Kefir is a cultured food that has been around for thousands of years, but is just swinging on to the American health food scene. Milk based kefir is becoming mainstream. You can find bottles of the thick, tangy drink in just about any supermarket. If milk doesn’t agree with you, an alternative is water based kefir. You can use water kefir grains to ferment sugar water, fruit juices, or make my favorite, coconut water kefir.
When I say kefir grains, I am not talking about grains in the sense of wheat or barley, but about the gelatinous matrix of bacteria and yeasts that we use to culture a kefir drink. More about that later.
I have found that the only kefir varieties you can find in stores are milk based. If someone knows where you can buy water based kefir, please tell me! So for now, it seems if I want coconut water kefir I must make it myself. It turns out this is not such a difficult task. Once you get into a rhythm, it only takes a few minutes a day to keep water kefir grains alive and fermenting.
What are the health benefits of kefir?
We all know by now that our bodies are natural hosts to swarms of different kinds of bacteria, literally pounds and pounds of them. The amount of different DNA represented by these bacteria is 10 times greater than our own unique DNA. In our intestines alone there are an estimated 100 trillion bacteria, and more are living on our skin, in our mouths, and any place else where they can gain a foothold.
This microscopic world living in and on us is called our microbiome. The bacteria in the gut are extremely important for our well being . They break down harmful substances like toxins, oxalates and histamines. They synthesize several B vitamins and vitamin K, and produce hormones that regulate growth, appetite, steroids and the immune system. Ninety percent of our serotonin, a crucial hormone for regulating mood, is produced in the gut. Lifestyle and the rampant use of antibiotics is affecting the amount of good bacteria we have in our gut. Changes and less diversity in the bacteria of the microbiome are being linked with various diseases such as Crohn’s Disease, IBS, obesity, depression, diabetes and autism.
The Difference Between Kefir and Yogurt
Why not just eat yogurt? There is a big difference between yogurt and kefir.
While the bacteria in yogurt is cultured right in the milk itself, those in kefir live in a gelatinous matrix that is actually produced by bacteria. This gel is the home of a community of bacteria and yeast, and it works its magic simply by being immersed in a milk or water based liquid for a day or two. The matrix is not one large piece like a kombucha mother, but is in the form of small individual granules called kefir grains.
Yogurt usually has one or two different bacterial strains, with more potent varieties culturing five to ten types of bacteria. These are more transient organisms that tend to feed what you already have in your gut as they pass through.
Kefir on the other hand has many more strains of bacteria, and also includes beneficial yeasts. Traditional kefir made from grains (instead of a powder) can have fifty different types of bacteria and yeast. These organisms don’t just pass through the gut, they take up residence there. So kefir is an efficient way to add more and different types of organisms, or diversify your microbiome.
Water based kefir uses a different type of grain than the milk based variety. Water kefir grains are also known as tibicos, Japanese water crystals, Tibetan crystals, or bees wine. They are sometimes called sugar grains, since they feed off pure sugar. They are technically what is known as a SCOBY, or symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast. This is the same type of entity that is used to make kombucha.
Water kefir grains are not made up of exactly the same bacteria as milk kefir grains, but the principle behind them is the same. The mass of microbial life forms will continue to grow and ferment liquids as long you feed and care for it. Water kefir grains are small and clumpy, white or beige, and translucent like a mound of irregularly shaped fish eggs. Treat them well and they will be fruitful and multiply.
Let’s Get Started Making Coconut Water Kefir
Making coconut water kefir from water grains is surprisingly easy. There are two basic steps that you will cycle through over and over as long as you want to keep your grains active and have a steady supply of kefir. These steps are:
- Activating the grains in sugar water for about two days.
- Transferring the active grains to the coconut water to ferment for about two days.
After the fermentation process, the grains go back in sugar water to recharge, and get ready for another batch of fermentation.
To get started you will need:
- two glass jars, each able to hold at least a quart of liquid.
- a cover that will allow air to pass through. I use a plastic mesh sprouting lid to cover my jars, but you can also use cheesecloth or a coffee filter held in place by a rubber band.
- about a quart of de-chlorinated water
- about a quart of coconut water.
- You will also need a fine mesh strainer to transfer the kefir grains from jar to jar.
Getting rid of Chlorine in Your Water.
If you use a public water supply it is certain to have chlorine added. The first thing is to find out whether this is in the form of chloramines. These are a substance that is being used more and more to purify water, and you cannot boil them off like you can regular chlorine. Any chlorine compound will kill the kefir grains, so if your water contains chloramines you will want to get bottled water for the project. Otherwise you can boil the water for about 5 minutes to get rid of the chlorine, or just let it sit in an uncovered pot for several hours.
If your water supply has a large amount of fluoride added to it, you should also find another source for your water.
If you are using filtered or bottled water with a low mineral content, adding 1/8th tablespoon of baking soda to a half gallon of water with make the kefir grains grow more quickly.
Activating the Kefir Grains in Sugar Water
Dissolve 1/4 cup of sugar in 1/2 cup of the dechlorinated water, heating it until it dissolves. Then add 3 1/2 more cups of water. Make sure the water is at room temperature, and not hot to the touch, or you will kill the kefir organisms. Place the water grains in your glass jar and pour the water over, then cover with your mesh or coffee filter. Leave this at room temperature for two days. It is a good idea to stir the grains around about twice a day. The grains will go from dried, brownish granules to plump, gelatinous globs.
Fermenting the Coconut Water
When the time is up, strain out the kefir grains from the sugar water. You can let the sugar water go down the drain, as the sugar will be depleted. Fill the jar up with the bottled or fresh coconut water. Add the kefir grains, and leave the mixture for another two days, stirring a couple times a day. If it is winter and your kitchen is on the cold side you might need another day for the fermentation to take hold. In hot weather you might want to shorten the fermentation time a bit.
You won’t see a lot of bubbles forming in your liquid, but when you stir it there will be an effervescent spray of tiny gas bubbles rising from the surface. If you put a lid on the bottle and leave for a couple hours you will see pressure begins to build up from carbonation. There will be a hissing sound as you open the lid. Be careful not to leave the bottle covered for more than one or two hours, as it can explode.
Strain the water grains out of the liquid and give them a gentle rinsing with your de-chlorinated water. I transfer the coconut water kefir to a plastic bottle at this point and put it in the fridge. If you want to seal the kefir up to promote carbonation, make sure you use the proper bottles that are made to withstand pressure.
Begin the Cycle Again
Make another batch of sugar water just as you did at the beginning, and return the kefir grains to this solution where they can eat, grow and rejuvenate for two more days. At the end of this time your grains will be ready to pop into another batch of coconut water. You can continue this cycle indefinitely for a steady supply of this healthy, sparkling coconut water kefir.
A Few More Tips…
A lot of people recommend that you sterilize your jars and all your equipment before making kefir. Use your own judgement here, but I don’t bother with that. I just wash the jars in warm, soapy water before using them.
Another common caution is not to let the kefir grains contact any sort of metal. Well, I only have a metal strainer, so I just use it. I also make the sugar water in a metal pan. My kefir has been turning out fine, so I am not convinced metal causes a problem. Sandor Ellix Katz, the fermentation expert, shares this opinion in his book “The Art of Fermentation”.
For more detailed information on the process of making your own water based kefir, I recommend picking up a copy of “The Art of Fermentation.” This book is full of information about kefir and just about any other fermented food or beverage you can think of.
If you aren’t used to drinking kefir, start out with a small amount and gradually increase. I have worked up to a 4-6 ounce glass at bedtime. If you like coconut water you will find it a refreshing drink with just a hint of fizz. If you don’t like coconut water, feel free to experiment with fermenting fruit juices, or sugar water with fresh fruits added.
Where Can I Get Water Kefir Grains?
Since kefir grains tend to grow, people need to get rid of their extras. Kefir growers are very generous people, probably due to their healthy levels of hormones, and will be happy to share with you. If you don’t know any personally, search for an online forum in your area to find people giving away grains. You can also buy them from several online sources like:
And of course Amazon.com and Ebay have them as well.
Here’s to your healthy microbiome!