A year or so ago, my next door neighbour gave me some milk kefir grains. I was stoked as I’d wanted some for ages but had no idea where to source them from – don’t you love it when the Universe gives you what you ask for?
Since then, I have been making a constant supply of kefir for myself and the family (Leah loves it) as a way of getting some extra probiotics into our diets.
There’s many delicious cultured drinks out there that can be made at home – I enjoy beet kvass and kombucha in particular, but none of them are as quick and easy to make as kefir.
So…what is it?
Kefir grains are a clump of symbiotic bacteria and yeasts that have a probiotic effect similar to yoghurt (the difference being that most natural yoghurts only contain 2-3 bacterial strains whilst kefir has a whole range of them). Kefir grains are often described as cauliflower-like because they grow in a knobbly clump similar to a cauliflower floret. They are rubbery in texture. The microbes that make up kefir thrive on dairy, digesting the milk sugars (eg lactose) and culturing the milk in the same way as yogurt. (Note – you can also get water kefir grains which are different. The two types of grain are not interchangeable.)
When I was first given my grains, I trawled through the interweb reading everything I could find on how to use them. I ended up incredibly confused – there was so much info and so many complicated instructions, I had no idea if I was doing it right.
Now that I’m a seasoned kefir maker I can see that many of these instructions are unnecessarily complicated – it’s actually an incredibly simple process!
1. Fill a clean glass jar with milk (cow or goat, or I guess any other kind of dairy milk you have access to!).
2. Drop in your kefir grains and stir gently. (My kefir grains are a little over a teaspoon size and I add them to 1 litre of milk).
3. Cover and leave at room temperature for 12-72 hours, stirring occasionally.
4. When texture and flavour is desirable, remove kefir grains and refrigerate the jar of freshly made kefir – it’s now ready to drink!
5. Store kefir grains in a small amount of milk in the fridge until you’re ready to make your next batch (but change the milk every couple of weeks if you’re not making it very often).
As with any cultured food or drink, a certain amount of experimentation is needed to get the kefir to the flavour and consistency that you like. This depends on how long you leave the grains in the milk, how warm the weather is, the ratio of grains to milk (more grains:less milk = quicker fermentation). A longer fermentation period results in a thicker, sourer finished product as more of the milk sugars have been digested. It may even be slightly fizzy!
As a general rule of thumb, 24 hours is a good start. See how you like the flavour and go from there for your next batch. On very hot days, you’ll find you need to take the grains out sooner as fermentation will happen quicker. On cool days it will take longer.
Help my milk is not fermenting!
There are a number of reasons this could be happening.
Firstly, in cooler temperatures, fermentation happens slower. Put it in a warm part of the house, give it another day or two and see if it gets going.
Second, perhaps the amount of milk that you’re trying to ferment is too large for your kefir grains to ferment quickly. You could try removing some of the milk or you could just leave it another day or two for the grains to do their work. They’ll grow bigger the more you use them and will start to work faster.
Third – have you killed your grains? Did you not look after them properly? Were you a bad, bad kefir keeper? To test if your grains are still alive, place them in a small amount of milk at room temperature and see if the milk ferments. If nothing’s happened after 72 hours it’s probably time for a kefir funeral.
The milk looks/smells awful
Throw it away. Properly fermented milk should smell slightly sour (similar to yoghurt) and not have any mould or strange colour to it. You may also need to get some more grains as they could be contaminated.
If your kefir is lumpy, this is not necessarily a sign that it has gone bad (see next point).
My kefir is lumpy
If you don’t regularly stir your kefir, chances are it will go lumpy after a day or two (quicker if the temperature is warmer). This is just the curds and whey starting to separate. Most of the time a quick stir will regroup the lumps and just give you a nice, slightly thicker than milk texture.
If you’ve left your kefir to ferment for a while without stirring it and it remains lumpy after stirring – don’t despair! You can still drink it (although the texture won’t be nearly as good) but the best thing to do is turn it into kefir cheese. This is done the exact same way you would make yoghurt cheese (labneh), by straining it through muslin until it stops dripping. The solids are the curds (yummy cream cheese) and the liquid is whey which can be drunk as is or used as a starter culture for other fermentation experiments!
My kefir is fizzy
Don’t worry – kefir sometimes goes fizzy. It just means it’s been fermenting slightly longer than usual. This means more yummy probiotics. If you don’t like drinking fizzy dairy, leave the lid off until the gas has escaped or make it into cheese instead.
So what can you do with your kefir once it’s made?
Well, in our house we usually just drink it straight up. It has a yoghurty flavour but a thinner consistency and we find it really refreshing.
If you’re not keen on the flavour you can make flavoured smoothies out of it instead, adding fruit, super-green powders, cocoa powder, honey – go crazy and experiment.
There are yoghurt drinks of various nationalities such as lassi (from India) and ayran (from Turkey) that use yoghurt thinned with water or milk and then flavoured with fruit or salt depending on whether you want a sweet or savoury drink. You can substitute kefir for the thinned yoghurt in any of these recipes.
You can also use kefir to make cheese – something that I do often. It is the exact same process as making yoghurt cheese (labneh) except you’re using kefir instead of yoghurt. The flavour of the cheese is subtly different but still delicious. You will also get flavour variations depending on whether you use cow or goats milk.
Kefir can also be used to make sour cream – just substitute the milk for cream.
As you can see, making milk kefir is a quick and easy process. It takes about 30 seconds of prep time plus around a day of waiting until it’s ready. I don’t know of any other cultured food or drink that is ready to consume so fast (with a minimum of fuss to make). Enjoy!
Do you have a favourite way to use kefir? If so, please share!