Jun 23, 2011

Intro to Kefir: Super Healthy and Frugal!

Kefir is a cultured, enzyme-rich food (usually dairy milk) filled with friendly micro-organisms that help balance your "inner ecosystem." More nutritious and therapeutic than yogurt, it supplies complete protein, essential minerals, and valuable B vitamins. While yogurt provides your digestive system with friendly bacterium as long as you eat it, Kefir helps to repopulate it for good!

Kefir is simple and inexpensive to make at home.
Kefir is used to restore the inner eco-system (esp. after antibiotics).
Kefir is excellent nourishment for pregnant and nursing women, the elderly, and those with compromised immunity.
Kefir is great for soaking your whole grain flour for increased nutrients/digestability.

Kefir can be made into a delicious drink that kids love.

The regular use of kefir can help relieve all intestinal disorders, promote bowel movement, reduce flatulence and create a healthier digestive system. In addition, its cleansing effect on the whole body helps to establish a balanced inner ecosystem for optimum health and longevity.
Kefir can also help eliminate unhealthy food cravings by making the body more nourished and balanced. Its excellent nutritional content offers healing and health-maintenance benefits to people in every type of condition.

Kefir can be made from any type of milk, cow, goat or sheep, coconut, rice or soy. Although it is slightly mucous forming, the mucous has a “clean” quality to it that creates ideal conditions in the digestive tract for the colonization of friendly bacteria.

Kefir is made from gelatinous white or yellow particles called “grains.” This makes kefir unique, as no other milk culture forms grains. These grains contain the bacteria/yeast mixture clumped together with casein (milk proteins) and complex sugars. They look like pieces of coral or small clumps of cauliflower and range from the size of a grain of wheat to that of a hazelnut. Some of the grains have been known to grow in large flat sheets that can be big enough to cover your hand!. The grains ferment the milk, incorporating their friendly organisms to create the cultured product. The grains are then removed with a strainer before consumption of the kefir and added to a new batch of milk.

You can buy Kefir in the store, or you can buy kefir grains and make your own. You can buy milk or water kefir grains (we'll explain more of that later in this post). But, they multiply regularly, so it's easy to keep them going once you start. I got mine on KSL classified for free. (There's always someone giving some away, but you have to be careful of the quality because it's like yogurt, in that not all yogurts/cultures are created equally and some may have more beneficial bacteria in them than others--esp. if they come from a reputable source.)

WHY KEFIR (and not just yogurt)?
Both kefir and yogurt are cultured milk products...but they contain different types of beneficial bacteria. Yogurt contains transient beneficial bacteria that keep the digestive system clean and provide food for the friendly bacteria that reside there. But kefir can actually colonize the intestinal tract, a feat that yogurt cannot match.

Kefir contains several major strains of friendly bacteria not commonly found in yogurt, Lactobacillus Caucasus, Leuconostoc, Acetobacter species, and Streptococcus species. It also contains beneficial yeasts, such as Saccharomyces kefir and Torula kefir, which dominate, control and eliminate destructive pathogenic yeasts in the body. They do so by penetrating the mucosal lining where unhealthy yeast and bacteria reside, forming a virtual SWAT team that housecleans and strengthens the intestines. Hence, the body becomes more efficient in resisting such pathogens as E. coli and intestinal parasites.

Kefir's active yeast and bacteria provide more nutritive value than yogurt by helping digest the foods that you eat and by keeping the colon environment clean and healthy.

Because the curd size of kefir is smaller than yogurt, it is also easier to digest, which makes it a particularly excellent, nutritious food for babies, invalids and the elderly, as well as a remedy for digestive disorders.


Milk Kefir is made with cow milk, goat milk or coconut milk
Water Kefir is dairy-free and is made with sugar water, juice or coconut water

Milk Kefir is a probiotic-rich beverage with live active yeast and bacteria; Milk Kefir Grains (traditional starter culture) are propagated in organic milk
Water Kefir is dairy-free and is made with sugar water, juice or coconut wate; Water Kefir Grains are grown in organic sugar and filtered water

Milk kefir can be consumed plain, flavored or as the base for salad dressings, smoothies and more.  You can generally substitute kefir for buttermilk or yogurt in recipes.  Milk Kefir can also be strained of some of the whey to make a type of cheese ranging from a soft cheese consistency, to a cream cheese texture to even a hard cheese texture.
Water Kefir can flavored and consumed as a replacement to soda pop and juice.  It also makes a great base for dairy-free smoothies.

Milk Kefir tastes like a strongly flavored cultured milk but the taste of any particular batch is based on the level of fermentation which is dependent on a number of factors including the ratio of kefir grains to milk, the ambient temperature and the length of time the kefir is allowed to culture.  Well fermented kefir generally has a strong sour or tart taste and can even have a bit of a carbonated texture (it is known in some circles as the "champagne of milk".
Water Kefir tends to have a sweet, slightly fermented taste to it.  We generally recommend flavoring water kefir as it isn't very impressive tasting plain.  Flavoring is easy--fresh or dried fruit, juice or flavor extracts such as vanilla extract can all be used.

Milk Kefir can be flavored by blending in fresh or frozen fruit, flavor extracts such as vanilla, sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, stevia and more.  There are a number of flavoring options.
Water Kefir can be flavored using fresh or dried fruit, flavor extracts such as vanilla extract, fruit juice or even herbs.

Milk Kefir can be used to inoculate cream to make butter or a sour cream-type condiment.  It can also be drained of some of its whey to make a soft cheese.  Coconut Milk Kefir can be made by allowing the kefir grains to culture in coconut milk.

Water Kefir can be bottled up and used in place of soda pop.  It also can be used as a base for dairy free smoothies.

KEFIR BREWING INFO (using milk kefir grains)
Brewing Directions:

In a clean, wide mouth glass container (ie, a mason jar is wonderful), place these grains and 1 cup milk (whole, 2%, skim, pasteurized or not, homogenized or not – organic is preferable, though).

Start with a small amount of milk (like 1 cup), you can increase it over a few days time, as your grains grow (it may take weeks to noticeably grow or a matter of days, depending on the temperature of where you have them ‘brewing’ and how much they need to adjust to your brand of milk).

Place a lid on the jar or a cloth with rubber band to keep it on tight. Leave sitting on your countertop, out of direct sunlight for 12 - 24 hours.

During the brew time, gently swirl the jar to make sure the grains are ‘bathed’ with the milk and this will help feed them and convert the milk to Kefir. You can omit this ‘swirling of the jar’, and it will turn out fine, especially if you are using the smaller amount of milk. Just give it a gently ‘swirl’ in the morning to make sure it looks like all (most) the milk was ‘converted’.

12 - 24 hours later, depending on milk to grain ratio and ambient temperature in your kitchen, you will have ‘real’ Kefir. It will be a bit tart and tangy. You will need to adjust the ‘brew’ time to get it to taste best for you. Less time will be less tart and more ‘yogurty’, longer will be sourer tasting.
Just prior to straining, I stir the contents with a silicon spatula or spoon. Definitely use a plastic utensil and NOT metal. This makes straining a little easier as it breaks up any large ‘curds’ that have formed and makes it a smoother Kefir.

Use a non metal strainer (I found a nylon ‘tea strainer’ made by ‘Tea Republic’ that I love, it catches all the grains, and I can gently rub a silicon spatula back and forth, and the Kefir milk strains into a new mason jar and is super creamy and smooth.

After straining off the liquidy ‘Milk Kefir’, the Kefir grains (which might still have some ‘curds’ clinging to them, but this is ok) are placed straight back into a pre-washed and room temp mason jar or fermenting vessel of choice, without rinsing the grains.

Fresh milk is added to the grains to prepare the next batch and a lid/cloth is put on.
The strained kefir is either consumed fresh, immediately, or poured into a sealed container and stored in the refrigerator (will keep up to a few weeks or longer). It can also be stored on your counter top for 1-2 more days at room temp to help reduce lactose content, then refrigerated and used..
Eventually you will notice the grains increasing in mass, and you can add more milk to the jar for brewing or remove some of the grains to give away or make a ‘back up’ copy.

Short Term Kefir Storage:
Put your grains in a glass jar of milk with a lid on it (~a cup milk per 1-2 TBS grains)
Store in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Longer Term Kefir Storage:
By straining off the refrigerated, kefir’d milk at least once a week, and replacing with fresh milk, you can usually extend the ‘refrigerator’ storage method indefinitely. I would try to get them reactivated a few times a year, though…just to be sure. The longer you do this, the more chance of the grains dying or becoming inbalanced from loosing too many of their unique cultures.

Freezing Kefir Grains:
Rinse off your grains with clean, filtered water. Pat dry and place on a paper towel or clean tea towel to allow to dry.

Place your grains in a jar or plastic baggie and freeze for up to one year, but you might only want to do it for a few months, as the yeast component can completely die off using this method. It might take up to two weeks to get them active again, once you thaw them.

Drying Kefir Grains:
Kefir grains may be dehydrated to store long term (a year or so).

Prepare the grains, as for freezing, then as they dry on the paper towel, or tea towel, allow them to continue drying in a well ventilated, warm spot (maybe on the top of your refrigerator?) for up to 3 days or longer for large grains. They will become smaller, hard and yellow looking. Store in a plastic baggie, or in a glass jar, in a cool dry spot or in the refrigerator, once you know they are well dried.

Reactivating Frozen and Dried Kefir Grains:
To reactivate frozen and dehydrated kefir grains, place in a glass jar with cool water and soak for a few minutes. Place them in a small amount of fresh milk, and allow to sit at room temp for 24 hours.

Every day change the milk and toss out the kefir milk (don’t drink it yet). You will want the milk to be coagulating, and have a clean, yeasty smell (or like good buttermilk). Once that happens, you can start consuming your kefir and continue as for normal brewing, and increasing the amount of milk again. This process could take a few weeks to happen, to reactivate. Be patient and use smaller than normal amounts of milk until you are confident you have happy, active kefir cultures again.

First you can buy some (you don't need more than 1/4 cup of grains, because they'll multiply). I got mine on KSL Classified for free.

Water kefir grains ferment at room temperature typically for about 48 hours (compared to 24 for milk). Simply add a couple pieces of dried fruit for more flavor and nutrients to sugar water with the grains. You can also add in some fresh lemon if desired. In 48 hours you'll have a delicious, refreshing and healthy probiotic drink.

One thing to keep in mind is that a big portion of the sugar is broken down and converted by the grains into acids, carbonation, small amounts of alcohol and other nutritious by-products. The actual sugar content and GL is lowered once it is ready to drink. More on this below...

Making Water Kefir

 To make 1 quart of water kefir, add to a quart sized glass jar:
  • 4 or so tbsp of sucanat, rapadura, sugar, agave nectar, or maple syrup (honey is antibacterial and will slowly kill the grains)
  • 1 tbsp of water kefir grains
  • about 1 quart of filtered or spring water (enough to fill jar while leaving 1/2 to 1 inch of space at the top)
Optional – you can add fruit and other ingredients to flavor your water kefir, such as:
  • Ginger and lemon slices
  • Berries, sliced in half
  • Dried fruit such as figs or dried pineapple ring
Shake or stir until the sugars are completely dissolved. Cover with a non-air tight lid (most screw on lids are fine) and allow to brew at room temperature for 24 to 48+ hours. I recommend for the first couple of batches, that you taste the water kefir every 12 hours after the first day. If it’s too sweet, let ferment longer. If you forget and it’s too sour, dilute with juice or sweetened tea when drinking.

When the water kefir’s done, strain the grains out, discard any fruit you’ve added and store the finished water kefir in the fridge in a covered jar or in airtight bottles. Decanting into airtight bottles while the brew is still slightly sweet and allowing to brew in the airtight bottles for a few hours at room temperature will yield a fizzy drink. Do not bottle in airtight bottles while the brew is too sweet or too much pressure may build up and you may end up with kefir soda all over your counters when you open the bottle.

Note: It is not recommended to brew the kefir in a metal or plastic container as metal is reactive and the acidic nature of kefir may wear down and leach plastic into your brew. Avoid letting the kefir grains come in contact with metal utensils. Do not rinse or brew grains in chlorinated water as chlorine may damage or kill your grains.

Growing the Kefir Grains

The water kefir grains will grow better in a high-mineral environment. Using high mineral sweeteners such as sucanat, rapadura, or adding a bit of molasses to your brew will help your grains grow faster. I use only sucanat, and my grains double each batch. If your grains are not growing and you want them to, brew one or two rounds with only sucanat, rapadura, or with some added molasses. Some juices are also high mineral and work well for growing your grains.

Storing the Grains

When you are not making water kefir, you can store your grains in a glass jar with anywhere from double to several times the amount of liquid as grains. Add one or two tbsps of sugar to feed the grains. You may store it at room temperature or in the fridge. If storing at room temperature, change out the liquid for new water and sugar every 2 to 3 days. If storing in the fridge, you can go up to a week or two. If storing in the fridge, the first brew that you make from the grains may take a bit longer since the bacteria and yeasts will take awhile to become active again.

Water Kefir Recipes

These are some recipes: from www.wholetraditions.com (adjust to taste and have fun)
Ginger Ale Kefir
Juice Kefir Spritzer
Lychee Kefir Soda & Fermented Lychees

Alcohol Content

Water kefir can contain anywhere from .2 to 2% alcohol with a 48 hour fermentation. To put it into perspective, wine is usually 7 to 15% alcohol. The alcohol content in water kefir varies widely depending on the type and amount of sweetener added, amount of grains, and fermentation time. A higher ratio of sugar will yield a more alcoholic drink, as will a shorter fermentation time. It's recommended using less kefir grain to sugar water ratio and doing a longer brew, tasting periodically.

What do I do with my extra grains?

  • Eat them! They are a great source of probiotics!
  • Give them away. Give a tbsp or two to a friend so they can make their own healthful sodas and beverages. Lacto-fermented beverages aid in digestion, provide lots of good nutrients and enzymes, and are an excellent and inexpensive source of probiotics.
  • Use them to make lacto-fermented vegetables like sauerkraut. You can use kefir grains instead of whey to inoculate your lacto-fermented vegetables with good bacteria and yeast.
  • Compost them. If your grains are taking over your fridge and counters like they do mine, throw them in your compost pile. The bacteria will happily help you munch away at your compost pile. Microbials are great for soil health too!

What do I do with overbrewed water kefir?

Sometimes you let your water kefir go too long and make water kefir vinegar:
  • Use the water kefir vinegar as a cleaner. It smells great and works great – just place in a spray bottle and use on your counters.
  • Use it as a hair rinse. If you’re doing “no poo” (no shampoo), water kefir is great for rebalancing your hair PH after a baking soda wash

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