THE WILD KITCHEN & APOTHECARY — Grow Your Own Probiotics—Start With Kombucha

June 1, 2018

By Nicole Schanen

My experiments with fermentation began when a friend gifted me with a kombucha SCOBY—a deceptively cute acronym for: symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. 

Kombucha is a fermented tea, which has gained popularity in the U.S. in recent years. While it may seem new, it actually got its start in ancient China over 2,000 years ago where it was used to treat inflammatory diseases and to ward off cancer. 

Very simply put, fermentation is the process by which food is exposed to microorganisms, and those microorganisms preserve it, add beneficial bacteria, and make the nutrients in that food more available to our body. Every culture in the world consumes some form of fermented food.

I brought my SCOBY home in a mason jar, brewed a large pot of sweet tea, let it cool, poured it into a gallon jar with some already-prepared kombucha, and gently placed the gelatinous disc on top.

The SCOBY sank straight to the bottom. I had been told that the SCOBY should float, and that sinking is not a good sign. In fact, sinking was a sign of SCOBY death. I frantically began googling “sinking SCOBY” to determine how dire the situation was. I read it may rise to the top. Give it time. By the next morning the SCOBY was happily floating at the top of the jar.

A SCOBY and freshly fermented kombucha. —Nicole Schanen

It wasn’t long before I developed a genuine fondness for my SCOBY. I loved the perfect symbiosis of our relationship. I fed the SCOBY sweet tea; the SCOBY gave me probiotic-rich kombucha. Two years later, I am still brewing and drinking kombucha from the descendants of that first SCOBY.

Why are fermented foods so important to our health? Science is just starting to unravel how the bacteria in our guts—our microbiome—affect our physical and emotional well-being. But evidence is clear that these friendly bacteria support us in profound ways. 

The gut is often referred to as our “second brain.” Possessing a healthy and diverse microbiome supports our mental and emotional health. Ninety percent of serotonin, a “feel good” hormone, is produced in our gut. Antibiotics have been shown to adversely affect emotional health and probiotics have been shown to reduce anxiety and depression.Our gut bacteria also support our physical health, helping us break down food, and better absorb vitamins and minerals. 

A well-populated and diverse microbiome also keeps us from getting sick. Seventy percent of our immune system resides in our gut. Beneficial bacteria deter pathogens by competing with them. These bacteria help our bodies learn what is harmless or what should be attacked. 

Unfortunately, most Americans’ microbiomes more closely resemble ghost towns than bustling metropolises. This is due to many factors, including the overuse of antibiotics, as well as an absence of unpasteurized fermented foods and sufficient fiber in our diets. The residents of our microbiome need to eat, too, and consuming fiber, known as prebiotics, is also crucial to supporting a healthy gut.

You can always purchase fermented foods in the store—and there are many to choose from, including yogurt, kefir, cheese, kimchi, beer, wine, pickles and miso—but there is something deeply satisfying about “growing” your own. It’s also very economical! Here is a recipe to get you started.

A note on flavoring: Options are endless. I like ginger, berries, mint, and lavender. Have fun with it!

SCOBY care: SCOBYs do best with black tea. Don’t let your SCOBY come into contact with metal.

Where to get a SCOBY: Farmers markets and friends. Your SCOBY will also grow “babies” which can be peeled off, and used to make more kombucha.

Nicole Schanen is a Wisconsin native and lifelong resident of Southeastern Wisconsin. She enjoys cooking, reading, caring for the herbs in her garden, and experimenting with different fermented foods. Nicole can be reached by email at schanenn@gmail.com.

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