If you’ve been watching my Harmonious Belly Facebook page over the past couple of months, you know that I’ve been doing a lot with water kefir. It’s been really interesting, a lot of fun, and yields a very tasty beverage. I’ve gotten some positive feedback on the water kefir drinks I’ve created, so I must be doing something right. I thought I’d share a little bit of what I’ve learned. I tend to take a simple approach to making this probiotic beverage, and some of my practices may be controversial, but they have served me well so far.
1. I bought my kefir grains from Cultures For Health. They arrived dehydrated and I rehydrated them with water and organic sugar. It was very easy to do this. Instructions come with the kefir grains.
I had heard that water kefir grains were more crystaline than dairy kefir grains. I was under the impression that they were hard, like actual crystals. Turns out they are soft, and you could crush them with little effort between your fingers. From a visual standpoint, though, they do look like bits of crystals.
2. I use regular old tap water to make my water kefir. NYC has some of the tastiest water in the country – we drink our water at home pretty much exclusively from our tap. NYC water also contains both chlorine and fluoride, which some people really don’t want to ingest. I have not run into any problems with them from a robust fermentation standpoint.
Most literature on water kefir says to avoid water with these things added to it. If I could easily and practically avoid them, I would. You may prefer to get rid of the chlorine (not much can be done about the fluoride), and that is done by boiling the water and letting it sit overnight. I’ve also read that you can just let it sit out for 24 hours and the chlorine will evaporate.
I could put my water through a Britta or PUR type filter, but I really hate that everything involved with a filter like this is plastic-based. I really don’t want to add more plastic to my life. Plus they are not cheap. So, after taking all things into account – convenience and cost being the primary issues – I decided to experiment with plain tap water. I have had great success – my grains are healthy, not slimy and they have no off odor or color. I check them each time I make a new batch of kefir.
3. I use organic sugar aka “evaporated cane juice.” I tried sucanat because I’d heard it was better because it was higher in minerals. I did not like the taste at all. I much prefer the lighter tasted of the evaporated cane juice, and I think it melds better with the fruit I use in the second fermentation (see below). Sucanat or rapadura can also cause a sort of slick membrane to develop on top of the kefir. This is neither a bad thing, nor will it damage the kefir liquid, so you can just discard it.
My preferred proportions are 4 cups water, 1/4 cup sugar, 3 tbs kefir grains.
4. I always do the first fermentation simply – just water, sugar, and kefir grains – with nothing added beyond that. It’s possible to initially ferment the sugar water along with fruit of some sort, but I prefer to leave the fruitiness to the second fermentation. I really like having a sort of blank canvass with which to work on a second fermentation. I don’t like to complicate things at this point.
5. Consequently, I like to do two fermentations. I do the first fermentation in a 1/2 gallon mason jar with an old tea towel secured with a rubber band covering the jar opening. It sits on my kitchen counter for a couple of days; in the summer with the heat, that timing will no doubt speed up. This yields a flat, sweet beverage. I could just drink that, but I really want something fizzy and fruity tasty in my water kefir. That means I must do a second fermentation.
I do the second fermentation with fruit or fresh fruit juice. I take the flat water kefir, and strain out the grains, pouring the liquid into a big glass Pyrex bowl. I currently use a stainless steel mesh strainer – the grains have not suffered, though at some point I want to get a mesh strainer (this means mail order and I just haven’t had time to sit down and place the order). I only let them spend time in the strainer for about 10 seconds, and then I transfer them to a glass or plastic bowl.
I add fruit juice or whole fruit (berries are great, as are small pieces of organic citrus, peel and all) to the container I use for the second fermentation. This is a large (33 oz) swing top bottle. I add the strained water kefir to that bottle, cap it, then put it somewhere warm. The probiotics in that flat kefir will go to town on the fruit sugars and add more interest to the beverage. And by capping it, it traps the gas and makes things bubbly and fizzy.
On the average, the second fermentation takes 2-3 days. I’ve found that raspberries ferment the fastest. I’ve also used ginger, lime, blueberries, grapefruit juice, and tangerine juice. All have yielded a very tasty drink.
To tell if the second fermentation has created enough carbonation, I take the bottle and hold it over the kitchen sink, then open it. A loud pop is a good sign! I like to open it over the sink in case it has fermented to the point of overflowing when the pressure is released. I expect the second fermentation will speed up when it gets warmer.
6. I strain out the fruit chunks into smaller swing top bottles. This helps the kefir retain its fizziness. Putting the kefir into regular Ball-type canning jars I find lets the beverage go flat again. I like the 8.5 oz Italian swing top bottles for single servings. A batch of kefir fills about 3 of those small bottles.
The way I strain out the fruit is to use a small, fine mesh strainer – about 4 inches in diameter – sitting in a narrow mouth funnel, which fits easily into the opening of the small swing top bottle. This fine mesh strainer keeps out most citrus pulp, which can get kind of, for use of a better term, slimy in the kefir. I find that to be really unappealing. It’s also aesthetically displeasing, at least for me.
The spent fruit at this point is not really useful for anything except composting.
7. If you let the kefir go too long in the first fermentation, you’ll get a kind of kefir vinegar. It smells quite sour. You might even find a gelatinous “mother” starting up, floating on top of the liquid. I love vinegar, but haven’t felt inclined to keep any of the kefir vinegar.
By the way, in my experience the kefir does have that fermented odor – a bit sour, and earthy. It is not a neutral aroma.
8. If you don’t like the way the kefir tastes, smells, or has an off-color, throw it out. Really. I’ve thrown out a couple batches over the last couple of months and felt no guilt about it. One of the batches I had let go way too long – 6 days! Basically, I had forgotten about it. Oops. It happens.
Making water kefir is one of my favorite fermentation projects. It lets me be creative and I get a delicious fruity probiotic drink out of it. For those of you that are trying it out, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do! Feel free to ask questions in the comments – I’m happy to be a resource for you.
Basic Water Kefir Recipe
1/4 cup organic granulated sugar or evaporated cane juice
4 cups water
2-3 tbs water kefir grains
1/2 gallon mason jar
Dissolve 1/4 cup sugar into 1 cup warm water. Stir until all sugar has dissolved and there are no granules remaining. Add this to your mason jar, and fill it up to the 4 cup line with cold water. You do not want the sugar water to be too warm.
Add the water kefir grains. Cover the opening to the jar with a piece of fabric or several layers of cheesecloth. Secure with a rubber band. Set on your counter where it’s out of the way.
Allow the kefir to ferment for a couple days in cold weather, 1 day in hot weather. When the kefir is ready, it will smell sort of sour, and may have changed color. It is now ready to drink on its own or to use in a second fermentation.