What is white, creamy and delicious; invigorating to drink; and chock-full of nutrition? Milk, of course. But, what if we start with all that goodness and add a few other qualities, such as refreshingly tart, effervescent, probiotic, longevity-promoting and immunity-building? Then what do we have?
Answer — kefir (pronounced keh-fear): Ask for it often to enjoy a natural, simple, inexpensive way to augment your culinary techniques, as well as your health.
An Ancient Enigma
Kefir is perhaps the oldest known fermented milk drink. Although its exact origin is a mystery, it is commonly recognized as hailing from the Caucasian Mountains region of Eurasia, approximately 2,000 years ago. Some theorists believe that a natural fermentation occurred inside the leather bags in which the local goatherds stored milk. This method of culturing was then repeated purposefully for its preservative effect. Others claim that the ability to make kefir was a divine gift. Regardless of its true inception, the value of kefir was recognized, and the means of making it became a guarded family secret, passed down through the generations and never leaving the Caucasus for hundreds of years.
It wasn’t until the early 1900s that kefir ventured from its homeland. Legend has it that members of a Russian physician’s society, eager to see kefir’s purported health benefits for themselves, contacted two brothers who owned a cheese-making factory in the Caucasus Mountains and asked them to discover the means of making kefir. The brothers sent a young woman of their employ to the Caucasian prince to ask for the secret. The prince refused but became desperately smitten by the woman. When she declined his marriage proposal, the prince ordered her held captive. After her rescue, the woman petitioned the czar’s court to take legal action against the prince. As reparation for her ordeal, the woman demanded the means to make kefir. Finally, the prince handed over his cherished “grains of long life,” as kefir was called then, and the woman brought them to Moscow in 1908, where they were immediately put to use as part of the treatment of tuberculosis. It is said that all modern kefir can trace its ancestry to the “grains” the woman won from the prince.
The Grains of Long Life
Grains? Isn’t kefir a dairy product? If you are a bit confused, you have good reason.
The word “grains” is a misnomer; kefir is not related to wheat nor any other cereal plant. It’s simply milk that has been fermented by the presence of a mother culture, similar to the way tea is acted upon by a solid mass of yeast and bacteria which forms a culture known as a “mushroom” to yield the beverage called “kombucha.” Because the kefir mother culture is bumpy and granular in appearance, it has been termed “grains.”
Imagine a cross between cottage cheese and cauliflower and you are very close to picturing kefir grains. They are small, opaque, irregular clumps that feel slick and squishy to the touch. They will culture dairy milk, as well as its soy- or nut-based substitutes. (Another type of grains, known as water kefir, grows in sweetened water.) When placed in milk, kefir grains will metabolize and ferment the milk while growing and reproducing. The liquid left behind when the grains are strained out is the kefir beverage. The grains are then reused to make successive batches of kefir. If cared for properly, kefir grains can live and continue to ferment indefinitely.
For success with kefir, it’s important to remember that what we call grains are, in fact, several living organisms. Kefir grains are a natural, self-organized community of microflora known as a SCOBY, or Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast. The specific organisms that comprise kefir grains vary from sample to sample, but certain genera of microflora are always represented. Working together, these invisible life forms build a home out of the proteins, lipids and sugars in their environment, transforming it in the process. Although you cannot see the individual bacteria and yeasts, you can see the colony.
Perhaps because kefir grains are visible, people tend to treat them with a certain reverence not generally accorded other food cultures. Maybe the history of near-worship and a tremendous litany of health benefits create an attitude of respect. Or simply, the fact that they require daily care to keep them healthy makes kefir grains seem like a cross between a pet and an honored houseguest. Luckily, they are very low-maintenance.
Bringing Home the Grains
The first step on the kefir path is to acquire grains. While powdered kefir starters are available online and in health-food stores, they do not have the indefinite lifespan of the grains, and many find the beverage they produce to be inferior in flavor and probiotic population. If you wish to make traditional kefir as it has been handed down from the Caucasus, you will need to find some grains.
Happily, it is no longer necessary to seduce a prince in order to obtain them, because kefir grains are widely available via the Internet. Since the grains reproduce fairly rapidly, people who make kefir at home frequently have more than they need and are often willing to share grains for the cost of postage. Many websites sell grains, usually including instructions or ongoing support to justify the cost (see “Kefir Resources” on page 61). Unless the grains you are getting are dormant or dry (this would be specified when you order them, and they should come with instructions for resuscitation), your grains will arrive in a small amount of culturing medium and be ready to go. Simply use the following instructions to begin a lifetime adventure in culture.
One of the nicest things about making dairy kefir is how difficult it is to mess it up. Yes, you may make a batch that is too sour for your liking, but that is hardly a tragedy. The worst you can do (speaking from experience) is forget that that jar of sour-smelling milk in the back of the fridge has grains in it and either toss them out during a cleanup of leftovers that have become science experiments or leave them to starve and digest themselves into nothingness.
To make kefir, here’s what you need:
• 2 to 4 tablespoons milk kefir grains
• 1 quart fresh milk of any kind
• a clean, quart-size jar with plastic lid
• strainer/colander (fine strainers will not work)
To begin, place your grains in the jar. Add milk (can be cold), and stir gently. Leave a few inches of headspace at the top of the jar as the kefir may effervesce and expand. Cap the jar loosely. Put it aside at room temperature, out of direct sunlight.
Let it ferment for 24 hours, gently stirring two or three times during this period. You should notice the grains floating to the top, the milk thickening and a pleasantly sour aroma gathering. If after 24 hours the milk is still thin and smells sweet, let it culture another eight hours and recheck. Continue this until the milk is thick and sour. If you see yellowish liquid pooling in the bottom of the jar, don’t panic. This is the whey separating from the curds; your kefir is definitely done fermenting at this point. Gently stir until the liquid is uniform, and proceed.
Now that fermentation is complete, shake or stir the kefir, place the strainer over the bowl and pour the kefir into the strainer. The strainer will catch the grains and the cultured milk will pass through. Take the grains and put them back into the jar. (Some people wash the jar first to keep it looking clean. Some, following the practices of the original goatherds, do not, believing that the kefir milk clinging to the inside of the jar will aid the fermentation of the new batch. Make sure to at least keep the threads of the jar clean as this is where contamination by other bacteria is most likely to occur. There is no need to wash the grains.)
Simply add more milk to the jar containing the grains, and repeat the fermentation process for the next day.
I Made Kefir … Now What ?
You now have a bit less than a quart of kefir milk and many options are available to you. Here are a few of the basics:
1. Drink it as is. Trying at least some from each batch while experimenting with the fermentation factors will teach you a lot about your grains and your taste preferences.
2. Mix the kefif with fruit juice before you drink it. This is more delicious than you might think!
3. Store the kefir milk in the refrigerator for later. The kefir will continue to sour but very slowly. Your taste buds will tell you when it is no longer a palatable beverage. For most people this is between two and four weeks. Extra-sour kefir is an excellent buttermilk or yogurt replacer in baked goods and marinades. If you see a color change or mold forms on top of the kefir, best to get rid of it.
4. Ripen the kefir milk. Jar it and leave at room temperature up to 48 hours. Cap tightly only if you want to produce a carbonated beverage (and risk a small overflow or explosion). Taste it periodically to see how the flavor and texture change. Many users find it most enjoyable after ripening and feel this is the traditional way of preparing kefir. Kefir is often ripened before being made into cheese.
5. Make cheese. Kefir cheese is smooth and creamy, tart and yummy.
Cheese is one of the most versatile and fun ways of eating kefir. Use it as a spread on sandwiches, dollop onto salads and into soups, add herbs and spices to make a dip, sweeten for dessert topping, or try it in your favorite cheesecake recipe.
This may be the easiest cheese on the planet. You simply use gravity to separate the liquid whey from the solid curds. All you need is a tightly woven cloth, a way to tie it shut, a place to hang it to drain and a bowl to catch the whey.
Kefir whey is a useful and nutritious food in its own right. Packed with amino acids, vitamins and minerals, it is a refreshing pick-me-up beverage. Kefir whey also makes an excellent culinary soaking medium as its lactic acid content renders the nutrients in beans and grains more available. My favorite utensil for making kefir cheese is a jelly stand with a bag. You can find these in the canning section of kitchen stores. The stand is a metal ring that screws onto three legs that have curved ends. The legs balance on the rim of a bowl, holding the ring suspended above. The bags are presewn to fit inside the ring and come with a drawstring top.
Make sure the bag is clean and inside out (seams showing). Place it over the ring of the stand so you can tighten the string and the bag hangs down inside it. (If your stand is not stainless steel, cover the rim with plastic wrap before tying on the bag.) Pour your kefir milk into the bag until the bag is about half full. Let it sit for eight hours or more. The whey will drip into the bowl, and the curds will collect in the bag.
When it’s done, take the bag off the stand, turn it right-side-out and dump or scrape the cheese into a container. As with everything kefir, you can make adjustments to suit your preference. A longer draining time produces a drier cheese.
Use immediately, or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for two weeks. Four cups of milk kefir yields approximately 1 1/2 cups of kefir cheese.
A Lifelong Relationship
Most people who experience kefir’s health benefits, culinary flexibility and ease of preparation get attached and don’t like to go without it for long. So if you find yourself enjoying the flavors and properties of kefir, make a permanent space of honor for it in your kitchen. A housemate this generous deserves no less.