar with dairy kefir, which is a fermented dairy beverage – water kefir is a non-dairy alternative that ferments in sugar water and combines well with fruit juice or coconut water. While kombucha is gaining popularity on store shelves and cafes, water kefir is much harder to find commercially bottled – however, it is ridiculously easy to make yourself at home.
Water kefir is made by first acquiring water kefir grains – despite the name, they are not wheat, rye, etc, the grains are clear, gelatinous tiny squares that are a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY). They like to sit on the bottom of a jar filled with sugar water, the sweetness feeds them which causes the cultures to grow into the liquid. While kombucha frequently requires weeks to ferment, water kefir cultures for only 24-48 hours so you can produce your beverage at a much higher rate.
I bought my water kefir grains in Asheville at the French Broad Co-Op and the brand was Cultures For Health. I was a little nervous throwing down $16 on something new, but in the two months since I’ve started, I’ve gotten more than my money’s worth and assuming I keep caring for the grains (i.e. feeding them sugar water), they theoretically last forever. The website for Cultures for Health is a useful resource for beginners. (And no, I’m not getting paid by them!)
When you first start with fermented foods, it’s advised to try small amounts so your body gets used to the new bacteria joining your system. I quickly adapted and now I generally drink between1-2 quarts of water kefir a day! My initial goal was to help repair my gut and deal with autoimmune flareups, but now I just love how it tastes and I’m motivated by deliciousness. I always do two rounds of fermentation – the first in plain sugar water with the grains, then a 2nd round in flip-top bottles with juice added. I enjoy the “mad scientist” aspect of experimenting with different tastes and levels of fermentation (which give the drink bubbles, tartness, and tang).
My favorite flavor combo is fresh grated ginger and fresh squeezed citrus – if you are a fan of spicy ginger beers, you will love it too. I’ve had success with apple cider and even using store-bought orange juice. Water kefir doesn’t require a lot to flavor it, just a few ounces of fruit juice for 1/2 gallon of kefir and the longer you let it sit out at room temperature, the less sugar the final beverage will contain as your kefir bacteria friends will eat it all up. Once it’s fermented to the taste you like, refrigerate them – the bottles keep in the fridge for 30 days, or so I’m told, I don’t think a bottle has survived for more than 5 days without getting drunk in my house! This summer I look forward to experimenting with adding herbal flavors too, like lavender, mint, basil.
Thanks for mentioning that French Broad Co-op has kefir grains! I’ve been wanting to try this for years but didn’t know where to get them.