Blog 1: Kefir Making By Activating Live Culture
Follow along in a 4-part blog series. Learn about the history, health benefits, and how to make Kefir in this first blog post.
For thousands of years, the Eurasian people in the Caucasus Mountains (between Russia and Georgia) made and drank Kefir (fermented milk). With their ritual of drinking Kefir everyday, villagers in the Caucasus Mountains were known for reaching a life expectancy well past 100 years old. Kefir originates from friendly bacteria and yeasts, which are called grains (not the kind used for making bread). The grains are not only alive, but they reproduce and continue to grow when it interacts with milk.
My first exposure to Kefir came from my Ukrainian grandfather. When I was growing up, he was about the healthiest person I knew. Back in the 1960s, we called it “Sour Milk” because of its thickish texture and tangy taste. When he died at nearly 90 years old, all that was left were my fond memories of “Sour Milk” and the fascination of how to make it. My grandfather nurtured those Kefir grains from “the old country” for at least 30+ years before his death in 1987. My regret was that I never learned the process.
Nicole’s path toward probiotic foods and beverages began when she experienced sudden, severe pain on the left side of her face. Seeking help from dentists resulted in multiple misdiagnoses, countless drug treatments, and 12 (unnecessary) surgeries in 2014-2015. The pain was unbearable and the side effects from months of antibiotics were brutal. Nicole’s frustration was at its limit when she experienced such deep depression that she began having suicidal thoughts.
When she was eventually diagnosed with an incurable condition, she was referred to a Pain Clinic. In the middle of this saga, she started developing a craving for pickles (the probiotic, lacto-fermented kind). Nicole began researching the nutritional benefits of probiotics and realized that fermented foods can contribute to a healthy and stable microbiome (the community of microbes that protects us against germs).
Nicole’s pickle cravings branched out into making other fermented foods and beverages like Kombucha and Kefir. Since Kombucha has a fairly high sugar content (unless fermented into vinegar), she became obsessed with primarily making Kefir. Nicole was pleased to discover that it could be used in many different applications like: Kefir Cultured Butter, Kefir Cheese, Kefir Sour Cream, smoothies, breakfast dishes, and baked goods. Through much persistence and the right treatments, she has been able to nurse herself back to health and lives with much less pain. Nicole claims, “By devoting my time to staying healthy, I truly believe that the probiotic benefits of fermented foods, (particularly Kefir) continue to provide benefits to my health and psyche.”
The Probiotic Powers of Kefir
Not all probiotics are equal. For example, probiotic pills are made in laboratories derived from just a few cultures. They are prone to heat sensitivity, have a shortened shelf life, and can even be killed in the small intestine. Commercial brands of Kefir tend to be filled with sugar and preservatives. The probiotics are likely to be killed off through high heat processing (Yemoos Nourishing Cultures).
In contrast, homemade Kefir is packed with probiotics and has 3 times the amount of live culture than yogurt. It also can be an ideal alternative for those who are lactose intolerant because it’s easier to digest than plain milk when used in moderation. Homemade Kefir has up to 50 strains of healthy bacteria making it a probiotic powerhouse for gut health! (Kefir: A Wonder Beverage from the Ancient World)
Further Health Benefits of Kefir
- Improves digestion
- Kefir helps boost immunity
- Reduces inflammation
- Loaded with essential vitamins, minerals, and amino acids
- Some studies show it can help reduce asthmatic symptoms, allergies, and can prevent an array of cancers.
- Many avid Kefir makers have claimed that it helps with weight loss, acne, prevents wrinkles, lowers LDL cholesterol, blood sugar, treats IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), reduces anxiety, gum disease, and the list goes on and on!
The Probiotic Process
Live Kefir grains looks a lot like translucent cottage cheese. Ideally, try to obtain live Kefir grains from someone you know or order online through Kefir Lady or Yemoos Nourishing Cultures. You can use dehydrated grains, but it can only be used a handful of times; furthermore, it lacks the probiotic punch of using live Kefir Grains.
- ½ tsp of live Kefir grains
- 1 pint of any kind of whole or reduced fat milk, raw, or pasteurized (not ultra pasteurized) and preferably organic. It won’t work with nonfat milk. Feel free to use other forms of dairy like goat or sheep milk.
- Place a ½ tsp of grains into a pint-sized mason jar of milk.
- Cover it with a plastic lid, coffee filter, or a tight (woven) cloth like a tea towel secured with a rubber band around the lip of the jar.
- * Set on a counter away from the light. The ideal room temperature is 75 degrees, If it’s colder it will take longer to ferment. It will take 12-36 hours depending on the grains’ strength, temperature, and your personal taste. It is usually ready within 24 hours. Keep an eye on it because if you let it go too long, it will get very thick and the milk will separate creating a layer of whey at the bottom of the jar. At that point, you will be halfway between milk Kefir and cheese Kefir (making Kefir cheese is covered in Blog 2)
- Strain the Kefir through a fine meshed strainer into a mason jar, cover with a lid, and store in the refrigerator. It is ready to drink or use. Reserve the Kefir grains!
- You can use the strained grains to start the same process over again to make the next batch of Kefir. If you need to take a break from Kefir making, place the grains in a small mason jar, fully cover grains with milk, and seal it with the mason jar lid. Label your jar and store it in the refrigerator. It will last for about 6-10 days before you’ll have to reactivate them.
- For longer term storage, follow the steps through #5 but place in the freezer. It will take longer to activate them but with little effort, your grains will be as good as new.
*If you like a mild Kefir, you will want to pull out the grains when the milk is just beginning to thicken. If you let the milk go to the point where the Kefir is starting to separate into curds and whey, the resulting Kefir will be a bit more sour, grainy, and complex. The right amount of grains is crucial to the development of a tasty Kefir and to feed it so it will grow. Too many grains and the milk will sour and curdle quicker.
The Process of Reactivating Kefir Grains
- Rinse grains with purified or filtered water in a fine mesh strainer to remove the slimy, old (curdled) milk. Then, strain grains and cover with fresh milk in a small jar. Follow the instructions in step #2.
- Strain grains every 12 hours or so and then adding fresh milk each time for about 3-5 days. You will be able to fully activate your grains to a point where the Kefir tastes good and has a pleasant creamy texture.
- If you are reactivating your grains from the freezer, defrost them first in the refrigerator and then proceed to step #2. It may take 1+ week to fully activate.
There are so many ways to enjoy Kefir. Replace yogurt with Kefir in a parfait and add a little raw honey for a bit of sweetness to offset the sour. Try replacing milk or buttermilk with Kefir when making french toast, pancakes, waffles, muffins, and cakes. Although you won’t get the probiotic benefits using it for baking (heat will destroy it), it will be much more flavorful! Expand into dairy good live cultures in Blog 2 with a DIY fruity Kefir drink, Kefir cheese-making, and Kefir sour cream.
—Written by Debbie Sultan & Nicole Novak ; Video Produced by Ariel Sultan