Tuesday, June 19, 2012

about making Milk Kefir

Meet our little hard-working friends:  Milk Kefir grains.

After eating wheat and dairy free for about 4 years, we decided to give kefir a try.  I had found that our little Pickles all did much better when I made sure that they were given adequate probiotics.  (Clarifying in my mind once again that health issues start/are affected by the gut!)  Finding quality probiotics was on the top of my priority list and my hunt led me to kefir.  The probiotic content blew past what was available in any capsule form, and these were a natural source of healthy thriving probiotics!  I was given some kefir grains to try, and I was hooked.  As long as I allowed the grains to culture fresh milk for 24 hours, the milk was broken down enough that my little pickles had no negative reactions from consuming this dairy product.  This may not be the case for everyone who needs to be dairy free, but for us it was a delightful healthful surprise!

The Basic Directions for Milk Kefir:

1. Place strained grains in a clean glass jar.

2. Add milk to fill the jar, leaving a bit of headspace at the top; cover with a non-metal lid. 

3. Allow to culture at room temperature for up to 24 hours.

4. Strain grains from kefir; consume kefir immediately, refrigerate, or allow to culture for another 24 hours and then refrigerate.

5. Repeat process.

A little more detail....

1. Kefir grains.  They are quiet and powerful.  Don't be fooled by their unassuming gelatin-looking appearance--they know how to work!  As much I would love to find out, no one seems to know for sure where kefir grains originated.

Milk Kefir grains ready to go into a new batch of milk.

The grains need not ever be rinsed. Just plop them right into the fresh glass jar once they have been separated from a batch of kefir. If they must be rinsed, use pure water that does not contain chlorine or other chemicals (do not use city/treated water) as the chemicals will kill the grains. I have found that rinsing grains seemed to stunt their growth. They may get a bit of a goopy covering on them, but that is healthy keferin, and it's alllll good.

2. Fresh, raw milk is obviously the best choice to keep your little kefir grains happy. I have tried using store bought milk, and while it just does not taste or smell as fabulous, it can work. I use 1/4 to 1/3 cup of grains per quart of kefir. Usually a little more than that in the winter because I live where we have cold winters and our chilly house makes them work a little slower.  We consume about a quart a day so this amount works well for our family.  Of course, if you just want about a pint a day, use a couple tablespoons of grains per pint of milk. 

Sometimes when getting your kefir going, it may be slightly stunted as it adjusts to a different milk source.  Give the grains 24 hours in the new milk, strain, and place in fresh milk again.  They should rebound and liven up after the first couple batches.  (I would not consume the first few batches.)

Leaving the headspace in the jar allows for little expansion. This culturing process does build up just a bit of an alcohol content, so don't tighten the seal too terribly much; you don't want it to explode.  I personally have never had any trouble with that. You will probably notice the bubbles coming up through the kefir.

I use glass canning jars with the screw on plastic lids. I just tighten the lid to a comfortable tightness, without going so tight as to need to work to loosen it.

Milk Kefir ready to have the grains strained out
after a 24 hour culture. 
See the little bubbles working their way to the top?

3. How long you allow it to culture will be determined by your taste and the purpose for which you need it. 12 hour ferments are a much sweeter kefir. I could probably drink this as it is without adding anything. It has a pleasant yeasty smell and milder flavor. However, for extra probiotic benefit and for the milk to be broken down enough that my little pickles are not affected by it, I allow mine to culture for a full 24 hours. I have on occasion left my kefir for up to 48 hours, but the grains really need the fresh milk a little more often than that so they can survive and thrive.  You don't want sad kefir grains.

Allow your kefir to culture out of direct sunlight in a semi-warm place. On top of the fridge often yields a bit of warmth in the winter months. If the grains are cold, they just don't want to get busy and do their thing. Basically around 70-72 degrees is a happy temperature for the grains to grow and work. My house is not this temperature in the winter, and I notice that they do not proliferate as they do in the summer.
4. Straining the grains from the kefir. Since I let mine culture for 24 hours, it is the consistency of a thin yogurt. Do not use metal utensils. I use a plastic colander and a plastic spatula to stir the kefir and grains around until the kefir goes through the colander and only the grains are left. Be gentle with the grains as you do not want them to be broken up. They will continue to grow, but it is best to not get them all chopped up. As I said before, there may still be some keferin around the grains that holds on, but it is fine. 
Kefir grains grow and reproduce and before you know it, you will have a expanding colony of grains!  When (not if!) you have too many grains, you can add them to your compost, or you can consume them for extra probiotic benefit*.

Once the kefir is strained, chill it right away if you don't wish it to continue to culture/ferment. The kefir is alive, so it will continue to culture even with the grains removed.  Refrigeration will slow the process.  Or you can do a second ferment and allow your grain-free kefir to stand at room temperature for another 24 hours, and then refrigerate. I think this "softens" the flavor. I have learned that even after a few more days in the fridge, it will "sour" some more. Like I said, this stuff is alive! I like to make sure we consume it before it gets to be more than a few days old.

You may notice the whey separate and that is fine as well. It is super healthy to consume. I just mix it all back together before we drink it.

5. Take those little kefir grains and get them in a fresh batch of milk again!

*I would not consume the grains until you have gotten used to consuming kefir. I would suggest that you start with small amounts and work your way up. Kefir can clean out your digestive tract and starting too much too soon is not bad, but well, shall we say it could be a little uncomfortable.  Starting with a tablespoon of kefir for the first few days, and slowly increasing will be helpful not to feel like you've had a freight train work through your system. Once you get used to consuming kefir, I have found that we crave it.  It's like a pick-me-up drink in the morning.

A few more notes...

--Use common sense when working with kefir.  If it doesn't smell right or look right, then don't consume it!  Start over with fresh grains and fresh milk!  Use immaculately clean untensils and jars when working with kefir.

--My favorite kefir smoothie is to add orange juice and honey (or demerara, muscavado, sucanat) to the kefir and blend.  Kind of like a healthified orange dreamsicle.  That is how we first started.  I also think that blueberries complement the flavor of kefir quite well, as does lemon.  Sometimes when I choose to leave my kefir out for the second ferment (once the grains are removed) I add some fresh clean lemon peels while it ferments and I remove them before we consume.  That is delicious!  In general, our morning smoothies are just the kefir, frozen fruit, and honey.

--You can bake with kefir, substituting for milk or buttermilk in a recipe, though the high oven temperatures will kill the probiotics.

--More great resources for kefir information are dom's kefir site and Cultures for Health.  Dom's site holds a vast amount of very useful information but also a lot of his own personal religious views, just to warn you.

--It probably seems strange to read "Milk" anywhere here at Feeding Pickle because we eat wheat and dairy free. That is true. I often get asked about our milk kefir, so I thought I would address it here. Milk kefir is the only dairy product that works for us. It may or may not work for others with dairy intolerance. If you are interested in kefir as a probiotic source, but milk kefir doesn't work for you, there are other kefir options (such as water kefir) to consider!

Initially making kefir seemed so ambiguous and strange as I hunted down photos and videos, but eventually I learned it "by feel" and we absolutely love it.   And yes, eventually the grains become like the family pet.  They're like a perpetual science experiment growing in the kitchen.

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