Milk kefir (keh-feer) is a fermented milk drink, similar to a drinkable yogurt. Thick, creamy, tangy, with a slight effervescence, some describe it as the "champagne" of dairy because of the lovely light fizz in this creamy drink. When homemade, its flavor changes with the seasons, becoming thicker and milder in the summer, and yeastier in the winter. A living food, kefir is cultured with wild yeasts and bacteria, and depending on the milk, fermenting practices, and strains of microorganisms, its taste ranges from mild or pungent, tangy or sour.
What is Old is New Again
Kefir originates from the ancient the Caucasus region, where it was lauded as a gift from the gods, a traditional elixir for health and longevity. Traditional kefir was made from fresh raw animal milk, and hung from skin bags near the doorways, so that the family's movements in and out would agitate the grains and the milk. Today, you can find kefir just about anywhere in the world, but it remains popular in eastern and northern Europe. I remember sampling it when we traveled through Europe, and loved it immediately. I also remember seeing it on the shelves of the Jewish supermarkets in Jerusalem, which is why I had the impression for a long time that it was an Israeli drink. Arabs also drink it (my mother tells me that families in her childhood neighborhood in Nazareth brewed it) and it is often strained into a thick cheese, very similar to yogurt cheese, or labaneh. It is also rising in popularity in the United States, and you can find it in pasteurized forms in most natural food stores or in larger markets.
Milk is transformed into kefir when it is mixed with "kefir grains," usually left at room temperature, and left to ferment until it has thickened. "Kefir grains" are live active cultures, forming a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY). These small, gelatinous particles develop into complex cauliflower-like structures. My toddler, who likes to help me make the kefir, describes the grains as "wet popcorn," which is a very apt description.
While this all sounds exotic, obscure, and (perhaps a little terrifying?) making kefir is very simple. All you need is a couple of grains, add them to milk, and leave them on your counter to ferment until thickened. If you are lucky, you can inherit some from a kind friend, or join a free culture-sharing Facebook page, where people mail them off or give them away freely. Otherwise, purchase them online.
Drink to Your Health
I am in love with this drink. Have you ever tried something for the first time and you were instantly hooked? This tangy, fizzy, creamy, thick drink, just won me over at first swig. But it wasn't just the taste that drew me in. It made me feel good. Happy. Relaxed. And I thought that this was strange until I read that the word "kefir" is thought to derive from the Turkish word "keif" which means "good feeling." It turns out that kefir is rich in tryptophan, that amino acid that raises your feel-happy seratonin levels in your brain. After just a cup, I do notice that I feel slightly calmer and more relaxed.
Kefir, like yogurt, is made by fermenting milk. And like yogurt, culturing the milk turns it back into a living food, filled with multiple strains of live bacteria. But this is much more potent than yogurt. It contains at least three to five times as many the strains of live bacteria, because kefir is fermented with between ten and twenty strains of bacteria and yeast, whereas yogurt has only a handful.
Kefir is also a rich source for several B vitaimins, including biotin, B12, which regulates your nervous system, and B1, also known as thiamine. It is also high in calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, folate, vitamin K2 and vitamin D. This combination of vitamin Bs, calcium, and magnesium (which should always be balanced), make this a powerful food for calming your nervous system, and and building your overall health.
Kefir also boosts your immune system, moderates allergic responses, and reduces inflammation. If you suffer from allergies, you should be excited to know that one of kefir's potent strains of bacteria, Lactobacillus kefiranofaciens, or, kefiran has strong anti-allergic properties, as it inhibits immunoglobulin E (IgE) production, which would otherwise produce allergic immuno-responses to stimuli (1). Another study found that when mast cells (a cell found in connective tissue which releases histimane during allergic and inflammatory reactions) were dosed with kefiran, and then exposed to antigens, they showed a reduced inflammatory response (2). And even though kefir is a probiotic food, it also has antimicrobial properties, and can be used to kill off pathogens in the gut, and or topically to heal skin infections (3).
Like other cultured dairy, kefir may play an important role in preventing cancer, as it inhibits tumor growth (4), and some researches have concluded that it is one of the most promising foods for prevent and treating cancer.
Perhaps, then, this drink is a gift from God!
For dairy intolerant individuals, it is helpful to know that many who are lactose intolerant can tolerate kefir, since the fermenting practice breaks down lactose in the milk. You can also water kefir, using a slightly different strain of kefir grains to ferment sweetened, fruit-flavored water.
If you like the flavor of plain kefir, drink it straight up! Otherwise, blend it into your favorite smoothie, freeze it into pops, or strain it into a kefir cheese, use it for dips and dressings or use it anywhere that you would use buttermilk. There are so many delicious uses!
How to Make Milk Kefir
*Milk of choice
(1) Place one tablespoon to one cup of grains in a clean mason jar. The more grains you use, the stronger and faster the ferment. I use about 1/2 a cup.
(2) Pour in milk - up to one quart. I like to use whole organic, low-temp pasteurized milk. The higher the fat content of your milk, the creamier your final kefir. Screw lid on, but leave somewhat loose to allow gas to escape.
(3) Leave on your counter for 12-48 hours, until you can see that the milk has started to thicken. If you think of it, shake up jar periodically. You will know that it is done when it starts to thicken. If it separates into curds and whey, it has gone too far, but you can still shake it and use it in smoothies, or turn into cheese, or even drink it. Colder temperatures will mean for longer ferment times, warmer temperature for shorter ferment times. It may take a little experimentation to find the right timing for your kefir and your schedule.
Do you see how it is thickened and just starting to separate?
Kefir grains floating on top of thickened kefir.
(4) Shake up your jar, and then strain out your grains with a colander or a strainer (for smaller grains). Pour drained kefir into a jar or a cup. Drink immediately!
You may need to stir with a spoon or your fingers to separate your grains from your kefir, if you kefir is thick.
(5) Optional Second Ferment: You can store in your fridge in a sealed jar, and it will continue to ferment. This second ferment will mellow out the flavor and thicken your kefir, increase B vitamins, and make your kefir fizzier, so I always do a second ferment in the fridge. Alternatively, you can do a second ferment on your counter, again, in a sealed jar. Be careful, because it will become fizzy during a second ferment and if you leave it on your counter for too long, especially in warm weather and in a sealed jar, the jar can burst.
Raspberry smoothie, anyone?
To flavor: You can also flavor your kefir before this second ferment, by blending in fruit or vegetables or other favorite smoothie ingredients, or you can leave it unflavored and flavor it after the second ferment. Remember, kefir will continue to ferment until consumed, so the flavor will continue to develop over time.
If you are new to fermenting kefir, I highly recommend joining this Facebook group, which has loads more information on kefir and other ferments. This generous community will happily help you troubleshoot any problems that come up, and even help you find kefir grains and other culture starters.
Sahtain! May this drink double your health . . . and happy fermenting!
Shared on Real Food Wednesday.