Experiments with Tibicos (Water Kefir)

Quince-honey tibi
Quince-honey tibi

When my friend Rose Marie first asked me what I knew about water kefir, I was baffled. Water kefir, she explained, was a culture for a bubbly beverage made from water, not milk, in the form of “grains” that resemble those that produce kefir.

I was skeptical. Was water kefir, like kombucha, another excuse to drink soda pop and call it good for you?

Well—yes, more or less. But I’ve since come to enjoy using what many Americans are now calling water kefir but that has gone by many other names in the past, including California bees, African bees, ale nuts, Balm of Gilead, beer bees, beer plant, and Japanese beer seeds. Europeans call water kefir tibi, and they maintain that it came originally from Mexico, where it is likewise called tibi or, traditionally, tibicos.1 In Mexico, grains of tibicos are fermented with pineapple juice or brown sugar (or both) in water to make tepache de tibicos, a refreshing, sweet, slightly alcoholic beverage.

Tibicos, or water kefir grains. The coloration on some of them resulted from using dark fruit syrups.
Tibicos, or water kefir grains. The coloration on some of them resulted from using dark fruit syrups.

Rose Marie ordered some of the grains from an online vendor and brought me about two tablespoons of them in a little plastic tub of water.2 I poked them; they were firm, irregularly shaped, colorless and translucent gelatinous masses, averaging about a quarter inch across. I fed them some sugar and put the tub in the refrigerator.

Within a day or two the lid was swelling. I needed to do something soon with my tibicos, I figured, or risk killing them. I could put them in a jar on the counter with more sugar water, but I wouldn’t want those empty calories, and why would they? Surely they would prefer to have some fruit juice. I didn’t have a pineapple handy, but it occurred to me that I had dozens of bottles of fruit syrups of various sorts, left over from candying fruits or made experimentally. On hot days my kids sometimes combined the syrups with carbonated water from the grocery store. I considered how I hated buying those plastic bottles, and hauling them back to town to recycle them.

I was beginning to see some value in tibi.

So I began making my own tibi pop. The recipe is simple:

Pour ½ to 3/4 cup fruit syrup, depending on the magnitude of your sweet tooth, into a quart jar. Add a tablespoon of tibicos and enough water to fill the jar. Fit a lid on loosely. Set the jar on the kitchen counter. Wait two days. Strain out the tibicos, rinse them, and store them in fresh sugar-water in the refrigerator. Funnel the partially fermented liquid into a liter-size clamp-topped bottle, the kind with a ceramic stopper that’s lined with a rubber ring. Clamp the bottle shut. Leave it on the counter for two days, no more. When you’re feeling hot and thirsty, unclamp the bottle. Gas should explode from the bottle just as if you’ve opened a bottle of champagne. If the explosion is weak, reclamp the bottle and wait another day or two. Then pour a glass of the bubbly. Adjust the taste if you like, with an ice cube or a squirt of lemon. Reclamp the bottle, and leave it on the counter. Pour yourself more tibi every day or two until the bottle is empty.

Each time you open the bottle, it will be as bubbly as before, or more so. I’ve made strawberry tibi, Asian pear tibi, plum tibi, and even tibi from syrup left from preserving green walnuts (the last tasted a bit like root beer). My only mistake was when I left the tibi bottled too long, perhaps four days, without releasing the pressure. Between opening the bottle and reaching the sink I managed to spray every wall and cupboard and several open cookbooks with plum pop.

If you don’t drink your tibi every day, do remember to open the bottle daily to release the pressure. If you forget one day, open the bottle the next day in the sink or outdoors. Ignore the example of one tibi maker, who, after a bottle of his tibi exploded, stood at a distance from the others and shot them with a rifle.

In an article published in 1990, Jürgen Reiss analyzed tibi scientifically. 3 The grains, he found, are made of dextran, a polysaccharide. Within the dextran are, in a symbiotic relationship, three species of microbes: Saccaromyces cerevisiae (which is used in making beer, wine, and bread), Lactobacillus brevis (common in sauerkraut and fermented pickles and a spoiler in beer), and Streptococcus lactis (also known as Lactococcus lactis, and used in making buttermilk and cheese). Reiss concocted his experimental tibi with dried figs and other dried fruit, as is common in Europe.

This is what happened in the fermenting tibi, according to Reiss: The sugar level declined constantly. After six days the alcohol reached its maximum level, slightly less than 0.5 percent, and acetic acid reached its maximum, too. Lactic acid was produced “in reasonable levels” only after fourteen days.

I can barely taste the acetic acid in my tibi, but I can’t miss the lactic acid. When it comes on, after about three weeks in my cool kitchen, the pop suddenly goes flat and sour. It is now vinagre de tibicos, which is drunk in Mexico to promote weight loss, fight arteriosclerosis, and prevent heart attacks. Only at this point does tibi seem truly comparable to kombucha, a weak vinegar made from a solution of refined sugar, flavored with tea, and usually drunk when partially fermented, so it’s at once sweet, sour, and slightly alcoholic. Both tibi and kombucha are considered probiotic, tibi because Lactobacillus brevis is said to survive in the gastrointestinal tract. Tibi is different from kombucha in that tibi is slow to sour and, when it does, the acid produced is mainly lactic, not acetic.

Tibi is also much gassier than kombucha, though not as gassy as commercial pop. As a child I never liked those sharp-tasting bubbles or the violent burps that followed. But with the gentler gassiness of tibi I’m learning to appreciate the taste of carbonation. Yes, carbonation has a taste! Only a few years ago, at the University of California, San Diego, scientists discovered that an enzyme expressed on the sour taste receptor cells in our mouths is stimulated by carbon dioxide.4  Humans have been enjoying this taste since at least the late Middle Ages, when bubbly mineral waters from natural springs became popular, medicinal refreshments. Ginger beer, made from another set of bacteria in natural symbiosis, originated in England in the mid-eighteenth century (you can buy ginger beer “plant” as well as tibicos from online sources). Europe’s great appetite for both mineral and bacterial bubbly waters caused Joseph Priestly to believe he’d made a great discovery when he invented the first artificially carbonated water in 1767. Soon English and American pharmacists were combining carbonated water with syrups to produce our modern soda pop. Until well into the twentieth century, people believed that carbonated water of any sort, syrupy or not, would cure or ease all sorts of ailments.

I wasn’t fooled, though. I was drinking pop without dyes or artificial flavorings or colorings, pop that might please the bugs in my bowels, pop that didn’t require buying or recycling a nasty plastic bottle, but still I was drinking pop. Could I make it a little more healthful? I eyed the quince in honey syrup on my kitchen counter. This was March, and the jar had sat there since early December. I make quince-honey syrup every year by simply mixing a pound of cubed quince with a pint of honey (this and many other syrup recipes are in The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves). The honey draws water out of the quince pieces, which slowly shrivel, and soon I have 2 ½ cups of raw syrup, rich with vitamin C from the quince and aromatics from both the quince and the honey, ready to soothe any sore throat that arises.

Straining quince syrup
Straining quince syrup

We’d had no sore throats over the winter, and now spring had almost arrived. It was time to strain that syrup, revive the shriveled quince cubes by simmering them in white wine, and make myself some quince-honey tibi.

The tibicos seemed to respond to the honey as well and as fast as they did to refined sugar. The drink turned out a little foamier than usual (honey causes foaming when used in jam making, too). It tasted strongly of both quince and honey. The quince-honey tibi was especially delicious after a week, when it was less sweet and noticeably, though barely, alcoholic.

Not olive oil but quince-honey tibi
Not olive oil but quince-honey tibi

At this point I value my tibicos enough to want to share them. Sadly, they haven’t multipled noticeably; I still have only about two tablespoons. Rose Marie said ginger seemed to encourage tibicos to reproduce, but mine didn’t respond when I put a couple of slices of ginger in their refrigerator tub. In Jürgen Reiss’s experiments, he found that tibicos reproduced themselves when fed dry figs but not when given other dry fruits (raisins, dates, prunes).

In my pantry I have dried Desert King figs in plenty. My next batch of tibi, I think, will be fig-flavored—perhaps with a little ginger added, too. After that, I’ll have to try a Mexican-style batch, with pineapple. I don’t need to buy a pineapple, actually. As I now recall, there’s a bottle of pineapple syrup in my pantry.

1. The best source of information I’ve found on tibicos in Mexico is Más Allá de Pulque y el Tepache: Las Bebidas Alcohólicas no Destiladas Indígenas de México, by Augusto Godoy, Teófilo Herrera, and Miguel Ulloa (México City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2003). As far as I can find, the book is unavailable in any U.S. library or bookstore, but most of the discussion can be read on Google Books. According to this book and other sources, tibicos develop on the fruits and pads of nopal cactus, which may be the original, ancient source of the grains.

2. Online sources for tibidos include www.yemoos.com and www.waterkefirgrains.com.

3. “Metabolic Activity of Tibi Grains,” in Zeitschrift für Lebensmittel-Untersuchung und Forschung 191:462­–65.

4. Jayaram Chandrashekar et al., “The Taste of Carbonation,” in Science 16 (October 2009): 443-45.

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Quince Jelly Candy

Here’s another, rather extravagant way to use the last of the season’s quinces. I devised this recipe because I wanted something similar to quince paste but prettier and more delicate. Quince jelly candy makes a lovely addition to a holiday sweetmeat platter.

If you don’t like cardamon, leave it out; you might use a cinnamon stick instead. If you really like cardamom, use six pods instead of four.

2 1/2 pounds quinces, with cores and skins, sliced fine
4 cardamon pods
1 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon strained lemon juice
Extra-fine sugar, for coating the jelly

Combine the quinces, cardamom, and water in a heavy-bottomed kettle. Simmer the quinces, covered, until the fruit and juice turn pink, or about 1 hour and 40 minutes.  Stir occasionally during the cooking, and take care to keep the heat low enough to avoid scorching. Add a little more water if necessary.

Strain the juice through a coarsely woven jelly bag. You should get about 1 cup juice.

Combine the quince juice with the sugar and lemon juice in a 10-inch skillet. Heat the mixture slowly, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved, and then bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly. When the syrup “sheets,” or when a drop hangs stubbornly from a raised metal spoon, quickly empty the pan into a 5-by-7-inch mold (I use a small Pyrex casserole dish), leaving any foam behind on the side of the pan. Reaching the gel point should take no more than a few minutes; it may happen, in fact, before the syrup even comes to a full boil. (If you’re not sure that the syrup is jelling; remove the pan from the heat briefly before emptying it into the mold. If the syrup is jelling, the cooling surface will wrinkle slightly when you tip the pan.)

Let the jelly cool and dry in the mold until the jelly is fully set; you’ll know it is if the lower edge fails to swell when you tip the mold. I let my jelly sit in the mold at cool room temperature for about two days. In a warm, dry place, you might allow for less drying time. To speed the process, put the mold into a food dehydrator or oven at a temperature of about 150 degrees F.

Sprinkle a board or plate with about 1 tablespoon of extra-fine sugar. With a table knife or small spatula, loosen the edges of the jelly from the dish. With your fingers, carefully lift the sheet of jelly from the mold and lay the jelly on the sugared plate or board. Turn the jelly over to coat the other side with sugar. Slice the jelly into 1-inch squares, sprinkle them with more extra-fine sugar, and store them in an airtight tin lined with waxed paper.

Makes about 1 cup jelly candies

How to Core a Quince

Around the seed cavity of a quince is a hard core of flesh that tends to stay hard after cooking. When a recipe requires coring a quince, you’ll want to remove all of this hard flesh. Doing so can be difficult; a sturdy paring knife will suffice, but only if looks don’t matter much. After accidentally cutting crosswise through a few quince slices, you may find yourself hunting through your Drawer of Useful Things (as I call mine) for a more appropriate tool.

Forget the pear corer; it’s too flimsy. What you need is the tool pictured here, a pointed spoon with sharpened sides. Best known as a peach pitter or pitting spoon, it’s designed for jabbing into a stone fruit and withdrawing the pit while leaving the fruit intact. My mother-in-law probably thought I knew what a peach pitter was when she bought me mine, at least a dozen years ago, but I didn’t, and in fact I’ve never tried to pit a peach while leaving it whole. I’ve often used my pitting spoon for scraping the white pith from citrus rinds. Its main use in my kitchen, though, is in coring apples and, especially, quinces.

I don’t know where my mother-in-law bought my pitting spoon, but finding one today can be hard. Canneries, once the main market, now use big machines instead. But I’ve found one online source: the Organic Tool Company of Turlock, California. Have a look at Pitting Spoon No. 2, priced at $12, and at the many other uncommon tools for the farm, garden, and kitchen in the OTC catalog.

Does anyone know of another source for pitting spoons?

Homemade Grape Molasses

Quince preserved in grape molasses

Arrope, mostillo, mostarda, saba, vin cotto, vino cotto, pekmez, petimezi—these words from various lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea all mean the same thing: grape juice boiled down to a thick syrup. Before Arabs introduced cane sugar to Europe, molasses from grapes, figs, or pomegranates was the best substitute for honey, a product that was usually more costly—or painful—to obtain.*

Grape molasses is still fairly common around the Mediterranean. In Spain arrope is used to fortify wines, to transform them into liqueurs with rounded flavor and enhanced sweetness. In Italy vin cotto is sometimes be served with quince paste and cheese. In Turkey pekmez is used in preparing many desserts. Grape molasses is also dribbled on toast, salads, steak, yogurt, and ice cream, and used as a marinade for duck and other meats.

The typical way to begin making grape molasses is to save some of the must when you’re pressing grapes for wine. You need at least two quarts must, which you’ll get from about six pounds of grapes. If you don’t have a fruit press, you can separate the juice from the seeds and skins by putting stemmed grapes through a tomato strainer. Or you can heat the grapes in a covered kettle until they come to a boil and burst their skins, and then drain the juice through a colander. For a jammier texture, press the grapes through a fine strainer (or use a food mill, if the grapes are seedless).

The second and final step in making grape molasses is to gently boil the juice—in a wide, heavy, nonreactive pan—until you have a thick syrup (like hot honey), taking care that it doesn’t caramelize. The boiling requires at least an hour and a half, longer if you’re using more than two quarts must.

Store the hot molasses in tightly closed jars. You can process the jars in a boiling-water bath, if you like, just as you would jam—five minutes if you’ve sterilized the jars first, ten minutes if you haven’t.

The color, texture, and flavor of your grape molasses will depend on your grape variety. The juice will darken with boiling in any case, but dark grapes, to my mind, make the most visually attractive molasses. The molasses will be more or less tart, and notably astringent or not. If it’s made from an American grape variety, it may jell upon cooling, though slow cooking can prevent this.

To make preserves in a truly ancient style, add fruit to your grape molasses while it’s cooking. Dried fruit, such as figs, are added to the juice at the start of the cooking. A few weeks ago I added a cup of dried figs to the juice of eight pounds of seedless, blue Glenora grapes to make two pints of dark, rich preserves.

Even more interesting are my Glenora-quince preserves. Quinces conveniently ripen at about the same time as grapes, so combining the two seems natural. I used a pound of quinces—peeled, quartered, cored, and then cut into smaller pieces—for six pounds of grapes. I added the quinces to the juice after reducing it by half. Then I gently boiled the fruit in the syrup for about an hour, until the syrup was suitably thick.

Semi-reduced juice with quinces just added

Early in the cooking, my quinces looked almost like sliced beets in beet juice. Afterward, in jars, the quince pieces were invisible in the dark molasses.

Preserves made with grape or other fruit molasses are more complex in taste than preserves made with refined sugar. Deliciously tart, mildly astringent Glenora-quince preserves go just as well with smoked pork or roast poultry as with toast or yogurt.

Fat bunches of Canadice grapes, my favorite for fresh eating, still hang on the vines trellised over our back deck. Before the birds and wasps get them all, I think I’ll boil some down into molasses.

* I use the word molasses for these fruit products because it originally meant “honey-like.” The word syrup seems less suitable, from a historical perspective, because it comes from an Arabic word for a sugar-sweetened drink. 

Quince in Bloom

Before the blossoms have all fallen, I want to share these pictures of my Pineapple quince trees. Like other quince varieties, they grow no more than fifteen feet high, and each forms an umbrella-like canopy. The trees blossom profusely, with pale pink flowers that are bigger than the blooms of all my apples and pears. The quince trees’ springtime appearance is outdone only by their glory of autumn, when their hundreds of big, golden, pear-shaped fruits perfume the garden with their tart fragrance.

Prior to the invention of packaged pectin, nearly every American farmstead or garden had a tree like this, if the climate allowed, because quince is an excellent source of pectin. The tart, light-colored juice combines well with other fruits and juices and with spices such as ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The fruit is hard and mildly astringent, but when cooked it mellows and softens, without losing its shape, and with long cooking it turns from white to a startling ruby red. You can poach quinces in wine and honey, stew them with meat (as do cooks in the quince’s Caucasian homeland), and add them to apple pies and applesauce. You can make quinces into jelly, preserves, wine, syrup, membrillo, and liqueur. And you can probably do all this with the harvest of one mature tree.

Even if you’re not sure you like the fruit, consider planting a quince tree. You need only one, because it will self-pollinate. You won’t have to spray it; the hard fruit resists both apple maggots and coddling moths. You can think of your quince tree, if you like, as an easy-care ornamental.

But do try using the fruits. Here’s a very simple recipe for an aromatic syrup that’s delicious in either hot tea or iced water.

Raw Quince-Honey Syrup

Use a sturdy knife to slice the quinces. For coring, a tool that looks like a thick, sharpened little spoon works best.

1 pound peeled and cored quinces, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

2 cups honey

Layer the quince cubes and honey in a quart jar. Cap the jar tightly, and let it stand at room temperature for two weeks.

After two weeks, drain off the syrup and pour it into sterilized jars. Cap the jars, and store them in the refrigerator or another cool place. The syrup should keep well for months.

Eat the shriveled quince cubes as candy, if you like, or simmer them in white or rosé wine and serve them with roast poultry or pork.


Last of the Quinces

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFinally I am running out of quinces. I have two trees, of the variety called Pineapple, and they produce more reliably than any of the apple, pear, plum, and cherry trees in my lowland orchard. So I always give away quinces, and this year I even sold some. Yet it’s January 20, and still I have a box of the fruit left in the unheated guest bedroom.

I’m not complaining. Quinces are good for a lot of things. From the nineteenth century until after World War II, quinces were valued especially for their pectin. People would cook the sliced fruit in water, and then either make the liquid into jelly or boil it down until it was sour and viscous before combining it with other fruits in jelly or jam. For centuries before that quinces were made into paste, the original marmalade—or, simply, thick, sliceable jam—to be served as finger food. Quince paste has never lost popularity in Spain or parts of Latin America, and it seems to be coming back into style in the United States. Even more appealing than quince paste, to me, are pastes from quinces combined with other fruits, such as berries and plums. Quinces also make delightful, fragrant syrups (I most like a raw syrup of quince and honey), and jams that can turn out red or white, and smooth or rough, depending on your method. Cooked in syrup for nearly two hours, quince cubes or slices become a ruby-red spoon sweet. Steeped in vodka with sugar, quinces become an aromatic liqueur. Poached in white wine with honey, they become a tart relish for roasts or even a dessert. Quinces combine well with apples in pie, and some people like them best simply hollowed out (with a coring tool that looks like a small, heavy spoon with a pointed tip) and baked whole like an apple.

Having made all those things this year, I wanted to try something different. I gazed at the quinces, sitting in the guest bedroom beside the last of the peppers (peppers keep much longer in a cool guest room, by the way, than they do in a refrigerator), and I wanted to combine the two. I’d already made some wonderful quince–red pepper jelly. What else could I try? I decided on—

Quince Chutney

quince chutney 5

1 to 2 tablespoons mustard oil*
3 tablespoons chopped garlic
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 pound peeled and sliced or diced quinces
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 medium-large (about 1/2 pound) onion, halved and sliced thin
2 ounces small fresh hot red peppers (I used jalapeños and Fresnos), sliced thin
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped gingerroot
1 teaspoon salt
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons raisins

Heat the oil in a preserving pan. Add the garlic and cumin seeds, and stir them over medium heat until they release their aroma. Immediately add the remaining ingredients. Boil the mixture gently, uncovered, over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is absorbed and the quince is tender, 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours.

When the chutney has cooled, store it in a covered container in the refrigerator. It’s even better after a week or two.

*Available in Indian markets, mustard oil is always labeled in the United States as “for external use only.” The USDA requires this labeling because the oil contains erucic acid, which is said to cause “nutritional deficiencies as well as cardiac lesions” in lab rats (mustard seeds and prepared mustard also contain this natural chemical, of course). Mustard oil has a very strong flavor. If you’re not sure you like it, use only 1 tablespoon. If you’re sure you don’t like it, or if none is available, substitute another oil.

This recipe is actually a variant of one I developed for apple chutney, and that chutney turned out equally delicious. So if your guest bedroom is filled with apples rather than quinces, this is a good way to use them.