Fermentation Basics – Kombucha
If you have been in the US since the 1990s, you’ve likely heard about the outstanding health benefits of kombucha. I can’t speak to the miracle claims from personal experience, except to tell you that if you are experiencing a post-Thanksgiving food or drink hangover, skip the self-recrimination and go for a gigantic slug of the big K. I can feel myself getting my soul back as it moves through my system. And there is actual science that says kombucha supports liver function.
Making kombucha is super simple once you get the key element: the SCOBY. SCOBY is an acronym for Symbiotic Community of Bacteria and Yeast (cute, right?) and it is sometimes called the mother or the mushroom. The best place to get your own scoby is from a friend or fellow fermenter. SCOBYs auto-reproduce in the kombucha-making process, so anyone who regularly makes kombucha will probably have an extra or two laying around. The SCOBY plus a bit of kombucha from the last batch will get you started. I got my most recent SCOBY from Allyson Kramer, the amazing blogger and photographer at Manifest Vegan. She is also the author of the cookbook I’ve been using to make my friends and family crave gluten-free, vegan food for the past several months, Great Gluten-Free Vegan Eats. (Seriously, I made dudes watching football unknowingly devour gluten-free vegan things and ask for more.) I can honestly say this is the best SCOBY I’ve ever had, it makes babies like a (vegan?) mofo and produces the most delicious kombucha I’ve ever had, bar none. I used to be a sometimes ‘boocher, but with this SCOBY, I’ve started experimenting with constant fermentation and making a batch every week.
Once you have your SCOBY and your starter kombucha, you are ready to go! Don’t freak out about the sugar. It gets partially or entirely converted (depending on how long you let your big K ferment) and your guts will thank you for giving them all the healing bacteria and the glucaric acid which may help the liver function more efficiently (see previous hangover comments) and may have anti-carcinogenic properties.
Makes 1 gallon of kombucha. You can adjust batch size to your needs/projected hangover level.
A note on carbonation: The best way to get super bubbly ‘booch is to do secondary fermentation. Your kombucha is done when the sweet/sour level is where you like it, not when it’s bubbly. That said, in the warmer months, your bubbles may be vigorous in the first round of fermentation. See after the recipe for the simple secondary fermentation how-to.
Recipe after the jump.
12 c water
2 T tea (no tisanes, must be from the camellia sinesis plant: plain black, green or white. No flavored tea! The oils on, say, an earl grey could interfere with fermentation and/or damage your SCOBY.)
3/4-1 c sugar or other natural sweetener (honey has antibacterial properties and should only be used with a spare SCOBY in case it kills or hurts it)
2 c starter kombucha
A wooden or plastic spoon
A large, non-metallic container in which to ferment. Metal will damage your SCOBY.
Heat your water. Add in the sugar and stir until it’s dissolved. Put your tea in and let the mixture cool to room temperature. You really don’t want it hot or even warm, since that could mean the death of the little life forms that make up your SCOBY.
Once it’s totally room temp, strain out your tea or remove your tea bags. Pour the sweetened, cooled tea into your kombucha making container (glass or ceramic with NO metal parts) and add your starter tea and scoby. Cover it with a cloth or coffee filter and secure it with a rubber band. You want the air-yeast™ getting in there and the gases released in the fermentation process to escape, but you don’t want flies in it because they are disgusting.
That’s it! Leave it a few (3-8)* days, depending on temperature and your sweetness preference, undisturbed and away from direct sunlight, and you’ll end up with kombucha. The longer it ferments, the more vinegary and less sweet it will be. You can definitely taste it along the way to see what sweetness level is a good stopping point for you.
Strain out your SCOBY using a non-metallic mesh strainer and start a new batch.
A few tips:
The white film on the top is a good thing! It means things are working and your scoby is making a baby. It will thicken and become a whole other scoby that you can then pay forward to a friend.
If your existing scoby gets some streaky things hanging off of it, that’s cool! Just some extra slimy yeast that is created in the process. I personally do not enjoy drinking it, so I strain it out before drinking and toss it in the compost pile.
My current SCOBY makes an enormously effervescent kombucha (yum!) but in the past, I’ve had to do a little secondary fermentation to get the bubbliness rocking. How you do this: pour your finished tea (sans SCOBY) into a container that more or less seals (a plastic 2-liter, a ball jar, a flip top bottle as above, etc). Seal it. Leave it for a few days. Done. This is also a great time to flavor your kombucha by adding ginger chunks, dried fruit, juice, etc. if you are into that. Remember that you DO NOT want to add anything to the tea when the SCOBY is still in it.
IF you do secondary fermentation in a glass jar, make sure you are checking it daily and DO NOT leave it more than a couple of days. Your jar could explode. This is a serious risk. It has never happened to me, but be aware that if you forget about it, bad things can happen.
*5-8 is the time period that I have found works best with my SCOBY in my house, in cold weather in a cold house, I sometimes leave it for 2 weeks. You might like it more sour or fermentation might occur more slowly in your environment. According to Cultures For Health, you do not want to let it ferment longer than 3 weeks, because your SCOBY could starve. Other than that, it’s done when it tastes done to you!
DUE TO OVERWHELMING DEMAND (by which I mean requests for cultures that became utterly overwhelming) I no longer ship individual cultures or meet up with individuals to share cultures. Every so often, when I have too many cultures around the house, I send out an announcement and set up shop at a cafe, where cultures are bagged up and ready to share. They can be taken, self-serve style, on a first-come, first-served basis. If you’d like to be informed about those times, please sign up for my mailing list under “Classes and Events” or follow me on Facebook or Twitter.