Fermented foods are all the rage these days, as more and more people discover the health benefits of “live foods” like kefir, kombucha and kimchi.With this increased attention comes rising costs, motivating savvy foodies to create their own versions of these superfoods at home. Once you create a healthy culture, the resulting strain of bacteria usually produces the desired outcome and survives to start the next round.
Starter cultures are the new chain letter among DIY fermenters, who trade their tips and successes in a living, physical form, like a SCOBY or active yeast. Rebekah Wilce, owner of the artisanal ferment company Farment, encourages culture swapping among her neighbors, colleagues and friends.
“Live bacteria are symbiotic organisms that are strained out of the matter they were fed from,” she says. “This makes them quite competitive and strong enough to deal with being moved around and into different environments.”
Developing a network of people who grow, use and share different types of ferment cultures encourages community building, and it can start with you. “Think of it as a grassroots movement ultimately creating a different type of resilience in society and sharing culture in more ways than one,” Wilce says.
Before getting started, make sure you have your terms straight: A ferment is the product that is the result of fermentation. A culture is the microbiological culture that performs the fermentation. Examples include the kombucha SCOBY and dairy kefir’s kefir grains. Branch out into DIY fermentation using these tips from Wilce.
1. Start Simple
Dairy kefir, water kefir and kombucha are fairly simple to acquire or to pass along to others. Starting with these basic ferments will give you the groundwork you need to get your culture swap off the ground.
2. Share Only DIY
Stick to sharing cultures that you have produced and propagated yourself. Avoid sharing cultures made from starter kits, manufactured in a lab or purchased online, so that you can vouch for how the cultures have been cultivated. The biggest deterrent to purchasing cultures commercially is that they tend to be less biologically diverse, which means they’ll be less resilient over time.
3. Use The Right Container
Glass is the best option for brewing kombucha and other ferments. Standard mason jars are affordable and versatile vessels to use, so stock up on a variety of sizes between 4 ounces and a gallon. Mason jars also are ideal for passing cultures on to someone else and storing starters from previous ferment batches. Be sure to have a clean cheesecloth and lids on hand, too: cheesecloth is the perfect breathable material to cover jar tops for open-air ferments like kombucha and kefir. If you don’t want to go the mason jar route, glass storage containers also work well, but avoid using containers made out of plastic or metal.
4. Plan For The Future
Save a small amount of the ferment and/or culture from batches you create to start the next batch. This inoculation helps ensure the healthiest and strongest microogranisms take over, ensuring the success and integrity of the new ferment.
5. Keep The Distance
Keep different ferments 5 to 10 feet away from one another while they’re active, as storing them too close together can affect the rate of fermentation and/or alcohol concentration levels across the board.
Avoid consuming or making too much of one ferment. Eating probiotics tends to stimulate one’s gastrointestinal system, mainly in a good way; however, just like eating too much fiber, ingesting too much live food at one time can cause the guts and bowels to kick into overdrive. Thus, like with all things, moderation is best and diversity is good!
Use these fermentation tips to get a handle on the process and then find like-minded people in your community by using social media to get your culture swap off the ground. Before you know it, you’ll be swimming in kombucha and kefir, and your fridge will be packed with more kimchis, sauerkrauts and sourdough starters than you know what to do with!
About the Author: Rachel Werner is the assistant editor of BRAVA, a magazine created by women for women. She is a fitness instructor, personal trainer and blogger, and her passionate commitment to holistic wellness and sustainable agriculture makes Madison, Wis., a wonderful home.