Quick and Easy DIY Milk Kefir



Getting started with fermentation can be intimidating for many people, but it can be so easy, especially if you begin your fermenting journey with a simple recipe like milk kefir. Originally hailing from Eastern Europe, kefir is a cultured dairy product similar to yogurt, with a tangy flavor and creamy texture. It has a thinner consistency that yogurt, however, lending it well to smoothies and sauces and even making it drinkable if desired.

Is Kefir the Same as Yogurt?

The main differences between kefir and yogurt, besides their thickness, are the organisms that are used to culture the milk and the process by which they are fermented. Different strains of bacteria and yeasts are employed in these two processes, making them so unique in how they are made, their microbial composition and even their flavor. Most yogurts are made with a starter culture of previously-made yogurt and the cultures are thermophilic, meaning they must be incubated in a warm environment for fermentation. By contrast, kefir is mesophilic, meaning the cultures can ferment milk into kefir at room temperature, without any need for incubation. The heating and incubation process keeps some people from trying their hand at yogurt-making; for those folks, quick and easy milk kefir may be a preferable ferment to try.

The starter cultures for kefir are much different than those used in yogurt, as well. Kefir cannot be made by adding a bit of already-fermented kefir to some milk to begin the culturing process (also known as "backslopping"). Instead, you need what are referred to as kefir "grains," which are actually a kefir SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). This is more similar to the starter culture used for making kombucha, where the SCOBY is added to the medium, sweetened tea in kombucha's case, to begin fermentation. This is in contrast to "backslopping" as used in the process of yogurt, or even sourdough bread, making.

The kefir grains, which are actually not grains at all, are called this because of their appearance. Where a kombucha SCOBY is a large, disc-shaped pellicle, kefir grains come in a group of smaller pieces, resembling cauliflower-like grains. I think they most look like large curd cottage cheese, both in texture and opacity. The structure and gelatin-like texture of these "grains" come from the microbial activity of the cultures, which emit polysaccharides such as kefirin (named for kefir itself), holding these cultures together in a sort of matrix. While you cannot spontaneously make these starter grains at home, you can easily buy them online from sources like Cultures for Health or Kombucha Kamp. Alternately, you may find a friend or neighbor already making their own kefir, and they can give you some to start your own batch, as the grains do grow and multiply as you produce more and more batches of homemade kefir.

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