The Care and Feeding of Kefir

DSCN0954To correct intestinal disturbances, kefir is far more powerful than yogurt and you can make it yourself — which you will have to do if you want to experience the wonders of kefir since the store-bought lacks the impressive bio-activity of homemade kefir.  All the supplies you need to make a steady supply of kefir are shown to the left (the jars are quart-size) except the kefir grains.  Kefir grains, blown-up, are kefir grainsshown to the right.  Luckily kefir grains are re-usable for as long as you care for them properly, and this is the only tricky part.

Kefir, like yogurt, buttermilk and sour cream, is created by fermenting milk, which, handily, occurs at room temperature for kefir.  The problem lies in milk pasteurization, which partially denatures milk proteins.  Plain pasteurization is not a problem; however, ultra-pasteurization, or UHT, will not work well to make kefir.  Unfortunately, most milk is ultra-pasteurized these days.  Whole milk from United Dairy in Ohio, sold in Morgantown at Walmart, does not say it’s ultra-pasteurized, and it’s worked well for me.

I found out about the differences in milk pasteurization when I tried (fairly unsuccessfully) to make cheese.  The pictures on the website linked below show the differences in pasteurization and ultra-pasteurization in terms of cheese curd formation, due to the different levels of damage to milk proteins.  As for human consumption, cooking the milk (which is what pasteurization does) isn’t more or less harmful to us than cooking meat, but for sustaining kefir grain structure it’s a serious problem.  The kefir grains are not made from grain at all (“grain” describes the size of them) but are constructed from milk proteins by micro-organisms.  Perhaps this is why kefir can’t long survive on cooked milk.  It would be like trying to bake a cake with already cooked eggs.

Pasteurization vs ultra-pasteurization milk protein damage

So, to make kefir, gather up the items shown, and buy some kefir grains.  I chose to buy from Mrandmrskefir, through Amazon, and never had reason to change, since I’ve always received quality grains and they provide detailed instructions and troubleshooting information with the grains.  The other sellers may be just as good.

Kefir grains at Amazon

Newly bought kefir grains may have to be soaked in a cup of fresh whole milk, at room temperature, for a few days to become active.  Put your new kefir grains in a small jar, fill with fresh milk and put the lid on but don’t seal it.  Each day pour the old milk through the strainer to capture the kefir grains, and put the grains in a clean jar with new milk.  Put the lid on cracked, since kefir produces carbon dioxide as it ferments the milk.  When the kefir grains are active, the milk will become semi-solid, somewhere between yogurt and buttermilk:  this is kefir.  Strain out the kefir grains, and put the kefir in a jar and refrigerate.  After straining the kefir will have the consistency of buttermilk.

This is the process I use to always have kefir on hand, even if we go through a slow spell of using it:

  1. Put active kefir grains in a quart jar and fill with milk and put a lid on, cracked.  Leave out at room temperature to thicken.
  2. Leave out until semi-solid.  If the curds and whey have separated, it has been left too long, will taste sharp (still usable if you like) and will start to change the character of your kefir grains.  Be careful the next few times and the grains will recover.  I like it best when it just starts to thicken.
  3. Strain out the kefir into a clean jar, seal and refrigerate.
  4. Put the kefir grains into the second clean jar and fill with milk:  refrigerate.  I have kept this in the refrigerator for over two weeks with no issues.
  5. When the kefir in the refrigerator is getting low, put the kefir grains and milk on the counter, crack the lid, and start over at 2.

Notes:

  • Kefir ferments more quickly at warmer temperatures, and at higher grain-to-milk ratios, and with more robust kefir grains.  Making kefir will typically take from eight to 16 hours.
  • Kefir is not stable at refrigerator temperatures and will continue to ferment, though much more slowly than on the counter — I suspect this is why true kefir can’t be bought in grocery stores.  If it becomes too sharp, toss it, or feed it to your chickens or dogs.  The process above can be reduced to pint jars, depending on your needs.
  • If the grains get larger and more numerous, good for you!  If the fermentation to kefir is going more quickly than you like, discard some of the grains (or you can eat them).  If the grains are getting smaller, something is not right.  Perhaps the milk you are using is ultra-pasteurized, or the fermentation was allowed to go too long too many times.  Simply buy new kefir grains and start over.

So, what are kefir grains?  They’re a yeast-bacteria combination living symbiotically on a substrate made of milk proteins, including over 30 types of beneficial micro-flora.  Kefir was first used by shepherds of the Caucasus Mountains who carried fermented milk stored in leather pouches.

Kefir can taste anywhere from mild to sharp depending on how long it’s left to ferment.  It can be drunk as it is, which is what I do, or as part of a smoothy, or sweetened with sugar/honey, or seasoned with cinnamon or vanilla.