Monday, November 5, 2012

Are You My Mother?

I've been a little obsessed lately with the idea of naturally "cultured" or fermented foods and drinks, but I haven't actually made anything. I really enjoyed learning about the beer-making process; however, I think my husband would be too scared to even allow me to keep a little kimchi on the counter.

My mom, on the other hand, has been chomping on chia seeds, sprouting, and juicing her own wheat grass for some time now. We had both been reading a lot about the positive health effects of eating fermented foods that contain large numbers of probiotics. While I was piling extra sauerkraut on my falafel, my mom has been guzzling Kombucha, a fermented tea drink, and mixing her muesli with kefir, a fermented milk yogurt-type drink. (Check back next week to learn about kefir.)

My mom had been purchasing both of these products at her local health food market when her friend, Liz, offered to teach her how to make them. I sent her with strict instructions to take lots of pictures and give me the full report.

You need to start by getting a Kombucha starter culture, AKA mother, mushroom, or SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). It looks like an slimy, white pancake. You can get a "baby" culture from a kombucha-making friend, grow one from unpasteurized store bought kombucha tea (without fruit juice), or order a starter online - wet or dry.

Next, you will need a large glass jar. The cleanliness of your materials and culturing environment is of utmost importance. Some bacteria, yeasts, and chemicals can inhibit the growth of the beneficial bacteria, and if your kombucha gets moldy you will loose your entire batch of tea as well as your mother (G-d forbid!). Liz stressed keeping all containers and utensils clean by washing and rinsing with white vinegar. 

Liz gave my mom a gallon jar with about two cups of fermented kombucha and a SCOBY.

Liz started by heating a gallon of water to just below the boiling point. (You can also boil the water first to make sure it doesn't have any unwanted bacteria.) Turn off the stove and add the equivalent of 5 bags of tea. Black, green, and white tea are all popular choices; but herbal teas can be problematic. 

After adequate brewing time, remove the tea bags and stir in one cup of natural sugar. Any type of real sugar can be used, but avoid fruit juice or honey. Do not skimp on the sugar or your mother will go hungry and the pH could rise, compromising the safety of your brew. (The pH must stay under 4.6 to be safe.)

Wait until the tea mixture has cooled to room temperature, then pour it into the glass jar with the starter tea and SCOBY/mother. Cover the top of the jar with a piece of cotton fabric or cheese cloth, securing it with a rubber band. Do a taste test in 2-3 weeks to see if your kombucha is to your liking. The longer you let it ferment, the more tangy (vinegary) it will be. You could potentially check the pH, stopping when it gets around 3.0. Or you could dip a CLEAN straw in the batch, put your finger over the top of the straw and pull out a little to taste.

From what I learned from my intro to beer, I suppose the fermentation process would slow as the bacteria ran out of sugar. For extra fizz, you must seal the kombucha tea while it still has some sugar that the bacteria can convert to carbon dioxide and acid. (Or add sugar, then seal.) Be careful it doesn't explode!

My mom left her jar of kombucha in the pantry for three weeks while she was visiting me. When she returned she had a wonderful tangy, slightly fizzy Kombucha. She likes to mix one part Kombucha to four parts water, drinking it several times a day. 

During the process, her Kombucha made a baby! Soon the baby SCOBY will be mature enough for her to have two jars brewing at the same time or to pass on to a friend. If you like to drink kombucha all the time, having two batches going a week or two apart is a great idea.

My mom, Caren Hackman, is an artist, graphic designer, and amateur vegetable gardener in South Florida. She just finished writing an excellent, informative book for the non-designer titled Graphic Design Exposed.

Liz Williams, our guide on this food adventure, describes herself as "just a mom looking for healthy alternatives in an ever-changing world of junk food options, trying to keep my kids enticed with healthy options."



  1. Did you actually make it yourself too? I'd love to but can you find all of the tools and ingredients in Israel, probably not?

  2. I didn't see it in the organic section of ShufersolDeal, but I will ask a couple health food stores. The American brand of bottled kambucha is kosher. If we can get one here we can start breeding baby SCOBYs.



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