What is milk kefir? Milk Kefir (pronounced keh-FEER) is a wonderfully delicious slightly carbonated fermented milk drink similar to yogurt (or buttermilk) that originated roughly 2000 years ago in the Caucasus Mountains. It is one of the oldest milk ferments in existence.
What is the advantage of taking Kefir? Fermented milk products such as kefir are considered functional foods because they offer enzymes, pre-digested nutrients, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, calories/energy and billions of probiotics.
Why is Kefir good for your health? It is loaded with valuable enzymes, easily digestible complete proteins, vitamins and minerals. Milk kefir is also generally suitable for the lactose intolerant. Kefir also supplies your body with billions of healthy bacteria and yeast strains. Some foods like yogurt can help, but they are not as potent, and do not contain the beneficial yeasts (just bacteria). Within your body there are already billions of bacteria and yeast. Your internal microflora support proper digestion, synthesis of vitamins and minerals, and your immune system by warding off foreign and harmful bacteria, yeast and viruses. It has thus long been known to promote and aid in digestion and overall health. Some studies show it may be antimutagenic and help manage free radicals in the body. Folic acid (and B vitamins) increases as the length of the ferment increases. Some people let the strained kefir sit on the counter or the fridge another day to increase the folic acid and B vitamin content before drinking. Kefir may also help reduce blood pressure and cholesterol. As with most things we’ve personally found, food and health is too difficult to reduce to facts and statistics. While kefir is not a magic bullet for health (what is) we believe kefir has a myriad of possible health benefits, and those will be individual for everyone. Some feel it helps them digest better, others get colds and flus less often, some get more energy, and some people feel nothing much in particular, but enjoy the taste and value of it over store-bought yogurt or kefir.
Is kefir tolerated by the lactose intolerant? The bacteria and yeast produce the enzyme lactase in order to consume the lactose (milk sugar) for their own food supply. Because of this, much of the lactose in the milk is converted to simpler forms of sugar (glucose and galactose). These digestible forms of sugar, along with the extra lactase enzymes which act as a catalyst for digestion, make for an easily digestible food! ‘Ripening’ kefir can even further reduce the lactose, if desired.
Can you make your own kefir grains or get kefir from just milk? No, kefir grains must be obtained. Kefir grains reproduce, but one cannot create the grains or have them spontaneously occur in milk. Raw milk traditionally was let to sit out (there were no refrigerators not too long ago!) which would turn to buttermilk. Raw milk contains naturally occuring bacteria and yeast, which will slowly ripen and convert milk to buttermilk. Pastuerized (any store-bought) milk is not capable of doing this since most of those natural bacteria and yeast are killed in the heating process. UHT milk is even more devoid of these. Either way, kefir cannot be created and is not reproducable without obtaining real kefir grains to start with.
What milks or other liquids can you ferment with kefir grains? Its possible to ferment all forms of mammalian milk (goat, sheep, cow, buffalo, etc). Some people with cancer have even experimented fermenting human milk as a medicinal therapy. You can also try to ferment other non-milk mediums such as coconut milk, coconut water (also called juice), soy milk, rice milk, or almond milk. You can also convert them to be used in making water kefir with sugar and water or juice and water. In this case you will have to convert the grains gradually and keep some on back-up in case they fail to thrive.
What does Milk Kefir taste like? It has a tart effervescent yogurty flavor. Some refer to it as the champagne of milk. It can also be compared to a thick curd. This is not something you have to ‘tolerate’, it is actually very delicious and most days we prefer it over our homemade yogurt! It’s also very good blended with honey, fruit or other flavorings. It also subs in well for buttermilk, half and half or yogurt in recipes!
What should Kefir Grains look like? Kefir grains look a lot like little cauliflower florets. Up close, their pattern is somewhat like coral, or a brain. They can also look like smooth, flat shreds of ribbons during the warmer months (or when crowded in a jar).Their color ranges from creamy off-white to white. They are soft, bouncy and squishy, like a tiny squeeze toy.
How long do active Kefir Grains last? Indefinitely with good care – they are a living, consuming organism that are in a constant state of reproduction. Some may get weaker over time for one reason or another (neglected, frozen, etc), but they will nonetheless do all they can to keep marching on! They have already lived over a thousand years as it is.
Do kefir grains need to be fed every day? The short answer is yes. Kefir grains need to be strained every 24 hours (or 48 at the max) and given fresh milk. If you or your grains would like to take a break, stick them in the fridge, refreshing them weekly with new milk. This can be done for a couple weeks, then they should be brought back out to room temperature. If you need a longer break, view our section on storage.
Do I have to start using my fresh kefir grains right away? Fresh kefir grains are active and trying to eat. They will most likely have exhausted the nutrients in the milk they were shipped in, so its important to get them in fresh milk as soon as possible. If that’s not an option, place the package directly into the fridge, where it will keep for about a week or two (though this is not recommended, as they will degrade in strength and quality and may end up pickling themselves).
What do you need to make milk kefir? All you need is milk, the grains, a cloth, a plastic strainer and a jar and container to store your finished kefir in, that’s it!
Do kefir grains have a milk preference? The short answer is yes, they prefer what milk they are used to (just as a plant prefers to stay put rather than be transplanted), but they will gradually and happily adapt to new milks. If they are produced in goat milk, their preference will be whole goat milk, if cow milk, they will prefer whole cow milk. Kefir grains do best when the full range of nutrients they require are available to them. This includes the milk sugars, proteins and fats. Many people notice that their grains take off and thrive when given full-fat milk. The grains also prefer less processing in the milk or more natural milk. Milk kefir grains thrive in raw milk, do okay in pasteurized milk and can even do ultra-pasteurized pr UHT milk, but its not recommended as it can sometimes imbalance them long term.
Is metal a safe material to use? This is a much debated topic without a firm diagnosis. There have even been some studies that show that fermenting milk grains in aluminum didn’t seem to inhibit their growth. But it is advised not to use such metals as iron, tin, copper or aluminum. Stainless steel is considered safe by most people. The real concern here is whether the grains have a prolonged contact with the metal. It is never advisable to ferment your kefir or store your kefir in a metal container. Acidic foods and liquids (such as kefir) can have a leaching effect on metal when maintaining prolonged contact. If you are simply using a metal spoon to occasionally stir or retrieve your grains, or a metal sieve to separate your grains from the kefir, this has never shown to be a problem at all. Many people use either a nylon, plastic, wood or stainless steel strainer – all materials proven to work equally well. If you are using a product that recommends not cooking or using acidic ingredients such as tomatoes, then it is also not advised to ferment or store kefir in it either.
What type of container can I ferment and store my kefir in? Glass, ceramic or a food-grade plastic is recommended. Metal can leach when in constant contact with acidic liquids (such as kefir). A thick glass (such as anchor hocking, ball or kerr) with a rubber seal is recommended to lessen the hazard of stored kefir exploding.
How much or how little milk (and grains) can be used? Kefir starting out (after being stressed during mailing or from being dried) will usually ferment between a 1:6 – 1:8 ratio. This means 1 tablespoon grains will ferment about 1/2 cup milk, and in time it will increase to about 1:12 (1 tablespoon grains in 3/4 cup milk) to even 1:32 or more (1 tablespoon grains in 2 cups milk). Try using a ratio of grains to milk of about 1:7 – 1:15 for colder climates and 1:20 to 1:60 for warmer climates once they are strong and balanced. Not all kefir is the same; some kefir grains will ferment a glass of milk much quicker than others. We have seen some grains so sluggish it took a cup of grains to ferment 2 cups of milk in 24 hours. Both have benefits – if you have fast grains, you will need less and it could possibly ferment in about 12 hours (especially in the summer). On the other hand, if you have slow grains, you can use more, and have kefir every 24 hours (easier to keep up with). As long as they are growing and producing kefir out of milk, the speed and strength is more of just the character of the particular grain you have, and not something to worry about either way. If your kefir is too sour or separating far before your usual straining time, simply adjust to less grains, or more milk. If you use too much milk, the milk can go off before the kefir grains have a chance to ferment it though, so be sure to understand how much it can do, and gradually increase from there. To get lots of kefir quickly with just a few grains simply keep adding milk without straining. The finished kefir will act as somewhat of a starter along with the grains, quickly turning each addition of milk to kefir. For example, with 1 tablespoon of kefir, you may pour in 2 cups of milk, wait 24 hours, add in another 4-5 cups milk, then in about 12 hours you can top it off with another 9 cups of milk and you will have a gallon of kefir in just about 2-3 days. When kefir is fermented with a higher grain to milk ratio, it will have more acetic acid, less lactose sugar and it will be more sour. Kefir fermented with less grains will be more mild, have more lactose sugar, and more lactic acid (vs the acetic acid).
Do you always have to use the grains to make Kefir? Kefir liquid actually also contains billions of microscopic organisms that are effective at making a yogurt-like consistency out of milk when you stir in a tablespoon or two in a cup or two of milk and let sit out or in the fridge for 24 hours. It will dilute and get weaker each time, so its best to start with freshly made kefir (from kefir grains) each time for the freshest and safest ferment. But this is a great option for fermenting other liquids or making a quick batch in a pinch.
Does the milk have to be warmed before adding it to the grains? No, cold milk is just fine. Especially in the summer, it will help keep the grains from over-fermenting. Warm, freshly milked milk from your goat or cow is also just fine, as its within the safe temperature range (and is in fact how kefir was first made – with fresh warm milk).
How full can I fill my kefir jar? Its best to do no more than 2/3 to 3/4 full. Kefir needs air space, and it will slightly grow in volume as carbon dioxide gets trapped amongst it while fermenting and expands it. This is especially important if you are putting the lid on tightly, as it can explode if there is not enough available space as it expands.
What temperature does milk kefir prefer? Between 65º – 82ºF (18º – 28ºC) is its best functioning range. 71º F (22ºC) is the most ideal. Anything above 86°F (30°C) can be damaging. Kefir can actually still ferment anywhere from 39°F to 86°F (4C°-30°C). This is why it will continue to ferment in your fridge, just at a much slower pace. If you live in a tropical or very hot climate, you may need to make some adjustments so that your kefir isn’t constantly exposed to excessive heat (82°F/28°C or more). You can try fermenting in the fridge during the day, and letting it sit out on the counter during the night. Or you can immediately place the kefir in a thick cooler after pouring cold milk into it (or add cool water or a little ice pack in the cooler to help keep it cool). Try using a ratio of grains to milk of about 1:7 – 1:15 for colder climates and 1:20 to 1:60 for warmer climates.
Should I put a lid on Kefir? Putting a lid on kefir while its fermenting will increase the carbonation (fizziness) of the final kefir quite a bit. Kefir grains thrive when exposed to oxygen and seem to do slightly better when the lid is breathable (a cloth, paper towel, etc). Also, it is safer to cover it with a breathable lid because of the risk of built up carbonation exploding the glass. This can and does happen, usually when a bottle is forgotten, or filled too close to the top. Make sure that if you’re putting a tight lid on your kefir while its fermenting that you don’t fill the jar more than 2/3 full. Just like soda, kefir will expand if enough carbonation has built up and not enough space was left; it will burst and climb right out of the jar when you open the lid. You can also achieve a happy medium by loosely placing the lid on the top to make it a tighter fit than a cloth would be, but still loose enough that air can escape. To avoid fruit flies, be sure that whatever lid or cover your are using, that it is secure and there are no large holes that a small fly (or other floating things like dust or pet hair) could easily get through. Keep in mind that when you bottle and store your strained kefir the carbonation will increase at that point too, so it isn’t necessary to try to achieve carbonation during the actual fermentation when the grains are in it. We like to use a cloth and once our kefir is in the fridge for a couple days the carbonation kicks right in!
Does Kefir need a breathable lid? Kefir functions best when it has oxygen. When you try to go anaerobic (no oxygen), you will be getting basically a carbonated kefir wine. Some people prefer to ferment with a tight lid to increase the carbonation (though this can be done at a later process). It also increases the risk of explosions when the lid is tight. We always ferment ours with a cloth of some kind as the lid.
Can kefir be in direct sunlight? This is not recommended, as it can more easily encourage other bacteria to grow if it heats up the jar too much (just like a fish tank in direct sunlight is more difficult to keep clean). For this reason kefir grains prefer indirect light or dim light (such as in a cupboard) or a cool corner of the kitchen counter.
How do you know when the kefir is ready? When you nudge the jar and the milk is set like a thin gel (vs watery like milk), it is mostly ready. Kefir ferments usually top to bottom, so if it still looks like runny milk at the bottom, leave it for a couple more hours. You will also start to notice pockets (bubbles) trapped within the gel-like milk which will increase until you see just the hint of separation taking place across the entire bottom of the jar (or possibly across the middle if you are stirring occasionally). Once you see this complete separation it is ready.
How do I remove my kefir grains from the kefir once its ready? You can use a strainer (wood, plastic, nylon). The kefir will slowly pour through, and if it needs help, shake the strainer or use a spoon to help it strain faster until just the grains are left. Milk kefir grains are not typically fragile, so don’t be afraid to push the grains around with some force. You can also keep your grains in a clean, non-bleached muslin bag or unbleached tea bag, and simply pull the bag out when done. This is a nice option to make the process more simple and quick, but the grains sometimes do not ferment as well. You can also use your clean hands, kefir grains don’t mind being touched!
Do you have to wash or rinse your grains? Some people like to do this, but it was never done traditionally and is not necessary at all. By nature, they are a symbiotic mass of microflora that has self-inoculating properties, protecting itself from foreign bacteria or yeast. The lactic and acetic acids it excretes also protects it from becoming contaminated. Many have observed that when they stopped rinsing their grains, they grew better and produced better kefir. Sometimes they can get fat deposit (crusty, orange colored areas) that may indicate they need a gentle scrub and rinse though. If you wish to rinse them, make sure it is clean, non-chlorinated water. Simply run them under flowing water or swish them around in a bowl of clean water, and pat dry.
What if I forgot to strain my kefir when it was ready? Kefir is very forgiving. Strain when you remember, and feed them normally. They may be extra happy and eat through the new milk quickly, so keep an eye on them and strain when it looks ready (whether its before or after the 24 hour mark). If its been more than a week they may need some time to re-balance, and you may want to wait to consume the kefir until after a couple of cycles/batches.
How long can you store kefir/when should you drink it by? It is best to drink kefir within 2 weeks. Our opinion is that kefir is best about a day or two after you have strained it, and bottled it in the fridge – this allows for more B Vitamins to develop, without risking too much of an increase in acid.
Why is my kefir grainy, gritty, lumpy, thin or watery? Kefir can become agitated by a new environment. This can be anything from a seasonal change, climate change, temperature change, milk change, or ratio of grains to milk change for example. Kefir grains like a stable environment with minimal and gradual temperature changes. If it’s experiencing variable temperatures (such as spring or fall) where one day is hot and the next cool then it may be grainy or thin. This can also be the case if the night and day temperatures are drastically different. When the night is much cooler than the day such as in fall or spring (or a desert climate), the temperature will alter the acidic curds into a more gritty texture. If the grains do not seem to adjust and return to producing a normal kefir, than the environment may need to be adjusted. In most cases it is due to either being too cold (below 70°F / 21°C), too hot (above 76°F / 24°C – or too many grains making for too quick of a ferment) or due to changing to a milk other than cows milk, a lowfat/nonfat milk, UHT milk, or lactose-free milk (which you should not use). If you are trying to convert your grains to kefir a milk other than cow or goat, than give it a little time and patience for the grains to adjust to their new medium. Also keep in mind that kefir in the summer is generally thinner and in the winter thicker. Because there are so many strains of bacteria and yeast in kefir, different temperatures and contents in the milk can make one strain respond and become more or less active, thus resulting in a slight variation to your finished kefir. This is not something to be worried about, it is just a natural adaptation and response by the grains themselves, as they are designed to do.
What are the tiny sticky threads between my kefir grains? When you move kefir grains apart from one another you may notice some sticky thread-like strings hanging and stretching between them (think pulling a pizza slice and its dangling cheese strings). It will look like fine thread-like spider web material stretching and sticking when the grains are separated from one another. This is actually a great sign that your grains are healthy and growing. Absence of these threads is ok too – a lack of these does not mean anything bad! These threads are simply known as kefiran by the kefir community and they are a gel forming soluble polysaccharide. You may notice even more during the summer, or if you’re trying a new milk. These will often change over time and from season to season, coming and going. This polysaccharide is part of what makes kefir creamy. It is similar to the same compounds found in starch, cellulose, gum and glycogen. Bacteria, fungi and algae have all adopted an ability to produce this as a form of protection from drying out, reproducing and adhering to their food source more efficiently. This promotes viscosity in the kefir and is also soothing to the digestive system (aloe vera juice and gel contains copious amounts of polysaccharides).