Tuesday, October 29, 2013

How to Make Kombucha

Sweet tea + kombucha "mother" ready to be fermented

One of my favorite homesteading activities so far is making kombucha, a lacto-fermented beverage.   I had already been making and eating homemade sauerkraut for a couple of years when I learned about kombucha.  Intrigued by this brew and the health claims of detoxification and an immune system boost, I decided to buy some commercially-made kombucha at my local health food store, and found that I really liked it.  Not only did I really like the sour taste, but I noticed a slight increase in my sense of well-being after drinking it.

I began to purchase a bottle or two as a weekly treat and soon realized, like so many other kombucha drinkers, that $3-4/bottle was going to add up rather quickly.  So, I decided that once I had a chance to get a kombucha starter culture, called a kombucha "mother" or a SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast), I would start brewing my own at home for a lot less money.

The traditional way to obtain a SCOBY is to get one from a friend who makes kombucha at home, since a new "baby" SCOBY is produced each time you make a batch.  However, since I didn't know anyone in my area who makes kombucha, I found and purchased a SCOBY from an online vendor.  It's very important to get a quality and viable culture, so if you do order one online, I recommend doing some research and checking out product reviews before you buy it.  I purchased my original SCOBY for about $10, so it was a fairly inexpensive investment that has more than paid for itself in the several batches of kombucha that I have already made over the last few months.

Brewing kombucha is generally a 7-10 day process, but may take longer if the room temperature that you are fermenting in is cooler (less than about 70 degrees Fahrenheit).  This is because the cultures will not be as active in cooler temperatures as in warmer temperatures.

Taste will be your guide as to when the fermentation process is finished.  The brew should have a vinegar-like sharpness, the sweetness of the sugar should have decreased significantly, and the taste of the tea should no longer be evident.  After the initial fermentation period, you may choose to ferment further for another 5-7 days in glass bottles at room temperature, which will naturally carbonate it and make it bubbly, similar to the fizziness in a soda pop.

The ingredients needed to make kombucha are few, similar to most other fermented foods and beverages.  With only some tea, water, sugar and your SCOBY culture, you'll soon be brewing kombucha with the best of them.  As is usually the case, the higher the quality of ingredients that you use, the better.  Non-chorinated filtered water is generally recommended, as such chemicals can kill or adversely affect the SCOBY.  I have also used spring water quite successfully to ferment kombucha.  Organic black and green tea is best, since non-organic teas can have large amounts of fluoride, which can be harmful to your health.

It is generally recommended that you use organic white cane sugar, but I have used non-white organic sugar and it still produces a good brew.  According to Sally Fallon in her book Nourishing Traditions, white sugar, rather than honey or other non-processed sugar such as Rapadura or Sucanat, results in the greatest amounts of glucuronic acid, which is one of the healthful properties of kombucha that supports the immune system and bodily detoxification.

I make my kombucha a batch at a time, but someday I hope to start using a continuous brewing method, where I will always have kombucha on hand.

Makes a little less than one gallon of kombucha

Spring water, organic sugar, and tea bags
to be used for brewing kombucha

  • 3 quarts filtered water
  • 12 grams loose tea or 12 tea bags (recommend 9 grams organic green tea and 3 grams organic black tea (can use reusable tea bags, or 9 green tea bags and 3 black tea bags) 
  • 1 cup organic sugar (organic white cane sugar is best, but I have used organic non-white sugar successfully as well) 
  • 1 kombucha mother (SCOBY) + 1/2 cup of kombucha from a previous batch

1.  Boil the 3 quarts of filtered water, remove from heat, add the tea bags and steep for about 10 minutes.  Remove the loose tea or tea bags and press the tea to extract any extra tea "juices."

2.  Add the sugar and stir until all of it is dissolved.

3.  Let the sweet tea cool until it is close to room temperature and is no longer hot.

4.  Poor the cooled tea solution into a clean gallon size glass jar, add the pre-made kombucha liquid, stir to mix and with clean hands, gently place the SCOBY into the jar.  You may add some additional unheated filtered water at this point to increase the total volume of your brew, but be sure to leave about an inch or so of space below the neck of the jar.  Stir to mix.  Be gentle with your SCOBY if you happen to stir when it is present in the jar.

Sweet tea + SCOBY
ready for fermentation

5.  Wipe down the outside of the jar to discourage any insects such as fruit flies from having a party in your brew.

6.  Cover the jar with a clean towel, and secure with a rubber band.

My kombucha chillin' out
and fermenting on a shelf

7.  Place the jar in a warm, dark place, away from any contaminants.  If you don't have an  appropriate dark place to let the fermenting kombucha hang out, you can wrap clean dark  colored kitchen towels around the jar and  secure in place to help keep it in the dark  ( I use twist ties).   Be sure to leave the bottom of the jar unwrapped to allow the jar to sit level on a flat surface.  Also, be careful when transporting your cozy kombucha from one spot to another to avoid dropping it.     

I lift up the towels before carrying it with both hands to it's final "fermentation destination," so I'm less likely to drop it. 

My cozy kombucha

Kombucha ready to be bottled for
it's secondary fermentation stage

8.  Let the kombucha ferment for about 7 days, and then taste it.   It should taste sour, resembling vinegar, with the sweetness having decreased dramatically, and no tea taste should remain.  If the kombucha still tastes fairly sweet, continue to let it ferment and check daily until ready.  Initial fermentation can take as long as 14-21 days, if the room temperature is relatively cool.  

Your kombucha mother should have grown a new baby SCOBY during the fermentation process that you can use to either ferment a new batch with or to give one to a friend.  A single kombucha mother can be used to ferment dozens of batches, so you will have plenty of baby SCOBYs to share.

Congratulations!  It's a SCOBY!
My SCOBY "hotel," where I store
extra SCOBYs in my refrigerator

9.  With clean hands, remove the SCOBY(s), and use one to start a new batch of kombucha, or store in a SCOBY "hotel" (a glass jar containing one or more SCOBYs and enough brewed kombucha to use as a starter for your next batch, which you can keep in your refrigerator until you are ready to brew more).

Using a funnel makes bottling the
kombucha much easier

10.  If you wish to drink the kombucha as is, you can pour it into clean glass bottles or jars and store them in your refrigerator.  Pour the kombucha through a nylon or plastic strainer before bottling to remove larger kombucha strands and spent yeast cells.   

You may wish to let your kombucha-filled bottles ferment (put caps/lids on tightly) for an additional 5-7 days to enhance carbonation, and to give your kombucha some fizziness.  After this secondary fermentation, the kombucha's sharp acidity should have mellowed a bit.  Be sure to leave several inches between the top level of the kombucha and the top of the bottle during the secondary fermentation phase to allow for the expansion of carbon dioxide gas and the build up of pressure within the bottles.  

When the second fermentation phase is done, you can enjoy it right away or store the bottles of kombucha in your refrigerator.   When you are ready to drink the kombucha, open the bottles slowly, possibly over a sink in case there has been a lot of carbonation built up within the bottle and your kombucha overflows when you open it.

My freshly fermented kombucha.  For storage, I reuse glass bottles from commercial
kombucha that I have purchased in the past.

Note:  If the kombucha mother develops any black or moldy-looking spots, it has become contaminated and should be thrown away or composted, along with any potentially contaminated kombucha.  If you have your SCOBY hotel in the refrigerator, you should have plenty of starter cultures to use as a backup.

The sugar gets "eaten up" by the culture during the fermentation process, so do not worry about consuming all of that sugar.  I have also read that the caffeine in the tea gets reduced during the kombucha fermentation process as well, so for those of us who tend to be sensitive to the caffeine in things such as coffee, it is much easier on the body.  I don't drink coffee or regular tea because of the high amounts of caffeine that are so stimulating to my system, and I've never had any such issues when I drink kombucha.

Kombucha is a very healthy, but also a very potent detoxifying beverage.  I recommend trying a small amount of kombucha at first to see how your body tolerates it, and then increasing the amount that you consume over time.  If you have a strong reaction to the kombucha, your body may be fairly toxic and you may need to detoxify a bit before trying it again.  Eventually, you may be able to drink larger amounts when your body is ready for it.  Be patient and gentle with your body, and listen to what it is trying to tell you about the state of your health.  Our bodies have a lot of innate wisdom, if we are willing to pay attention.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

How to Make Sauerkraut (Mason Jar and Refrigerator Method, Dairy-Free)

Red and green cabbage sauerkrauts ready for fermentation

Making homemade sauerkraut is super easy and inexpensive.  You only need a few simple ingredients and some common kitchen items to make a batch of sauerkraut that your grandmother would be proud of.

Prior to reading the book Nourishing Traditions by author Sally Fallon and learning about the health benefits of fermented foods and beverages, the only exposure to sauerkraut that I ever had was eating a grilled reuben sandwich during my early college years.  It was likely that the sauerkraut used for my sandwich was the kind typically found in a can or a bag that has been pasteurized and no longer contains the healthful probiotic cultures.  If your only exposure to sauerkraut has been the industrialized version, I encourage you to give homemade raw sauerkraut a try.  You may find that you really like it.   Chances are, if you like pickles, you will also enjoy homemade sauerkraut.

Red cabbage sauerkraut finished fermenting

I do NOT recommend heat canning (water bath or pressure canning) your raw homemade sauerkraut, as this process kills the good probiotic bacteria that it contains, and this would defeat the primary healthful purpose of making it in the first place.  Freezing temperatures may also kill the good bacteria, so avoid storing your fermented treasures in the freezer.

There are a number of methods for making sauerkraut.  So far, I have only used the method described in Nourishing Traditions, where the fermentation of sauerkraut occurs in wide-mouth, quart-sized mason jars.  People have also been known to ferment sauerkraut in plastic food grade buckets, or use the more traditional method of fermenting in special fermentation crocks.  Use whichever method you prefer.  I'm hoping to experiment with other fermentation methods for making sauerkraut in the future.

To make one quart of sauerkraut using the mason jar and refrigerator method, you will need (feel free to scale up if you want to make larger batches):

  • One medium cabbage (organically grown is best if you can get it)
  • 1 tablespoon caraway seeds
  • 2 tablespoons high quality sea salt (I recommend gray celtic sea salt or other type of unrefined sea salt)

Suggested Equipment:
Examples of the equipment that I use to make sauerkraut

  • Large kitchen knife to cut up cabbage
  • Large non-metallic bowl (metal can negatively react with the salt in the sauerkraut)
  • Potato masher, meat hammer, or heavy duty wooden/bamboo spoon
  • Large cutting board
  • 1 very clean quart sized wide-mouth mason jar + lid (can use additional jars if you run out of room in the first jar)
  • Optional:  Food processor to chop up/shred cabbage, or food grater

1.)  Core the cabbage, shred it, and place into a large bowl.  You can use a knife to cut the cabbage up into shreds, or you can accomplish this by using a food processor to shred up the cabbage in batches.  You can also use a food grater, if you prefer.

2.)  Add the caraway seeds and the sea salt.  Stir to mix well.

3.)  Pound the cabbage mixture with your potato masher, meat hammer, or heavy duty wooden/bamboo spoon for approximately 10 minutes.  You are done when you can see a large amount of juices from the cabbage accumulate at the bottom of the bowl.  You can also squeeze the cabbage with your clean hands to extract the juice, which is a fun activity for children, or for your own stress relief.  The sea salt added in the previous step helps to draw out the juices from the cabbage.

4.)  Once you have gotten a good amount of juice, scoop the mixture into your quart-sized wide-mouth mason jar(s).  Press the cabbage down to get the juices to cover the cabbage.  Be sure to allow for at least one inch of space between your concoction and the top of the jar, as the sauerkraut will likely expand a bit during the fermentation process and needs the room.

5.)  Screw the lid(s) on the mason jar(s), and set in an undisturbed location at room temperature for approximately three days.

6.)  After the three days, open up the jar and taste your creation.  The contents should have a sour, pickle-like flavor.  If you would like your sauerkraut to be even more sour, replace the lid and keep fermenting, checking daily.  

Fermented sauerkraut ready to be stored in the refrigerator

7.)  When it is ready, place in your refrigerator for storage.  You can enjoy your sauerkraut young (newly fermented), or let it continue to ferment at a much lower rate within your refrigerator.  It will keep safely for many months.

If you end up with a little mold on the very top of your kraut, simply throw away or compost the moldy portion.  The rest of the kraut is still good and safe to enjoy.  All of the good microorganisms present in the sauerkraut will keep bad microorganisms from living there. Using this method, the development of mold is a possibility, but not a very likely one.  This is because the lid stays on during the fermentation process and there is very little air exposure.  

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

10 Reasons to Make and Eat Sauerkraut (and Other Lacto-Fermented Foods and Beverages)

Sauerkraut Ready to Be Fermented

1.  Probiotics = Healthy Bacteria.  Thanks to advertising for many popular yogurt brands, most people are familiar with the term probiotics (good bacteria that are necessary for the health of our digestive tract and our immune systems).  For the health of our guts (and the rest of our body), we need a proper balance of good bacteria to populate our guts, or we run the risk of an overpopulation of bad microorganisms that can make us ill.  Due to many issues of our modern diets and lifestyles (such as too much stress, sugar, toxins, and antibiotics that kill both the bad and the good bacteria), the environment in our guts can become much more favorable to bad bacteria, and then we increase our vulnerability to infections.  A large portion of our immune system is actually in our guts, so having the proper balance of good bacteria is extremely important for staying healthy.  Through the process of lacto-fermentation, foods such as sauerkraut are teaming with a variety of these healthy bacteria that are extremely important for our health.

I have personally found that by consuming properly prepared raw fermented foods and beverages like sauerkraut and kombucha, my health has been more positively impacted than by taking a probiotic supplement alone.  While probiotic supplements can be extremely important if you have no other source of probiotics, you never know how many bacteria are still alive in them by the time you consume them, and you don't receive as wide a variety of good bacteria than with lacto-fermented foods that you can easily make yourself at home.

2.  Tasty Goodness!  Lacto-fermented foods and beverages just taste great!  Did you know that many of the common foods, condiments and beverages that we consume in the Western diet have a basis in traditional fermentation?  Foods and beverages such as coffee, chocolate, yogurt, cheese, beer, ketchup, wine, bread, soy sauce, ginger ale and ginger beer (a non-alcoholic fermented beverage), root beer and pickles all have preparation traditions in fermentation.  Be aware, however, that the industrial forms of many of these foods no longer have the same level of nutrition that their traditionally prepared counterparts contain, since many of these industrialized products contain vinegar or other preservatives instead of beneficial probiotic cultures.   Personal preferences may vary regarding which particular fermented foods and beverages you like, and some of them may take a little getting used to since many people aren't used to consuming these types of foods in today's Western diet.  Taste and experiment for yourself!  

3.  Easy to Make.  Making lacto-fermented foods is fairly simple and generally doesn't require a lot of fancy or expensive equipment.  Often what you already have in your kitchen will suffice to make many of these concoctions such as: kitchen knives, bowls, a good quality sea salt, spices or herbs of your choice, wooden spoons or other instrument to pound and bruise vegetables, and sometimes purified or spring water to make a brine.  To ferment veggies, you can use quart mason jars, or you can use fermentation crocks if you happen to have them (they are nice, but not necessary- for all of the batches of sauerkraut that I've made over the last several years, I've just used mason jars).  To ferment beverages such as kombucha, a starter culture is typically needed, such as a kombucha mother (also known as a SCOBY, or a Symbiotic Culture of Yeast and Bacteria), kefir grains for water or dairy kefirs, or a ginger bug to make ginger beer.  

In my opinion, lacto-fermentation is much less precise, and requires far less preparation than canning.  Generally, you simply need to provide the right kind of environment for the good bacteria and other microorganisms to thrive in, such as a salty brine or by using a starter culture to kick-start the process and to keep the putrifying organisms from gaining a foothold, and you should be successful.  

4.  Inexpensive to Make.  To make many of the different kinds of fermented foods and beverages, you generally only need a few simple ingredients, such as your veggies, some quality sea salt, and your chosen herbs/spices, and water.  It's even cheaper if you grow your own veggies in your garden at home.  You can add whey as a starter culture to ferment vegetables, but I never have done this due to my milk sensitivities, and my fermented veggies have still turned out fine without it.  Making these foods and beverages at home is far cheaper than buying the prepared raw fermented foods at the grocery store or food co-op, and much cheaper than most high quality probiotic supplements on the market.

5.  Powerful Nutrition.  The process of lacto-fermentation makes many vegetables even more nutritious than before they were fermented.  Along with good bacteria, fermented veggies contain lactic acid and choline that are produced during the fermentation process.  The lactic acid present in these fermented foods help to protect the body from infections and to stimulate pancreatic secretions, and choline has been found to help lower blood pressure and to help the body metabolize fats. According to author Sally Fallon in her book Nourishing Traditions, eating lacto-fermented vegetables can possibly help those with health issues such as asthma, skin problems, and auto-immune disorders, help to normalize stomach acid, assist with the digestion of protein as well as the assimilation of iron in the diet, and much more.

6.  Fun with Biology.  To me, each batch of lacto-fermented veggies or beverages is like an experiment, exhibiting biology in action with the almost magical transformation of one type of food into another.   Each batch may taste a little differently than the last, depending on the wild bacteria and other microorganisms that are present in the environment, which can vary during different environmental conditions, such as air temperature.  I think that it's a lot of fun to taste these "experiments" after the fermentation period is over.  It's like biology class, but much tastier. 

7.  It's Alive!  Sauerkraut and other lacto-fermented foods are living, raw foods.  They contain all of the enzymes and good bacteria that are so sought after in raw foods that many of us simply don't consume enough of in our modern diets.

8.  Preserve Your Harvest.  Lacto-fermentation is a relatively easy way to preserve those seasonal goodies for storage that you have harvested from your garden, or picked up at your local farmers market or weekly CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) subscription.  Fermentation also offers a great solution to conundrums such as, "What on earth am I going to do with all of those cucumbers?"  Many of the lacto-fermented veggies will last for many months if stored properly (such as in a refrigerator if using the mason jar method, or in a cool, dry basement if using a fermentation crock).

9.  Sauerkraut is a Good Source of Vitamin C.  On Captain Cook's historic sea voyage, barrels of sauerkraut were carried on board the ship and helped the crew to successfully avoid developing scurvy from the long trip and lack of fresh foods. 

10.  Use Your Creative Genius.  Unlike canning, with it's requirements of exact ingredient measurement, temperature, and pH to avoid spoilage and unhealthy conditions if guidelines are not precisely followed,  lacto-fermenation offers a lot more room for creativity when it comes to using different ingredients.  As previously mentioned, as long as you follow basic guidelines to provide the optimal environment for the right kind of microorganisms to thrive in, you should be successful and have created a safe and tasty product that has retained much of the original nutritional value and can be enjoyed raw.