by Cat, July 2007 (photo, right, from Wikimedia Commons)
Kefir (pronounced ‘keh-fear’ or ‘keff-e-er’) is an ancient beverage believed to have originated in the north Caucasus Mountains around 3,000 BC. It is not only cultured but also fermented. The culturing grains (or powder) are a symbiotic combination of beneficial yeast and bacteria. The bacteria culture the milk, and the yeast ferment it; the alcohol produced is very small, typically only 1% by volume. The resultant product is slightly sweet and fizzy.
True kefir (from grains) produces kefiran, a gel-like polysaccharide (chain of sugar molecules), that is believed to hold the grains together, and that has many health benefits. The specific bacteria that produce kefiran are believed to be Lactobacillus kefiranofaciens and Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus.
Both kefir and yogurt contain lacto-acteria that help to keep the intestines slightly acidic, which promotes the growth of other good bacteria and inhibits the growth of bad bacteria. While yogurt’s probiotic bacteria help to keep the colon clean, and to provide food for the friendly bacteria already present in your gut, kefir may help re-colonize your gut with probiotic bacteria, through its antibiotic properties. Don’t be afraid of the yeast in kefir; it is NOT candida yeast, and will actually help you combat candida if it has a foothold in your system.
A personal note: In 2012 I discovered I have a food sensitivity to kefir, related to my sensitivity to nutritional (brewers) yeast, due to the natural presence of MSG in the yeast. I’ve had to give up kefir, at least for now.
Kefir also produces a rich supply of several vitamins including vitamin A, vitamin B1, vitamin B2, vitamin B3 (nicotinic acid), vitamin B6, vitamin B9 (folic acid or folate), vitamin D, and vitamin K2; the level of these vitamins varies with the type and quality of milk, and on the type of starter culture used.
Both kefir and yogurt contain lactic acid (from the lactose in the milk), but their lactic acid molecules are mirror-images of each other, and so have different beneficial properties.
Kefir’s smaller curd size (than yogurt) is also easier to digest, making it ideal for the sickroom and for infants.
Kefir Starter Culture
There are two different forms of starter culture for kefir: kefir grains are the original; they multiply rapidly, and they produce the beneficial kefiran. A powdered starter is also available that produces a culture very similar, but not identical to that produced by the grains; it does not produce kefiran.
You can also use commercial plain, unsweetened kefir beverage as a starter; because the commercial kefir beverage is originally made from a powdered starter, kefir made from that beverage will not produce kefiran. You will find the beverage in the health food section of your grocer, or at a natural food store.
You can purchase the initial starter from several websites including: Happy Herbalist (5), DOM’s Kefir Site (4), or by phone from G.E.M Cultures (6). Or you may be able to find someone in your local community who can give/sell you some (you too will be looking for someone to take your extra grains after the culture multiplies prolifically). Then simply reserve a batch of grains after you have made a batch of kefir, rinse them well, and store in a covered glass container in your refrigerator until you are ready to make another batch. The rinsed grains may keep for up to several weeks in the fridge, or in your freezer for several months.
Powdered, Freeze-dried starter
Powdered culture can be purchased on the web from several websites including Shop Mercola (2), Wilderness Family Naturals (7), Body Ecology (8) or cheesemaking.com (9). NOTE: both Body Ecology and cheesemaking.com Kefir starters can be used to make multiple batches – this is called serial culturing, saving part of the old batch to make the new batch..
Additionally, you may be able to use a sample from a commercial bottle of unsweetened, plain kefir for serial culturing. The resulting product would be similar to that made from powdered culture, and will not produce kefiran.
What Kind of Milk Can I Use?
Any dairy milk will work (except homogenized, ultra-pasteurized or UHT milk). In other words, raw milk or simple pasteurized milk (HTST or Vat pasteurized), such as that from our local dairy, Kalispell Kreamery. I use raw milk, and don’t need to preheat it first as I do for yogurt.
Kefir is most commonly made from dairy milk: cow, goat, or sheep. Coconut milk and rice milk may also be used (I’ve never tried it), as can soy milk, but I don’t recommend soy unless it has been fermented (as miso or soya sauce).
Kefir grains can also be ‘trained’ to produce ‘water kefir’ from a mixture of water and sugar; however, water kefir grains do not produce kefiran (10). Once trained, the grains can be used to make many different ‘soda’ beverages, and also coconut water kefir.
Cat’s Kefir Recipe
Culturing temperature: 65 – 760 F (room temperature)
Ingredients & Equipment:
- 1 quart whole raw or simple pasteurized milk (should not be homogenized, ultra- or UHT-pasteurized)
- 1 Tbsp kefir grains, or 1 packet powdered, freeze dried kefir starter; or re-culture with 2 – 4 Tbsp homemade kefir from previous batch per quart of milk
- 1 ½ or 2 quart stainless steel pot
- Sieve (not needed if you use powdered starter)
1. Pre-Heat: If using pasteurized milk, first heat to 185°F and then cool to culturing temperature before proceeding (cool by immersing the pot of milk in a larger pot of cold water). If using raw milk, heat to culturing temperature (65°- 76°F–best to set your container in a pot of simmering water to heat, to avoid overheating; with raw milk, you don’t want to exceed 125°F) and proceed.
- If using kefir grains: Place room temperature milk (65°- 76°F) in a quart size jar, or leave in the stainless steel pot. Add clean kefir grains and stir well. Cover loosely with a cloth. Place in a warm place at room temperature, but not in direct sunlight, for 12 hours to 2 days. Occasionally stir vigorously to redistribute the grains, and then taste for desired tartness.
- If using kefir starter: Pour about ½ cup of the room-temperature milk into a cup, sprinkle the powder over the milk, then stir to dissolve. Then stir this milk/culture mix into the rest of the milk, in a quart -size jar, or back into the stainless steel pot in which you heated the milk. Cover loosely with a cloth. Place in a warm place at room temperature (65°- 76°F), but not in direct sunlight, for about 8 to 24 hours, depending on taste. Stir gently a few times. In the summertime, start the kefir in the evening and let it culture overnight; it would be too warm during the day.
- After it has thickened, chill thoroughly in fridge before transferring to storage jar or bottle. This chilling can prevent the kefir from separating if it cultured too long (doesn’t always work).
- Kefir should be just a little thicker than milk; not as thick as buttermilk, and should have a light effervescent quality. If you culture it too long, it will separate into cheese and whey, which is not necessarily a bad thing, just different; the cheese is delicious!
- Making kefir is a true art. You will learn from each batch you make.
- If using kefir grains: Pour through a strainer into another jar to remove the grains. Store Kefir in refrigerator. If not reusing right away, rinse the grains well with water and put them in a small glass jar with about ½ cup of filtered water for storage in refrigerator, for up to 1 month, or freezer for several months.
- If using powdered kefir starter or commercial kefir beverage: you do not need to strain. However, if the whey has separated, you can either whisk it back together, or you can strain off the whey through a very fine sieve. Unless you want the cheese that is left after straining off the whey, I recommend whisking the whey back in, as it is a very health-giving protein. You may have to whisk or shake it well each time you serve from the container.
4. Reusing Starter or re-culturing:
- If you used kefir grains, they can be reused from each batch indefinitely, but it’s a good idea to save out a few after the first or second batch for emergencies (such as if something happens with your reuse batch). Rinse the emergency batch well and store in fridge or freezer (see above).
- If you used powdered kefir starter from Body Ecology (8), you can re-culture (reuse part of a batch) about 7 times (per Body Ecology) before it loses its ability to make kefir; however, I’ve been able to make may more serial batches. The powdered starter from cheesemaking.com (9) is also reuseable/re-culturable.
- Other powdered kefir starters (such as Yogourmet brand available in most natural food stores) are not reusable/re-culturable.
- Re-culture from previous batch: use 2 – 4 Tbsp from previous batch for a little less than 1 quart of milk, to make a new quart of kefir. The amount of previous batch depends on temperature, quality of the milk, and quality of the reused kefir.
5. Storage: Store your kefir in a clear glass jar, but an opaque one is even better, as exposure to light is not good for any milk product. Cultured milk like kefir has a longer shelf life than fresh milk.
For more information, help or troubleshooting
Dom’s website (from Australia) is considered the ‘bible’ of kefir-making. His site had been hacked, but has since been restored and is safe to use. Check it out at users.chariot.net.au. Be sure to send him a ‘thankyou’ email if you find his site helpful.
See also my articles on The EssentiaList sustainability blog:
or printable pdf files:
- The EssentiaList: Yogurt & Kefir, from Powdered Culture (pdf)
- The EssentiaList: Using Kefir Grains (pdf)
- Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon with Mary G. Enig, Ph.D.
- Mercola: www.mercola.com/forms/kefir.htm and shop.mercola.com/Nutrition_Products-Kefir_Culture_Starter-P177.aspx
- users.sa.chariot.net.au/~dna/kefir-faq.html#ingestingkg (NOTE: Dom’s site had been hacked, but has been restored and the malware has been removed.)
- users.chariot.net.au/~dna/kefirpage.html#obtaining-kefir-grains (NOTE: Dom’s site had been hacked, but has been restored and the malware has been removed).
- Happy Herbalist: www.happyherbalist.com/index.asp?PageAction=VIEWCATS&Category=47
- GEM Cultures: 707-964-2922; www.gemcultures.com/dairy_cultures.htm;
- Wilderness Family Naturals: www.wildernessfamilynaturals.com/kefir_culture.htm
- Body Ecology: 866-533-4748; www.kefir.net
- Cheesemaking.com: www.cheesemaking.com/store/p/146-Kefir-2-packets.html
- Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kefiran and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kefir