The mystery and magic of water kefir

water kefir

-by Veronica Kaczmarowski

Fermented water kefir is an important part of our juice retreat here at Spa Eastman. Although we may think that this ‘new’, fermented health drink has only just arrived on the world scene, the history of water kefir goes back a very long way.  There is much debate as to whether it originated in Tibet (monks gave Mother Teresa of Calcutta the grains as a gift), or centuries ago in the Caucasus Mountains (introduced to Europe and the west by the British Soldiers after the Crimean War in the 1800’s)….or in Mexico (where in 1899 M. L. Lutz documented its existence in the naturally sugar-saturated water of the Ountia cactus).

Not to be confused with milk kefir grains (that’s a whole other story!). Water and milk kefir grains consist of a complex polysaccharide matrix, in which live a combination of live bacteria and yeasts existing in a symbiotic matrix. However, water kefir complex does NOT contain a casein core, which is important for those wishing to eliminate dairy from their diet. Water kefir grains have been used for centuries around the world, if not longer, and have their own distinct and separate cultures. Although their origin is shrouded in mystery, one thing is certain…the drink they provide has been used throughout history as a healthy, traditional and natural beverage.

When looking at water kefir grains and their health benefits, it’s important to realize just how rich these tiny, roughly shaped jewels are. Water kefir helps promote healthy gut bacteria, and that’s good news for keeping pathogens and “bad” bacteria at bay, which is extremely important for overall health

Firstly, you’ll only need a few basic items with which to prepare it:

  • A large glass jar
  • Wood or plastic spoon/spatula
  • Plastic, nylon or cheesecloth strainer
  • Another large glass container to store the finished kefir (a Mason jar or a recycled juice or vinegar bottle works great, too).

Ingredients

  • Water: 1 litre (4 cups) of water.
  • Sugar: ¼ cup (4 to 6 tbsp) of organic cane sugar (such as whole cane, rapadura, sucanat, palm or molasses all work well). In the winter when your house is cooler you can start with less (about 3-4 tablespoons)
  • Dried organic, non-sulphured fruit: 2 or 3 dried figs, apricots or Medjool dates.
  • Lemon: ½ lemon with zest, cut in quarters, optional. Organic is always best and make sure to wash it well before using.

Now that you have all your ingredients ready, let’s get to work!

Preparation

1. The first step is to strain your grains and discard the liquid it was stored in. While they are still in the strainer, lightly pour some spring, filtered or mineral water over them to give them a quick rinse – very briefly.

It’s really important to note that acids in the kefir grains react to metal strainers and this can harm the grains even with a brief contact. Always use a plastic or cloth strainer, as mentioned above.

2. Leave them to drain while you prepare the other ingredients.Next, add the 4 cups of spring or mineral water to the large glass jar. Always use cold, cool or room temperature water (never hot, which just kills your grains).

3. Add the sugar of your choice, the lemon wedges and the dried fruit you wish to use. Note that pale organic sugar will give a mild, soft flavour, whereas choosing molasses will result in a far stronger flavour and a darker colour in the finished product. Try experimenting with different dried fruits and a variety of sugars, and see which flavours you prefer.

Stir with a wooden or plastic utensil until the sugar is mostly dissolved. This will only take a minute or two, as it doesn’t have to be perfect.  It’s important to do this step BEFORE adding your kefir grains, because the sugar crystals can be very abrasive for the delicate grains.

4. Place your rinsed grains in the jar with the water and other ingredients, making sure you leave a space of an inch clear at the top. Cover the top of the jar with a cloth, paper towel or parchment paper held by elastic. This is so your kefir grains can breathe while at the same time protecting it from contamination like dust and fruit flies.

Alternatively, you can use a lid which will result in a slightly fizzier kefir water.  However, be careful, because in really warm weather, putting a tight lid can cause the jar to explode due to the natural carbonation process taking place.

5. Store the ferment in a darker area such as inside a cupboard. Avoiding too much natural light can make a difference to the fermentation process.  Now you just sit back and let your kefir grains do their thing!!

Check your ferment after about 48 hours (2 days), which is the usual recommended time for water kefir. In the hot days of summer, they may be done before that, but it’s nothing to worry about. In cooler weather you can leave them up to 3 or 4 days.   It’s not critical to get just the right time, so experiment as you go, taste your batch from time to time to help determine when it seems about the right sweetness to you.

6. When the kefir is ready, you need to separate the water kefir from the kefir grains. Set a plastic or cheese cloth strainer over a jar or bowl and pour everything in. Pick out any fruit or lemon. You can eat or discard these. You can also re-use the lemon pieces and dried fruit for one more ferment if desired.

7. Bottle your strained water kefir (glass is the preferred material here) and either drink it right away or keep it chilled in the refrigerator for up to a week.  It begins to diminish in flavor past a week, because it continues to convert to a more acidic, higher alcohol beverage.

As for the grains, place them back in a small glass storage jar, cover with fresh water and a few drops of maple syrup and cover with a lid.  Store them in the refrigerator, and this will keep them ‘sleeping’ until you are ready to make your next batch.  However, you do need to repeat this process to refresh them every 3 weeks.

During our Revitalizing Cure by juices from March 5th to 8th or from April 17th to 24th. we demonstrate how to make your own water kefir, and it will be available for purchase to take back home.  What better way to move from winter into spring than by nourishing your body with nutrient-dense juices, mineral-rich detox broths (bouillons) and traditional, immune-boosting kefir water!

For more information, and for sources, please consult this document.

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