I adore fermentation. Anyone who knows me probably agrees that I border obsessed. With their skyrocketing popularity these days, one might assume fermented foods and beverages are culinary novelties. Fermentation, however, has been practiced since before the dawn of history, and has been essential to diets in all parts of the world. Ferments are found in abundance in nearly every culinary tradition, and their cultivation is passed down generation to generation. Immigrants setting out on continent-crossing treks brought with them their sourdough starter or kombucha SCOBY, and passed it down to their grandchildren who passed it down to their grandchildren. Locked inside this relationship to ferments are beautiful generational transferences of culinary practices, stories, rituals, and traditions: Korean grandmothers burying crocks of kimchi out in the hills, grandchildren at their elbows watching wide-eyed. Swedish farmers pulling Baltic herring from their wooden barrels, hoping the lactic acid in the fish’s spine was properly activated making for a month’s worth of surströmming for their families. Circles of Peruvian women chewing and spitting out corn in a uniform rhythm, the enzymes in their saliva converting the starch into fermentable sugars for chicha. Ferments are tangible embodiments of culture. Unfortunately, fermentation has mostly disappeared from our households and communities today, and is in danger of being lost.
“Bacterial fermentation plays such a broad and vital role in creating and sustaining life that all beings have coevolved with it, ourselves included,” writes Sandor Katz, acclaimed “fermentation revivalist” and best-selling author of Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation. Bacteria break down nutrients that our bodies are not otherwise able to digest, regulate the balance between energy use and storage, produce necessary nutrients including vitamins B and K, defend against invading pathogens, and are responsible for gene transference. On our skin, microbial communities inhabiting different places on the body are as ecologically unique as rainforests are to deserts, playing specialized roles that are indigenous to that location, forearms to eyelids. It’s absolutely mind boggling how many different functions our microbiome is responsible for, yet despite the years and resources spent on bacterial, genetic and microbiological research working to decode the complex relationship between us and our microbiota, researchers acknowledge that the dynamics of microbial populations and how they interact with the body are largely mysterious. What is consensus, however, is that bacteria are highly sophisticated systems that are the silent drivers of our evolution, genetic makeup, and internal and external health.
This contrasts sharply, however, with the widespread cultural perception of bacteria as our enemy. Understandably, we developed weapons against bacterial pathogens we first identified, and since then our culture has fully embraced this association. The problem, however, with killing off our bacteria is that most of them protect us from the few that can make us sick, and the absence of beneficial bacteria makes us more vulnerable than we otherwise would be. From anti-bacterial hand soap to sterilized, mass-produced food, we are starving the environments our microbiota need to survive. Live-culture foods produced via fermentation, however, can reconstitute them. Let’s start with a delicious naturally probiotic beverage that’s easy to brew and packed with immune boosting antioxidants. All hail the dynamo duo: fermentation and Elderberry.
Lacto-fermented Probiotic Elderberry Lemonade Soda
This recipe is a stunning antidote to the summer heat. It’s bright, naturally sweet, and delightfully effervescent due to the lacto-fermentation. It’s also the life of the party for a gathering of friends and family. That the soda is naturally fermented always piques curiosity and interest, and for many this may be the first lacto-fermented beverage they’ve tried. It’s easy to make and good for your gut, to boot!
One of the most appealing things about ferments are no two are ever the same. The flavors produced during fermentation are influenced by the kind of wild bacteria that are present in the
air, which are unique to your geographical area. They are also shaped by the time of year (how hot or cold it is outside), the temperature of your house, and the makeup of the soil the fruit or vegetable was grown in. If your home is particularly warm, it will take less time to ferment than if your home is particularly cool, and for that reason it’s always good practice to taste your lacto-fermented beverages regularly, and transfer them to the fridge when it’s sweetness is to your liking (the longer it ferments, the more sugars will be consumed by the bacteria, meaning the less sweet the end result will be).
Another element that adds uniqueness to this recipe is raw honey. When I first made this, I used a local, raw Wildflower honey, and the soda was delightfully floral. Had I used Sourwood honey, it would have had a richer honey flavor with fewer floral notes. When you use local honey you’ll wind up with flavors that are unique to your region, meaning a fermented soda made in Iowa will taste different from a soda made in North Carolina, despite the recipe being the exact same.
If you’re concerned about the sugar content, don’t worry; the sugar isn’t for you. Bacteria and wild yeasts need sugar to feed on. Without it, they cannot proliferate. The bacteria eat up most of the sugar in a ferment, hence my previous statement that the longer you let the ferment go, the less sweet it will be in the end.
A note about the whey in this recipe. I strain whey from raw yogurt that I get from a local farmer. I have also had success using whey strained from quality commercial yogurt I get at my local co-op or Whole Foods. Use whey from a high quality yogurt, whether it’s store or farmer bought. If you prefer a dairy-free alternative, try using the juice from a jar of homemade or high quality (like Bubbie’s or small batch kraut producers that are popping up all over) sauerkraut. Do not use sauerkraut that has vinegar in the ingredients as this is not lacto-fermented and thus does not contain the bacteria needed to culture the soda.
Flip-top bottles, like the one pictured below, are crucial for fermenting beverages, as the tight cap ensures that carbon dioxide stays locked in the bottle, carbonating the soda. You can buy flip-top bottles from your local home brewing supply store, or purchase them online.
This recipe makes one quart of soda. If after you’ve tried it you want to make more, you can increase the quantities in this recipe to make larger batches. I encourage you to experiment with this; try different types of honey, add other flavor components like raw ginger or other fruits, taste it regularly, and explore the wonderful world of lacto-fermentation!
1 swing-top bottle
1 32 ounce glass jar + lid (or cheesecloth, or clean kitchen towel)
3 cups filtered water
½ cup fresh juice squeezed from lemon
¼ cup whey or sauerkraut juice
½ cup raw, preferably local honey
2 Tablespoons Norm’s Farms Elderberry Extract
- Heat the filtered water on the stove until just gently warm enough to dissolve the honey.
- Stir in the honey until fully dissolved.
- Let the water-honey mixture cool to room temperature.
- Once cooled, stir in the fresh lemon juice and Elderberry Extract, and transfer the mixture to the glass jar.
- Cover the glass jar with cheesecloth/kitchen towel and secure with a rubber band, or a loosely fitting lid, and leave out on the counter for at least 3 days. You can let it go longer for a less sweet soda. I let mine go about 5 days. Taste it after 3 days and let it ferment until it’s only a little sweeter than you would like it to be.
- Transfer the soda to the swing-top bottle using a funnel. Close the lid tightly and store it in a cabinet for 4-7 days, “burping” it each day to let enough pressure out so it doesn’t explode. I have never had an explosion happen to me, but I know plenty who have, and it’s treacherous, hence keeping it in a cabinet.
- Taste it each day and once it’s to your liking, transfer the bottle to the refrigerator.
- You’ll want to drink this up within a couple of weeks. If you plan to store it longer, be sure to “burp” it regularly so you don’t lose all of your soda to the “geyser effect” when you do open it. Also note the longer it sits, the more tart it will become as the bacteria eat up the remaining sugars.