What’s the Easiest Fermented Food to Make?

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How to Make Milk Kefir

The focus this week is on fermentation and the Monday mission was to make yogurt – a great baby step for those who are new to the real food journey (just don’t heat up your milk and walk away for too long… YIKES!)

This is a {guest post} series from Tiffany of Don’t Waste the Crumbs. Catch all the previous baby steps HERE.

Despite the reassurances from Katie, myself, and the many readers who have left their personal notes of encouragement, I understand if the idea of making yogurt is daunting. I’ve been there. The mere thought scared me so much that I came up with loads of excuses NOT to make it… and even created a work-around.

The whole premise behind yogurt is fermentation for the benefits of good bacteria, right? Could another fermented item be substituted for yogurt? Say, one that didn’t require hot jars and exploding milk? 😉

I read up on kombucha, kimchi and water kefir and none of that sounded “easy” to me (although I’m excited to see what Katie has done with water kefir!). It seemed that for each one of these, there were a lot of steps, a lot of “if X-wrong happens, then do Y” and a lot of big words that I hadn’t heard of before. It was a bit too much for my grasshopper status. (Note: new revised method of how I make water kefir; here’s a video of how I used to do it in under 3 minutes!)

Whatever fermentation path I went down needed to be nearly fail-proof. Like, do-nothing-and-it-will-still-work kinda fail-proof. Don’t get me wrong – I’m willing to experiment. But with zero background in fermentation, I wasn’t educated enough to know whether or not the “recipe” was turning out right, let alone fix it if it was wrong. The solution? Milk kefir, a.k.a. dairy kefir.

The more I read about milk kefir, the more I fell in love with the idea. Add the grains, let it sit, take the grains out – DONE!

Perfect.

What Is Milk Kefir?

Milk kefir is cultured milk. It cannot be created from existing milk kefir, unlike the never-ending buttermilk trick. Instead it’s created with grains.

The grains themselves are combination of good bacteria and yeast, nestled among various proteins, lipids and sugars. The grains look similar to cauliflower and can range in color from yellow-ish to white-ish. They can be as small as a pin head or can grow to be much larger, nearly the size of a walnut or golf ball!

Health Benefits of Milk Kefir

To say that these grains contain a powerhouse of good bacteria is a huge understatement. There are 27 known different strains of good bacteria in milk kefir grains, including Lb. Acidophilils and Lb. Brevis (another name for Bifidobacteria), the two major players found in our digestive system. (Read the whole list here.) There’s another 27 known different strains of healthy yeast too!

Here’s an even more astounding statistic: yogurt contains close to 1.5 trillion organisms. Dairy kefir blows this number out of the water with nearly 5 trillion healthy bacteria!

And just wait – the benefits get even better!

Not only do these 5 trillion bacteria help you to better break down your food, but some strains of the bacteria actually take up residence among the intestinal walls!

That may sound a little gross (especially if you’re reading this while eating breakfast… sorry ’bout that), but it’s incredibly good news for our bodies. The bacteria in yogurt is short-term, meaning it needs to be replenished often (preferably daily) in order for our bodies to consistently receive the benefits it has to offer.

The bacteria in milk kefir are long-term, making themselves at home in our gut for roughly two weeks or so. During their stay, they pull double duty – help break down food AND fight off the bad bacteria. (source)

By residing on the walls of the intestines, they leave little room for the bad bacteria and bad yeast to grow and flourish. Instead our bodies are equipped to better absorb the nutrients that are in our food. In the end, this puts our digestive system in a more permanent state of healthiness.

Making Kefir

Kefir is widely available at most health food stores, including Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. One quart of plain kefir is approximately $3 – not bad for all the good stuff you’re getting out of it, but not a great price if you consume it often. A more economical route would be to make your own.

1. Acquire milk kefir grains.

a. Through a friend. Since the grains grow and multiply through the culturing process, check with kefir-making friends and see if they have any extra grains to spare. One tablespoon of grains is plenty to get you started.

b. Buying grains. If you don’t know anyone who cultures kefir, grains are available for purchase. I personally recommend the Cultures for Health brand. You can purchase them from Wise Choice Market or Natural Leavening.

milk kefir grains in empty jar

2. Culture milk.

a. If your grains are from a friend, simply place them in a glass jar (one quart size works well), fill the jar with your choice of animal milk and let the jar sit at room temperature (68-85 degrees) covered with a coffee filter (to prevent debris from falling in) for 12-24 hours. The general rule of thumb is the warmer the temperature, the faster the fermentation.

b. If you bought your grains, you will need to rehydrate them first. Cultures for Health includes instructions for rehydration, and in essence you’re doing the same thing as above, but you won’t actually have “cultured” milk until the process has been repeated for 4-7 days.

New Kefir Grains in Milk

3. Remove the grains. This is easy if the grain(s) are large – just fish them out with a stainless steel spoon! If your grains are small however (like mine), strain the milk and grains through a fine mesh sieve (like this one), using a plastic spatula to move the grains around if necessary to fully strain all the kefir. It’s important to note that kefir grains are sensitive to certain materials. Use only stainless steel or plastic when handling the grains. Kefir can be stored at room temperature for up to five days or two weeks in the refrigerator.

Kefir Grains Rinsed

4. Rinse the grains (optional). This step isn’t required by any means, but something about old milk going into clean milk, over and over again, ooges me out. With the grains still in the strainer, rinse them with clean, filtered water.

5. Repeat!

Got questions? Check out this good collection of common questions when making milk kefir for the first time. Many are the exact same questions I had myself.

What About the Lactose?

How fermentation affects lactose seems to be a hotly debated topic, but there’s good news for those who are sensitive to it.

Milk kefir grains feed off the lactose in animal milk – it’s what causes them to grow and multiply. Because of this, milk kefir is naturally low in lactose. But you can lower the lactose content even more when you brew your own. Simple culture for longer (minimum of 24 hours) and ripen the kefir once it’s done!

Can I Use Non-Dairy Milks?

Milk kefir grains are versatile little fellas. They’ll culture nearly any sort of milk! Once you have properly hydrated grains, use the same process as above but substitute your preference of milk. Almond, rice and coconut milk should all work fine. The only catch is that while grains will ferment this milk, they will not grow nor multiply. Revitalize the guys every few days by culturing them in animal milk for 24 hours.

Katie’s note: I have often heard that dairy kefir is far superior to yogurt because of the massive number and quality of the bacteria. I always thought, “I don’t have enough milk to make kefir regularly!” But now I kinda do. Maybe it’s time to try some…thanks for the “nudge,” Tiffany!!

Which would you be more likely to incorporate in your diet – yogurt or kefir?

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tiffany don't waste the crumbs

Tiffany is a newbie real food eater who is trying to master and incorporate nourishing foods into her kitchen without breaking the bank.

She documents her baby-sized strides with real food (and her hubby and two kids) at Don’t Waste the Crumbs.

 

Disclosure: There are affiliate links to Wise Choice Market, Natural Leavening and Amazon in this post.


Click here for my disclaimer and advertising disclosure - affiliate links in this post will earn commission based on sales, but it doesn't change your price.

43 Bites of Conversation So Far

  1. Maria says

    I have been making milk kefir for about 18 months, and usually let mine culture for about 2 days. We make smoothies with it a few times a week and my kids suck it down like a milkshake. In the beginning I added honey because it is quite a bit more tangy than yogurt, but everyone is used to it now and a few over-ripe bananas add plenty of sweetness.

  2. Megan says

    I have been making kefir on a regular basis for the past three months. We usually use our kefir in breakfast shakes or my daughter will drink it straight if I get the consistency right. I’ve also used it to replace buttermilk or yogurt in baking recipes but I’m assuming this kills all those nice bacteria? Either way, I’m happy I started down the kefir path! Thanks for the post.

    • says

      Megan,

      Some strains of bacteria will survive low heat temperatures, but I think 350-400 degrees may be a bit much for the little guys. 😉 However you still benefit from the calcium, protein and other vitamins, plus you keep the tang! ~Tiffany

  3. Vikki says

    LOVE my kefir! It is so easy to make (foolproof), although I prefer it blended with some ice to get rid of the curdiness. The best fruit I’ve found to blend it with is oranges – seems to balance the sourness perfectly.

    • says

      Vikki,

      I believe it’s the citrus in the orange that balances the tart. Have you tried using a lemon before? It sounds strange, but when I make a smoothie with kefir/kale/banana, I always add half a lemon. It balances the tang from the kefir and bitter from the raw kale excellently! ~Tiffany

  4. Jasmine says

    I make milk kefir regularly too. I use it in making bread, biscuits, pancakes, smoothies, or whatever else I can. I used to drink it straight all the time, but I got kind of burned out on that so I don’t anymore. It taste really good in a smoothie with a cooked sweet potato and frozen cranberries. Yum!

    I always heard you should not use stainless steel when straining the grains though. That you should culture in in glass, and never let it touch stainless steel. I actually use a bamboo spoon to strain mine.

    • says

      Jasmine,

      The sweet potato/cranberry smoothie just screams of fall in a glass!

      When I first started researching, I read that grains should never touch metal too. However, the more I read, the more kefir-makers I found that use stainless steel, which is the only metal that didn’t damage the grains. My strainer is steel and I usually use a plastic spatula to aid the straining process. I think the only time they’ve touched a spoon (which is also stainless steel) was for that very first photo above! ~Tiffany

  5. Laurie says

    Have just begun successfully making and using kefir, thanks to a friend helping me get started again. I have tried before, but always gave up — I would end up with quarts of funky smelling curds and whey no one would eat. I think I was culturing it too long, especially for our warm climate. 24 hours seems perfect for now — may have to go to 12 hour during the summer. Would love to see some ways to use it besides smoothies — our blender gave out and we can’t get a new one right now. Thanks for the great info!

    • says

      Laurie,

      Out here in central Cali kefir cultures FAST, sometimes it’s ready only 12 hours later… but that’s probably because I keep it next to the stove (the warmest spot in the house) and I bake lot of bread. :)

      Like others have suggested, you can use it in place of buttermilk for anything needing that extra tang. You can also make kefir cheese, which I’ve heard resembles tart cream cheese. Could be yummy to dip sweet berries or oranges in! ~Tiffany

  6. says

    I have been thinking about doing this in lieu of yogurt for a while now. I do water kefir, but dairy seems like a huge step. Definitely helpful for my next kitchen adventure!

  7. says

    I’ve been making yogurt for awhile, but have never perfected milk kefir. I just got some more grains from a friend yesterday, so I am going to try it out again! From the research I have done, it (and water kefir) should really be an anaerobic ferment, because the beneficial lactobacillus doesn’t grow well in the presence of oxygen. I’ll be trying mine out again tonight, because my boys LOVE it and it’s so much cheaper to do it myself than buy it, and I can completely control the ingredients in it!

    • Laurie says

      I’m just the opposite at this point — I have been making dairy kefir for a couple of weeks now, and it really is easy (once I got my culturing time down, and got over my fears — I was afraid to like it, I think, because mine had always turned out so bad before, but my friend brought me a sample of hers, and I did a taste test — exactly the same! And off we went!), but though I’ve made pasteurized yogurt before, raw milk yogurt seems like David’s giant to me. But after the very encouraging and informative post here recently, I think I may give it a try in a few weeks.

  8. Angie says

    Just a little FYI: I’ve tried making a sour cream substitute several different ways – kefired cream, yogurt cheese with enough milk added to achieve desired consistency (which is actually the second best substitute I’ve found), straining kefired cow milk like making yogurt cheese, but the absolute best (according to my husband anyway – and he loves sour cream and used to work at Taco Bell) is straining kefired goat milk.

  9. Betty says

    I’ve been making kefir for about 6 months. My family loves making ice cream with it. Our favorite is raspberry and I add frozen raspberries and chocolate chips.

  10. zoe says

    I find it amazing you’ve just posted this, because the day before, I finally plucked up the courage to order milk and water kefir grains from Dom and Sandra (http://users.sa.chariot.net.au/~dna/kefirpage.html – loads and loads of history, tips and recipes, kombucha, too) I simply couldn’t find anyone locally to get me started (Penzance, Cornwall, UK) and the ladies in the health food shop just stared at me (!). Dom and Sandra ship all over the world. I don’t know how their prices compare (they’re nonprofit but it was still $55Aus for a supply of both grains. I’m looking forward/terrified to make dairy kefir yogurt for my husband who has been single-handedly keeping Dannon in business (but doesn’t actually think Activia helps his tummy troubles). The water kefir is all for me :)! But I have to ask (I watched the video of kefir in 3 minutes) how do you only go through a quart a day as a family? Are you rationing it? Because I drink at least 2 liters of flavored water during the work day alone! Should you only consume so much a day??
    I’ll be rolling in April and hopefully multiplying my grains, so if you have any other readers from my neck of the woods, have ’em get in touch and I’ll share my surplus.

    • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

      Zoe,
      My husband won’t touch it and my kids are little, 4 and 7. They choose milk at meals or water, too. You probably shouldn’t start out with 2 liters of kefir! Probiotics need some working up to…but a few cups a day shouldn’t be a problem. :) Katie

      • Betty says

        I substitute it for buttermilk in baking recipes and my husband uses it instead of milk when making pancakes. I also use it when soaking my baked oatmeal. Not sure if the good bacteria get killed with the heat of the oven, but it does substitute well as far as taste goes and sometimes I just need to use it up.

    • Brittany says

      Kefir is great for soaking because of its acidity helping to “pre-digest” the grains more than plain water. Once cooked however, it’s no longer probiotic.

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