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How to Make Kefir w/ Kefir Grains & more helpful information

Posted Jul 22 2011 3:36pm
Three or four years ago I started making my own yogurt and it's been a fun experiment project as I've tested various methods to come up with the best process for my family. Well perhaps, not always fun, because while learning I've ruined plenty of milk for one reason or another. In that time I've been reading about the many benefits of drinking milk Kefir. For a quite a while, I wasn't ready to add another step in my daily/weekly food routine. However, once I was, I then wasn't sure how to actually go about making Kefir. Sometime over the course of the last couple of years I heard about Kefir grains, but I had no idea how to actually get any. They aren't exactly something you find at the local grocery store or co-op. About 6 - 8 months ago I was finally able to purchase some grains online through Cultures for Health . By this point I was thrilled to finally start another step in my real food journey. However after only using my Kefir grains for a couple of months I accidentally threw them away because I didn't clearly mark the jar they were stored in in the refrigerator. Oops. I reached out to my Twin Cities Weston Price chapter and one very kind woman passed on to me some of her grains. Then about two months ago, another kind woman passed on another type of Kefir grain and I now once again have experiments going on in the kitchen as I compare the two types to see which makes the best Kefir.

Since I've kind of gone ahead of myself and some of you may be thoroughly confused... Kefir.... grain... let me share some of the things I've learned over the last couple of months.


What is Milk Kefir and Kefir Grains
Milk Kefir is a probiotic beverage made with milk (cow, goat or other animals milk and even coconut milk). These so called grains are actually a combination of more than 30 bacteria and yeasts. From what I've read yogurt contains as few as  2 or 3 types of bacteria. What a difference between the two. Al Sears, MD shares in his article Mysterious Magic Milk ,
"Kefir grains are nothing like the foods we call grains today. Each one looks like a small version of cauliflower. The granules are made up of colonies of healthy bacteria that grow together, symbiotically, in a culture of the milk protein casein. And it's all held together by a sugary matrix name kefiran. The bacteria are the same types of 'flora' that are an integral part of your digestive system, and may even help you make B vitamins."


HistoryKefir grains have a fascinating history, actually several histories, because there is some debate about where they actually originated.  The most popular belief is the grains came from the Ossetians, a tribe of people living in the Caucasus Mountain. 

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Azerbajian_landscape.jpg

The Kefir grains were highly prized and kept well guarded by the Muslim people of the area who believed they were a blessing from Allah. Generation after generation passed down the grains and the knowledge of how to use them.

Another belief is the Kefir grains were the manna provided by God to feed the Israelites during their 40 years of wondering in the desert before they were lead by Moses to the promise land. I've also read that there are those who believe, " that an angel descended from heaven to teach Abraham how to make kefir." (Shirley Tesser http://www.aldo.com/sgt/TesslerOnKefir2.htm#_ftn7 )

Preserving Milk and StorageKefir is an excellent way to preserve fresh milk for longer periods of time, especially prior to the advent of refrigeration. It can be stored in the refrigerator for several months or on the counter (length of time would depend on the temperature in the room). The site Seeds For Health shares some useful information on this topic
"Store the kefir in a glass jar in the fridge. The kefir will keep a long time in the fridge. Add new batches of kefir to the storage jar as they are made and give it a shake to mix them. You can store it on the kitchen counter instead of the fridge but be aware that it will continue to ferment, although not as fast as it would with the kefir grains in it. If you want to do that you should always use jars with a rubber seal that will allow excess pressure to escape and prevent possible explosions! It can be a very vigorous culture and has caused jars to explode when stored out of a fridge over a period of time. A kilner jar is good. The beneficial bacteria and yeasts help to prevent the kefir from spoiling but it gets very sour and fizzy. Not for the fainthearted!"
 Once you've made your Kefir, if it's your desire to take a break before making the next batch, the grains can be stored in a clean glass jar with a lid in a couple cups of milk. They can be kept this way for several weeks in the refrigerator. When you want to make more Kefir, pull the jar out of the fridge, remove lid and cover the jar opening with a towel (see instructions. below) and cont. to make Kefir like usual. 

What To Do With Excess Kefir GrainsAs you make Kefir, you'll begin to notice that the grains will grow in quantity and/or size. To make a good Kefir, it's wise to keep a 1 part Kefir grain to 7 parts milk ratio ( Dom's Kefir website ). This will mean you need to either remove some of the grains as they produce more or increase the quantity of milk you ferment. I personally ferment about a 1/2 gallon of kefir at a time. With 4 of us drinking it, this last us two days, which is about the time it takes to make the next batch. 
When you start to have too many grains, this is an excellent time to share your "wealth" and pass on this excellent probiotic to friends. Another options is to eat the grains themselves. They are excellent for your health.
You can also choose to dehydrate them and put them away for as long as 18 months. To do this, remove grains from milk/Kefir, gently rinse them off with purified water or water that has been boiled and then allowed to cool. Set them on a clean, sanitized towel (one recommendation to sanitize the towel is to iron it before using it) and allow it to absorb the excess water on the grains. Place in dehydrator or leave on counter with some type of netting over top to keep flies off and allow to dry until they are hard. They will become opaque and yellow. This usually takes 2-4 days. They can then be stored in an airtight container for up to 18 months. It can be helpful to store them in in powdered milk, enough to cover the grains, during this time and keep them in the refrigerator. The dried grains can be eaten as they are or re-hydrated and used to make future Kefir.
Powdered Kefir CultureIt should be mentioned that you can also make Kefir from a powdered Kefir culture, but you aren't getting the same quality product. There is a greater investment because you must use a new packet of powdered culture for each batch of kefir you make. Where as with Kefir grains, they will live forever as long as you take care of them. The powdered culture also only has about 6 probiotic cultures versus about 30 with the Kefir grains.

Where to Get Kefir GrainsIf you can, try to get your hands on Kefir grains from someone who is already making Kefir on a regular basis. The grains multiply themselves on their own and most people who have extra are always willing to share. That's how Kefir grains have continued to survive so many different cultures for so long. However, since we don't all have access to friends with Kefir grains on hands, they can be purchased online. Cultures for Health is one excellent online store to check out. They have a wide variety of cultured items you can purchase for home use, as well as, fabulous information and "how to" videos. I strongly encourage anyone who isn't familiar with this site, to see what they are about and check out some of their great products.

Kefir Grains Don't All Look the Same
I have two "types" of Kefir grains. One looks very similar to cottage cheese, each grain basically being an individual piece.  Then there is clumping Kefir. The grains are all stuck together and look like a small (or large) piece of cauliflower. What I've come to learn through Dom's Kefir webist e is that the clumping Kefir, as I call it, is actually the Mother grain. The Mother can range in size and shape. The smaller pieces are the baby-grains. Dominic Anfiteatro share on his very informative site
Traditional kefir grains of Caucasus is a fascinating natural mother-culture. Each granular body is formed through the effort of a dynamic, or symbiotic relationship shared among the complex microflora [bacteria and yeast], which render an irregular sheath, composed of protein, polysaccharide and lipid complex. The irregular fashioned sheath forms as a multiple irregular body with many lobules to create each kefir grain. I refer to these lobules as baby-grains, formed together as a mother-grain. The irregular lobules have a natural tendency to form as self-enclosed bio-structures or bodies, having a similar growth-signature to each other, with some variation between each baby-grain. The lobules are conjoined at a common midsection, radiating outwardly to form a mother-grain [a complete grain with all lobules attached]. On appearance, the growth pattern of conjoined baby-grains share self-similarity with the mother-grain, which it forms together as one body. Some kefir grains share similarity with the physical structure [morphology] of the brain, pancreas, and other internal body organs.
After a period of time, and possibly due to external stress or physical trauma, one or more lobular bodies detach from any particular mother-grain. The smaller bodies, or baby-grains, eventually propagate into mother-grains, usually by increasing in overall size, with multiple lobular bodies forming over the entire grain. This growth-cycle simply repeats, to continue the ongoing process in a similar fashion. This is self-propagation. Some kefir grains may not shed any sections for some months, and in some instances for up to a year or longer. Such grains may instead form as one large structure or one massive kefir grain, retaining all lobular bio-structures. This can occur if the physical makeup of such grains is firm due to culture conditions, and if the grains are not subjected to hash physical trauma during the straining process e.g. In such cases, sections of baby-grains may be removed from a large mother-grain, by dissecting the grain by hand.
I use both the mother-Kefir grains and baby-Kefir grains, but keep them separated from one another. In my experience the grains that are individual pieces tend to ferment the milk much, much faster, often in half the time that it takes for the clump or mother-Kefir to ferment the same amount of milk. However, it's far easier to over ferment the milk too. This isn't bad for you, but the Kefir will have a more sour flavor and be more effervescent. You'll know it's gone too long when the Kefir starts to separate with a curd floating to the top and a clear green/yellow liquid called whey at the bottom. With the grains I have like this, the Kefir also tends to be the consistency of cultured buttermilk you might buy at the store. Now with the clumping Kefir grains, while they do take longer to ferment, you don't have to go through the effort of separating out the grains (read below) and instead can pull the whole clump out with a spoon. Very handy and easy. My Kefir with these grains tends to be very thick and more similar to the consistency of yogurt. So far, I've never had issues with the mother-Kefir over fermenting too quickly and separating. 

Washing Kefir GrainsIf you research making Kefir, you'll eventually see someone who says you should wash your grains after each use. I have read in enough places now that this isn't a wise step to add to the process. Washing the grains can actually damage them, except if you are going to be drying them. Instead, remove as much excess Kefir from the grains as you can and then place them in the next jar of milk and make Kefir as usual.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
There is certainly a lot more information about Kefir, but I chose to stick with the more basic parts to help give a simple overview. I have found Dom's Kefir website to be fascinating and filled with a wealth of information, please check it out and as I mentioned above also check out Cultures for Health.
The site Wild Fermentation shares several more website, as well as a link to a group who shares their Kefir grains around the world ( http://www.torontoadvisors.com/Kefir/kefir-list.php ).

Now on to making Kefir. There aren't overly precise measurements when making Kefir, more guidelines, but the "recipe" below should give you a good start and then you can experiment and see how your Kefir grains work best.

What You'll Need1-2 tbsp. Kefir grains
3-4 cups organic, whole milk (any animals milk or coconut milk will do and if possible have it be fresh, organic, raw milk)A very clean glass quart mason jar Wood spoon or rubber spatulaA thin towel, wash cloth or even a coffee filterRubber band or stringMesh strainer, preferably not metal, but if so, must be stainless steel Bowl or second container to pour finished Kefir into

Getting Started 1. Place Kefir grains in jar, pour milk over top (milk can be chilled from the fridge or fresh from the cow, if it's chilled it will take a little longer to ferment) and give a quick stir with wooden spoon. Cover with thin towel or coffee filter so the Kefir can breath during the fermentation process. If you have other items in your kitchen fermenting as well, try to keep at least a couple feet between each item or you risk having your cultures contaminating one another.

2. How long the grains will take to ferment the milk will be very dependent on the temperature in your home. The ideal temperature will fall somewhere between 70°F - 80°F. The cooler your room is the longer the fermentation will take and then just the opposite with a warmer room. Typically my Kefir averages 24 - 36 hours for fermentation in the  70°F - 80°F range.  The easiest way to know how long to let the milk ferment is by checking on it every 6 or so hours. Give it a stir with a wooden spoon. When it has a consistency similar to buttermilk or like store bought kefir, you know it's done.

3. If you have the type of Kefir grains that are individual pieces you are going to need to pour the ready Kefir through a mesh strainer. In my picture you'll see I use a small stainless steel one. A non metal, mesh strainer is best, but a stainless steal one works just find, simply be sure to stay away from any material that could be reactive, like aluminum or copper. Pour the Kefir through the strainer. Use a wooden spoon or rubber spatula to help gently force the Kefir through the strainer, taking care to not damage the grains themselves.




4. That's it, the Kefir is ready to go!  Pour the Kefir into a glass storage container with a lid and keep in the fridge for up to several months or on the counter. If you go the counter route, make sure the Kefir can breath some or you'll risk it blowing up the glass jar as it continue to ferment. How long it lasts on the counter will be dependent on the room temperature. Give it a taste and a sniff to let you know if it's good or not. Have to remember, this is how people always use to tell when their food was bad. There were no "sell by" dates! :-)

5. Now, at this point you can take the Kefir making a step further, which some sites recommend. After removing the Kefir grains from the now fermented milk, allow the fresh Kefir to sit on the counter for 1-3 days, to ferment further on it's own before drinking it. 

6. You can add any sweetener you like to your Kefir, like Stevia or grade B maple syrup. My favorite addition is pureed berries. Instead of blending the Kefir with fruit for a smoothing, which I've heard can damage the healthy probiotics in the Kefir, we choose to puree our fruit (most often berries) and then stir it into the kefir. The kids love this and drink Kefir almost every day. By adding the fruit, you also add a lot of natural sweetness, so you don't need to sweeten the Kefir as much, if at all. Huge plus in my book. You can always drink the Kefir straight up, which is what I often do for myself.

Kefir with fresh pureed strawberries.
Good luck making your Kefir. Let me know if you have any suggestion or tips!
Enjoy!



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