Friday, July 25, 2014

Kefir 101

 It's no secret I love kefir. I mention it often, and I feel like I am constantly giving away grains. Every time I try to give them away, though, I get at least two or three questions about exactly what kefir grains are. So here it is, the break-down on kefir and how to make it.
   But first, we discuss how to say the very word, Kefir. If you want controversy, here it is, topped only by how to pronounce Fage, which by the way is Fah-zsee(think of the 'Zs' sound as the sound in Zsa Zsa Gabor). Yes, of course I'm right. An Israeli family I used to work for taught me how to say it so there's no way I'm wrong. ;-) Kefir in our home is pronounced Kef-ear. Again, I must be right because a Russian told me so, and besides- when am I ever wrong?! Other, more inferior pronunciations include Key-fear and Key-fur. Obviously, both are wrong, but you may hear them said that way. I kid, I kid. If you know me, you know this passage is entirely in jest. Say them both as you please. You're always going to be 'wrong' to some one and what does it REALLY matter?
   Kefir is a dairy-based cultured beverage Russian in origin. Kefir is cultured by grains, which are cauliflower-looking symbiotic yeast and bacteria cultures. They feed on the lactose(milk sugars) in the milk, creating healthy prebiotic bacteria and yeast cultures that are great for gut health, immune system health, and digestive healing that are not found anywhere else, including the cultures in cultured yogurts and the like. It also makes the dairy beverage high in protein and lactose-free, so most people with a sensitivity can consume it without problem. I say most because there's no guarantee that every single batch of kefir eats up every single cell of lactose every single time, so those with more severe intolerances should be cautious. The beverage itself looks and tastes like a watery yogurt with a hint of a fresh yeast(think warm, rising bread dough) smell and flavor.
   So how do you MAKE kefir? You will need two ingredients: organic whole or 2% milk and dairy kefir grains. You will want to keep your milk-to-grains ratio at 8-10:1. Meaning, 8-10 tablespoons of milk can be cultured with 1 tablespoon of grains.

Step 1: Put the grains and appropriate amount of milk in a glass jar. Cover with a loose top, cheese cloth, or a paper towel. The kefir needs to breath, gasses need to escape, but you want to keep any foreign matter from falling in, and place the jar somewhere out of direct sunlight, where it won't get too warm or jostled around much. I use a half-gallon jar with a plastic lid that once held raw honey from our local wholesome foods market. I tighten the lid just barely- enough that it's not completely loose and won't be knocked off, and I put the jar against the wall in the elbow of my L-shaped counter top. It's on the windowsill here for the natural lighting. Also- you do not need to scrub the jar in between cultures. The grains keep any bad bacteria from growing so there's never any bad bacteria or mold growth. I do clean my jar once a week just because, but it's not necessary. After I put the fresh milk in each batch I give the jar a quick shake to clean the little yogurt-like flecks off the sides, and that's it. Never had an issue. 
Adequately cultured batch of kefir
Step 2: Let it sit. In warmer weather it will take 8-12 hours for a batch to culture. In cooler weather it will take 12-24 hours. Right now in the peak of hot-hot summer(temps regularly 90-105 degrees, 85-95% humidity) I'm getting two batches a day. When your kefir is done you'll know, because the grains rise to the top, and you'll see pockets of clear liquid throughout the jar. When you smell it, it will smell a lot like natural, plain yogurt, with a tangy, yeasty kick. It tastes lighter than it smells(the grains add the the smell of the finished batch).  If you culture for too long you will see complete separation with an entire layer of clear liquid running through the batch. DON'T PANIC! THIS DOES NOT MAKE IT UNDRINKABLE! It just means the resulting kefir will have a tendency to remain a little separated, and you'll have clear liquid and fine white flecks if you inspect it closely, and if you let it sit for long you'll have to shake/stir it up before using it because it will separate itself again. 
Kefir grains risen to the top of the finished batch
Step 3: Strain the kefir. Using a plastic or nylon mesh strainer or cheese cloth, strain the kefir to separate out the grains. It's important to use plastic or glass and NEVER use metal in any part of the process. Metal will kill the kefir grains. I found a great, inexpensive little nylon mesh strainer HERE on Amazon.

When the kefir is all strained away, you'll be left with a strainer/cheesecloth full of grains. You might need to do a little gentle tapping to get all the kefir out of the strainer. Your grains may appear a little slimy or milky. Both of these are GOOD! The slime, as weird as it sounds, is a part of the culturing process. No need to rinse it off or anything. 

Once you have all the liquid strained away, just start over from step one! Kefir can be used for many different things, like blended with fruit and chia seeds for smoothies(our go-to breakfast 3-4 days a week), added to cooking in place of sour cream and buttermilk, or strained through cheese cloth in the refrigerator overnight to make kefir cheese, and great healthful substitute for cream cheese! 
Feel like you just can't keep up with your batches of kefir? Set up a batch for culturing and put the jar in your refrigerator for a few days while you get caught up. This will drastically slow down the culturing process. When you're ready, pull your jar out and put it on the counter. Within a couple of hours it will warm to room temperature and separate to finish culturing. 
Once a week(on jar-washing days) I measure how many grains I have(THEY GROW!) to see how I should adjust the amount of milk per batch. Feel like you're getting overrun with grains? They're completely edible! They taste a little bit stronger than the kefir itself, so we like to toss them in our smoothies for a probiotic boost. 
Now go forth a culture! 


  1. Ugh, my Kefir NEVER looked like that. Half the time the milk spoiled, the other half of the time, it smelled right but was watery. I just couldn't seem to get the hang of it, no clue why! - Jackie

  2. Mine doesn't look like that either. The last time I had grains, they did look like this. I'm not sure what I am doing wrong.