Dairy kefir is definitely the easiest fermented food to make at home. Making homemade yogurt is an easy place to start fermenting, but today we’re going to introduce you to an even easier ferment, and show you how to make milk kefir.
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 and 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!
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.
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 Amazon or Wise Choice Market.
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.
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.
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.
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!!
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.