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Starter Cultures ~ The Science Experiment


Starter Cultures ~ The Science Experiment

Two Books

Starter Cultures

So, let’s talk about starter cultures! I would like to clear up some confusion involving starter cultures and ratios. In my first book, Cultured Food For Life,  the recipe for kefir called for 1 cup of milk to 1 tablespoon of kefir grains. In my latest Book, Cultured Food for Health (as well as my website), my recipe for kefir calls for 2-4 cups of milk to 1 tablespoon of grains. Why? When you are writing recipes and books, you are required to put EXACT ratios. But the truth is, there is no perfect amount for everyone. This is because everyone’s home is a different temperature, their grains vary in strength depending on how well they are taken care of, and we all use different types of milk. So, what is the solution? Science experiments!


Here are some general rules to follow: If your house is on the warm side, say above 73 degrees, then your kefir (and other ferments) will finish faster. This also means that you can use FEWER kefir grains, or you can add more milk to your existing grains. Warm temperatures speed up fermentation and can cause your kefir to over ferment. Whenever your kefir has over fermented, it means that your grains (or Easy Kefir) have run out of food and will begin to separate into curds and whey. This isn't necessarily all bad, though. BUT it will cause your kefir to be more chunky and more sour. Some have assumed this is the best way to get kefir cheese and whey, and it really isn't. The easiest, tastiest, and most beneficial way to get kefir cheese and whey can be found here: How to make Kefir Cheese and Whey.

You can do experiments in your home. If your kefir is over fermenting, you can either remove some of your grains or add more milk. This is the easiest way to help with separation. You can keep experimenting to find the right ratio for you, and remember it will change depending on the seasonal temperatures in your room. And don't forget that you will need to remove some of your grains as they continue to grow and multiply. If your house is extremely warm (in the high 70's or 80's), then your kefir will separate very quickly due to the very high temperatures.

Unlike milk kefir, non-dairy kefir will always separate. Why? Because of the water ratio in all nut and seed milks, the water will separate from the meaty part of the milk. This will happen if you make kefir with homemade or store-bought milks. So don't worry about your non-dairy kefir separating - this is, in fact, normal 🙂


Cinnamon Date Kombucha Kombucha experimentation mainly involves the time factor. A good rule to follow is 1 cup of starter tea, 1 SCOBY, and 3 quarts (12 cups) of water. If your starter tea is very strong (more like vinegar), then your brew will ferment faster. It will also ferment faster if your house is above 73 degrees.  So check your brew by tasting it around Day 5 to make sure it hasn't gotten too sour. If your house is cool (below 70), your brew will take longer. In the winter, kombucha can take up to 3 weeks depending on how cool it is. If your house is very cool, you can use double, or even triple, the starter tea to boost things along; or you could use a heating strip around your jar. But make sure you still taste test around Day 5. I know this sounds a bit complicated, but I promise it's not. It just takes a little adjusting here and there to find the right balance for your brew.

If you think you may be having SCOBY troubles, see this article:

Help My Scoby is Ugly!

Water Kefir

The more water kefir crystals you have, and the stronger they are (especially LIVE ones), the faster they will ferment. Water kefir is always done in 1-2 days  - UNLESS your house is extremely cool. But as long as you taste test and the batch isn't too sweet, then you'll know it's ready 🙂

When second fermenting your water kefir, you should never go longer than two days, even if you don't have any fizz - unless your house is absolutely frigid. If you go longer than two days, it will be much too bubbly (much more than kombucha) and it will begin to get an "off" taste. Water kefir is best consumed within a week of making it; otherwise, it has a tendency to over ferment.

We have lots of water kefir recipes on our site and even more on our Biotic Pro membership site. Water kefir is really fun to make. I enjoy making different flavored versions and you will too.

Cultured Vegetables

cultured veggies

Cultured vegetables are very easy to make. Basically, if your house is on the warmer side, they may be done a day or two (at most) earlier; and if your house is on the cooler side, then it will take a day or two longer.  The cloudiness in the veggies is normal and is a good sign  - it's a sign of fermentation. Softer vegetables such as asparagus, green beans, pickles, and zucchini will take less time, finishing in around three days. Sauerkraut, however, ferments the longest at around 6-7 days because it takes longer to get broken down. You can add soft veggies like spinach or kale into your firmer ferments like sauerkraut, but they are much too soft to ferment by themselves and will turn to mush if fermented alone.

I have some new recipes for my  Biotic Pro Members!

Exclusive Recipe!
Cinnamon Date Kombucha
This is a great kombucha to have in the morning. Cinnamon has a long history both as a spice and as a medicine. If you’re looking for fiber, potassium, or copper look no further than dates. Together with kombucha, this is a lovely drink and a great holiday drink, too!
Exclusive Recipe!
Strawberry Sage Water Kefir
If you like strawberries, you will love this water kefir. Strawberries and sage have a unique flavor. I have always loved strawberries and basil, but strawberries and sage might be my new favorite!
19 Responses to "Starter Cultures ~ The Science Experiment"
    Im really excited about starting kefir – what I really want to do is make it thicker like yogurt.
    Is there a trick to that?

  2. Hi; about veggies; do you have “stats” for science-types like my son? Example: actual, tested nutritional value of raw carrots vs. nutritional value of fermented carrots.
    Also, about veggies, do the fermented vegetables have as much or more nutrition than the brine that is left in the jar? If that is the case, I’d like to drink brine shooters instead of eating vegetables.
    Have learned a lot from your books, videos and website. Thanks!!!! xxxx000

  3. I thought of another question about the kefir grains, regarding your revised instructions for the amount of grains to use when making a batch, I get that, there are variables that you have to adjust for. What about storing the grains in the fridge, has your recommendation for how much milk per tablespoon of grains for storage been revised as well? I’ve currently got about 3+ tablespoons in a quart of milk and I try to change that weekly.

    • That should be fine. However much milk you use on the counter to make kefir daily is what you should use and should last a week in your fridge. I always add a little extra just to be sure it has enough food.

  4. I have your books Donna and have learned so much – THANK YOU!! I was doing Kefir but have switched to fermenting numerous veggies which we enjoy even more – OH the flavors are fabulous and as a long-time ‘canner’ it’s fun to just make 1-2 quarts!! I have shared your books & website with many friends.

  5. can too much kefir, kombucha and kraut be consumed in a day? Sometimes I drink a quart of kombucha, a cup or more of milk kefir and about a cup of kraut> My kefir is made from milk that I milk from my Pygmy goat.

  6. I was wondering about the yeast growing on top of the vegetables. I guess it’s been too hot. After scooping off the top veg, can I rinse the rest of them off and just store them in fresh water?

  7. I am currently have an issue with my Kombucha. I think I waited too long between batches. My scoby came out very thin. I was using rooibos tea. It did ferment after the 10 days so I started a new batch right away with about 4 cups of starter tea, rooibos again. It’s fermentation seems to be going very slowly and the scoby is again very thin. Do I need to try a batch with black tea or do I need to just get a new scoby and starter tea?

  8. So if non-dairy milk always separates then does that mean you have to taste test to know if it is done because you can’t tell if the separation is from over ferment or the typical separation of the water from the nut solids? I always make my Kefir with canned coconut milk and this has always been a tricky part for me.

  9. Hi Donna:

    Love your web site, I send it to new people all the time. I trust you and fully respect you. That is huge.

    My question to you, my daughter 31yrs. gets bladder infections all the time. She is susceptible to them, can kombucha irritate it?

  10. I’m about ready to give up on making my own Kefir and buying it in the supermarket. It grows so rapidly into curds and whey that I have 2 jars stored in the fridge with the surplus. What am I doing wrong? …. and it has such a strong sour smell my son can’t come in the kitchen after I have uncapped the jar. It is also pretty sour tasting so I don’t enjoy drinking it at all. I also wonder if I’m doing harm to myself rather than good??? I’ve been doing it the opposite to what you have written. I have usually a half jar of the fermented Kefir and add very little milk. Do I start from scratch by taking 1 tbsp of the fermented Kefir and adding 1 cup of milk as you suggest and always keep it to that ratio. My kitchen is probably in the mid-70’s. I keep it in a glass jar with a loose lid. Guess I just can’t seem to get the hang of it. Is it supposed to taste sweet? – not sour, watery and effervescent!!!! Any help is appreciated.

  11. Thanks Donna,
    You’ve cleared up a few niggling questions in my mind. I love your books and info.

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