Cultured and Fermented Foods – Yogurt, Kefir, Kombucha

by Meg Cotner on March 17, 2010

fermented foods

Some of the most delicious traditional foods I’ve tasted are cultured and fermented food and drink. Before I started eating such things, I really had no idea how extensively humans utilized fermentation, aside from yogurt and kefir. I’ve found that I love the raw yogurt and kefir I get from the farm as well as their kombucha. Plus, my body loves these fermented and cultured products – when I eat them, I feel great!

So, when I first started drinking raw dairy, I limited myself to just drinking fresh cow’s milk. I was comfortable with that, and I was just trying it out (so I thought). I didn’t anticipate how much I’d come to love it compared to the conventional organic milk I had been drinking.

It was only after a few months that I even considered moving beyond that to exploring the raw cultured and fermented dairy available to me. I’ve been eating yogurt for ages, so I tried that first. Delicious! I actually had tasted kefir before, but I suspected that this raw kefir was going to be different from the essentially “drinkable yogurt” I’d consumed before. I tried it, and found it to be quite tasty, too, but definitely different from yogurt.

Along with these two dairy products, I started drinking (and brewing) kombucha. I took a kombucha brewing class at The Brooklyn Kitchen, which was a lot of fun and very informative. I brewed kombucha pretty regularly until I moved and my SCOBY kicked the bucket. I now purchase kombucha from the same place as where I get my raw dairy, and plan to start up the brewing process again later this spring.

After a conversation I had with my friend Charlene, I started to wonder how the bacteria differ among the three products I eat on a regular basis: yogurt, kefir, and kombucha. They all contain probiotics for a healthy gut, but different kinds of friendly bacteria. I decided to do some research.

Yogurt is ubiquitous. It’s in all the supermarkets and convenience stores. It is considered to be a true health food, and is delicious. It is made from whole milk, lowfat and nonfat milk, but I prefer to eat yogurt made with non-homogenized whole milk.

Yogurt is made by heating milk at a low temperature and combining it with bacteria to encourage fermentation (which then preserves the milk). The most common bacteria in yogurt are: Lactobacillus bulgaricus and L. acidophilus (this produces vitamin K, lactase, and several anti-microbial substances). Streptococcus lactis, S. cremoris, thermophilus, and L. plantarum (also found in lacto-fermented vegetables) may also be present. In short, lactobacillus helps convert lactose and other sugars to lactic acid, and Streptococcus is the force behind the souring and coagulation of milk.

Yogurt has been made for millennia and is one of the oldest ways of preserving milk.

Milk Kefir resembles yogurt in it tartness, but does not share the same texture. It is produced by combining milk and kefir “grains”, which are a SCOBY – a Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast. The grains kind of look a little like lumps of small tapioca balls smushed together in a rough paste, and have a spongy texture.

The grains are placed in the milk and the mixture is allowed to ferment for as short as 24 hours. Kefir can become slightly alcoholic (about 1%) if let go for an extended period. Each time you make kefir, the grains grow and expand, so people tend to share their kefir grains with others.

kefir grains

Kefir shares some bacteria with yogurt, including Lactobacillus bulgaricus, L. acidophilus, Streptococcus lactis, S. cremoris, thermophilus and L. plantarum. Additionally, Lactococus lactis subsp. Lactis, Lactococus lactis subsp. Cremoris, Lactococus lactis subsp. Diacetylactis, Leuconostoc mesenteroides subsp. Cremoris (also found in cultured butter), Lactobacillus kefyr, Kliyveromyces marxianus var. marxainus, Saccharomyces unisporus (yeast) are in kefir. It is full of probiotic goodness.

Kombucha is a fermented sweetened tea with origins in China. The tea ferments for a number of days under something colloquially called a “mushroom” and technically called a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). It also can become slightly alcoholic (1.0% to 1.5%) depending on the brewing time.

As I said above, the SCOBY contains a symbiosis of bacteria – Acetobacter (acetic acid bacteria) – and yeast – Brettanomyces bruxellensis, Candida stellata, Schizosaccharomyces pombe, Torulaspora delbruecki, and Zygosaccharomyces bailii.

kombucha brewing

Kombucha sometimes tastes a little vinegary after a spell, and that is due to the presence of the acetic acid, which provides much anti-microbial activity. It also contains butyric acid, gluconic acid, lactic acid, malic acid, oxalic acid, usnic acid, as well as some B-vitamins. It does not contain glucuronic acid, contrary to popular belief and scientific testing.

Look for a future post on fermented vegetables, additional dairy products, and non-dairy drinks as well. The world of fermented food is vast and delicious!

This post is participating in Real Food Wednesday, hosted by Kelly the Kitchen Kop.

Kefir grains photo: (cc) user Phrood on Wikimedia Commons via a Creative Commons license.

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