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The Amazingness that is Kefir

Years ago we heard about this amazing probiotic beverage called Kefir. It was reputed to have hundreds, maybe even thousands of different cultures in it, talk about diversity, and it had yeasts in it too. So it was not just a probiotic, it was a refined, elegant, invigorating, carbonated probiotic: the Champagne of probiotics! Wahoo! Being the self-reliant, do-it-yourself crazies that we are, we set out to find Kefir grains of our very own. On craigslist we located some active locally available grains from a goat farmer about 45 minutes from our house and headed out to get some. After a delightful visit where we got our grains and learned about raw milk goat shares (the conclusion on that score was, if you want goat’s milk, get a goat!). We headed home and entered the grand tasty world of Kefir production. We’ve since drunk countless gallons of Kefir, we’ve used Kefir as the culture for cheese (very effective and tasty), and, since Kefir grains are a bit like Amish friendship bread and just keep multiplying, we’ve fed lots of extra Kefir grains to our animals and shared grains far and wide. It’s been a great experience.

Kefir itself originated in the Caucasus mountains in between Russia and Georgia. It’s early history is shrouded in mystery with some saying that the original grains were a gift to Muhammad from Allah. Consequently, the “grains of the prophet” were fiercely guarded and never shared with outsiders. But outsiders did get to sample the “miracle drink” the grains produced and its fame began to spread. It wasn’t until the 1900’s that the actual grains got out thanks to a beautiful woman named Irina Sakharova. She was sent by her employers, two brothers who owned the Moscow Dairy, to get some grains from a Russian prince. He refused to give away any grains, but didn’t want to lose her either, so, in a very melodramatic move, he had her kidnapped on her way home. If it hadn’t been the 1900’s that probably would have worked, but the move was a few centuries too late. She was rescued from a forced marriage and the Tsar ordered the prince to give her 10 pounds of Kefir grains in compensation for her mistreatment. Hurrah for Irina, and hurrah for the rest of us too, who now get to benefit from the ever expanding progeny of those original grains.

A word of comfort to newbies: Kefir grains are amazingly resilient and durable. Because of the matrix they live in and the diversity of the cultures present, Kefir grains aren’t as susceptible to the same risks as other yogurt cultures. If attacked by a bacteriophage (basically a virus of bacteria), the attack remains a surface phenomenon. Once the bacteriophage is gone, the cultures will bloom back out from the inside.

How to Make Kefir Traditionally, the grains were kept in leather bags hung in the doorway of the home. Whenever anyone passed the bag they were to punch it and massage it. When they needed some Kefir, they poured it out and added more milk to the bag. Pretty simple. In the absence of readily available leather fermenting bags, we opted for the always available, never failing spare mason jar with a fermentation lid. It works just great, though we do miss out on the punching bag aspect, which could probably be a great parenting aid, “kids stop fighting and go punch the Kefir!” For many years we didn’t use fermentation lids. We simply used a square of cheesecloth to protect the ferment. That worked, but Kefir fermentation is actually an anaerobic process so a fermentation lid will help create a much better and cleaner environment.

The fermentation itself is controlled by a couple of different factors: concentration of the grains and temperature. The more grains you have in a given amount of milk, the faster the milk will culture. Conversely, the fewer grains you have, the slower it will culture. You can play with that balance to achieve your targeted culture time. As a rule of thumb, we use about a heaping tablespoon of active grains per quart of milk. We let them grow until they’re about twice as many grains as we need, then we split off the excess and start again. As for temperature, the warmer it is, the faster the Kefir will culture, and the cooler it is, the slower it will culture. There is an ideal culturing temperature range, which, conveniently, is room temperature. Outside of that range in either direction will stress the cultures: high temperatures will quickly kill them outright, and refrigerator temperatures over a long period of time will really stress them because they are not dormant but they are not within their ideal range either. If you need to go on vacation and don’t want to take your Kefir with you, you can feed it up like usual and then put it in the refrigerator. When you come home, take it out, harvest the Kefir and feed it up again and put it on the counter. Just don’t make a habit of doing this frequently. If you want to go Kefirless for a longer period of time, you can make your grains go dormant by freezing them.

How do you know when the Kefir is done? Ask yourself one question: is it coagulated? Has it gone from being a solid to being a gelatinous consistency? You can tell by tipping the bottle to the side a bit. If it sloshes over like milk, it’s not coagulated. If it plops to the side in a mass, it’s coagulated. Once the Kefir is coagulated you can harvest it. You can also let it continue to ferment if you like it strong and bubbly. The yeasts are much slower eaters so if you want your Kefir to develop that characteristic carbonation, you have to let it ferment longer. Do some experimenting and figure out how you like it. Don’t be surprised if you let it ferment longer and you begin to see the whey and the curd separate in the jar. This is normal. When you harvest it, you can either mix it together again, or you can keep the curds and whey separate. Doing the latter would result in much thicker Kefir.

What Milk to Use The cultures in Kefir consume lactose, the sugar particular to mammalian milk. Consequently, you need to feed them mammalian milk. It doesn’t matter what mammal: goat, cow, sheep, camel, horse, yak, whatever. If you can milk the animal, you can make Kefir from the milk. The flavor and the nutrient content of the Kefir will change based on the milk you use, but the cultures will be the same. What’s tricky to use are “milks” that never came from an animal: rice, almond, coconut, etc. I defy you to find teats to milk on a coconut palm. These products do not contain lactose and so the Kefir cultures will not thrive. To use these milks for Kefir, you can either maintain a mother culture in mammalian milk and then inoculate other “milks” with some finished Kefir, or, if you’re up for an experiment, you could try using Water Kefir grains and add some sugar to your grain or nut milk for the Kefir cultures to consume. The cultures in Water Kefir grains are different from those in Milk Kefir and are adapted to consume sugars other than lactose.

If you are lactose intolerant and are trying alternative milks for that reason, note that one of the beautiful things about Kefir is that the cultures consume, drum roll please, Lactose. Consequently, if Kefir is cultured long enough, there will be little lactose remaining to cause a problem. Try different culture lengths to see what works. In fact, interesting genealogical factoid, the gene to digest lactose past childhood is recessive and shows up more in people with northern ancestry, countries where it remains cold enough to actually keep milk in a liquid un-fermented form. People with warm weather ancestry are more likely to struggle with lactose, they didn't have a need for the recessive lactose processing gene because they couldn’t keep milk cold enough to avoid fermentation and so all the lactose in the milk was eaten by bacterial cultures before people ever consumed the milk. So, if you can’t digest lactose, simply mimic your ancestors, ferment your milk, and you’ll be alright!

How to Manage Excess Kefir Grains Because Kefir grains are living, they will happily multiply and divide, sometimes remarkably quickly. If left unchecked you’d eventually end up with a jar of grains and no Kefir. Not the goal. So when your grains have doubled in size simply split half off, put the other half back in your jar and keep going. What do you do with the excess grains? Feed them to animals (they’re probiotics in a protein matrix so animals love them), eat them yourself (a bit chewy, but not bad), give them away, or preserve them for later. To preserve them you can either freeze them or dehydrate them. Freezing preserves them for months, dehydration preserves them for years. To freeze them successfully, first wash all excess milk off, then pat them dry, put them in a freezer bag and freeze them quickly. This puts the cultures into dormancy. To dehydrate them follow the same initial steps for freezing, then dehydrate them with no heat, just air. We actually store dehydrated grains in the freezer too.

It’s a good thing to preserve grains periodically so that you have a back up should something horrible happen to your active culture: drop them in a pile of gunk, flush them down the drain, have the dog imbibe in your culturing Kefir, etc. Just remember to date your grains or you’ll end up with a freezer full of little baggies of Kefir grains and no idea which one is the most recent (don’t ask how we know this).

In Summary The Quick and Dirty Process

  • Put about 1 Tablespoon of active grains in a quart jar

  • Fill the jar up with milk

  • Screw on a fermentation lid or cheesecloth

  • Let it sit at room temperature until done

  • Empty the whole thing into a strainer over a bowl

  • Use a rubber scraper to agitate the mixture. The Kefir will drain into the bowl and the grains will remain in the colander.

  • Put the grains in a new jar and repeat

  • Flavor the Kefir however you would like


  • Mason jar

  • Fermentation lids or Cheesecloth

  • Bowl

  • Strainer

  • Rubber scraper

Resources for getting started

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