Water kefir guide: what is it, pros & cons, how to prepare, tips and ideas
Would you like to have more probiotic foods in your diet, but you are vegan or lactose intolerant?
Are you aware of the benefits of fermented foods, but preparing Kombucha puts you off the track?
Do you like bubbles, but you have given up buying bottled water or carbonated drinks?
Then you are in the right place! Water Kefir grains will give you all the probiotics you desire, without revolutionizing your kitchen, nor spending huge sums of money; conquering the taste buds of both kids and adults thanks to their mild taste, sour at the right point, gently sweet and pleasantly sparkling.
As you already know, the CHEtarian diet particularly appreciates traditional, sustainable and affordable foods, handed down from generation to generation for their beneficial effects; just like fermented foods which are well present in almost every culture of the world: kefir, kimchi, kombucha, sourdough bread (read here to discover more), yogurt (click here to find out more), tempeh, natto, sauerkraut, but also other fermented vegetables, are just some of the examples to mention. Their common point is to have been obtained by a controlled fermentation, using lactic acid bacteria or yeasts or other bacteria, to generate a physical-chemical transformation, by means of enzymatic actions.
Since the arrival of evident scientific correlations between gastrointestinal health and frequent consumption of fermented foods (1,2,3), their popularity has expanded considerably.
What is water kefir
They’re called water kefir grains, but they have nothing to do with grains, so rest assured: they’re naturally gluten-free.
Distant relatives of milk kefir (lactose lovers), water kefir grains prefer sucrose (commonly known as table sugar), water and a little fruit; which is why some know it as sugar kefir or fruit kefir.
That characteristic has made the drink a great alternative for vegans.
That being said, even non-vegans like me appreciate it a lot; especially those who have made the wise decision to say goodbye to carbonated beverages.
Water kefir is prepared by mixing water, sugar and kefir grains, leaving the mixture at room temperature (15-26 C degrees are optimal) for fermentation: in a period of time that can vary from 18 to 48 hours; however even at low temperatures of the fridge (+3 C degrees) a minimum of activity is recorded; instead 30 or more degrees are harmful for grains.
The microbiota of water kefir grains consists of various colonies of microorganisms: bacteria (particularly lactic acid bacteria, mainly Lactobacillus casei/paracasei, Lactobacillus hilgardii and Lactobacillus nagelii; sometimes bifidobacteria, particularly Bifidobacterium aquikefiri; and in a minority also acetic acid bacteria); and yeasts-especially Saccharomyces cerevisiae; bacteria and yeasts therefore live in symbiosis in concentrations that vary from culture to culture, in other words from “home to home” (4).
This large group of microorganisms, consuming the sucrose present in the environment, produce exopolysaccharides (a sort of mucilage), lactic acid, acetic acid, ethanol (don’t worry, maximum 1.5% after 48 hours) and CO2 (carbon dioxide)… as you will see with your own eyes during fermentation.
– Its preparation is simple and requires easily available ingredients: besides kefir grains, you only need water, sugar and some fruit.
– It is an excellent alternative to milk kefir for vegans and lactose intolerant people.
– Likewise it is an excellent substitute for carbonated drinks, for those who have decided to stop buying unhealthy foods full of sugar.
In the following lines you can see the most popular soft drinks, listed in order of their sugar content:
Fanta – 12 g sugar per 100ml
Coca Cola – 10.6 g sugar per 100ml
Ice tea – 6.5 g sugar per 100ml
Water Kefir – 1-3 g sugar per 100ml
– It is rich in nutrients. As opposed to its better known ancestor, water kefir does not contain proteins; however it would not be wrong to call it a super food as well, as it is capable of providing prebiotics and probiotics in optimal values (5): even though there is only a limited number of scientific studies to prove its qualities.
As we know, probiotics are useful in improving the immune system (see here the other allies at our disposal for a strong immunity); moreover, several studies agree that having a healthy intestine guarantees a healthy body.
– Considering the available data, we can say that it has an excellent antioxidant property (6); a great potential to improve intestinal disorders (7,8); helps to improve the intestinal microbiota, fighting the known pathogenic bacteria(8); allows to regulate cholesterol (7); studies conducted on animals, indicate potential anti-inflammatory effects(9), even in the urinary tract.
– It is a very healthy and low sugar product, but it is not zero sugar. The quantity of sugars is not quantifiable with certainty, because just like two snowflakes, there are no two “colonies” identical; moreover, this specificity of the strains, is influenced by variables originated by procedural factors: time and temperature of fermentation; and/or the quantity of sugar or grains initially used; and/or the conformation and the state of health of the microbiota of kefir grains.
This could create a problem for those who need to keep their blood sugar levels under tight control, such as diabetics or those suffering from Candidiasis. Always consult your doctor before starting this adventure; and go cautiously, start with small doses, frequently checking blood values after intake.
– It contains alcohol, even if at minimal levels; after a second fermentation of 48 hours, we can find a maximum of 1% of alcohol (beer contains from 4% to more; whereas wine contains from 10% to more). By lengthening the fermentation time, in order to reduce the sugar content, however remember your beverage will become more alcoholic.
Ingredients for the first fermentation
1L of natural spring water; or tap water, let it decant 24 hours to remove chlorine (find out here why decanting tap water is a good habit)
4 tablespoons of water kefir grains
3-4 tablespoons of sugar: preferably cane and organic sugar
1 dried fig, or 6-7 raisins, or 1 dried apricot and if you wish 2 dates (but for sustainability it is better to use local fruit)
1 slice of lemon (organic)
1 pinch of rock salt (to provide more minerals to the grains, every now and then)
Ingredients for the second fermentation
the water kefir obtained from the first fermentation
the juice of half a lemon (optional)
half fresh fruit or 6-7 raisins or 1 dried fig or 2 dried apricots
some spices and/or herbs such as ginger; or some pieces of hibiscus, some leaves of mint or cinnamon etc.. All to taste
1) In case you bought lyophilized kefir grains, you must activate them by following the instructions provided with the package, before using them for production.
If you bought them or received them in grains as a gift (as my friend Imma did), you can skip this step and start making them right away: there are websites on the net where people donate their kefir, or some companies that sell guaranteed strains.
2) The First Fermentation
– In a large glass jar pour 250 ml of hot water (not boiling, it serves to dilute sugar quickly) and dissolve the 3 tablespoons of sugar and a pinch of rock salt (you do not have to put it every time, but when you notice that your grains do not grow as usual) and mix well;
– Add the remaining water (750 ml at room temperature), and wait for the water and sugar solution to reach room temperature as well;
– Add the kefir grains, the dried fruit and the lemon slice with the peel (if you could not find organic lemons, avoid the peel);
– At this point close the jar: either by means of its lid (in order to have a more effervescent beverage), or just leaning on it; or with a cloth or gauze or paper towel, using an elastic band to stop it at the neck of the jar;
– Let the water kefir grains ferment in a dark place, without big temperature changes, for 24-48 hours; in case it is hot, probably even less.
After this period of time, you will see dried fruit will come to the surface together with bubbles, a sign of fermentation; however the safest method is to taste it: if it is slightly sparkling, not very sweet and with a pleasing taste, you will have reached your goal; now you can drink it as it is, or after a recommended refrigeration.
To consume it, first remove the fruit from the surface and, by using a sieve with plastic mesh, separate the grains from the water kefir.
You are ready to start with a new production!
In case you want a more fizzy drink, continue with the second fermentation.
3) Second Fermentation
– Pour the water kefir obtained from the first fermentation into a large glass jar.
– Add some fresh seasonal fruit or dried fruit and/or the spices and/or herbs of your choice to taste (I add a few pieces of dried hibiscus leaves, a cinnamon stick, a few slices of apple or fig or plum… Yum).
At this stage, even if the water kefir grains are not present, the microorganisms will continue to ferment the sugar from the added fruit; so leave the jar with the lid tightly closed at room temperature: preferably in the dark, 6 to 10 hours and finally another 4-8 hours in the fridge.
In summertime my advice is to make the second fermentation directly in the fridge. You should also know that although it never happened to me, it may occur that carbonation can become excessive and cause considerable explosions.
So, once you are ready, open the jar always making it first vent a little bit; remove the fruit, spices and herbs used, pour the water kefir in a glass and serve it with some fruit or lemon slice.
Enjoy your drink and good revolution to all
1) Review Modern perspectives on the health benefits of kefir in next generation sequencing era: Improvement of the host gut microbiota. Kim DH, Jeong D, Kim H, Seo KH Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2019; 59(11):1782-1793.
2) Dimidi, Eirini et al. “Fermented Foods: Definitions and Characteristics, Impact on the Gut Microbiota and Effects on Gastrointestinal Health and Disease.” Nutrients vol. 11,8 1806. 5 Aug. 2019, doi:10.3390/nu11081806
3) Review A 100-Year Review: Yogurt and other cultured dairy products. Aryana KJ, Olson DW
J Dairy Sci. 2017 Dec; 100(12):9987-10013.
4) Laureys, D., and De Vuyst, L. (2017). The water kefir grain inoculum determines the characteristics of the resulting water kefir fermentation process. J. Appl. Microbiol. 122, 719–732. doi: 10.1111/jam.13370
5) Zeynep B. Guzel-Seydim, Caglar Gokirmakli, Annel K. Greene, A comparison of milk kefir and water kefir: Physical, chemical, microbiological and functional properties, Trends in Food Science & Technology, Volume 113, 2021, Pages 42-53, ISSN 0924-2244
6) Muneer, Alsayadi et al. “ANTIOXIDANT POTENCY OF WATER KEFIR” Journal of Microbiology, Biotechnology and Food Sciences June, 2013
7) Egea MB, Santos DCD, Oliveira Filho JG, Ores JDC, Takeuchi KP, Lemes AC. A review of nondairy kefir products: their characteristics and potential human health benefits. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2020 Nov 5:1-17. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2020.1844140. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 33153292.
8) Kieran M. Lynch, Stuart Wilkinson, Luk Daenen, Elke K. Arendt, An update on water kefir: Microbiology, composition and production, International Journal of Food Microbiology, Volume 345, 2021, 109128, ISSN 0168-1605