Fermented foods and drinks may seem like a new food fad, but most of them have evolved over thousands of generations before they were handed down to us.
Every culture, old or new, and every region in the world has its own signature fermented food items. And they’d swear by their health benefits and therapeutic value any day. Today, we have access to these food items and their recipes, some of which were once guarded secrets.
The wide variety of microorganisms in fermented foods and drinks increases the diversity of our stomach flora and prevents imbalances that give rise to gastrointestinal troubles. Sudden overgrowth of certain microbes is known to trigger autoimmune responses, too. In fact, intestinal health is the basis of our immune system. In other words, you are pretty much what you eat!
Microbes are present in every food, except when they are destroyed by pasteurization and other disinfecting techniques, a possible reason for the rise in food allergies like lactose and gluten intolerances and other immune-related disorders. However, unfermented microbe-laden foods may contain high doses of harmful bacteria and their toxins, such as those produced by Botulinum and Staphylococcus.
The advantage of these fermented foods is that the microbes in them are tried and tested by generations, and have been proven to be safe and gut-friendly.
Since the microbes in fermented foods are already living in an acidic environment, they can survive the high acidity in the stomach and easily colonize the intestines. They are adept at breaking down our foods, making it easy for our body to absorb micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals.
And to top it all, they are flavorful and delicious, and add a welcome variety to our diet, as anyone who has made them part of their regular diet would agree. Did I mention that they are cheap and easy to prepare, too?
Here are a few refreshing fermented drinks you can make at home and enjoy.
1. Yogurt-based drinks
This is the simplest, and probably the earliest, lactobacillus fermentation food. All you need for making live-culture yogurt is a few teaspoons of live culture and some organic milk boiled and cooled to lukewarm temperature.
Mix 2 teaspoons of live yogurt starter into 2 cups of organic milk and keep aside for 6-12 hours in a loosely covered bowl. When the mixture turns into a semi-solid form, the yogurt is ready. Keeping it out a bit longer will make it more acidic.
This Turkish drink could very well be called the Turkey national beverage.
Take 2 cups of yogurt in a tall blender jar and add 1 cup of water, 5-6 ice cubes and a teaspoon of kosher salt. Whisk it for 30 seconds. Ayran is ready.
This is a sweetened yogurt beverage from the Indian subcontinent that’s becoming popular all over the world.
Blend two cups of natural yogurt with 1 cup of water and 2 tablespoons of granulated sugar. Add 5-6 crushed cardamom seeds, 1 teaspoon of rose syrup and a pinch of saffron for flavoring. You can skip the flavoring and add 1 cup of mango pulp or strawberries instead.
This is an Indian staple that almost replaces water as a summer drink, but it can be enjoyed any time.
The traditional (long) way to make it is by churning out all the butter from full-fat yogurt; hence, it’s also called buttermilk. A shortcut which gives the same result is by mixing low-fat yogurt with lots of water.
Blend 2 cups of water and 1 cup of lowfat natural yogurt in a mixer jar, adding a pinch each of roasted cumin powder and black salt. Garnish with mint leaves or grated ginger.
If you don’t have roasted cumin powder, just dry-roast 2 teaspoons of cumin until crisp and the aroma is released. Powder finely, and use a pinch from it. Black salt (Himalayan salt) is a natural salt with a sulfurous flavor, believed to have health benefits. You can use kosher salt if it’s not available.
These are made with a special type of starter medium called kefir grains.
While yogurt starters mainly contain different lactobacillus strains, kefir  has a variety of yeasts and a combination of complex sugars, proteins and fats, in addition to a number of different beneficial bacteria, including the lactobacillus.
This fermented milk-based drink originated in the Caucasian mountains and the drink as well as the kefir grains used to make it remained unknown to the rest of the world for centuries. Kefiran, a polysaccharide in the kefir, gives a unique feel to this tangy drink.
The origin of kefir grains may be lost in antiquity, but there are enough kefir grains doing the rounds that anyone interested can either buy them from a shop stocking organic products or order them online. If you just talk to your friends about kefir, chances are, someone will be eager to share their surplus grains with you.
Once you get some milk kefir grains, add one teaspoon of it into a glass of full-fat organic milk at room temperature and stir well. Cover with a cloth and keep it aside for 24 hours between 60 degrees F and 90 degrees F. Strain the milk into another cup and put the grains into a fresh glass of milk. Low-fat milk can be used to make milk kefir, but the fermentation may be slower, and the grains may lose their vigor. Occasionally use full-fat milk to invigorate them.
Water kefir is a modification of milk kefir that’s ideal for those who want to avoid dairy products. Here, too, the fermentation is started off with kefir grains, but water kefir grains are a bit different from milk kefir grains in their look and feel. The translucent water kefir grains are grown in sweetened water to obtain a light, fizzy drink. All you need besides the grains and the water is some sugar. Can it get any simpler and cheaper than that?
Take 2 cups of water in a clean glass bottle rinsed with boiling water. Mix in 2 tablespoons of cane sugar and stir until dissolved. Add 2 tablespoons of water kefir grains, cover the bottle with a piece of cloth, and keep aside for 24 hours on your kitchen counter. The next day, taste the drink and, if it’s fizzy enough for you, strain it out. If you prefer less sweetness, allow it to ferment for another 24 hours.
3. Tea-based fermented drinks
Researchers are now ascribing many health benefits to tea (made from tea leaves) both black and green, but if you think tea is too bland for you, you can pep it up by making a fermented drink, called kombucha, out of it. The health benefits are increased manifold, too.
To start your own kombucha tea, you need to get a scoby and some starter tea. Scoby is commonly known as tea mushroom, but it actually stands for Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast. If you’re buying the kombucha tea from a shop to start off, make sure that it is unpasteurized and without any flavorings added to it.
With one cup of starter tea you can ferment 1 ½ quarts of tea. First, make the tea by boiling 1 ½ quarts of water and adding ½ cup of white sugar and 4 bags of black tea (or 1 tablespoon of loose tea) to it after taking the vessel off the heat. Allow to cool, and then strain the tea into a large glass jar of 2 quart capacity. Now add the starter tea and the scoby and cover the mouth of the jar with a piece of cloth secured in place with a rubber band. Put it aside for 7 days. You can taste the beverage after this period, and decide whether you’d want it to ferment further.
After removing the scoby from the jar into another glass vessel with fresh tea in it, you can filter out the Kombucha, and fill it in individual bottles after reserving one cup for starting the next batch. Store the bottles in the refrigerator until use. But if you want a bit more fizz, you can leave the bottles outside for 2-3 day more days.
4. Whey-based fermented drinks
Ginger ale and root beer were favorite fizzy drinks before the colas appeared on the scene and pushed them out. They have some natural health benefits, too, but they can be further enhanced by lacto-fermentation.
Ginger ale (lacto-fermented)
This one has a slightly different taste from the usual ginger ale, but it is just as delicious. To make lacto-fermented ginger ale, boil a gallon of filtered water with 4 inches of grated ginger. Stir in 1 ½ cups of cane sugar after turning off the heat. When the mixture has cooled, add 1 cup of whey. Pour it into a glass jar and put the lid on tightly, but release pressure build-up every day for the next 5-6 days, by which time the drink would have become fizzy. Filter into bottles and store in the refrigerator.
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