The simplicity of water kefir – fermented water! – explained. Plus an in-depth, step-by-step guide to making this nutritious, probiotic, gut health hero. This drink is a great non-dairy alternative to milk kefir.
Fermentation is a simple yet mysterious process. As a natural phenomenon, it happens whether we are present or not. Any food, in the right conditions, can be transformed over time into something more than itself for us to enjoy in a variety of ways. But it is also complex.
For thousands of years humans have shaped the way that bacteria, fungi and enzymes interact with plants, and even animal. A multiplicity of chemical dances help make foods that are more digestible, more palatable, more nutritious and less toxic. It is a way of preserving foods too. Your near ancestors almost certainly were a dab hand at making a seasonal abundance of food stretch into leaner, colder times. Kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles, yogurt, cheese.
Even though most of us don’t need to ferment our food, many of us are finding that it goes way beyond the prudently necessary; it aids our health and broadens our appreciation for other cultures.
Fermentation is of course also how alcohol is made. The evening glass of wine on your sofa – fermented grapes; the game-time beer – fermented grains. Complex stuff.
But water kefir is easy.
What is water kefir?
Water kefir is what I would call a starter fermented drink. It is practically fool-proof, you won’t poison yourself, it’s economical and it is fab for your gut. If you do it right (which isn’t hard) you can keep it going indefinitely.
This simple drink has become our summer mainstay. Made with water, sugar and a special symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY), water kefir is versatile, quick to ferment and very thirst-quenching. Which makes it perfect for summer drinking. You will see it on the menus of the hippest cafes, spiked with all kinds of fruits and herbs. It’s usually quite pricey.
But it’s not just a tasty, trendy, expensive drink.
By now most of you will be more than a little familiar with the benefits of probiotics. They are essentially living microorganisms (bacteria and enzymes mainly) that live in the gut and promote healthy digestion and immune function – and more. We are just starting to realise the scope of their impact on physical and mental health. The absence of specific ones may at the very least be the root cause of, or aggravate, numerous immune-related disorders. Enough of the good ones can crowd out the bad ones – and vice versa. Some of you will be taking probiotic supplements – adding good bacteria – for various issues. I know I’ve flirted expensively with them off and on for years.
Drinking water kefir may be better than popping probiotic pills.
Different water kefirs will have a slightly different profile, but will largely consist of these important microbial species: L(actobacillus) casei/paracasei, L. harbinensis, L. hilgardii, L. hordei, L nagelii; Bifidobacterium psychraerophilum/crudilactis, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, and Dekkera bruxellensis. Another really interesting one that gets mention in the “gut lit” is Leuconostoc mesenteroides (it’s also present in one of my favourite Indian foods, idli). The average batch of water kefir will probably contain upwards of 15 different strains of bacteria, never-minding the helpful yeasts like Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
Even the simplest of water kefir concoctions will have far more healthful probiotic strains than the average over-the-counter probiotic capsule. And it’s definitely alive. Just listen to it.
Another advantage over capsules is that some of the strains in water kefir may be more likely to thrive and multiply long-term in the hostile gut environment. That’s what we want. We want a healthy colony of good bacterias breaking down our food, making nutrients, nourishing themselves, making little gut bacteria babies. Freaky, huh?
A basic water kefir can easily be transformed from a pleasant, mildly fizzy plain drink that won’t offend anyone, to a truly delicious, nutritious soft drink sub that you and your kids – or anyone else hanging around your kitchen – will crave. This morning’s bottle du jour was flavoured with fresh blueberries and delicate garden lavender (above). It is spectacular. I’ll tell you more about it in the next post.
This current post will walk you through the basics that I’ve learned over the past wee while, with help from books and the lovely people at Edinburgh’s Twelve Triangles Kitchen Table, in the Leith area. I did a couple of fermentation classes there last year that really gave me the bug for fermenting. A bad joke, but true too.
I will give links at the bottom so you can read more about fermenting foods to make delectable and nutritious drinks. I won’t get into the science – other people tell it better and with more authority – but I will hopefully whet your whistle with a few tasty ideas. Or is that wet your whistle? I’m never sure. ;-)
If you have any questions about water kefir, please just ask and I will give my best answer.
While you wait for your water kefir grains to arrive (or get at the health food store), why not make my Probiotic Pineapple Tepache? Loads of readers have made it and love it. Nothing needed but a pineapple, water, brown sugar and a couple of spices. And a tiny bit of time. 🙂
Follow my Facebook and Instagram accounts for extra, ultra-simple, recipes that don’t appear on the blog. And if you post an Instagram pic of one of my recipes that you’ve made, I will share it with pride.
In depth, step-by-step guide to making this probiotic, gut health hero. This drink is a great non-dairy alternative to milk kefir. I have a list of products that I use below the instructions. You will need to obtain water kefir grains before starting this project. xx
Note 1: Water kefir is best done as a continuous ferment, like you do with sourdough. This is the basics of how you do the primary fermentation. Secondary fermentation is optional but is where you add any natural – usually fresh fruit – flavours you wish.
Note 2: Don’t be concerned about the sugar that is added to the first/primary ferment. Sugar is absolutely necessary to feed the water kefir grains and allow them to thrive and ferment the water. The bacteria and yeasts in the grains eat the sugar, leaving you with strains of good bacteria and a only very faintly sweet drink. The longer you leave the first ferment the more sour and tangy it will become.
Note 3: Organic is best when it comes to fermenting as the sprays on conventional products can inhibit the fermentation process. And filtered water is necessary for similar reasons.
What you need:
1 quart/1 litre sterilised jar with screw on lid (e.g.large Kilner/Ball type of jar)
750ml / 4 cups room temperature, filtered water or – in a pinch – water you have poured and left for half an hour (this lets the gases dissapate)
4 tbsp organic sugar – you can use maple syrup, rice syrup, malt syrup but not non-carbohydrate sweeteners like stevia. I like organic caster sugar as it dissolves quickly. Honey can damage the grains
2 tbsp (or more) of Water kefir grains
3 slices of unwaxed and lightly washed organic lemons
1-2 tbsp raisins (these add necessary minerals to keep the kefir grains happy)
Plastic sieve or muslin/cheesecloth
Plastic measuring spoons
A litre/quart jar with lid (clip-top for preference)
A couple of sterilised 1/2 litre/ 1/2 quart bottles or a litre/quart bottle
What you do and why you do it:
Add sugar to sterilised jar, followed by a few inches of the water. Swirl it until it dissolves. Add the remaining water, the grains, lemon and raisins.
Ready to ferment Now this is where you have a choice. You can either cover the jar opening with a paper towel and secure with an elastic band. Or, you can seal the jar with your lid. The bacteria and yeast will do their thing whether or not oxygen is present. I’ve read that the paper towel method makes the grains multiply (yes! Extra grains to give away!) but I’ve not noticed that yet. I’ve tried both methods.
Leave the jar for 24 to 48 hours in a warm dry place, out of direct sunlight. In especially warm weather 12 hours may be sufficient.
How do you know when it’s ready? One of the reasons to add the raisins is that they will gradually rise to the top and “tell you” when the water is fermented. It is very accurate. Even when the raisins float you can leave it another day at room temperature to feed the bacteria in optimal conditions. If you are using a sealed jar, give the jar a quick burp every day to release any pressure. It should smell a little yeasty – that’s good.
After the one to two days, pluck out the lemons with a fork or tongs, then strain the grains and raisins through a plastic sieve or muslin/cheesecloth into a wide jar or jug. Keep them to the side for now.
Bottling the water kefir Transfer the fermented water from the jug to sealable bottles (clip-top lidded bottles are great) to ferment further at room temperature without the grains. This will take away even more of the sugar. It’s ready to drink when it is to your taste. Refrigerate your probiotic drink and enjoy over a couple of days.
Note on tasting as you go For your first ever batch it is good to have little tastes from a glass after the raisins have popped up, so that you know how it tastes over time. You may drink it any time after the fruit rises as it will be gently fermented and full of good bacteria.
What to do with your strained grains Once you have bottled the fermented water, add more sugar as per above to the well-rinsed fermenting jar, along with filtered water and proceed as previous. This is your next batch.
I don’t want to make another batch right now If you aren’t quite ready to make another batch, just add half the amount of sugar and water to the jar (no lemons or raisins) and store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks before starting as described above. This keeps the grains alive but in a suspended animation of sorts. After two weeks the water gets too acidic and the grains start to die off. You don’t want to do this too often as it stresses the grains and makes them less effective over time.
That’s it! You now have made your first batch of water kefir! I like it straight, and as-is, but it is even nicer and possibly has more nutritional value when fermented further with flavourful, fresh organic fruits. All you really do is add sliced fruits and herbs to the strained water kefir to make a secondary ferment. This can be drunk as soon as 8 hours after room temperature fermenting so is well worth trying. I will give you ideas and the specific how-to and trouble shooting in the next post.
If you have any questions, please do comment here and I will get back to you with my best answer.
WANT MORE? Check out my follow-up post, 12 Essential Water Kefir Sodas for Summer. Ideas, how-to and more!
Products I use to make water kefir
Le Parfait Jar 2L (I use this one most often for larger batches)
Clear Plastic Filter Funnel (mine is similar but grey)
Brita Fill&Enjoy Jug (similar to mine)
**The above are Amazon UK affiliate links. Your purchase from my links helps support this site and keep it ad-free. Thank you!**
The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz – the best book on fermenting. Well written and fascinating. Not a recipe book though
DIY Fermentation by Katherine Green – good little recipe book with interesting fermentation projects
The Good Gut: Taking control of your weight, your mood and your long-term health by Justin Sonnenburg and Erica Sonnenburg – excellent, highly readable book. I’ve read it twice.
Gut by Guilia Enders (great reviews and recommended to me, but I’ve not read it)
The Clever Guts Diet by Michael Mosley – an easy, engaging “starter” book on the gut and health connection
The Diet Myth: the real science behind what we eat by Professor Tim Spector – un-put-downable read on how microbes affect weight, and more
Magical microbes: how to feed your gut – excellent article in The Guardian, quoting the top experts, including Professor Tim Spector (above)
**Remember to follow me on Pinterest and, if you make water kefir, click on the pin below and leave a photo of your make with a comment telling me what you think, or any awesome changes that you made. Whether on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or of course here on the blog, I love to see what my lovely readers do with my recipes, and I welcome your comments, tweaks and suggestions.**
RIPE FOR PINNING!