by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
I like yogurt. I use it in smoothies, atop fruit and granola with honey, and interchangeably with buttermilk in baking and some recipes. I know how to make it at home, but it's such a fussy process I never do. Keeping it at a constant warm temperature in a house heated with a wood stove (when I light a fire at all) is difficult. Then, you're supposed to start with fresh "from the store" culture every so often anyway. Despite trying to avoid purchasing plastic packaging, if I want yogurt, I buy it from the store.
But a few weeks ago, by coincidence, I found something better. I've been writing about making vinegar and dealing with the mother-of-vinegar culture on my own blog. I got a comment from a reader saying it sounded a lot like making kombucha tea. That same day, I'd just read a magazine article about kombucha too. I was intrigued, and posted a request for a kombucha starter on my local Freecycle network. I received two offers, and made plans to meet with one. When I got there, she also offered to give me some water kefir grains, and some milk kefir grains. Oh boy, more stuff to experiment with! I'm still deciding about the kombucha and water kefir. They take longer to culture, and both need added sugar to work. I don't like the idea of increasing my intake of sugar, so the jury is still out on those.
But I'm already hooked on the milk kefir. I've tasted the flavored stuff you can buy in the store, and I do like it. But it's sooooo expensive, and comes packaged in little individual plastic bottles. So, not something I'm gonna buy. But making your own is so easy - much easier than making yogurt, once you have some kefir grains.
Kefir grains aren't grain. They're a symbiotic combination of good bacterias and yeasts - more of the same kind of probiotics that make yogurt good for you. They've been used for centuries (Marco Polo mentions kefir in his journals) to ferment milk to form a beneficial cultured product. Kefir grains look like little bits of cauliflower, with a squishy texture somewhat like tapioca.
You can't make them from scratch, but once you have some you can keep using them indefinitely. They can be ordered via the Internet, but try what I did and just ask around. Over time, the grains increase in number, making it easy to pass some on to a friend. Added to milk, the culture forms in your home's ambient temperature. They work great for me in a jar on my kitchen counter.
It's also easy to make as much or as little as I need. Each morning, I put the grains into a soap-and-water clean jar and add milk right out of the refrigerator (I use non-fat milk. I've also read that it will work with non-dairy milks, such as soy or nut, but haven't tried it), and put a lid on it. A couple of times during the day, if I think about it, I'll give the jar a little swirl, but try not to get any of the culture on the metal lid. By evening, the culture has thickened to the consistency of store-bought buttermilk, and the grains have risen to the top.
It could be used then, but right now I've been letting it continue to culture overnight (in the summertime, when it's hotter in the house, 8-12 hours will probably be long enough). By the next morning, a bit of whey might start to separate from the culture at the bottom. It's now more the consistency of paint - thick enough to support a plastic straw. You're supposed to avoid contact with metal for the best taste, so I stir up the kefir with a clean plastic straw or spoon, and then strain out the grains.
I have a nylon tea strainer, designed to fit inside a teapot, that just fits inside the opening on a wide-mouth canning band. It takes only a few minutes of stirring and pouring into the strainer to end up with the fresh kefir in a quart jar, the kefir grains in the strainer. Some sources have said to rinse the grains each time, others say it's not necessary. If I were on city water that contained chlorine or fluoride I might not rinse mine. But we're on a well with good water so I rinse the grains a bit in the strainer under cool running water. Dumped into a clean jar, I either start the process again for the next day, or the grains will keep, covered with a bit of milk or cream and stored in a covered jar in the refrigerator (the woman I got them from had kept them for a couple of months that way, and they revived, no problem).
I like refrigerating the kefir then, later mixing it 50/50 with any kind of juice, making a flavored beverage just like the ones you buy in the little plastic bottles, for an afternoon snack. In the blender with frozen fruit, it makes a great smoothie. I've used it as a substitute for buttermilk in baking recipes, and drizzled it plain over granola and fruit. Plain, it's a bit sweeter than yogurt - not quite as tangy. Left to culture as long as I let it, the texture can feel a bit "ropey" in your mouth to just drink right out of the jar. It's not as solid as yogurt, and won't form much "cheese" if left to drain. But it's sooooo easy, and good - I'm definitely happy with this discovery.