I have several friends with whom I share a lot of passions—love of the outdoors, farmers markets, gardening, and environmental activism, among many other loves. Food is always top of the list, and I’m sure this is not a surprise to you. Conversations with my friends about food come up all the time, and sometimes these heart-to-hearts on all things yummy, healthy and local turn into something really special—in this case, bacteria. Say what?
My friend Susan Murray will always have my undying admiration for the knowledge, leadership and support that she brings to every monthly Sierra Club chapter meeting and all the special events we attend together. But now I am especially grateful because, in addition to all these wonderful attributes Susan brings with her, she also brought me my first kefir grains.
Yes, I am growing my own and just loving it! At first, of course, I was super nervous. After years of combating bacteria in my kitchen with a vengeance, I was suddenly trying to cultivate it. On top of that, I was sure I was going to screw it up, even though Susan assured me I wouldn’t.
Susan first came to embrace kefir in the same way I came to embrace my whole food diet—she was trying to get well. “I really believe it [kefir] saved me from a long (and expensive) and possibly unsatisfactory search for what was happening in my gut,” she explained. “When I was having problems, I drank it every day. Now it’s more like two or three times a week.”
Susan is taken, as I am, by kefir’s mystical beginnings: “One of the things I find most interesting about kefir,” Susan said, “is that no one has figured out how to create kefir grains from scratch. So every grain that exists today is a descendant of the first grains.” Susan sent me to The Green Prophet for the full story, and I found it fascinating, all the more reason to start growing my very own kefir. “I think it is fabulous in smoothies,” Susan said, “and I love it mixed with my concentrated tart cherry juice–my mouth waters just thinking about it!” I made a note of that suggestion and came up with a Berry Cherry Chocolate Smoothie of my own!
Thus, about a month ago, I began my journey to learn all I could about kefir while my grains waited patiently in my frig, just sort of biding their time. I wanted to know what kefir really was, where it came from, how people go about growing it without killing it (my biggest fear!!!!), what to make with it, and how to make it fit in my personal eating routine. For instance, Susan drinks her kefir several times a week, and it makes her feel wonderful. But I was pretty sure it would be less often for me, so I needed to figure that out because once you start growing it, it…well…keeps growing. And never mind Don: he took one look at my little white cauliflower-shaped grain clusters swimming in their whole milk pond and took off in the opposite direction—so unadventurous. The journey would be mine alone.
For the basic description of what I was about to grow and eat, I found the website Science Direct that I think has a pretty good definition of milk-based kefir:
Kefir, a fermented milk beverage obtained by fermenting milk with kefir grains, originated in the Caucasus Mountains. The word kefir is derived from the Turkish word “keyif” which means “good feeling.” Its grains can be characterized as small cauliflower florets or cooked rice, having a length of 10–30 mm, irregularly shaped, white to yellowish in color, lobed, having firm texture and slimy appearance. Kefir bacteria contain several species of lactic acid bacteria, yeast, and acetic acid bacteria. The traditional method of kefir preparation involves pouring milk in skin bags on a daily basis, followed by the addition of kefir grains (2%–10%), which leads to natural fermentation.
I know what you are thinking: “This sounds yucky.” Be brave. And no, I am not using skin bags. Clean sterilized jars for me, which I will explain below.
As I said, at Susan’s recommendation, I visited several kefir websites and soon discovered that how to go about growing, maintaining and enjoying kefir varies greatly, person to person. At first, I was a little unnerved by this: I wanted a set of standard rules that were reliable and consistent. No. Be brave.
Some people leave their kefir on the counter all the time; some swear it needs a second fermentation once you’ve drained it; others won’t use anything metal, and some won’t use anything but sterilized stainless steel; most agree, though, that there are many ways to do this without disaster.
So I’m going to give you my way in this post and point you to a couple of my favorite kefir growers’ websites and Youtubes and let you be brave in your kitchen, making your decisions about growing your own. Then, check out how I used the kefir to make two amazing smoothies and one yummy easy-peasy oats dish. Let’s get started!
Finding Kefir Grains
I got my grains the way a lot of people do—from my friend. In fact, that’s how Susan got hers—from a friend. Kefir growers are quite generous people. But if you don’t have a friend who grows kefir you can still get some by ordering online or, perhaps, from your local health food store, which is definitely worth checking out.
If online is your option, I suggest you visit several sites and read reviews before you spend your money. One that looked promising to me was Cultures for Health, where you can buy starter kits, equipment and resources. They also sell kefir grains that grow in water, which looked interesting, but I’m not there yet. There is a great “Learn” tab at Cultures for Health that has information and guidance on growing kefir, kombucha, sourdough, yogurt and cheese. Super interesting and easy to navigate. Here’s part of their company statement:
We are pleased to offer products we truly believe in and are blessed to work with wonderful customers, bloggers, and other food and natural living groups to make these products easily accessible to everyone. We strive to source and produce products locally when possible while providing excellent product selection, top-notch articles and how-to videos, and the best customer service. We always welcome your feedback and suggestions for how we can make Cultures for Health more useful to you in your Real Food journey.
Nice. And from here you’ll need….
While you can purchase a kit for your kefir production, I’m guessing you have just about everything you need already. I did. You’ll have to decide on plastic vs metal. What you must avoid is any reactive metal—so choose either plastic or high-quality stainless steel and glass. For me it was stainless because I can sterilize it, and that’s what I do every time I drain, use and feed my grains. Plastic, no matter how well you wash it and try to sterilize it, will harbor unwelcome bacteria eventually. So here’s my equipment list:
- Two quart jars with rings, no lids necessary
- One square of cheesecloth, which I reuse until I feel it is unclean (At the moment, it’s been a month and I’m still using the same square.)
- One stainless long-handled teaspoon
- One fine mesh stainless steel strainer
- One glass bowl or large measuring cup for collecting your kefir milk (I like the measuring cup because then I know how much I’m working with in the current batch—I try for about a cup to a cup and a half.)
- Very high-quality whole milk—don’t bother with 2% or low-fat. Kefir needs the fat in milk to grow, as I understand it. I’ve even included some cream in mine, but be aware that adding heavy cream will cause your kefir to accelerate. Some of the people I’ve watched online only use raw milk, but as long as your milk is not ultra-pasteurized, you should be good.
For me, the only milk I feed my kefir is Rolling Lawns Farm Whole Milk and sometimes a little of their heavy cream. I have the luxury of knowing my dairy farmer personally and having total trust in his farming practices and animal husbandry. Michael Turley is a friend and a trusted producer. If you are less lucky than I, use the very best that is available to you, including organic, if you can. Clean, traceable milk, in general, is tricky in the U.S.—see my past post on the current chaos in the organic dairy industry before you buy.
The Cultivating Process
Once you have your kefir grains, they will need to grow for a while. If you got yours from a friend, as I did, they probably came in a little jar of milk, just enough to keep them alive. Susan started me off with a couple of teaspoons of kefir grains in about a half-cup of milk. I now have about a half a cup of kefir grains! But if you buy a kit online, follow their directions. Your kefir will grow faster left in a dark warm cupboard or covered with a tea towel on your counter, as heat and humidity are factors that encourage your good bacteria to grow. You can slow this process down to a crawl by putting your grains in the refrigerator—they don’t die, but they nap soundly.
When I was ready to tackle the process, I left my grains in about a cup of milk (just added to what Susan gave me) on the counter to start and let them grow for a couple of days. In the beginning, growth is slow. Then one morning, I had a thick drinkable, yogurt-like liquid that was full of floating little clusters of grains. So it was time to strain it off, use the fermented milk and feed my kefir grains more milk to keep them going. I repeated this cycle a few times to make sure I had a system going and the kefir grains were happy. Then, I moved my grains to the frig.
If you decide to leave yours on the counter or in the cupboard in order to enjoy your kefir often, most people suggest draining it and replenishing the milk every 24 to 36 hours. Again, check out the websites listed at the end of this post for how others are doing this. The videos were incredibly helpful for me, even if I didn’t end up doing things exactly the same way. You’ll figure out what is best for you and your digestive system and kitchen schedule.
When I’m ready to roll with my kefir, I take it out of the refrigerator the evening before I intend to use it—say by 6 pm. I put it in my cupboard or on the counter covered with a towel and say good night. About 10 to 12 hours later while I was sleeping my little kefir guys have been busy. In the morning, I’ve got that lovely cultured beverage awaiting me. One thing I learned from one of the videos—I believe the woman must be Indian—is that keeping kefir in the frig rather than on the counter yields a slightly sweeter taste. Personally, I like that and found it to be true through experimenting a bit. I’m thinking that when the air conditioning is on during the summer, my kefir will take longer to develop once outside the frig.
On kefir mornings, the first thing I do is put on my tea kettle and get some water super hot—listen for the whistle. Then I sterilize my strainer, my spoon and my new jar, into which I will transfer my kefir grains for the next use. I let everything sit with scalding water for about 20 minutes; then, I put my equipment on the drain rack and let it air dry. The whole sterilizing process takes me about an hour. Note that if your kitchen is really humid, your equipment could take longer to dry, but I feel clean, absolutely dry equipment is essential. This is just me.
I should note that Susan uses filtered water to clean her equipment. She thinks that impurities and bleach in tap water could adversely affect the kefir, and I think she is right. I just chose to sterilize, but the principle behind what we are both doing is the same.
Once all the equipment is clean and dry, I set out my equipment on the kitchen work table and strain my kefir milk into my measuring cup (which doesn’t need to be sterilized because the grains never touch the measuring cup, just the milk does). I dump the contents of my jar into the strainer and then gently move the grains around with my spoon to make sure I get all the milk and save the grains. I work really hard to get every single grain back into the next fermenting jar—the one I just sterilized. I want to waste nothing because I think these are so special and so health-giving!
And here, you have an option to diverge from my plan. A lot of people—Susan included—don’t switch to clean jars every time. They feel the culture left behind after you’ve drained your kefir milk off is as important as the grains you are returning to the container. I thought about this a lot and did it both ways. In the end, I am more comfortable starting each time with a fresh, sterilized jar—just me. I do, however, work diligently to scrape any grains remaining in the first jar into my new one—there are always a few.
Depending on how I am using the just-drained kefir milk, it will either go into the refrigerator for a bit to chill, so I can use it in a smoothie maybe, or I’ll set it aside and pour it over oatmeal i’m having that morning. Either way it is yummy, I think.
As for the kefir grains that I rescued and put in the new sterilized jar, I feed them immediately. The more grains you accumulate, the more milk they will require. For a half cup of grains, I’m adding about a cup and a half to two cups of milk each time. To store it, I cover the mouth of the jar with the square of cheesecloth that will allow ventilation and screw it in place with the metal ring. Back in the frig and all done. Every few days, say between five and seven, if I have not used the kefir milk, I feed it more milk. It may be napping soundly, but it is still alive and still needs to eat. Don’t neglect it.
Once my kefir grows, I’ll need to add more milk or gift away some of the grains to a friend. I’m not there yet, but i will be eventually, So let me know if you are looking for kefir, and I’ll let you know when I have enough.
New Kefir-Growing Friends
As promised, here are three delightful takes on growing kefir. Enjoy!
Then there is the woman, whom I’m sure is either Indian or Middle Eastern. She sounds so calm and so…authentic somehow. Some of her suggestions I didn’t follow, but she had the tips about keeping the kefir sweeter. She also provides quite a bit of nutrition information.
And finally, this guy is just so friggin cute! I love men in the kitchen who are adventurous and excited about food—good food, real food, food that is not meat. Just me. And he’s got a slightly different take on the entire process, though he’s not very far from the other two.
Wanna start growing kefir? If you do, let us know how it’s going!