What Is Kombucha?
There is a lot of buzz lately about fermented foods and one of the more popular ones is kombucha. It is a drink that is made from specific strains of bacteria, yeast and sugar. These are added to black or green tea and allowed to ferment for a week or more. The bacteria and yeast form a mushroom-like cloud on the surface called a scoby.
This fizzy, sweet and sour drink all rolled into one has a host of health benefits. It is a good source of probiotics, has the benefits of green tea and antioxidants, kills bacteria, reduces heart disease risk, may help manage type 2 diabetes and protects against cancer. Some even toot its help with weight loss.
So, what’s not to like? In certain people, it can promote the growth of bacteria that result in infection. However, this is usually due to unproper processing since it is unpasteurized and contains a mix of bacteria and yeast.
The Fantastic World of Fermentation
Fermentation has been in the news a lot lately. Eating fermented foods is one way to get probiotics into your system, the good bacteria that balances the gut microbiome. Fermentation refers to the process in which microorganisms convert carbs into organic acids and alcohol. Natural bacteria feed on the starch and sugars present in food to form lactic acid which helps to preserve food and extend shelf life.
Preserving foods using microorganisms has been around since we started cooking. Practically any kind of fruit or vegetable can be fermented including beets, carrots, green beans, watermelon and citrus peels. Most people, when they think of fermentation, think of sauerkraut. Icelanders ferment shark meat and folks in Sardinia do it with cheese teeming with maggots. Sauerkraut is fine for me!
When the bacteria break down the sugars into acids, it not only preserves the foods but also imparts a distinctively salty, tangy flavor. Preserving food in this manner creates deeper, more resonant flavors that canning and freezing can impart.
Fermentation has gone from the relics of yesteryear to a massive food trend. Health foods made with this process was up 149% in 2018. Part of this trend is due to consumers’ demands for natural products that deliver added health benefits and fermented foods have long been associated with positive digestion. These foods are easier absorbed since they are pre-digested by beneficial bacteria.
Fermenting foods is actually fairly simple to do. Cut up the veggies or fruit and sprinkle with spices and then cover them with a salt solution which is usually mixed at a rate of two teaspoons of salt to one quart of water. Pack all this in a Mason jar, leaving an inch of space at the top. Seal it up and wait for the bacteria to do its job. Check after a few days and your taste buds will tell you when it is ready.
There are some newer kids on the block, so to speak, when it comes to fermented foods. Kefir, tempeh and miso are ones that you may have heard of lately. Kefir is a cultured, fermented beverage that tastes like yogurt, but in drink form. It is made from starter grains, much like you would use a starter to make sourdough bread. It has a tart, creamy flavor and is loaded with probiotics.
Tempeh is a cake-like substance made from cooked and slightly fermented soybeans. Fermenting breaks down phytic acid, making it easier to digest. It can be cubed, ground or sliced and fried, often used as a meat replacement. It has a nutty, earthy flavor that is similar to the flavor of mushrooms.
Miso is a salty, savory Japanese fermented soybean paste made by inoculating a mixture of soybeans with a mold called koje. The koje has been cultivated from rice, barley or soybeans. Thus, if you are trying to stay away from soy, look for miso that doesn’t have soybeans as its base. It is used for broth without meat, creamy salad dressing with just the right amount of salt, glaze that leaves fish crispy and caramelized and also to balance the sweetness level in doughnuts, jams and cobblers. It’s one of those products where you have probably eaten it without knowing it.
Brewing Your Own Kombucha
Now, back to kombucha. It is relatively easy to make your own or you can purchase it plain or infused with different flavors.
The first thing you will need is a scoby, which is an acronym for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. Basically, it is a cousin to the “mother” in vinegar. Yep, it’s the rubbery, weird looking thing that floats on top of kumbucha. The easiest way to start is to get a piece of a scoby from a friend, just making sure that it comes from someone who knows the proper way to ferment and is sanitary. You can also buy a scoby or grow your own.
To grow your own, you will need 7 cups of water, 1/2 cup sugar, 4 bags of black tea and 1 cup of unflavored, unpasteurized store-bought kombucha. Bring the water to a boil, stir the sugar in until completely dissolved, then add the tea bags and allow to steep until completely cool. Combine the sweet tea and kombucha in a quart jar. Stir the mixture, cover with a few layers of cloth, coffee filters or paper towels and secure with a rubber band.
Place the jar in a room with average temperature (around 70*F) and out of sunlight. Be patient, first bubbles will form on the surface, then they will collect into a film and finally the film will thicken into a solid, opaque layer. This is the scoby and when it is about a quarter inch thick, it is ready to be used to make kombucha tea.
Now, for the tea. This is your first fermentation. It is basically following the same instructions as for making the scoby except you should double the ingredients. When it is room temperature (very important), with VERY clean hands place the scoby in the tea and then add the starter tea (from the jar the scoby was in). Unlike when you made your scoby, you can use other teas in this step.
Again, place the jars in a room with average temperature and out of direct sunlight for six to 10 days. At day six, begin tasting your kombucha. It should be mildly sweet and slightly vinegary. The longer it ferments, the less sweet it will be because more of the sugar molecules will be eaten up.
Now, you are ready for the magic, the third fermentation. Strain the kombucha and funnel into bottles, leaving 1 ½ inches of space at the top. Add flavorings such as an orange peel, a couple teaspoons of honey, fruit or fruit juice, a piece of peppermint candy, candied ginger or any other of your favorite flavorings. Tightly seal with a lid and let set in a dark room for three to ten days at room temperature. After this, place in the refrigerator to slow the carbonation process and enjoy. Leave your scoby in the starter jar with one or two cups of starter tea for your next batch.
One word of caution here, until you become an old pro at this and when starting this third process, place a little of the liquid in a plastic bottle. When the plastic bottle becomes rock hard, the others are probably “done” and need to be burped by loosening the seal and letting some pressure out. If not, they can explode if the pressure becomes too high.
Also, if something just seems “off” or it doesn’t taste right, discard the batch. Remember, you are working with bacteria here and even good bacteria can become bad if not handled properly.
Kombucha, while it has mega health benefits, isn’t for everyone. Start drinking it slowly, about 4 ounces a day until your body gets used to it. After that, the Center for Disease Control recommends drinking 4 ounces one to three times per day.
To everyone, kombucha cheers!