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.
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.
You can store the homemade kefir in the refrigerator and simply stir or shake it lightly before serving each time. However, don't drink the last three tablespoons of the beverage. When you're ready to make a second batch of kefir, simply repeat the process but inoculate the new "generation" with the liquid starter you've saved.
As you progress along the chain of culturing, you'll probably notice that the finished product turns out to be more solid each time. After about a month you'll have to begin again, by using a new packet of powder to start the curdling. (Occasional "fresh starts" also serve to lessen the chance that foreign microbes, which can be introduced by dirty hands and vessels, will grow in the food.)
Variations on a Theme
One of the delights of making kefir is the dairy treat's great versatility. You can produce an almost limitless variety of tastes by using different kinds of milk, varying the length of the incubation period, or adding different flavorings to the finished product. To make a thick creation that can be spooned like yogurt, for example, just drop a couple of tablespoons of powdered milk into the warm liquid and then add the starter ...or combine equal parts of whole milk and evaporated milk before you inoculate the liquid with the culture.
After your kefir sets up, you can drink it plain, sprinkled with pepper, flavored with vanilla, or sweetened with honey, maple syrup, or date sugar. You can even make soft cheese by suspending the liquid in a cheesecloth bag for several hours until the whey drains off and a ball of semisolid kefir is left in the sack. Season the do-it-yourself "cream cheese" with your favorite herbs and use it as a sandwich spread or party dip, or crumble it over salads.
A Cook's Best Friend: Kefir Recipes
Once you've mastered the art of making your own kefir, however, don't just use the body-building food by itself. Cook with it! Kefir makes a fine substitute for the dairy ingredients commonly used in many salad dressings, pie fillings, and soups. To begin, you might want to try out the recipes that follow, then go on to work out a few "experiments" of your own. You'll undoubtedly find that with its creamy, slightly fizzy taste, kefir adds a special zip to any dish while supplying even more nutrition than does fresh whole milk!
To make a healthful "smoothie," blend together 1 cup of kefir, 1 teaspoon of vanilla, and 1 cup of chopped fruit (such as bananas, berries, or cantaloupe). For a combination shake, use a mixture of fruits ... or add one kind of fresh fruit (or its juice) to store-bought kefir that's already flavored in a complementary taste.
Kefir can also grace your breakfast table, believe it or not. Pour the creamy substance over a bowl of granola or hot whole grain cereal, or add it to your favorite recipe for whole wheat pancakes or waffles. If you're in a hurry in the morning, a glass of plain kefir—with a little honey added and some wheat germ sprinkled over it—is about the most nutritious and satisfying quick breakfast you could have.
Fermented cultured milk makes a delicious base for salad dressings, too. Combine 1 cup of kefir with a tablespoon of vinegar, a teaspoon of lemon juice, and dashes of such seasonings as sea salt, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, cumin, basil, parsley, and chives. (For a thicker dressing, you might want to add 1/4 cup each of mayonnaise and ketchup to the recipe.) Put all the ingredients in a tightly sealed jar and shake them until they're thoroughly blended.
Kefir can even be a welcome addition to many soups. It's usually possible to simply substitute the cultured liquid for any water, milk, or stock that's called for in your favorite recipe ...but here are a couple of specific ideas you might like to try. Kefir gazpacho is a delightful variation of the traditional Spanish vegetable soup. First peel, seed, and chop a cucumber. Then buzz it in a blender together with 2 cups of kefir, 1 teaspoon of tamari, and a crushed garlic clove. Next, peel and chop 3 medium-sized ripe tomatoes, and stir them—along with a small diced onion, 2 tablespoons of chives, 1/2 teaspoon of dill, and a dash of cayenne pepper—into the pureed kefir mixture. Chill the gazpacho for several hours (until the flavors are well blended), and then garnish it with more chopped tomatoes, chives, or parsley before serving.
You can produce a delicious, smooth, and relatively low-calorie cream of potato soup by adding kefir to the stock at the last minute. Dice 4 cups of potatoes and thinly slice 3 cups of leeks or onions, then simmer them until they're tender in enough lightly salted water to cover them. While the vegetables are cooking, add a teaspoon each of dill, thyme, and caraway seeds, plus a pinch of cayenne pepper. Then whirl the soup in a blender, stirring in enough kefir to produce the texture you prefer, before dishing it up.
The Mediterranean treat can be used in tasty desserts as well. Just whip it into a frothy cream and spoon it over fresh fruit or on top of baked goods ... or incorporate kefir into a favorite pie or cake recipe. Here's an example of a traditional pumpkin pie that's made even more palate-pleasing with the addition of cultured milk: In a large mixing bowl, combine 3 beaten eggs, 2 cups of cooked and strained pumpkin meat, 1 1/2 cups of kefir, 3/4 cup of maple syrup, 1 teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice, 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla, and a dash of sea salt. Pour the filling into an 8-inch whole wheat pie crust and bake it at 425°F for 15 minutes. Then reduce the heat to 350° and let the dessert cook for an hour (or until the custard has set).
Kefir "ice cream," made with either plain or flavored cultured milk, is a snap to prepare, too. In a blender, combine 2-1/2 cups of kefir, 1 egg, and 1 cup of frozen or fresh chopped fruit. (Depending on the sweetness of the fruit you use, you might also want to add one or two tablespoons of honey.) Place the mixture in plastic containers and store them in your freezer until the kefir becomes hard and grainy.
As you can see, then, "Old Granddad Kefir" is certainly a food that merits a lot of respect. The ancient comestible is not only simple and inexpensive to make ...it's also a pleasingly flavorful way to obtain the nutritional bonuses of fresh milk. The next time you need a little zest in your diet, try the natural refreshment of kefir. It may not be as familiar as some of its relatives, but the hearty beverage is definitely a credit to the dairy family!
EDITOR'S NOTE: Kefir culture is available at most good health food stores. Some of the recipes in this article were adapted, with permission, from a booklet published by the East Coast Kefir Company.