Monday, November 14, 2011

To Russia, With Love: Kvass


I was hoping to start off early in the To Russia, With Love series with a borscht recipe since borscht seems to be so stereotypically Russian, but when I came upon this old recipe from a 19th century book I saw "kvass" listed as an ingredient. Indeed, a number of recipes called for it. So, anticipating I'll need it for more than just borscht I figured this would be a good one to try and make!

Kvass is a lightly fermented beverage made from a dark bread, usually rye. It's described as tasting sour and sweet, and sometimes can be slightly carbonated. The process is pretty simple: toast some bread, soak it in some water, drain it out, add some sugar and yeast, and in a couple days it's done.  I thought it might be interesting to add some flavor, so this has some berries mixed into it. (A lot of recipes I found called for raisins for some added flavor, but I used what I had on hand.) This is a multi-day project.

  • 1 lb. dark rye bread (small loaf)
  • 3 quarts (12 cups) water
  • 1 package of instant yeast
  • 1 cup sugar
  • berries or raisins, herbs, etc.


Cut the bread into small pieces and toast in the oven at 200 F until they easily crumble. This might take about 30 minutes. Place in a pot when done.


Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil and pour over the croutons. Allow this to soak overnight.


In a large jar (such as a pickle jar) put down some fruit and a cup of sugar. I  used strawberries and some dried cherries. I've seen some recipes that add some mint at this point. Might not be a bad thing to try! Put on the lid and let it sit overnight.


Strain the soaked bread using a cheesecloth (best choice) or a fine mesh sieve.  A lot of recipes say to be gentle or you end up with cloudy kvass. Get as much liquid as you can and toss the mush bread in the compost or give to your livestock.

I ended up with 5 cups of liquid. I added another 5 cups of filtered water to stretch it out a bit. Pour this all into the large jar with the fruit and sugar, put on the lid, and give it a few good shakes to dissolve the sugars.  Allow this to settle for a few hours.

There's a couple of schools of thought when it comes to yeast.  Some people are comfortable just pitching the yeast into a liquid that they know contains a good environment for the yeast to multiply, especially if they know their yeast is good.  Some prefer to proof it first.

  • If you want to proof your yeast, scoop out a cup or so of the liquid (with the sugar dissolved) and place in a small cup or jar.  Add the yeast, give it a good stir, then let it sit. If it starts to bubble then you know the yeast are multiplying.  This can be poured right back into the big jar after about 30 minutes.
  • If you're sure your yeast is good (and if you recently bought the yeast it probably is) then go ahead and just add it to the jar.

Regardless of your method, after you add it to the jar make sure to mix it up well. I like to use a spoon and introduce a lot of air into the mix: yeast do better initially when a lot of oxygen is available to them. Give it a good mixing, then cover with a thin towel and wrap a rubberband around the rim. Do not put on some type of air-tight lid. Yeast consume sugar and produce alcohol and CO2. If the CO2 cannot escape pressure will build up in your container. If you've done homebrewing before, you probably have a jug with a stopper and an airlock that you can use, which you can see pictured above. If not, covering it with a thin cloth should be fine. (If you want to purchase a stopper and airlock, I highly recommend Brewstock!)

Let this sit for 2-3 days. You may see some pretty vigorous activity, then it'll die down a little and seem relatively calm. You may at some point see a bit of a white film on top of the liquid. Don't be too concerned about this. Because of the way it was made, there was probably some wild yeasts and bacteria that found their way into the kvass. They add that sour taste to the kvass and are nothing worth worrying about, given the time frame of the recipe.

At this point you have a choice: you can give everything a mix, strain the fruit, and enjoy it (added nutrients from the yeast!); or you can siphon off the top and keep the sediment in the bottom.  If you do this, you can use that sediment as yeast for a new batch. To save the yeast I would recommend reading this article on yeast washing. I siphoned off the liquid and ditched the yeast as I didn't see myself making more of this for some time. This recipe made about three 750mL bottles. (I like to use the Old New Orleans Rum bottles: the labels peel off without leaving any gunk. Blue painter's tape makes excellent labels!)

I can only describe the taste as ... odd. It's a bit bready, a little sour, and has a bit of a berry flavor to it. I don't think I would down a glass of this on its own. If I do this again, I'll treat this as more of a regular homebrew recipe and eliminate any opportunities for wild yeasts or bacteria to be introduced, just to get a better idea of what effect the yeasts and bacteria might've had on it.  For now, I'll stick to using it to make the borscht in an upcoming post!

This is a fermented beverage so there is some amount of alcohol present. I didn't do any specific gravity measurements, but after just a few days you're probably looking at 1% ABV (alcohol by volume) on the high end.  If you cannot have alcohol for health or personal reasons you can boil the liquid for a few minutes and the alcohol should cook off. I'm not sure how this would affect the taste, however.

Note: A lot of recipes on the internet for kvass mention bottling it and capping it with a raisin or two added in to lightly carbonate it. I would not recommend this without having some knowledge of homebrewing and bottling, otherwise you risk exploding bottles. While I've never had it happen, it sure as heck can't be fun to clean up. 

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