Every so often a fringe food once known only to members of a particular culture gets discovered by health food aficionados, first finding its way into natural food stores before eventually taking its place on the shelves of supermarkets in Everytown, USA.
Once a little-known health food, yogurt is now among the most popular snacks around, with dozens of varieties available in even the smallest grocery stores. In recent years, yogurt’s close cousin, kefir (pronounced “keh-feer”), has been making the shift toward mainstream popularity.
Like yogurt, kefir is a fermented dairy product containing live probiotic cultures that can aid in digestion and promote a strong immune system. Also like yogurt, kefir is tart in flavor and easily digested, even by those who have trouble tolerating lactose, the primary sugar in milk.
The primary differences between yogurt and kefir are the texture — yogurt tends to be thicker, and is generally eaten with a spoon, while kefir is thinner and usually consumed as a beverage — and the process used to make it. As explained in a previous article, yogurt is made by heating milk, adding either a dried yogurt starter or a few spoonfuls of live yogurt, and holding it at a warm temperature for several hours. The live culture in the starter consumes the sugars in the milk, causing it to ferment.
Kefir, on the other hand, is made at room temperature, using kefir “grains,” small, spongy, cauliflower-like organisms that, when collected together, resemble cottage cheese. Like yogurt culture, kefir grains consume the sugars in milk, causing it to ferment. The result is a sour, slightly carbonated beverage that can be enjoyed plain or used to make delicious, tangy, smoothies.
In addition to promoting healthy digestion, kefir is rich in calcium, protein, B vitamins (especially B12), magnesium, and phosphorus. Some have suggested that regular consumption of kefir can lower blood sugar and cholesterol, regulate the immune system, and even ward off some types of cancer.
While it’s getting easier to find kefir at the grocery store, most commercial varieties are high in added sugar. Luckily, kefir is exceptionally easy to make. All you need is milk, some kefir grains, which can be purchased online, and a clean container, such as a mason jar, with a lid.
Place 2-3 tablespoons of kefir grains and 2-4 cups of milk in a mason jar. Screw on the lid and briefly shake the milk and kefir grains together, then loosen the lid to allow excess gasses to escape while the milk is fermenting. Leave the jar in a warm place in your home. Temperatures between 68-85° F are ideal. If desired, you can tighten the lid and shake the jar a few times a day to aid in the process.
Check the kefir every 6-12 hours or so. Once the milk has thickened, the kefir has formed. Strain out the kefir grains with a fine mesh strainer. The smell and flavor should be sour, but not unpleasant. Return the finished kefir to the jar, screw the lid on tightly, and store it in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Unless it is particularly warm in your home, kefir normally takes about 24 hours to form, depending on your ratio of grains to milk. Grains should be left in the same milk for no more than 48 hours, unless your home is very cold. If kefir does not form in that time, discard the milk, place the grains in new milk and repeat the process. If grains become unbalanced, it can take a few batches for them to begin producing again.
After straining, the kefir grains can be placed in new milk and the process repeated indefinitely. Kefir grains that are continually fed and kept healthy never die. In fact, most colonies will multiply over time. You can then divide them up and increase your production, or share your extra grains with friends.
You can take a break from producing kefir by storing your grains in the refrigerator, covered in fresh milk, for a few weeks at a time. They can also be frozen for up to a year.
Here’s a recipe you can use to enjoy your fresh, creamy kefir:
Strawberry Banana Kefir Smoothie
One medium banana
1/2 cup fresh or frozen strawberries
1 cup kefir
2 tablespoons raw honey
Pour all ingredients into you blender and blend until smooth.