What is Kefir?

Kefir is a fermented milk drink. The word kefir is said to have originated from the Turkish word “Keif” which means “good feeling”. Kefir dates back many centuries to the shepherds of the Caucasus Mountains who carried milk stored in leather pouches where it would ferment into fizzy sour yoghurt.

Elie Metchnikoff, a Nobel-prize winning biologist at the Pasteur Institute, first suggested that lactobacilli might counteract the putrefactive effects of gastrointestinal metabolism in 1908. He attributed the long and healthy life of the people of the Caucasus Mountains to their consumption of soured milk. In modern times there’s a great deal of interest and research into probiotics and the health giving properties of fermented milks like kefir.

The Kefir Culture

There are two types of kefir: water kefir – small transparent grains that ferment sweetened water; and milk kefir – white or cream coloured grains that look rather like cauliflower florets that ferment milk.

A cauliflower-like kefir grainKefir is a living culture, a complex symbiosis of more than 30 microflora that form grains or cauliflower-like structures (sometimes called plants) in the milk. As the culture ferments the milk these structures grow, creating new grains in the process. Real kefir from live culture is an endlessly self-propagating process.

Microorganisms present in the grains include lactic acid bacteria, Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis, Streptococcus thermophilus, Lb delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus, Lb helveticus, Lb casei subsp. pseudoplantarum and Lb brevis, a variety of yeasts, such as Kluyveromyces, Torulopsis, and Saccharomyces, acetic acid bacteria among others. They give kefir excellent keeping qualities by keeping putrifying bacteria that might otherwise colonise the milk at bay. They’ve been shown to inhibit both salmonella and E. Coli in laboratory tests.

Kefir and Health

Kefir has many reputed health benefits. It has antibiotic and antifungal properties. It’s been used in the treatment of a variety of conditions, including metabolic disorders, atherosclerosis, and allergies, tuberculosis, cancer, poor digestion, candidiasis, osteoporosis, hypertension, HIV and heart disease. You might find it odd that that a drink containing yeasts would be good for treating candidiasis but it has been helpful to many people, both by restoring a better balance to the gut flora and because some elements of the microflora will kill off Candida Albicans. Not all yeasts are harmful.

In addition to beneficial bacteria and yeast, kefir contains many vitamins, minerals, amino acids and enzymes. Particularly calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, B2 and B12, vitamin K, vitamin A and vitamin D. Tryptophan, one of the essential amino acids abundant in kefir, is well known for its relaxing effect on the nervous system. Because kefir also has an abundance of calcium and magnesium, also important minerals for a healthy nervous system, kefir in the diet can have a particularly calming effect on the nerves.

The abundance of enzymes brings more health benefits, especially to lactose intolerant people, many of whom can tolerate kefir without difficulty, as long as the kefir is raw and not cooked (cooking destroys the enzymes).

How to make Kefir

The Basics

  • A 500ml glass jar like a kilner jar
  • About 1 tablespoon of kefir culture
  • Fresh milk

Put the kefir culture in the glass jar, then fill it with fresh milk about 2/3 or so full. Cover the jar with a cloth or put the lid on the jar. (If you use a lid don’t fill the jar above two thirds or use a jar with a rubber gasket that will let any pressure escape.)

Let the contents stand at room temperature for approx. 24 hours depending on your taste. 48 hours will make a thicker, sourer kefir, 12 hours a thinner, sweeter kefir. The temperature will effect how quickly the culture works. So during the warm summer months the kefir will ferment faster.

Kefir fermenting in a kilner jarWhen it’s ready strain the kefir into a clean jar. While it’s fermenting the kefir grains will float to the top of the milk along with any cream. It’s a good idea to stir it gently with a wooden spoon to mix up the solids and liquids to make it easier to strain. Or use a wooden spoon or clean hands to scoop out the culture from the kefir (the culture is easy to feel and separate from the liquids). The kefir culture produces a jelly like polysaccharide substance that develops around the grains as they grow, making it look ‘gloopy’. It has unique properties and it’s own name ‘kefiran’. As you scoop out the grains you may find them coated with a gel like substance. This is the kefiran. Giving the kefir a good stir will distribute the kefiran in the kefir and it contributes to the thickness of the finished kefir. (This seems to be pretty variable, some strains producing a lot and others not much.)

After straining, the grains are placed straight back into a clean jar without washing them first. Fresh milk is added to the grains to make the next batch.

A Note on Cleanliness
Make sure everything is very clean when handling kefir. It’s a living culture, a complex system of bacteria and yeasts and you don’t want risk contaminating it. Use freshly cleaned hands, clean jars and clean non metallic implements.

Notes and variations

Making kefir is a pretty simple process, put the culture in the milk, leave it to ferment and there’s your kefir. But there are a wide variety of styles and tastes when it comes to kefir making. For one thing, kefir is a living food and subject to a fair degree of natural variation and people have a range of tastes, so you’ll find as many different ways of making kefir as there are people making it. Here are just a few.

Timing and Temperature

There is a wide variety in the length of time the kefir is left to ferment. In the end, how long to leave it depends on how sour you like it. The longer you leave it the sourer it gets. Some people like a lightly fermented kefir, they let it ferment for only 12 hours, others like it much stronger and more active and leave it for 2 or 3 days, past the point at which is separates into curds and whey.

Fridge Kefir
A cooler temperature slows the fermentation down and makes a thicker kefir too. Some people like to ferment their kefir in the fridge, leaving it for 5 days or more to compensate for the much slower fermentation process.

Double Fermentation
Or there’s the double fermentation technique. First ferment in the usual way by adding the culture to the milk and leaving for a period of time, 12-24 hours is the norm. Then strain out the culture and leave the kefir out to ferment more slowly for another 12-24 hours before putting it in the fridge.

Continuous Fermentation
Then there’s the traditional ‘continuous fermentation’ approach. You store your kefir in a large jar but don’t put it in the fridge. As each new batch is ready it’s added to the existing kefir in the main storage jar and then the lid goes on. The kefir will continue to ferment (it’s a live food remember) and will get very sour and fizzy. If you feel inclined to try this you must always use a jar with a rubber seal that will allow excess pressure to escape, otherwise you run the risk of explosions!

Storing the Culture

The kefir culture or grainReal kefir from live culture is an endlessly self propagating process. After each batch you’ll have a few more grains as the culture grows. Eventually you’ll have quite a large batch of grains and they’ll speed up your fermentation time. Spare culture can be stored for a time in a jar in the fridge with some milk. The fermentation will slow right down and you can store them for a few weeks this way. It’s a good idea to rotate them with the grains you’re using for your regular kefir making so that they get a chance to warm up and restore vitality to their microflora. You could also pass spare culture on to a friend.

Storing the Kefir

Store the kefir in a glass jar in the fridge. The kefir will keep a long time in the fridge. Add new batches of kefir to the storage jar as they are made and give it a shake to mix them.

You can store it on the kitchen counter instead of the fridge but be aware that it will continue to ferment, although not as fast as it would with the kefir grains in it. If you want to do that you should always use jars with a rubber seal that will allow excess pressure to escape and prevent possible explosions! It can be a very vigorous culture and has caused jars to explode when stored out of a fridge over a period of time. A kilner jar is good. The beneficial bacteria and yeasts help to prevent the kefir from spoiling but it gets very sour and fizzy.
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