I have been drinking this creamy, fizzy fermented milk tonic called kefir for four months every morning along with a fried egg on toast. I love it. My mother introduced me to kefir back in the summer as a way to boost immunity and enjoy milk (a food I’ve avoided for most of my adult life). While the sour-smelling, milky substance she put in front of me was a little off-putting at first, it took a single sip before I wanted to make some. I have come to adore our kefir grains, almost like a pet. A day without a glass of the tonic is a sad day, so we even tend to travel with our kefir. If you haven’t tried it, I strongly suggest you do. And if you live in New York, I may even be able to supply you with your culture!
Kefir (“kuh-feer,” although “kee-fur” is also frequently heard – mom!) originates in the Caucasus Mountains and has been drunk for centuries. It’s made by adding the natural kefir culture (known as kefir grains) to dairy or some non-dairy milks and allowing it to ferment for a period of 12-48 hours. The grains are then strained and rinsed and the resulting fermented milk enjoyed, and the milking process starts again! Kefir grains are a natural symbiosis between strains of bacteria (including some lacto, commonly found in yogurt) and yeast, woven into a cauliflower-like matrix of proteins, fats, and sugars. During the fermentation process the yeast and bacteria consume the sugar in the milk. The common byproducts of fermentation are lactic acid, acetic acid, alcohol, and much CO2 when yeast is present – naturally helping to preserve food, add to their flavor, and sometimes make for a lot of bubbles.
Most cultures (human, not bacteria) include a live ferment in their daily meals (e.g. aged cheese, miso, kimchi, pickles, beer, yogurt, breads). When we eat them, these foods help boost immunity by facilitating the cultivation of healthy microflora in our gut. This bacteria in turn helps us to break down nutrients and also consumes harmful bacteria before it can penetrate and get into our bloodstream. In the US fermented foods are not eaten as frequently. Unfortunately for some people the only time these foods are eaten is when they’re paired with a cocktail of antibiotics. Kefir is a simple introduction to anyone’s diet – all you need is some good milk of your choosing.
Like any traditional, nurturing food, people’s positive experiences far outweigh the scientific research done on the benefits. While you can find massive lists out there and many first person accounts, I’ve kept my list short and will say this: kefir has improved my digestion, helped me get over a very long intolerance towards milk, kept me without flu for many months, and generally been a happy wake-up every morning. Kefir has also been known to improve allergic reactions, suppress yeasts in our system like Candida, reduce inflammation, promote a healthy nervous system, and normalize metabolism. It contains many vitamins and minerals, notably B2 and B12, vitamins A, D, and K, calcium, magnesium, and also the essential amino acid Tryptophan, which helps calm the nervous system. [If eating live bacteria still sounds gross, read the * section below.]
While it was traditionally made with goat or cow’s milk, kefir grains can also be used in nut, seed, or coconut milks as well as sugar solutions. As a guiding rule remember these are ancient organisms (not horrifying spawns of GMO), and they grow stronger from more minimally processed and nutrient-packed foods. Avoid ultra-pasteurized homogenized milks and skim dairy milks (e.g. Horizon or Organic Valley), highly processed soy milks (Silk Soy, etc), and juices made from concentrate. In general, use high quality, pure milks and expect delicious and nutritious results. Kefir grains will grow much faster in dairy milks than non-dairy, and fastest in whole, raw milk. If you don’t want to deal with the excess, this may be a boon.
My mother got her kefir grains from a friend out in Iowa who has access to raw cow’s milk from a sustainable Organic farm that follows Indian Ayurvedic practices. They chant and sing to their cows. Yes, that’s right. While this may sound bizarre, these cows produce some of the most amazingly frothy, thick, and sweet kefir my mother has ever had. With milk, purity is important, but also hard to come by. Even so, everyone has access to quality milk. If you think you do, search around and I bet you will be surprised. I know I have been.
From there, the fun is in the experimentation! Dom’s Kefir-making In-site provides many good recipes for making drinks with different milks. We’ve finally stockpiled enough extra kefir grains to try them all out. One I particularly liked was a ginger beer where fresh juice from grated ginger, lemon, raisins, and baking powder are added to a 10% cane sugar solution along with the grains and left to sit for 2 days.
This year for me has mostly been about getting over food aversions, becoming stronger, and testing any food-related myth, prejudice, or ethic in my path. For me, this has been developing a relationship with animal products. So far I am on to pork, cured meats, chicken, kefir, milk, eggs, and sardines. I still can’t stand sweet foods like cake (cupcakes, fluffy cake, chocolate or any other variety), don’t have much taste for beets, and am not big on sweet potatoes or sweet breakfast foods. But I can’t see how a sugar aversion in today’s world is a bad thing. Testing my boundaries has been incredibly rewarding. By becoming more open to foods, I have also become more selective when it comes to quality and nutrition. I have learned to trust my instincts more when it comes to balancing my diet, what my body needs, which has also given me firsthand experience with the medicinal properties of food in addition to their taste. Kefir has meant all these things for me, and so I proudly present you with my favorite morning smoothie.
1/4 cantaloupe or other sweet melon, seeds and rind removed
2 big sprigs of mint, washed and leaves removed
A big handful of blueberries
1 banana, peeled
2 cups kefir milk, yield
A handful of ice cubes
Place all ingredients in the blender. Blend until you can no longer hear the ice being crushed. Pour into glasses and enjoy!
If this still sounds a little foreign to you, consider this: our body consists of about 100 trillion cells, and there are ten times as many microorganisms living in our gut. Whether we like it or not, all animals (ourselves included) participate in symbiotic relationships with microorganisms. Symbiotic relationships have different scenarios: where one organism benefits, where both benefit, or where a parasite benefits at the expense of the host. The first scenario, called a mutualistic relationship, is what we consider when looking at living foods like kefir. In the case of living foods, not only do these microorganisms help keep other yeast and bacteria in check (like the yeast Candida), they fend off parasites by consuming them, liberate nutrients from indigestible foods like cellulose by eating them and allowing us to absorb the vitamins, and generally keep our digestion healthy. Some live ferments are active at mealtime (like yogurt), but kefir, whose organisms continue to thrive in our gut, are working in our defense even after the nutrients of milk have long been absorbed into our system.
Ideally you pick up some grains from a friend or somewhere nearby. I have a limited supply, and would be open to anyone in NY who would like some. If you’re going to need to have them sent to you, your options are dehydrated, frozen, or having someone send you live grains in the mail. If they’re dehydrated or frozen it just means you’ll need a couple days to wake them up, but it’s a less iffy deal then having someone send you live organisms in the mail and hoping they’re still kicking if they ever arrive. Nonetheless, Your Kefir Source will send them to you this way if you so desire.
Your grains should be stored in a glass bottle with a lid that will hold the amount of milk you’d like to drink in a day. The more milk you ferment, the longer it’ll take, so you’ll need to find a balance. We generally do one cup milk per person. We’ve find that 1/4 cup grains in 2 cups of milk works well for 2 people and can be drunk within 24 hours.
When you first get your grains rinse them in a strainer (it’s good to have a circular one with fine mesh). Then place them in the jar and pour the milk up to the desired level. Put the cap on but don’t screw it (or you’ll be in for a mess in the morning when the CO2 explodes the jar), and leave it at room temperature for 24 hours.
When you want to drink the kefir, strain it over a bowl, shaking the grains to extract all the milk. Then rinse the grains under cool water, wash the bottle, put the grains back in and add new milk. Take the kefir milk and do anything you like. In addition to smoothies, kefir can be used in place of buttermilk in baked goods (e.g. these Jalapeno whole wheat scones w/ cheddar and rosemary) and imparts of slightly cheesy, nutty flavor. You can also cut the curds and whey after fermenting and make a wonderful cream cheese. Kefir whey can also be used to ferment grains prior to use in baking. Kefir is also wonderful straight stirred around and sipped straight from the bowl. These are all foods I’ve made using cow’s milk. If you’re using a nut milk, it’s a whole different palate. So just try things out and taste.
As long as you keep your kefir and jar clean and use good milk you don’t need to worry about contamination. You will find that if you leave your kefir on the counter too long when you drink it it’ll be a little hard on your system and act as a quick diuretic. But no matter, lesson learned.
Try the kefir gradually, every couple of days or so in the beginning. You may find that it causes a strong desire to rush to the bathroom. This is totally natural as your body adjusts to the kefir. Many “poopers” love their ferments just like they do enemas, but don’t let these temporary effects throw you off. Everybody poops.
On taking a break
If you’re going away or need a break from making kefir you can either store your kefir in the fridge for a few weeks or the freezer for longer. If in the fridge, wash your grains and bottle, put the kefir back in and add some water, fasten the lid, then store it in the fridge. If you need a longer break wash out the grains, place them in an airtight container, and place in the freezer. Just remember when you “wake them up” it’ll take a little longer for them to start fermenting again.
If you want to slow the process down by own a couple of days, just place your milked kefir in the fridge and check on it ever now and then by taking off the lid and smelling it. Once it becomes real strong, you know you’re going to need to replace the milk again.
Wild Fermentation – Wonderful book on fermented foods, includes an interesting story about the origination of Kefir. The author, Sandor Ellix Katz, has an amazing story. He was diagnosed with AIDS and found fermented foods, which he now uses daily to boost his immunity. Katz also frequently speaks on the subject and is a big supporter of fermented food education. His recipes and knowledge are excellent
Real Food: What to Eat and Why – Interesting argument about the importance of high quality proteins and fats and an excellent resource for where to find them by Nina Planck.
Your Kefir Source – A goofy dude who will ship you live kefir grains
Gem Cultures – A great online resource for all sorts of ferments
Dom’s Kefir In-Site – An exhaustive online resource for how to buy, bottle, store, and make kefir grains, as well history and health benefits
Kefir Lady – Another good resource for getting grains