Essentially every time I edit a new article for Mother Earth Living, I want to try whatever it’s about. The soup recipes in January/February 2018? I bought an immersion blender. The body care oils from March/April 2018? I’m now the proud owner of a few of them. Any time a plant is mentioned I mentally place it in my future garden.
So imagine my lack of restraint when I read about kefir. Cousin to kombucha, kefir can be made with either milk or water plus the living grains that thrive in their respective liquid. Milk and water kefir are both powerful probiotics with a little bit of fizz, lots of friendly bacteria for the gut, and a handful of proven health benefits. Both are simple and quick to make at home, which made it more appealing to me than home-fermented kombucha. It sounded so easy!
Photo by Adobe Stock/Eskymaks
Now, if you’re like me and know nothing about kefir — have never seen the completed drink, let alone the grains that create it — then it’s not quite as easy as hoped. Or maybe you’ll be more patient than I was. But let me start by saying that my first couple of attempts did not work. At all.
I was able to test out a product that our marketing team was considering for the Mother Earth Living store, which is why I attempted to make water kefir much sooner than I originally planned. The product came with grains, a jar and lid, and other supplies. But the grains were dehydrated, and as I didn’t yet know about hydrated vs. dehydrated grains — and the product included no instructions for rehydration — I simply put the dry grains in my sugar water and let the kefir begin.
Begin it did not, however, even after many days and three attempts. The grains I received were hard, small, tawny, and needed to be brought to life. Healthy water kefir grains are supposed to be firm and translucent. After two unsuccessful days with what I didn’t then know were dehydrated grains, I tossed the water and began again, once more following the product instructions. After another two days I did the same, not seeing any carbonation and not knowing why. Eventually, I threw the grains away, defeated.
Photo by Getty Images/princessdlaf
Later, I dove into research, wanting to know what went wrong. Apart from not rehydrating the grains (a process I now know takes four days) before trying for a kefir creation, there was a second problem: Kefir doesn’t truly carbonate until the second fermentation. Once the grains have fermented for 24-48 hours under a breathable lid, the kefir should be transferred to another jar, flavored (if desired), and sealed tightly. Then the carbonation begins in earnest. The most you’ll get from the first fermentation is a mild fizz, and you shouldn’t expect more (as I was).
Well. Now that I knew my mistakes, I wanted to try again. I was sure I was close before, and armed with my new knowledge, I was certain of success. I ordered new, hydrated water kefir grains from Kombucha Kamp (so as to circumvent my original problem), bought some quart Mason jars, shelved the failed product, and got back to it. I was careful; I boiled water, dissolved in it 1/4 cup cane sugar, let it cool, added the grains, and covered the jar with a breathable lid. After days, nothing seemed to be happening. So I tried again. Not much difference. But I determinedly added sliced peaches and the kefir to a few small Mason jars, tightened the lids, and left them on the counter to try that second fermentation for myself.
Smartphones in poorly lit kitchens don’t take the best pictures, but they’ll do.
As carbonation builds during the second kefir fermentation, it’s best to release the pressure in the jars to keep them from bursting. So I diligently cracked open the lids once a day. Only there was no pressure released, which meant no carbonation, which meant, yet again, something had gone wrong.
I was getting discouraged at this point, because I didn’t want to write a blog post about my failures without some sort of redemptive arc. Luckily for me (and for you), this won’t be a blog only about failure. It will instead be a long-time-coming success story!
Now, whether my unsuccessful attempts were because of my impatience, mistakes, or simply because I’m a bad kefir grain mother, I can’t say for sure. But I decided to give it one more go, and this time I went above and beyond and did everything absolutely right. After loads of research, I bought turbinado sugar (white sugar works, but dark sugar is supposed to be better) and organic raisins (which contain beneficial minerals that satisfy the water kefir grains). I brought 4 cups of water to a boil, poured it into my Mason jar, dissolved in it 1/4 cup of turbinado sugar by stirring with a plastic spoon, added a small handful of raisins, then let those sit together overnight to make sure the chlorine evaporated. In the meantime, I put my water kefir grains in the fridge with some more turbinado-sugar water. The next morning, I strained those grains and added them to the quart jar. I waited a few days.
It totally worked. Froth appeared on the surface of the fermenting kefir. The liquid grew a little more opaque, and when I jostled the grains at the bottom, a few bubbles floated to the surface.
Photo by Adobe Stock/blackboard1965
Even more exciting for me, however, was that when I went to dump out my previous attempt — which I had been ignoring on the counter for three extra days so as not to have to do dishes — two of the three jars fizzed when I unscrewed the lids! My lack of interference had brought the kefir to life!
Since then I have been treating my precious grains as living specimens. I have a routine of checking the kefir daily, boiling water at night so it’s ready in the morning, and letting everything ferment a little longer than I think it needs to. I always use tubinado sugar, often use raisins, and I clean everything thoroughly between ferments while sometimes letting the grains rest in the fridge in some sugar water.
There are still fermentations that don’t become as carbonated as I believe they should, and I’m running into a problem where my flavored kefir goes flat after I move the jars into the refrigerator. Now that I know how to make my water kefir grains happy and create regular, mostly successful attempts, however, I know I can sort out this latest development.
Best of all, the kefir keeps getting better. Every fermentation looks more like the pictures I see or the descriptions I read, which hopefully means I can return soon with a few recipes or suggestions for delicious second-ferment flavorings. Until then, I plan on perfecting my kefir method and drinking this chilled, bubbly, delightful beverage as often as possible.
Haley Casey is an assistant editor at Mother Earth Living where she tries (and evidently sometimes fails) incorporating green, healthy living into her one-bedroom apartment.