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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Consider Kefir

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.

24 comments:

Sense of Home said...

Oh, thank you. Just what I have been looking for. I make yogurt, but I like to use Kefir with the smoothies I make on the weekend. However, I am tired of buying it and then taking the bottle to the recycling center. I prefer to use as many homemade products as I can.

-Brenda

Green Gal said...

Hmm...sounds interesting! Thanks for sharing :-)

Shannon said...

I just discover kefir recently too!
My grandchildren really like it in their oatmeal. I let it sit in the fridge until more whey separates then pour that off and I'm left with a thicker, creamier kefir.

http://whoknowswhat-shannon.blogspot.com/2010/01/adventures-in-kefir-also-sunday-stills.html

Kali said...

Mmm, I'll give this a whirl. Such a tiny container was $5 so I just couldn't spend the money on it to try...this looks a a no-fuss way to do it.

Francesca said...

Thanks Sadge! Although Marco Polo knew it was "kefir" we now call it "yogurt" in this country, and I never quite knew what kefir was. The culture is now impossible to find, but my mom had it for years: it'd grow at in impressive rate, and she was always trying to find a new home for the excess. We didn't know it'd keep in the fridge, and the kefir culture would always come with us on vacation. You described the taste and the consistency so well. And yes, It is sooo good and easy.

Jess @ Openly Balanced said...

Kefir is such fun! I just recently got into making it. I have yet to get some water grains, but I've really been enjoying my first batch of milk kefir. I put mine in a closed jar, so it ended up slightly carbonated, which is very interesting!

ms lottie said...

I love it when you discover something and then you see and hear it everywhere! I've just learnt about kefir and am organising to get some from a friend so this was so timely, thanks!

Julie said...

Hi Sadge,
I love our kefir, it's fabulous stuff! I've just got some water kefir granules too as my family likes cordials and ginger beer in summer and I think this might be a better option even though it does use sugar. Let us know how you go with your kombucha too :-)

kylie said...

I've never heard of kefir grains but that may be that I live in Australia but we have a drink here called yakult which sounds similar but if those grains were available here I would be very interested in grabbing some..

Grace said...

I ordered Kefir in my food box this week so I'm looking forward to trying it. If I like it, I'll try making it myself.

Compact UK said...

thank you for sharing kefir with us :) I have been wanting an alternative to making yoghurt (as you say, it's a pain to have to start them with shop bought yoghurt), so I will definitely give this a go!

Anonymous said...

Kylie - re: kefir in Australia, just google Dom's kefir site, and you will get all the information that you might ever want about kefir, written by an Aussie. Probably there is info on how to obtain the grains as well.
And re: the finickiness of making yogurt at home - I put a jar of hot water in a small picnic cooler with the jar of milk to keep the temp. steady. I check after 4 hours, and re-heat the water as necessary. For a starter I buy a quart of good yogurt, divide it up into an ice cube tray, and freeze it. One or two cubes, defrosted, gets used as a starter. I make and use both yogurt and kefir. BTW, I always enjoy reading your blog, Sadge.

Quatrefoil said...

The kefir sounds interesting and I'd like to give it a try.

I used to find yoghurt a bit fiddly too, until I started making it with powdered milk, which took all the fuss out of it. Mix up the powdered milk with two-thirds of the recommended water, then add boiling water until it's blood temperature (it feels neither hot nor cold to your finger). Add a couple of tablespoons of bought yoghurt as a starter and you're done. I then sit it on a hot water bottle in my eski (pinic cooler) overnight and the yoghurt is set in the morning. I find I only need to buy a tiny pot of bought yoghurt as a new starter every couple of months - it's much cheaper than buying tubs of bought yoghurt and it takes about 3 minutes to make.

Sue said...

We've been culturing kefir for about 2 years now, and always have one, sometimes two smoothies a day. I simply add unsweetened frozen fruit, some unsweetened fruit juice to sweeten and they are delicious! We also culture kombucha...and go thru 2 gallons a week. The culture "eats" the sugar, which helps it culture, so you really aren't getting added sugar...we love this stuff!

Anonymous said...

As Sue said, there's no need to worry about adding sugar as the starter will eat it up.

I made some young coconut kefir (as I'm dairy free) last night and looking forward to trying it tomorrow. The coconut water is naturally high in sugar, but by fermenting it, it will take away the sugar and become a more tangy drink.

KC

Anonymous said...

Hello!
I buy the *Efferversent* Kefir or as someone said *carbonated*. I would like to know if it is possible to make it this way. The other storebought Kefirs that I have tasted are *clotting* and I do not like them.

Any suggestions ????

maria

Sadge said...

Wow! Great comments, everyone. And some great suggestions and ideas here too. Freezing yogurt in little starter cubes - duh, why didn't I think of that?

I know the gases produced as a by-product of the final stages of the fermentation process will carbonate liquids if sealed in a strong and airtight bottle and then stored for another couple of weeks. Fruit or juice added to the finished kefir and then sealed would contain fructose that would slowly ferment. We use Groschle-type bottles with ceramic and wire bale closures for our beer and hard cider bottling, as they are strong enough to withstand the increased pressure of the carbonation process, and (knock on wood) haven't had one break yet.

If trying this method to make an effervescent flavored kefir, I'd sterilize the bottles and store them carefully, where no one would get hurt if one broke.

I'd also be leery of any possible pathogens produced during the storage time. Refrigerated storage would slow down or stop the fermentation process. Why not just mix your kefir with some club soda instead?

Jess @ Openly Balanced said...

My milk kefir "effervesced" during the initial 24 hour-ish fermentation period. I just made sure to close the jar lid tightly and it became quite carbonated. I'm not sure if the time period would hold for water kefir, but making carbonated milk kefir was a snap - just be sure the container is airtight! (I used a mason jar.)

Sadge said...

There ya go - I knew some of our readers would come through. Thanks!

Lily Girl said...

Thanks for sharing that, I am starting to do more experimentation with home fermentation and kefir is on the list once I get some grains.
Oh and in case it might encourage you to try it, the sugar you add to kombucha is food for the SCOBY, there is actually negligible sugar left once it is done fermenting and ready to drink.

Kim said...

Water kefir if it's nice and happy doesn't take long at all to culture. Mine will do a quart a day and I do a second ferment which takes a day. Basically I now have bottles to drink every day.

Anonymous said...

I had a gardening friend pass me part of her culture, and have found a couple of uses for it that you didn't menition: when I'm not in the mood for it myself, my chickens love it, and if gives them an occasional healthy treat; also, if left to separate, you can drain off the whey (again to the chickens), salt the curd, and make a farmer's cheese from the solids - I've added spices and herbs, and used it to top off salads.

Sadge said...

The farmers cheese sounds great! I know my chickens love cottage cheese (they look so cute with little white mustaches on their beaks), and the extra calcium makes for stronger eggshells. I'll keep your suggestion in mind. Thanks!

gamgo said...

I have Milk & Water Kefir grains, & Kombucha cultures- in Australia only- can be posted.
Email me- gamgo AT optusnet. com. au
(switch caps & close gaps)