The wonders of the kefir grain explored.
My temporary landlord Russell Busch, who is also a good friend, just introduced me to kefir making. Kefir is a fermented milk drink that contains plenty of healthy probiotics. To make kefir from milk you need kefir grains which are a live and active culture of yeast and bacteria.
Kefir is a very common drink in Eastern Europe and the Nordic countries. I grew up with it and if I remember correctly, the Swedish kefir is thicker, more sour and has a slightly carbonated feel to it. Swedes often eat kefir (with a spoon) together with muesli, cornflakes, fruit or just with sugar and cinnamon. I like my kefir best just plain with fresh fruit or berries. Others prefer making smoothies with frozen berries and fruits as it takes off some of the strong sour flavor. Luckily Kefir has become increasingly common here in the U.S.
The kefir making process is super easy and you don’t really need to do much as the kefir grains do most of the work.
To make kefir you will need:
- kefir grains (which you order online here or here or somewhere else)
- organic whole milk from cow, sheep or goat
- glass jar
- small piece of cheese cloth + rubber band (or similar)
- wood or plastic spoon/ spatula
- fine mesh plastic strainer (or stainless steel)
Note: no metal such as aluminum etc can be used as it will react with the kefir grains. Although, for some reason stainless steel seems to be OK.
Place the new kefir grains in a clean glass jar (about two tablespoons). Pour about 1 cup organic whole milk over the grains. Cover with the cheesecloth and fasten it with a rubber band (I actually just use a plastic lid that is just placed on top). Leave the jar on the counter in room temperature away from any sun.
When the kefir has gotten thicker it is probably done. It should smell pleasantly and have a mild sour taste. At this stage you will have a drinkable kefir. If it stays longer the kefir will start to separate the curdled milk from the whey. Don’t worry, the kefir is still fine, however it will be slightly thicker and have a richer taste. A longer fermentation will also create more probiotics and less lactose. The fermentation will take about 12-36 hours.
When you think you are ready, give the jar a shake and drain it through the plastic strainer to separate the kefir from the grains. It’s important to be gentle with the grains so don’t press them too hard. The kefir grains don’t have to be totally clean from curds for the next batch. The ready-made kefir can be stored in the fridge, preferably in a glass container. It will keep fresh for awhile. If you think the kefir is too loose you can strain it to reduce some of the whey. Leftover whey can be used for many things (see below).
Prepare the next batch by placing the strained kefir grains into a clean glass jar. This time you should add a little more milk and the fermenting process will probably go faster as the grains have grown larger and become more active.
The more kefir you make the bigger the grains will grow, you will therefore need to adjust the amount of milk depending on their size. At some point you need to split the grains up as there is a limit on how much kefir you can make. I suggest giving some grains to a friend or start making other things with it. You can, for example, make kefir drinks by using almond, soy or coconut milk instead of regular milk. In this kind of process the grains will not grow and therefore not last as long. I haven’t tried it yet but my landlord makes coconut kefir drinks daily.
What To Do With The Kefir
There are many other things you can do with the kefir if you don’t just want to drink or eat it. Kefir is excellent in dips, dressings, cakes and bread. It can also be used instead of yeast when baking bread.
Recently I made my own cream cheese or rather fresh cheese by straining the kefir from the whey through a clean kitchen towel or several layers of cheese cloth (takes about 24 hours). This creamy cheese can be served plain or flavored with fresh herbs, garlic or anything you like. It’s also great to make pierogi leniwe (Polish lazy pierogi).
You can do many things with the whey such as ferment vegetables, sauerkraut (cabbage) and when diluted 5 times with water it can be used as a fertilizer for your plants. For about a week I collected the leftover whey to make ricotta. I was amazed how well it worked out as the whey just looks like cloudy water.
Storing The Kefir Grains
At some point you may want to have a break in your kefir making and it’s actually possible to store the kefir grains with some milk in your fridge. Just feed them with new fresh milk every now and again. When you start again the grains may not be as active as before the break, so you probably have to start again with just a small amount of milk.
Illustrations by Johanna Kindvall