Let’s Talk: All About Milk Kefir
Every time I mention kefir in my posts, I get a lot of questions and requests to share more information (and I’ve even sent kefir grains to some of you over the last year or so!). Today’s the day I finally got my lazy buns in gear and put a post together about one of my favorite subjects: milk kefir. Yes, I’m a nerd, but I really, really love talking about kefir (I need to get new hobbies).
If you have no idea what kefir is and why I’m talking about it, read on.
I can honestly say, milk kefir has totally changed my family’s life in a good way. We drink it every single morning (and I use it in breakfast foods and baked goods in place of buttermilk), and I’m not exaggerating even a bit, but over the last 18 months since we’ve been making and using it, we have been sick far less than we used to be (and some of my kids who deal with daily tummy troubles are doing a million percent better).
I should not even say this out loud, but I cannot remember the last time someone in my family got the stomach flu (and yes, I know because I just put that out there that one of my kids will come home from school puking today). And maybe I’m just dreaming or I’m delusional, but I swear, overall, we’re just plain healthier ever since we’ve been consuming kefir.
I know I sound like an infomercial, but I can’t help that I’m passionate about the stuff.
I had never heard about milk kefir until a couple years ago. Interestingly, it was several of you (my lovely MKC readers) who introduced me to the idea. When I found out that it was basically like drinkable yogurt with many more probiotics and good-for-you yeast strains (it’s even great for many lactose intolerant people), I decided I wanted to learn more about it. So I began reading up on milk kefir, and it didn’t take long for me to realize I wanted to start making it myself.
This is one of the first articles I came across about milk kefir. Because there are many other resources online that are absolute experts when it comes to milk kefir. I’ll leave it to them to give you the nitty gritty on milk kefir, its history, all of the many benefits, and much more info. Today, I just want to touch on the basics: how I culture my milk kefir and what I use it for (and I’ve linked to a lot of external resources at the end of the post).
What is Milk Kefir:
Milk kefir, in short, is milk that’s been cultured or fermented to allow the good bacteria, enzymes and yeast to grow and produce, which in turn, makes it healthier and easier to digest. It is amazingly beneficial for gut health and is a huge source of probiotics.
Even though it’s similar to other cultured milk products, like yogurt and buttermilk, the process of making kefir (hint: it’s super easy) is what makes it unique. Instead of being warmed up and held at a certain temperature like yogurt, milk kefir uses reproducible kefir grains to culture the milk. It’s cultured at room temperature.
And no, the kefir grains aren’t actually grains (in the wheat sense) at all. They are actually little gel-like nubbins that look similar to cooked tapioca pudding pearls. They are a little squishy and might seem a bit weird, especially when you first start using them, but I promise, they are friendly. And if well taken care of, they’ll last forever.
How to Culture Your Own Kefir:
I culture either a pint or quart of kefir every day. I’ll tell you further below how we use it. But this is my process.
I put a teaspoon of kefir grains in a glass jar…
…and fill with milk (a scant teaspoon for a pint and a heaping teaspoon for a quart). I’ve found I don’t need any more grains than this (otherwise the kefir cultures too quickly and is more tangy than I like it).
A note about milk: any dairy milk (cow, goat) or coconut milk will work great for kefir (avoid ultra-pasteurized milks – raw milk will work fine). I haven’t tried it with almond, soy or other non-dairy milks, but I’ve read online that they don’t work well for making kefir. The higher fat in the milk, the better for the kefir. I use 2% milk (from Costco) and it works like a charm.
I cover the jar with a folded paper towel (or coffee filter) and rubber band and let it sit at room temperature for about 24 hours. The warmer your kitchen is, the faster it will become kefir.
When I start to see little pockets and air bubbles in the milk, I know it’s ready to be strained.
The longer it cultures, the more tart it will be. I try to catch it just as it’s starting to form those air bubbles I told you about. This is what it looks like when you’ve been a kefir slacker. Those kefir grains are starving! They need some fresh milk ASAP.
When you take the folded top off the jar, you’ll see the kefir grains clumped near the top of the milk (except it’s not milk anymore, it’s kefir!). I have friends who simply scoop out the kefir grains instead of straining, but I don’t like doing it this way (I always seem to miss some of the grains and find it’s easier to just strain it).
I give the jar of kefir, including the grains, a little stir to recombine.
And then I gradually pour the newly cultured kefir into my plastic strainer (experts say the grains shouldn’t come in contact with reactive metals so I bought an inexpensive plastic strainer to use, but I know others use metal strainers with no problems), stirring it and pressing every so slightly so the kefir drains through the strainer into a clean jar, leaving the kefir grains behind.
Every day, there are a few more kefir grains left in the strainer – those kefir grains feed off the sugar in the milk, so they continue to grow and reproduce. Because I only need a teaspoon of grains to continue the kefir making process, I use the excess grains for a couple things:
a) I either give it to a friend who wants a kefir start (or who has managed to kill theirs and needs a new start, ahem) or
b) feed it to my chickens or put it on top of our dog, Maggie’s, food (it’s good for animals, too!).
I plop the strained kefir grains into an empty, clean jar, fill with milk, and the process starts all over again. And never fear – if you need a break from kefir (or are going on vacation and don’t want to find a kefir babysitter), simply put it in the fridge once you add the milk to the newly strained grains. It can stay in the fridge for a week or so and be just fine.
The kefir that was strained is ready to be enjoyed! OR, you can be like me and let that jar of kefir (remember, it doesn’t have any grains in it – it’s the strained kefir that already cultured for 24 hours) go through a 2nd ferment.
Basically, I cap the jar and let the kefir sit at room temperature for another 6 to 12 hours. This actually increases the probiotics in the kefir AND mellows out the tangy, strong flavor. I highly recommend doing this if you are new to kefir and are getting used to the taste; some people will throw fruit into their kefir as it 2nd ferments, but I do not.
As it 2nd ferments, it will start to get the same air bubbles as it did when it was first becoming kefir. Eventually it will separate into thick kefir on the top and whey on the bottom. I shake it up and put it in the fridge to use later (and to be honest, I prefer to put it in the refrigerator to stop the 2nd ferment long before it separates this much).
95% of the kefir in our house is used in our morning smoothies. The other 5% I’ll throw into baked goods or pancakes in place of buttermilk. The health benefits decrease when the kefir is exposed to heat, like in baking, but the baked goods are still delicious (super tender and light and fluffy). I have a killer whole wheat kefir pancake recipe that I make at least 1-2 mornings a week.
I don’t have an official recipe for our breakfast smoothies but they usually consist of:
2 cups kefir
a very ripe banana
some orange juice
whatever frozen fruit I feel like adding (and often a handful of spinach)
If the kefir is overly tart, I’ll add a drop or two of agave nectar or honey. That’s it!
If you’ve ever been a guest in my home, there’s a 100% likelihood that you’ve been served a kefir smoothie in the morning.
Culturing kefir and making morning smoothies is so much a part of our routine, I’ve forgotten what life was like before milk kefir came into my life!
Keep in mind that because milk kefir is full of probiotics, and particularly if you have a sluggish gut (I never thought I’d use that phrase in a blog post, ever), you might have an adjustment period when you first start drinking milk kefir (um, I won’t go into the actual details of what the adjustment period might entail since this is a food blog and all). I don’t remember any side effects when we first started drinking it, but I read a lot online about that potential adjustment period and feel the need to issue the disclaimer.
Anyhow, there you go! Milk kefir. We love it. I’d be happy to answer any questions you have in the comments below!
If you are interested in learning more, here are some great resources:
Where to Get/Buy Kefir Grains:
First, try to find someone local that cultures kefir (just ask them; their kefir grains are multiplying and they’ll most likely want to pawn off the excess)
Here are a few online resources:
Cultured Food for Life (this is where I bought my grains from a year or so ago and they are still going strong)
*Note: from all the reading I’ve done, it isn’t highly recommended to buy a powdered/dry milk kefir start. If at all possible, try to get a live set of kefir grains; they’ll last longer and produce better and healthier kefir*
So what do you think? Are you weirded out or is milk kefir already part of your life? Do tell!