Pictured: me being reckless. (Photo by Wendy Chamberlin.)
Whether you want to reduce your energy footprint, opt out of the food industrial complex, handle a surplus, or just cut costs, at some point you’ll find yourself making your own food. If you’re reading this, you probably cook, or are considering it. But there are many ways to make food that are less labor-intensive and potentially nerve-wracking than cooking, one of which is fermentation—the practice of inviting bacteria into our food, letting them eat part of it, then killing them and taking it back.
To some, fermenting food at home may sound unusual, but I’m going to sell you on it: It’s easy, since your job is to ensure you have the right microorganisms and then get out of the way. It saves energy because fermented food keeps longer. It’s awesome for your body because it breaks down allergenic proteins in grains and dairy; fermenting these foods can make them easier to digest. It’s versatile: You can do it with a lot of different foods. And perhaps the simplest food to ferment is a fermented milk product, similar to yogurt, called kefir.
I love kefir. Like, you don’t understand—other girls go crazy about chocolate. Kefir is my chocolate. So, using the leftover milk we had in the fridge as an excuse, I made a bottle recently. Here’s what I did.
I upended a bottle of milk into a pot, which made me feel reckless. (I live a very small life.) Briefly, I boiled it, stirring to make sure it didn’t burn. This stage, gentle reader, would be called “sterilization” if I had a fancy commercial kitchen. I did it to kill any harmful bacteria that might have lingered on the pot or gotten in the milk.
After cooling the milk back down, I separated part of it into a tiny measuring glass, an adorably lopsided thing that had been designed to pour its contents into something else and consequently looked like it might fall over, and added the culture.
This is where I cheated: I couldn’t find any instructions for attracting your own microorganisms to create a kefir starter. I was surprised because with sourdough, you can leave a mixture of flour and water out and attract enough bacteria and yeast to create a long-lived sourdough starter, but no such instructions exist for kefir, perhaps because it requires different or more specific microorganisms. Instead, I used a store-bought powdered kefir starter. For the urban homesteader, or someone who has a full-time job, this is probably the sensible option anyway.
I stirred the starter in using a dessert spoon that clattered against the edges of the glass, waiting until the clumps of starter had broken free and dissolved before I pulled my spoon out and tapped it against the rim. Then I took my new mixture, which looked much the same as it had before being cultured, and stirred it back into the pot. I suspect the reason we add the powdered starter culture to only a small part of the milk at first is that it mixes more evenly into a smaller amount of liquid, but whatever the reason, it seemed to work. I funneled my cultured milk into a glass bottle—left over from farm-bought kefir, incidentally—and set it in a warm corner of the kitchen to do its work.
Within twenty-four hours, it had started to smell like kefir, which was good enough for me. I refrigerated it to slow the fermentation process. (This is the step when humans take our food back from the bacteria. Technically, refrigeration doesn’t kill microorganisms, but it does slow their growth, giving me a grace period when I could drink my kefir before it went bad. One way to stop fermentation by killing bacteria is to heat the substance, which we do with wine—a process I don’t plan to try at home before I turn twenty-one.)
The final result formed a harmless film over the top and needed to be broken up with a butter knife. After hacking through the first layer and mixing it in, I found that the sour kefir underneath was silky and coated my mouth like a good butter sauce. Granted it was full of little lumps that most butter sauces don’t have, but they were soft, like yogurt, and easily ignored. Also, I thought they added character.
Photo by Wendy Chamberlin.
Overall, I liked my kefir. I was pleased with how easy it had been and how delicious the result was (I can never have enough kefir), and I was proud of myself for making it. I’m absolutely going to make more when I’m out on my own and need to feed myself. If you want to do the same, here’s the recipe.
• 1 quart milk
• 5 grams kefir starter
• a liquid thermometer
• a large pot
1. Boil the milk, then cool it back down to 73-77° F.
2. Pour a small amount of the cooled milk into a cup and stir in the starter. Once it dissolves, pour the mixture back into the pot. Stir thoroughly.
3. Bottle the inoculated milk and set it in a cool, dark place for twenty-four hours. After that, taste-test (the best part!) to make sure the fermentation process proceeded correctly, then refrigerate it for another eight hours to keep it from continuing to ferment. You’ll have to take a spoon to it to break up the chunks.
Presumably, you can flavor it; I haven’t learned that trick yet. Fortunately, kefir is wonderful enough that you’ll enjoy it on its own.
Recipe adapted from Yogourmet.
Picture by Wendy Chamberlin.
Claire E. is a high school senior interested in sustainable development, independent living, and the stories and music that connect us.
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