What the Heck Is Kefir and Why You Should Care

Some say it’s the remains of manna from heaven, some say it’s the secret to the abnormal longevity of people from Caucasus mountains, and some praise it for superior nutritional and probiotic qualities. Kefir is the yogurt of the Eastern Europe, except it is better and easier to make. I strongly suspect that it is also responsible for the amazing figures of Eastern European women. Don’t believe me? You try looking like a model on a diet of potatoes, beets and pork lard, I dare you.

Kefir is very cheap and easily affordable in Eastern Europe, almost as cheap as beer. Truth be told I took it for granted before moving to the United States. It was just a refreshing, filling and readily available drink, kind of like a smoothie, especially on hot summer days.

When my kefir cravings kicked in, I realized how expensive this drink is in the states. $5 a quart, really? No thanks. That’s when I learned about the process of making it and the amazing health benefits it offers.

Kefir is fermented with the help of “grains” that are not really grains at all. Those white cauliflower shaped bits are a complex symbiosis of multiple strains of bacteria and yeasts. They can contain from 20 to 40 different probiotic organisms (an approximate list is located here). For comparison, yogurts contain only 2-5 strains. Both fermented foods have lactobacillis species present though, and this bacteria is primarily responsible for breaking down lactose. However, in kefir the additional yiests and bacteria go a step further and turn lactose into kefirin, which is actually known for helping with… flatulance, especially in lactose intolerant people. And that’s not all. One of the aminoacids in the fermented kefir is tryptophan, the same “happy substance” that some claim is present in turkey meat.

Some of those probiotic strains manage to actually colonize the intestinal tract, which means they are there to stay. And it’s a good thing! My lactose sensitive husband was actually able to eat pizza without the usual nasty consequences  after I (force)fed him kefir for a few weeks.

I can ramble on and on about how good this stuff is for you (just ask my husband, he’s about ready to file for a divorce), but how about you just try it for yourself? The most difficult part of making kefir is obtaining the grains. They can be purchased on Amazon, Ebay or even though friendly fermentation groups on Facebook.

grains
Here is what kefir grains look like strained out

Once you get your grains in the mail, make sure you drop them into some milk right away. The rule of thumb is about 1/4 cup of grains per quart of milk. Any milk works, even the supermarket kind. Kefir grains can also ferment nut milks, like soy, almond and cashew, in case you are allergic to any dairy. I use Walmart whole milk and the end product is simply delicious. The fermentation vessel should ideally be glass, with a tight fitting lid.

Once the grains are in milk, all you can do is wait. Leave the jar out somewhere warm, like on the kitchen counter or on top of the fridge. Kefir should start getting thicker and  chunkier in about 24 hours. It usually takes me 36 hours to get it the way I like it – nice and sour. Your time might be different, it all depends on the ambient temperature and your personal preference.

jars
My kefir is happily fermenting on the counter in mason jars.

When kefir is done, it looks like thick milk and smells a bit yeasty. That’s when it should be strained out. Make sure to use a stainless steel strainer, since the acidity can corrode other metals. Strain the kefir into a vessel of your choice and keep stirring the contents of the colander, until only the grains are left in it. That’s it! All you need to do now is put those babies in milk again, and they will ferment it for you. Prepared kefir can stay in the fridge for up to a week.

Take a sip of your kefir. Is it too sour? Add some honey or maple syrup. Alternatively, you can try second fermentation. Leave your kefir out for another 12 hours (overnight), and the sourness should decrease significantly. Personally, I find the tart flavor very refreshing. I’ve also heard that kefir goes great in smoothies, if you are into that sort of thing.

kefir
Kefir will never be as thick as yogurt, unless you strain it. It looks a bit like thick milk. 

I should mention, that having kefir is like having a pet. You need to  make sure the grains are always in milk, they need it to stay alive. In  fact, starvation is about the only way to kill those hardy grains (and heat, of course). Ideally, the milk should be changed out regularly, as soon as it is done fermenting. But just in case you can’t drink that much kefir, the grains can always be kept in milk in the fridge. It will still ferment, but much, much slower.

Your grains will eventually start multiplying, and that’s when you can start thinking about drying some or freezing them. So far I only tried the freezing method, and will report on the results when the grains need to be defrosted, hopefully, not soon. I rinsed my grains with non-chlorinated bottled water until it ran clear, placed them in a ziplock and mixed in some dry milk, to prevent a potential freezer burn.

Kefir can be consumed by itself, added to smoothies or pancakes, strained out into soft cheese or even pressed into hard cheese, cultured into butter, etc, etc. I really hope you try it and like it as much as I do.

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