Kefir, Kombucha, Kraut, & Kvass
There’s been a rapid decline in living food in recent decades. The industrial food machine has essentially eliminated fermented foods like kefir and sauerkraut from our diets. With the best of intentions, some of us gave up processed food long ago in favor of beautiful platefuls of fresh veggies. The only problem? If we don’t have enough of the microflora that are able to digest and convert those veggies into usable form, we might as well be eating that dead, packaged food.
I think that bears repeating: Vegetables are useless if we don’t have the right microflora to digest them. Human bodies do not digest plants; our gut bugs do. And with each course of antibiotics or other destructive mechanisms, we completely eradicate more sensitive bacterial types and provide more opportunities for resistant “super bugs” to take over. When that happens–no matter how well we try to feed our good gut bugs–the bad microbes will continue to starve us until we starve them and repopulate. (1)
Fermentation in the Human Gut
How does one repopulate the gut with beneficial microbes? That’s a tricky question, because a diet like The Plant Paradox is an ancestral diet, and early humans probably did not know enough to manipulate beneficial microbes in their favor. They ate what they found, which was, Dr. Gundry theorizes, a lot of plants and some small animals and insects. It seems logical that we modern humans would be able to repopulate our guts with beneficial bacteria by simply increasing our leafy green and cruciferous vegetable intake.
It’s not quite so simple, though. It’s likely that human ancestors had bigger colons than we do now, thereby enabling them to ferment and absorb much more fibrous plant matter. If you take a look at modern gorillas, for example, they have much bigger colons, more colonic bacteria, and six times the absorption available than we do. While modern humans have larger small intestines, our smaller colons make for very limited fermentation and absorption space. Factor in the deep gut damage that many of us have acquired and it’s no wonder we’ve got an entire pantry full of supplements. (6)
If we have to consume plant matter (or the bacteria that live on it) to replenish our beneficial gut microbes, how can we do this with guts so damaged, we’re unable to digest and absorb the nutrients from plants? Other than eating an entirely carnivorous diet, we can do what every culture on the planet has done since the dawn of civilization: consume probiotic, lacto-fermented beverages that contain hosts of beneficial microbes and bio-available nutrients. (8)
Lacto-fermentation is the art of creating the right conditions for the beneficial bacteria in and on food to predigest the sugars, making it more digestible and available to the human body. There has, thankfully, been a recent trend in these types of foods–kombucha, kefir, and fermented raw foods. I’ve seen them at my local farmer’s market…for like $7.00 a bottle. Unless you want to refinance your home to start consuming living foods on a regular basis, it’s a great idea to learn how to make your own. In this post, I’ll show you how to make some of the most inexpensive and most beneficial fermented foods to help heal and repopulate your gut with the right bugs.
Unless you grew up fermenting traditional foods, most of us have to relearn it from somewhere. I’m not going to pretend I learned how to do any of this on my own. All of my methods for making these foods and beverages are adapted from books and websites I highly recommend:
- Gut & Psychology Syndrome by Natasha Campbell-McBride
- GAPS, Stage by Stage, With Recipes by Becky Plotner
- The Heal Your Gut Cookbook by Hilary Boynton and Mary Brackett
Equipment for Lacto-Fermenting
Other than time and vegetables, you don’t need much to start fermenting. I find some things make the job much easier, though, especially if you’re making something every day. The first time I “mashed” salty cabbage with my own hands, I was wishing I had done more arm strength training. The next time, I had the genius idea to use a stand mixer to mash the cabbage and it was the best sauerkraut I’ve ever made.
Jump Starting with Probiotics
If you have whey from yogurt-making, you can use that or dump the powder from a probiotic capsule into your recipe to “jump start” fermentation. If, in consultation with your doctor, you know that your body could benefit from certain strains, go ahead and add your favorite capsule to the recipes where I’ve indicated. I’ve used this low histamine probiotic in the past when I was struggling with histamine issues.
Don’t confuse homemade sauerkraut liquid with the sauerkraut you find near the German sausages at the grocery store. Commercial sauerkraut has been pasteurized, which kills off the beneficial things we’re trying to preserve by making it in the first place.
Homemade sauerkraut has a lot of vitamin C–about 35% of your daily dose (probably more, when it’s organic). Sailors used to eat it to prevent scurvy. Also, it contains far more lactobacillus than yogurt, so if you must do a course of antibiotics for some reason, you’ll wanna have gallons of this stuff on hand. (2)
How to Make Kraut Juice
Here’s my method for making it, adapted from Becky Plotner’s recipe here. I’ve made it multiple ways and find this way yields the best-tasting “juice.” This makes 3 gallons of kraut juice:
- Use a food processor or Vitamix to finely chop an organic head of cabbage (you will need to work in batches, and, if you own both appliances, use the food processor).
- Weigh the cabbage. Add 1 heaping tablespoon of sea salt per pound of cabbage to a mixer bowl with the cabbage (about 5-6 tablespoons for a large head). Use the flat beater attachment of a stand mixer to beat the cabbage on medium-high speed for several minutes. It should be foaming and bubbly.
- Spoon cabbage into gallon-size glass canning jars, filling about 1/3 of the way full (you can also use smaller jars, but only fill 1/3 of the way).
- Optional Step: add some whey or the powder from a probiotic capsule to each jar (only if you have them on hand–it’s not necessary).
- Fill the jars the rest of the way (to the shoulders) with filtered water, cover with the lid, and then place the jars in a room-temp cool, dark place to ferment at least 9 days (I store it in a closet).
- Refrigerate after opening.
The longer the jars sit, the more tolerable the juice will be for those with deep gut damage. According to Dr. Campbell-McBride, someone with histamine intolerance, for example, would need to let them sit for a minimum of 4 months.
Depending on the atmosphere and fermenting conditions, sometimes a white yeast will form on the top of the sauerkraut (the kraut will often float to the top during fermentation). Carefully scoop off the white stuff, toss, and smell underneath. If it smells rancid and the kraut is slimy, sorry to say you may have a bad batch. More often, though, the kraut and juice underneath is perfectly fine and will not smell unpleasant once the top growth is removed.
Garlic-Ginger Beet Kvass
The benefits of this traditional Russian drink range from liver-cleansing to cancer-reducing. Beets are a powerhouse of nutrition–for those who can digest them. For those of us who are working on it, drinking kvass can be one of the most beneficial ways to support detoxification and increase the enzymes that fight disease. (3)
I add ginger and garlic to mine. Ginger is a well-known digestive aid, and it adds a nice flavor to combat the–let’s face it–gross garlic taste. Adding garlic is optional, but I highly recommend it, especially during cold and flu season. Garlic is a powerful antibacterial and medicinal plant. One study found that it reduces the length of a cold to just 1.5 days, compared to 5 days in a placebo group. Another found that garlic reduces colds altogether by 63%. (4)
How to Make Kvass
Short of eating whole cloves of garlic (not for the faint of heart), infusing it into your kvass is a wonderful way to reap the medicinal benefits of garlic. This recipe, adapted from this book, makes 1 quart:
- Combine 3 medium or 2 large organic beets, peeled and coarsely chopped with 1 tablespoon sea salt, 2 crushed cloves garlic, and 2 inches peeled and sliced ginger into a quart-size mason jar.
- Add either 1/4 cup whey, 1/4 cup fermented pickle juice, or the powder from one probiotic capsule, like this one, and fill the jar the rest of the way (to the shoulder) with filtered water.
- Place the lid on and let it sit on the counter for 48 hours. Refrigerate after opening.
There’s no need to strain the liquid from the beets. I pop it in the fridge with the ingredients still in, and once I get down to 1/4 cup of liquid, I fill the jar the rest of the way with water and let it sit on the counter for another 48 hours. You can only get away with this for two batches, though. After that, start over with fresh ingredients.
Kefir is a centuries-old beverage made from unique clusters of bacteria and yeast called kefir grains (they’re not actually grains). Because the beverage is fermented by yeast, as well as bacteria, it’s one of the most beneficial probiotic drinks for fungal overgrowth, like candida. Remember, we don’t treat yeast by killing it–we treat it by crowding it out. It is a truly healing drink for digestion. (5)
It’s not possible to make the grains from scratch, although the bacterial and yeast strains are often replicated in powder starters. You have to get the them from a friend or buy them initially through specialty stores online (like Etsy). Once you have the grains, though, you can ferment milk into kefir every 24 hours.
How to Make Kefir
Kefir is probably the easiest fermented beverage to make because there’s no chopping involved. It’s just grains and milk:
- It is advised to first heat the milk to 180 degrees F and let it cool to 120 degrees F before culturing. (I skip this step–I pay a premium for raw A2 milk from a local farmer, and heat kills beneficial enzymes).
- Place 4 tablespoons kefir grains (or a pre-measured powder starter, if you don’t have grains) in a quart of milk–either goats milk or A2 cows milk–in a glass jar.
- Cover with a lid and let it sit on the counter at room temp for 24 hours, gently shaking the jar every few hours to redistribute the grains throughout the milk.
- After 24 hours, strain the kefir through a colander into a bowl–you will have to push the grains around a bit with a spatula to get all the liquid to drip through. Pour the liquid into a jar and refrigerate.
Once you make kefir, your active grains are hungry and ready to go again. This process can easily get out of hand, especially if you are not drinking much kefir. This website gives great tips for slowing down the process of kefir making (you can also purchase grains from them).
To make fruit kefir, you ferment it a second time with fruit. Strain the kefir as you normally would to remove grains. Instead of storing it in the fridge, add some finely sliced fruit pieces, replace the cap, and let it sit on the counter for another 24 hours, shaking every few hours to redistribute the fruit. I suggest using soft fruits that break down easily, like strawberries, raspberries, or ripe peaches. I can usually get a 1/4 cup into the jar.
Kombucha is like the craft brew of the probiotic beverage world. In fact, most breweries now offer kombucha on tap, if you feel like paying $8.00 a glass. I’ll admit, I don’t homemake this one as often as I should. I usually buy a big bottle of the GT’S brand that lasts me over a week. Here’s what they have to say about kombucha:
How to Make Kombucha
To make kombucha, you need something called a SCOBY, or “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.” You can make one over time from a store-bought bottle (learn to do that here) or you can get one from a friend or from Amazon. If you get one that’s dehydrated (like the Amazon one), follow the instructions on the package for making kombucha the first few times–it’s different from when you have a ready, active SCOBY.
This recipe makes 1 gallon of plain, black tea kombucha:
- Brew 6-8 black tea bags into 13-14 cups of water, discard the bags, and dissolve 1 cup of sugar into the tea while it’s still hot (do not use sugar replacement–the culture consumes the sugar).
- Once the tea is cool, combine it with 1 active SCOBY and 2 cups of starter kombucha (either from a store bought bottle or previous batch) in a gallon-size glass jar.
- Do not place the lid on (kombucha needs to breathe); instead, place a thin cotton cloth or coffee filter over the top of the jar and secure with a rubber band. Place in a dark place (like the pantry) to ferment 1-4 weeks.
- Pour the liquid into bottles, cover with airtight lids, and store in the fridge. Save enough kombucha and the SCOBY to start brewing another batch.
The fermentation time for kombucha is vague for several reasons. The warmer the surrounding temperature, the faster it will ferment. Also, the longer it ferments, the lower the residual sugar content will be in the finished product (usually 2-6 grams per 8 ounce serving). However, it will also taste more vinegary the longer it sits. You may have to experiment a little–no two batches will be the same when you’re first starting out.
I highly recommend storing your kombucha in the Grolsch-style bottles that have the swing caps. Those things are airtight and it will stay fizzy for much longer than in, say, recycled store-bought bottles. These bottles even come with cute little chalkboard labels, so you can gift your delicious homebrew to friends and family!
As with kefir, flavoring comes after the initial ferment and after you’ve removed the SCOBY. If you want to add flavoring, I suggest sticking with things that aren’t too sweet, so you’re not left with even more residual sugar. Examples would be lemon, lime, grapefruit, ginger, or turmeric. You can also add herbs, like basil, mint, or even cayenne pepper. I do not have experience with flavoring kombucha, so I refer you to this website, which not only describes the method for flavoring, but has really good combination recipes to try.
More Complicated Ferments
These 4 easy beverages are only the beginning! These beverages keep me busy, but I can’t wait to get into more complicated vegetables and drinks. Fermentation is not difficult–nature does most of the work for you. Once you achieve the satisfaction that is tasting your first successful ferment, your desire to continue will be unquenchable by nothing but more fermented things. My advice: make space for a “fermentation station” in your house. Your family members and your gut bugs will enjoy the “living fruits” of your labors!