Introduction to Kefir Grains
Let’s first clarify that milk kefir “grains” are not grains at all, though they do take on a soft, grain-like appearance and texture. It’s a bit like rice pudding in appearance and consistency. Kefir grains are probiotic colonies of yeast, lactic-acid producing bacteria, lipids, proteins, and sugars that turn milk lactose into tangy lactic acid.
In case you are familiar with Kombucha making, you can think of kefir grains as just another type of SCOBY. A SCOBY is a “Symbiotic Combination Of Bacteria and Yeast.” Kefir grains are believed to have originated in Slavic regions and the effect it has on dairy liquids is quite remarkable. (The grains can also be used to ferment some non-dairy drinks but I won’t be dealing with that in this particular post.)
With the addition of the kefir grains to milk, you will end up with a yogurt-like drink comprised of the milk whey and curds, both imbued with probiotic bacteria and yeast originating from the grains.
Why eat & drink it? Despite its similarity to yogurt as a cultured dairy food (or beverage, depending on how you look at it and what you do with it) it is quite superior to yogurt in terms of number and variety of probiotic bacteria. (We are talking 20-50 strains, versus two in yogurt.) Further, yogurt does not contain any probiotic yeasts, which have their own health benefits. (On the other hand, the colonies in the two are different and indeed yogurt has its own distinct benefits, so it is not an either/or discussion.)
Probiotic bacteria have been shown to support a healthy digestive system, assist in breaking down other foods, and help reduce the presence of unhealthy bacteria. Milk kefir is also laden with vitamins and minerals, stemming from the milk product but which is more easily absorbed by our bodies in the form of kefir. Furthermore, the vitamin, nutrient, and probiotic load can be further increased by a “second ferment” (discussed more below in recipes).
Note that if your stomach appears to have issues with kefir, reduce the amount you consume (even to as little as a tablespoon per day to start) and be patient allowing your body to grow accustomed to it.
A teaspoon of kefir grains can potentially culture and ferment up to 4 cups of a milk product (i.e. a quart jar), typically within 24 hours. However, four cups may take more than 24 hours, and in cold climates fermentation will take even longer. The problem with a long ferment time like this is the possibility for milk rancidification to occur before the completion of a healthy ferment. For this reason, using a higher ratio of grains to produce a shorter ferment time is recommended. Once the kefir is ready, it should be stored in the refrigerator until it is consumed.
Another solution to cold-weather stalled ferments is to place the fermenting kefir jar in a bowl of warm water to increase the ambient temperature. You could also place it on a heating pad on low, limited to short periods of time (e.g. 10 minutes). These solutions are useful but should be reserved until towards the latter end of a 24-hour cycle, when it is clearer the ferment won’t happen on its own in a timely manner.
The Right Dairy Source
You don’t want dairy products sitting at room temperature or in a warmed environment for too long, even if fermentation improves shelf life. If the separation between curds and whey hasn’t happened within 36 hours, that batch should be discarded. If the grains themselves appear healthy, and look and smell fine, and they had a sufficiently warm environment, consider the milk source… was it ultra-pasteurized? This can create problems and should be avoided.
Surprisingly, raw whole milk is difficult for kefir grains to properly culture. In my own experience, the best results are from homogenized or pasteurized regular or organic whole milk. (Lower- or non-fat versions, as well as goat or sheep milk, are good choices too, again, if not ultra-pasteurized.) However, organic milk is frequently ultra-pasteurized, so be careful to use only pasteurized or homogenized. Trader Joe’s brand organic whole milk is one of the few organic milks I see on the market which is pasteurized, not ultra-pasteurized, and isstill sold at a competitive price.
Storing your grains:
When the kefir grains are not actively being used, they should be stored in a compact jar or vessel, completely submerged in milk (again, don’t use ultra-pasteurized, but regular or organic is fine). Place this container in the refrigerator; the grains will be good for at least two weeks, possibly as long as a month. Do not go longer than this without using them in milk at room temperature for a normal ferment. A minimum of weekly or bi-weekly use is recommended to keep them healthy and active.
Making Kefir Part I: Recommended Products
1.These recommended grains come as a tablespoon (3 teaspoons), which will be more than enough to make a quart of kefir. This quantity is recommended as it will make having a continuous supply of milk kefir much more feasible. Also, if you ever need to take a break or go away, they can be refrigerated in a small container, filled to the top with milk, for potentially up to a month.
2) Grain container for fermenting in milk
OR 2b.) If you don’t use a separator container (and instead you just mix the grains directly into the milk), you’ll want a mesh strainer like this to separate them back out when fermentation is complete
3.) If you want an all-in-one kefir grain-holder and fermenting jar with a built-in straw, such an item exists! I own one and it’s fantastic, with many positive reviews. (However, I recommend using it on a quart-sized jar; use the half-gallon jar it comes with for your veggie ferments.) It also includes a breathable lid which is needed for proper fermentation. The jar allows you to immediately drink the kefir milk when it’s ready through the straw, or you can take the next step which is to separate the whey from the “kefir cheese,” which is much like Greek yogurt in consistency. See the next product.
4.) Whey/Cheese separator. Drink they whey blended into smoothies. Rich in probiotics and easier to digest than milk. Add any spice or flavor to the “cheese” to make amazing “yogurts” (except even more probiotic rich as discussed above) or other cheese items. Add a little salt and you have a cream cheese substitute. Add a little honey and vanilla and you have a delicious concoction even the kids will love. Top with fresh or frozen berries. Add savory spices and chives. The possibilities are endless!
Making Kefir Part II: Instructions
For a quart jar of kefir (4 cups or less), you will need: a quart jar or kefir fermenting jar system like the one above; cheesecloth (used with metal band from the jar lid) or a breathable lid (discussed in #3 below); and of course, kefir grains
Quantities: 1 tsp can culture up to four cups, though I prefer using more grains than a tsp to ensure the total ferment time is kept under 24 hours. A ferment kept at or under 24 hours also requires either a comfortable room temperature environment, or in a colder environment (such as a home during winter or which keeps the AC turned quite low), it may be necessary to move the jar to a warm spot or place the jar in a bowl of warm water, and possibly to repeat that step.
1.) Place between a tsp and a TBSP kefir grains in the fermenting vessel. As noted, it’s easiest if the grains are in a grain container (which hold up to about a TBSP, shown below) otherwise you will have to strain them out of the kefir manually later.
2.) Pour anywhere from 1 to 4 cups of milk in the vessel (avoiding ultra-pasteurized and other types discussed above).
3.) The kefir milk is usually ready within 24 hours. When the ratio of kefir grains to milk is high (e.g. a TBSP of grains and only one cup milk), the time will normally be shorter, possibly within as little as 12 hours. It is good to be able to monitor the ferment within 12-18 hours of its starting point so as to avoid over-culturing the milk. The kefir milk is ready when it has separated clearly into solids and whey, shown here.
4.) If you want to take another step of separating the whey and kefir “cheese,” use a fine mesh strainer. This Whey/cheese separating device is a great solution and holds up to four cups of kefir milk to separate (while sitting in the refrigerator). The sequence of steps, from pouring in the milk kefir, to separating the whey, and smoothing out the cheese (optional) is shown here:
Your kefir will stay good for several days. However, the flavor may start to diminish after 3-4 days, and finally be too sour or “cultured” tasting after that. Much of this will depend on how you prepare, store, and eat it. Ideas below!
Some uses for whole kefir:
Instead of further separating the whey and cheese in the separator device, you could blend or whip it all back together for a thick yogurt style drink. You could add or blend in any fruits or flavors and/or treat it as a smoothie base.
Another idea is the second ferment. This means taking another food product or flavor, such as chopped fruit, and adding it to the whole kefir for another 6-12 hours. It will continue to ferment together, and when the desired taste profile is achieved, you can either remove the added in food, or keep it in if eating immediately. Removing the fruit if eating later on is recommended because if fruit or other sugars are kept in the kefir for too long, it can become carbonated and also the sweetness (i.e. sugars) can be converted out to gases and more acids.
Some “kefir cheese” ideas (for use with the whey/cheese separating device):
- If you don’t like the taste of kefir cheese straight up, try adding salt to taste, for a flavor very similar to that of cream cheese (and usable as a much healthier alternative to cream cheese)
- Besides salt, adding any savory ingredients can make a great dip or spread, like Italian herbs, onion or garlic powder, curry, etc. Or add t to guacamole like sour cream. The sky is the limit.
- Pour on some frozen or regular berries and with a generous drizzling of fermented honey or lemon syrup.
- Add sugar and pumpkin spice or other flavors (including chopped fruit)