Kefir is a traditional fermented food made from milk, full of beneficial probiotic bacteria and yeast. It's similar to yogurt, but usually more tangy, and sometimes slightly effervescent. Kefir is not only far more beneficial than yogurt, but much easier to make. Unlike yogurt, kefir can actually colonize your gut with the beneficial micro-organisms you need to have a healthy immune system and well-functioning digestive system. While high-quality yogurt contains a few of the beneficial gut bacteria, kefir contains a much larger number of beneficial bacteria, as well as beneficial yeasts.
Kefir is great eaten by itself or with fruit, in smoothies, on muesli and granola, in salad dressings, made into cheese or even tasty fruit flavored popsicles that kids will love. You can buy fresh kefir grains here.
1 cup milk (raw, organic milk is the best if you can get it. Check out the Organic Consumers Association for finding raw milk in your area)
1 tablespoon fresh kefir grains * see below for where to source kefir grains
These instructions may look long and involved, but kefir is one of the quickest, simplest and easiest of all the fermented foods to make. Like many things though, explaining how to do it may require a lot of words. But trust me, once you do it the first time and get the hang of it you'll see, it's very easy.
You can make any amount of kefir you like per batch, but the ratio of 1 cup milk to 1 tablespoon of kefir grains is a good rule of thumb for fermenting a batch in 24-48 hours. So if you have 4 tablespoons of grains you can make 1 litre (1 quart) of kefir in 24-48 hours. The amount of time you ferment the milk for depends on the temperature and how tart you like your kefir to be. So be prepared to experiment and taste test to see what works best for you.
Put the kefir grains and milk into a clean glass jar with a tight-fitting lid and fasten the lid on.
Using a lid will increase the slight effervescent quality of the kefir. There is an alternative you can try if you don't like that slight effervescence or you don't have a jar with a lid available. Just use a clean piece of muslin, or other clean cloth, in place of the lid to keep out foreign objects and curious insects. Make sure the cloth is large enough to completely cover the opening of the jar, and then some. Use a rubber band or piece of string to fasten the cloth into place over the opening of the jar.
Leave to ferment 24-48 hours
Leave the jar with the milk and kefir grains out on your kitchen counter top for 24-48 hours. Just make sure it's not in direct sunlight. I like keeping my batch of fermenting kefir on top of the fridge. Every time I go to the fridge to get something out I see the jar of fermenting kefir and remember to give it a gentle shake. Gently shake or rock the jar throughout the day wherever you think about it. Once the kefir starts fermenting the milk you may notice your ‘brew' separating into curds and whey. This is normal. Just give the jar a gentle shake to mix everything back together.
At the point where the kefir starts separating it has definitely fermented. If you are just starting out making your own kefir, this is a good time to start doing some taste tests until you get an idea of how fermented you like your kefir to be. Go with what tastes good to you, and keep in mind that your tastes may change over time. This is especially true if you eat a lot of sweet foods and tart or sour foods don't appeal to you. As you introduce more fermented foods into your diet and start restoring your inner ecosystem and overall health, you will find that you don't crave as many sweet foods, and you enjoy more tart/sour flavors.
How to tell kefir grains from curds in the kefir
The kefir grains look like little cauliflower florets, and are quite rubbery. When the milk has started fermenting and turning to kefir it will probably contain some curds which can resemble the kefir grains. The way to tell the difference is that when you squeeze the curds they will break up and disappear, the kefir grains will not. You can squeeze them out like a sponge, and they will retain their shape.
Separate the kefir from the grains and start the next batch
Once the kefir is finished fermenting pour the contents of the jar into a wide mouth container. A glass measuring jug is ideal, but a glass or ceramic bowl will do. Make sure whatever container you use is large enough to hold all the kefir and then some. Wash the glass jar out, so you can use it to make the next batch. Now some people like to use a strainer to separate the kefir grains out, but what I have found works the best for me is this… with clean hands trawl through the kefir using your fingers like a net to catch the kefir grains. Once you catch some grains, remove your hand from the liquid and squeeze the grains, just like you would a sponge to squeeze out most of the kefir they contain.
As you retrieve the grains, put them into the jar, and trawl through the kefir liquid searching for more grains until you think you've got them all. Then add the milk, put the lid on and start the next batch.
Over time you'll find that your grains increase, and grow in size. So even if you start with only one tablespoon of grains, soon you'll have 2 tablespoons and will be able to ferment 2 cups of milk per batch, and within a month or two you'll have enough to ferment 4 cups of kefir at a time. You can eat any excess grains – they remind me of sour gummy bears, I really like them, or feed them to your dogs (they will love them). Excess kefir liquid can be used in your bath (like a milk bath, but better), or used as a natural moisturizing cleanser. Rub it on your face, leave for a few minutes, then rinse off with warm water. I also feed my dogs the kefir liquid, they love it and people comment on how beautiful and shiny their coats are… it's the kefir that makes the difference.
How to increase the beneficial effects of kefir
Two things help to maximize the beneficial effect of the kefir. One is the technique of squeezing the grains that's described above. You'll notice that after you squeeze the grains, when you open your hand there will be little clear, sticky strands attached between your fingers and the grains. Reminds me of the stuff Spiderman shoots out to form webs. The squeezing stimulates the kefir grains to produce a substance called kefiran, which has additional health benefits. I've noticed that it also causes my grains to grow faster, and stronger. If you squeeze the grains every time before you start a new batch, you may notice that the batches of kefir start to thicken slightly.
The second technique for increasing the health benefits of the kefir is to simply leave it sit for another 24 hours, in the fridge after removing the grains.
Where to get kefir grains
Finding your kefir grains to start with used to be the hardest of the whole process. But I'm so pleased to say I've now found a great source of fresh, organic kefir grains! They sell both milk and water kefir grains and ship all over the world*. Click here to buy kefir grains now.
* (except perhaps New Zealand which has the strictest biosecurity in the world and probably don't let anything like this into the country legally).
An alternative, kefir starter culture
There is another excellent alternative for making your own kefir (shipping only in the USA). Even though it's not fresh kefir grains, the Body Ecology site has excellent probiotic starter cultures for making a variety of fermented foods, including a Kefir Starter Culture. Each packet of the Body Ecology kefir starter can be used to make kefir about 7 times. Follow the instructions that come with the kefir starter, it's a different technique than what you use for the live kefir grains.
So unlike the live kefir grains you can't use them to make kefir indefinitely. However, the advantage of the Body Ecology starters is that they are guaranteed to contain a number of specific beneficial strains of bacteria. When you are using ‘wild' kefir grains the strains of bacteria may vary somewhat depending on their growing environment.
In my opinion the ideal would be to use both the Body Ecology products (so you know that at least you have those strains of bacteria that are listed for each product) and to make your own kefir from fresh kefir grains. You want to try to get the greatest diversity of beneficial gut bacteria that you can for maximum health benefits, and in my opinion combining both the traditional live cultures and the excellent Body Ecology products is the way to maximize the diversity of your inner ecosystem.
The benefits of probiotic foods are amazing, they are crucial for good health and people are catching on to that fact. The demand is great enough that big money can be made in the probiotic supplement market, and unfortunately this kind of ‘opportunity' attracts all kinds of companies whose ethics and quality standards are less than stellar. Many of the probiotic supplements that have been tested don't even contain the strains of bacteria that they claim they do. In the probiotic arena, I really only trust real probiotic foods, i.e. those I make myself, and the Body Ecology products.
Recipes using kefir
You can substitute kefir for yogurt in most recipes. Here are some recipes using kefir, and I'll be adding more over time.
Kefir is great added to smoothies. Use kefir and fruit to make smoothies that taste like the Indian sweet lassi drink, mango and peach work especially well for this. Adding kefir to any green smoothie recipe helps to mellow out the sometimes bitter ‘green' taste of the leafy greens.
In the warmer months a nice treat is to make healthy frozen ‘kefirsicles' by blending kefir and fruit, pouring the mixture into Popsicle molds and putting them in the freezer until they have set.
One year I picked a bounty of plums off a friend's tree. I blended up some kefir, honey and the pitted plums and some rosewater (optional but a delicious twist – rosewater for cooking can be found in stores that stock Middle Eastern foods) and made these sweet-tart, tasty frozen treats.
Berries would work really well instead of the plums in this recipe too. This is a great, quick way to use any soft fruit you find in season, where you can get large volumes for cheaply, or for free if you have fruit trees, or know someone who does.
Kefir is also a great base for a quick, creamy salad dressing. These are just some ideas to get you started. But use your imagination, and experiment. Let me know what delicious ways you come up with to use kefir by leaving a comment below.