I've been a fermentation enthusiast for years. You name it, and I've pickled it! And after all of my ferments - vegetables, ginger beer, kombucha, and kimchi - kefir remains my all-time favorite.
For those of you not aware of the wonderful tradition and art of fermentation, it is a natural way to process food (and some herbs) to preserve or create new food items, like alcohol. During the fermentation process, bacteria, yeast, and other microorganisms break down the foods, producing acids and alcohols that prevent spoilage. For example, fermenting milk into yogurt is one way to prevent milk spoilage, and fermenting cucumbers into pickles is a way to enjoy crispy local cucumbers in the middle of the winter.
It’s no secret these days that a healthy relationship with our microbiota is important for our health. It’s beneficial for both your digestion and skin. The good news is, the way we cultivate a healthy microbiota is no big secret. You can do so by consuming an old-fashioned healthy diet with many fruits and vegetables, along with fermented foods including, you guessed it, kefir, which has loads of probiotic bacteria and yeasts, as well as antioxidants.
What is Kefir?
Kefir is a fermented dairy drink. Like yogurt but with a thinner consistency, it originally comes out of the Caucasus mountains in Central Asia. Unlike yogurt, however, the microbial cultures in kefir are much more diverse, adding greater benefits to your microbiome.
From a health perspective, kefir is considered a superfood. Personally, I find it's the best thing for my digestion and immunity. Kefir also creates antioxidants as it ferments and is loaded with B12 vitamins, among various others. Furthermore, kefiran, a product of the kefir grains in kefir, may have anti-allergic and anti-tumor effects.
Kefir is also lower in lactose content than regular milk, because that’s what kefir bugs eat. Therefore, many people who are lactose intolerant are surprised to learn that they can actually consume kefir.
Kefir is super easy to make and maintain. The primary ingredient is kefir grains, the mother, or starter, of the fermentation process. Despite their name they are not actually grains, but are rather combinations of yeasts and bacteria, and look like sticky and slimy white rice or fennel seeds. These can easily be purchased from a number of online shops (or, if you can find some enthusiasts, I’m sure they will be willing to share). As you make kefir, the grains reproduce, supplying you with an endless amount of excess kefir grains.
Place the grains in a jar of milk for about 12-24 hours (48 hours, at most). The timing will depend on the milk’s taste (how sour and thick) and temperature. Cover with a cloth that will let air in but keep out bugs and dust, and then leave the jar on your counter. When it is done, strain out the kefir milk and enjoy! To make another batch, place the kefir grains in a clean jar and refill.
I generally do allow the kefir grains to sit in the milk for 24 hours. As kefir is a room temperature ferment, the time can vary with the season; it goes faster in the summer and slower in the winter.
In some ways, the process of kefir fermentation is kind of like having a pet or tending to a plant. However, the great thing about kefir is that they are resilient little bugs. When you’re out of town, simply refill your jar with milk as usual, but, this time, put the lid on the jar and store it in the refrigerator. When you return, discard the milk (which will be too sour) and start fermenting anew. I have done this successfully for up to 5 weeks. You may need a few rounds to get them growing again, but the kefir still tastes great!
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