Last summer I attempted to make everything we ate from scratch. I took a class in the theory of artisan bread baking and learned how to make my own sourdough; I dusted off my dehydrator and finally put it to good use making raw crackers, macaroons, fruit roll-ups, and (almost) more kale chips than we could handle; I nurtured a scoby and made kombucha, pickled everything in sight, and made jam for the first time. With some birthday money, I bought an ice cream maker, experimented with different milk (mylk) bases, and even entered an ice-cream-making contest. (Grape-nuts ice cream is where it’s at, my friends!) Last summer was less about the fanciful creations and more about the simplicity of real, do-it-yourself food. There is something truly liberating about knowing what you’re putting into your body, down to every last ingredient. The health benefits are numerous, but there’s an emotional tie as well. If you have uncertainty and guilt about food, they surrender, leaving space for openess and health to make their stay. “Watching what you eat” takes on totally different meaning.
It wasn’t all perfect though. One project that failed miserably was my attempt at making kefir, a project that theoretically should have been the easiest on the list. Each morning I would strain my grains, re-bathe them in fresh, organic milk, then set them aside to ferment until the next day. The following morning I would wake up excited to see if my kefir was ready to drink, but each time the kefir would taste off and I’d feel disappointed. After countless attempts and several lost liters of milk, I finally packed up the grains and gave up, feeling a little defeated. After doing a bit more research I learned that I may have just had a bad batch, but at that point summer was coming to an end and other priorities were filling up my day.
As school made its way back into my life, meals and snack preparation took shape around what was quick, could be made in large batches, and, most importantly, could feed two people for several meals during the week. The luxury of making everything from scratch was no longer. Then earlier this year, L started making water kefir, and in a small, but monumental way we began reclaiming our ownership over our food again. It started out simply, but before long she was experimenting in the second fermentation with a variety of teas, fruit, and even chocolate-covered coffee beans! Now water kefir bottles line our counter top and fill our fridge, and I see how much fun L is having in the world of home brewing and fermenting. I want back in on this excitement!
Serendipitously, I saw that Emma Christensen’s book was coming out. The timing could not have been more perfect! The book, titled True Brews: How to Craft Fermented Cider, Beer, Wine, Sake, Soda, Mead, Kefir, and Kombucha at Home, is exactly as it states—a simple guide for making all of these delightful drinks in your own little kitchen. How’s that for ‘from scratch’?!
So I asked for a copy and spent a warm Saturday afternoon on a blanket in the park flipping through every.single.page of this gorgeous and easy-to-read book. Every now and then, I’d pop my head up and interrupt L’s reading to say, “listen to this one! Cherry, pistachio, cardamom, kefir smoothie, “ Or “peach iced tea kombucha!” And “No way! There’s a recipe for gluten-free pale ale!” Trust me when I say that Emma makes you want to brew your own everything!
Her invitation into home brewing is approachable, and she promises us at the beginning of the book that, “anyone can homebrew in any size apartment with a stockpot, a bucket, and a jug.” That’s a kind of confidence I can get behind. The layout of the book eases you into it, starting with basic brewing ingredients and what you’ll need them for, the required tools, and fermentation and bottling equipment. There is an FAQ-style write-up of one-off points like, “how to dechlorinate water” and “how to carbonate any beverage.” The answers are straightforward and simple, and I was surprised at just how easy it all seemed.
But the real treasure of this book is all the fermenty recipes. True Brews offers something for anybody who is interested in craft brewing, from the simplest of drinks to the more complex alcohols. Each topic-based chapter (soda pop, kombucha, kefir, beer, sake, fruit wine, and the like), starts with the easiest recipe and works its way up through more complex ones, so that you can test the (delicious) waters before deciding whether you want to take the plunge. So far we have tackled a few of the easier recipes in the book: coconut water kefir, the milk kefir base, the cherry, pistachio, cardamom, kefir smoothie, and this mango lassi kefir smoothie. Wow! Now that I know what real milk kefir tastes like (and, truly, how easy it is to make), I’ve become obsessed with making a new batch every day. It’s that good! I recommend getting yourself some grains and getting started pronto.
- MASTER MILK KEFIR RECIPE
- 1 cup milk
- 1 tsp kefir grains (*see the note below)
- MANGO LASSI KEFIR SMOOTHIE
- 1 cup milk kefir
- 1 very ripe mango, peeled and coarsely chopped (or one cup frozen mango)
- 1 tbsp honey (I like the tartness of the kefir, so I didn't use the honey)
- MASTER MILK KEFIR RECIPE
- Pour milk into a glass jar and stir in the kefir grains. Cover the jar with a few layers of cheesecloth or paper towel and secure with a rubber band.
- Store the jar at room temperature out of direct sunlight and allow it to ferment until thickened. Healthy kefir grains at around 21°C (70°F) will typically culture in about 24 hours, though it may take as little as 12 hours at warmer temperatures. Check the kefir periodically until you have a sense of how quickly it is fermenting.
- Strain the kefir into a glass or plastic storage container, stirring gently until just the grains are left in the strainer. Refrigerate the kefir in a sealed container and use within 2 weeks. Stir your grains into a new jar of milk to make another batch of kefir.
- MANGO LASSI KEFIR SMOOTHIE
- Combine all of the ingredients in a high speed blender. Blend on high speed until smooth and creamy.
Where to buy dairy and/or water kefir grains:
Kefir grains are easily procured through Kijiji. Most people will either give them away or sell them for about $5.00. I got mine within a day of sending a request to someone in the city.
Can I make non-dairy kefir with dairy kefir grains?
Yes; I have heard from several sources that you can! I haven’t yet tried this, but when I do I will report back. The instructions are the same; however, you may need to re-vitalize your kefir grains in dairy milk every so often.
Troubleshooting milk kefir (from True Brews):
- If your kefir separates with a thick layer on top and a watery layer on the bottom, this is a sign that the kefir has over-fermented. The grains are still healthy and the kefir is fine to eat, but try culturing subsequent batches for less time.
- If your kefir hasn’t cultured within 48 hours, strain the kefir and begin again with fresh milk. Depending on the circumstances (a cold room, reviving dehydrated grains, a new kind of milk, etc.), it may take several batches before the kefir begins to culture.
- At temperatures above 32 °C (90 °F), the milk tends to sour or grow harmful bacteria faster than the kefir can do its job, eventually killing the kefir itself. If the temperature of your home becomes very hot during the summer, find a cooler spot to store your kefir or store it in the refrigerator during the hottest days.
- If at anytime the milk or kefir itself starts to smell or look unappetizing, immediately strain out the kefir grains, discard the milk, and begin with a new batch. If this happens several times in a row, your grains have likely died and you’ll need to begin again with new grains.