Making Kefir and Using It

Since times of antiquity it has nourished peasants and kings. Now you can try making kefir yourself.

  • 071 making kefir
    Whether you prefer making kefir or just buying it, you can use the cultured milk product in a multitude of ways. 

  • 071 making kefir

Kefir is sometimes called the "international cousin" of yogurt, but the dairy beverage is actually more like a wise old grandfather who has been around a long time: although he may seem a little "quirky," he deserves a lot of respect. The drink we now call kefir (it is alternatively pronounced KEHfur, KEE-fur, or kuhFEAR) originated in the eastern Mediterranean region, in pre-Christian times, when nomadic shepherds discovered that fresh milk carried in leather pouches would occasionally curdle into a deliciously fermented beverage. Once the secret of repeating that accident was discovered, the bubbly refresher became popular with the wealthy classes and drinking it was regarded as a status symbol.

Although kefir may seem to be exotic, making kefir is just a matter of culturing milk with several strains of "friendly" bacteria. However, the drink differs from other similarly processed dairy foods in that it also contains yeast cells, which naturally carbonate the liquid and produce a high concentration of B vitamins. Since the fermenting yeast gives it an average alcohol content of 0.5 to 1.5% the beverage has a delightful effervescence that distinguishes it from both yogurt (which it resembles in flavor) and buttermilk (which it resembles in consistency).

The beneficial lactic bacteria that are present in kefir make it particularly easy to digest, so the smooth potable is a perfect food for expectant mothers, colicky babies, invalids, and anyone else who might not be able to tolerate regular milk.

Furthermore, a daily "dose" of kefir is often prescribed to restore the intestinal flora of people who are recovering from a serious illness or being treated with antibiotics (since such medications can deplete the body's population of normal gastric microorganisms). Because kefir has always played an important role in the diets of the famous centenarians of the Caucasus Mountains, some nutritionists speculate that the cultured dairy product may help to promote a long, healthy life.

Kefir Culture

Those long-lived Russians traditionally made kefir from fresh mare's milk, but the drink is, today, generally cultured from whole, unhomogenized goat's or cow's milk. You can usually find plain kefir in health food stores (it sells for about 65¢ per eight-ounce carton) ...and the dairy food is also available in flavored varieties that are sweetened with honey, maple syrup, or fresh fruit preserves. However, perhaps the best way to enjoy "the champagne of dairy foods" is to prepare it yourself. The process of fermenting milk with kefir culture is quick, requires a minimum of utensils, and is actually easier than making yogurt!

Kefir can be produced at home by inoculating fresh milk with a powdered culture (it's available at health food stores in 1/3-ounce packets). To brew up the drink, heat one quart of milk to almost boiling (around 180°F) and—while that's warming—sterilize a quart Mason jar or other large glass container in boiling water. Let the milk cool to room temperature, and then blend in the contents of one starter package. Pour the inoculated milk into the sterilized jar, cap it, and let it stand undisturbed for about 24 hours, or until curdling occurs. (Unlike yogurt, the kefir culture doesn't require a sustained high temperature for incubation.) At the end of one full day, you should have a jarful of thick, creamy, tangy-tasting liquid.

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