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.
Is Kefir Good for You?
Nutritionally, kefir is a fantastic food to include in your diet. Because it is a fermented food, it is rich in beneficial bacteria and yeasts, which have been shown to benefit digestion, immune function, and more. The microbes that ferment the milk into kefir reduce the lactose content of the final product, rendering it more digestible for some who are sensitive to lactose in most other dairy foods. Kefir, like other milk products, is also a great source of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, B vitamins, trace minerals and fat-soluble vitamins if whole milk is used.
I like to use it similarly to yogurt, simply in a bowl for breakfast, often with a drizzle of raw honey or some fresh fruit. I also put my kefir in salad dressings, marinades, quick breads, oatmeal, and any creamy sauce in which you might normally use cream or yogurt. If you make your kefir with heavy cream instead of milk, you have yourself a perfect creme fraiche substitute or pancake topping with a bit of raw honey drizzled in! I am sure you will find your favorite way to use your homemade kefir after you have made a batch or two as well.
How to Make Kefir at Home
The basic method for making milk kefir is this: add fresh and active kefir grains to milk in a glass jar, top with a lid, and let sit at room temperature for 1-3 days to culture. That is it! You will know it is done fermenting and ready to use when the milk has thickened and has a tart, tangy flavor. The kefir may just begin to separate, with a layer of thin, yellowish whey floating on top, which is totally ok. That is another sign it is well fermented and is not a sign it has gone bad, simply shake or stir it up and you are good to go. Mold, on the other hand, is a sign of unwanted microbes; in this case, strain and toss the kefir, rinse the grains, and start over.
Once fermented, pour the kefir through a mesh strainer to collect the grains. These can go right into another jar of milk to start your next batch of kefir, or can be stored in the fridge in a bit of milk until you are ready to make another batch. Stored this way, your grains can remain dormant and healthy for a few weeks until used again, or can be fed a bit more milk to keep them well-fed and happy.
Your strained kefir can be used as-is, or stored in the fridge for several weeks. Similar to the kombucha-making process, you can also put your kefir through a round of second fermentation. This adds more effervescence and tang to your kefir through further fermentation, done in an air-tight vessel for an extra 1-2 days. A second fermentation step is not at all necessary, but some people enjoy it for the different flavors and textures it provides. You can add fruit or other flavors to the vessel during the second fermentation to make this ferment all your own. I like additions such as: strawberry or banana puree; cinnamon and a bit of vanilla; or even turmeric, ginger, and honey. These could also be added to flavor single-fermented kefir just before serving, rather than adding in the second fermentation step. Whether doing first or second fermentations, all you need is some good quality milk and a few tablespoons of healthy, active kefir grains, and you are well on your way to super healthy and delicious milk kefir.
Recipe: Milk Kefir
Yield 1 quart
Prep time: 5 minutes; Fermentation time 1-3 days
- 1 quart whole milk (can use raw or pasteurized milk)
- 2 Tbs fresh, active kefir grains (not freeze-dried)
- 1 quart-sized glass jar
- 1 non-reactive jar lid (I use BPA-free plastic lids)
- Mesh strainer
1. Pour milk into a glass jar. Add the kefir grains and stir well.
2. Place the lid on the jar and let sit on the counter, out of direct sunlight, at room temperature.
3. Ferment the kefir at room temperature for 1-3 days until thickened and tart, just beginning to separate. If your kitchen is warmer, than room temperature, this will happen faster; cooler temperatures will cause a slower fermentation process. Check it regularly for signs of fermentation, as time will vary from place to place.
4. Once fermented, pour the kefir through a mesh strainer and into another glass jar, in order to remove the grains, then set them aside. Transfer the prepared kefir the fridge for storage, where it will keep for several weeks.
5. Start a new batch of kefir with the grains right away, or store in enough milk to cover them for up to 2 weeks until using them again. Your grains will grow and multiply as you prepare more batches of kefir; all you need to make a 1-quart batch are 2 tablespoons, so any extras can be used to make multiple or larger batches of kefir, or can be stored in the fridge. There may be someone near you looking for kefir grains so, if you have extras, see if you can share with a neighbor ready to ferment!
6. If doing a second fermentation, put the prepared kefir instead into an airtight vessel, such as a flip-top bottle used in beer brewing, with flavoring additions of your choice or leave plain if desired. Let sit at room temperature for 1-2 more days until effervescent, being careful when opening in case of overflow due to being under pressure. Once fermented a second time, store in the fridge for up to several weeks.
Laura Poe is a Registered Dietitian and traditional foods instructor. She homesteads in Wisconsin where she regular contributes to Edible Madison. Connect with Laura at Laura Poe, RD, for private practice appointments (distance consults available), upcoming classes, newsletter subscriptions, and more. Her nutrient-dense recipes can be found on Laura’s blog, Brine & Broth, and you can see what she has been cooking and creating on her Instagram @brineandbroth. Read all of Laura’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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