Milk Kefir: A Probiotic Beverage Traditionally Heralded As An Elixir Of Long Life And Health

I am a self-described "Probiotic Pusher". Probiotics are essential to our health and also help to build immunity, but they are lacking in most people's diets. Naturally fermented foods are full of probiotics.

Milk Kefir (pronounced kay-FEER) is a probiotic-rich cultured milk product similar to yogurt, but with a much larger spectrum of probiotics, and has a tart and slightly sour taste.  It is simply milk that is fermented at room temperature with kefir grains for about 24 hours. It originated roughly 2000 years ago in the Caucasus Mountains in Eastern Europe; which makes kefir one of the oldest milk ferments in existence. There it has been traditionally heralded as an elixir of long life and health.  It is believed that the name comes from the Turkish word "keif" which means good feeling. It has many wonderful health benefits, a great flavour and is also usually tolerated well by the lactose intolerant. 

Benefits of Kefir

Kefir boosts our immune systems by providing healthy bacteria (probiotics) (remember 80% of our immune system is in our digestive tract!). Kefir is rich in vitamin A, B1, B12, Biotin, D, K, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and tryptophan. (Tryptophan is an amino acid, which can have a relaxing effect. Maybe that's where that "good feeling" name originated!) It has anti-tumor properties, prevents disease, increases digestibility and it controls toxins.  A single component of milk kefir – kefiran – may prove particularly beneficial as it successfully protects beneficial bacteria from damage in the hostile environment of the digestive tract. Milk kefir is strongly anti-inflammatory and also acts as a powerful antimicrobial food – helping to limit the growth of pathogens while encouraging the proliferation of beneficial bacteria in the intestinal tract.

Kefir also contains beneficial yeasts, which dominate, control and eliminate destructive pathogenic yeasts in the body. 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. It is a particularly excellent, nutritious food for babies, the elderly and people experiencing chronic fatigue and digestive disorders.

How To Make Milk Kefir

Milk Kefir is one of the simplest ferments you can make. All you need is milk, and milk kefir grains: which aren't an actual grain like wheat, but are made of bacteria and yeast.  They look a little like cauliflower florets or cheese curd. You get these from someone who has them (like me!). They cannot be made or manufactured. Some stores now sell dehydrated milk kefir grains from Cultures For Health. As you use them, they multiply and they can be passed on. (You can use a powdered kefir culture starter, but you don't get as many probiotics as with the grains, and it will only last a few rounds. The grains will last forever if you take care of them). 

The "recipe" is:

About 1 tsp grains to 1 cup of milk. Use simple, basic (preferably organic) whole milk. 
Multiply this to make the desired amount.

Put the grains and milk into a jar with a lid. Let it sit on the kitchen counter, out of direct sunlight, for 24 hours (less if your house is warm). If you see it start to separate prior to 24 hours, it is ready and you can finish: Strain the grains, and start again with fresh milk (you do not need to rinse them), and put your finished kefir into the fridge or drink it right away (it's best if you drink it within 2-3 weeks). The milk will have thickened and will have a tangy or sour aroma and flavour. The longer milk kefir cultures the more sour and folate-rich it becomes.

Note: Never rinse your kefir grains in water.

If your kefir is left to ferment too long and separates into "curds and whey", you can stir it back together for drinking, although the texture may be a little grainy.  (See "Troubleshooting" below).

Option: After removing the grains from the kefir, instead of putting the kefir in the fridge right away, you can leave it (tightly covered) on the counter for a few more hours: this will allow the flavour to mellow a bit more (it takes away some of the sharp acidic flavour) and will allow to further reduce the lactose content.

Another option: you can do a "second ferment" to flavour it! After removing the kefir grains, you can add any fruit, cinnamon, spices, vanilla, cacao, a chai teabag, citrus peels, get creative! Try garlic or onion and use it in a savoury kefir dip! Leave this tightly covered on the counter for a few hours and then put it into the fridge. 

Milk kefir grains may also be used to culture coconut milk, however the grains should be placed in dairy milk every few batches to keep them healthy. Or, you can add 1 tsp of "date paste" to the jar as the grains like to eat sugar. 

To take a break, or if you have extra grains, put the grains in a jar in the fridge with a bit of milk (so that they don't "starve"). They will slowly culture this milk into kefir, so it is suggested to replace the milk/kefir every 3-4 days (although I do not do this and haven't had a problem). It is suggested to not keep your kefir grains in the refrigerator on a regular basis. Cold temperatures slow the kefir grains down putting them into a state of hibernation. It can be very hard on kefir grains to regularly be put into and then come out of a state of hibernation. It can disrupt the yeast/bacteria balance and may also make the kefir grains less efficient and reliable. (That being said, I do keep my grains in the fridge when I have a lot of ready-made kefir, and then may bring them out to do a large batch at once, and they have been fine). 

Kefir grains consume the lactose during the culturing process, converting it to lactic acid, so lactose intolerant people may be able to drink kefir. Enjoy it plain or add it to a smoothie or even drain the ‘whey’ from it to make kefir cheese (like cream cheese) to use in dips like ranch dressing, etc.

It is suggested to start SLOWLY;  just a spoonful a day for the first two weeks should be enough to slowly introduce your body to this magical substance.  If you are not used to it, it is possible to have reactions at first such as headache, exhaustion or rash. (That being said, I started drinking about a cup a day and did not have any noticeable reactions). Some people call this period ‘die off’ because the body is strongly reacting to all of the good probiotics eliminating the bad bacteria in your gut. This shows up in different ways for different people. 

If you aren't sure how to get kefir in your diet — or have to get accustomed to the taste — smoothies are a great way to incorporate this healthy drink into your day.

Troubleshooting

Did your milk kefir separate? Don't throw it out! It just fermented for a little too long. It's ok! 

The clear liquid is fermented whey, a magical substance that has many uses. 

It was known to the Greek doctors of antiquity as ‘healing water.’ Hippocrates and Galen, two founding fathers of medicine, frequently recommended whey to their patients.

The whey does not contain lactose. It does have probiotics as well as minerals such as potassium, and vitamins, especially B2. As such, it is good for pre-digesting foods and helps to maintain a healthy digestive tract.

Know that people pay money for a product in the health food store called molkosan which is just fermented whey! Little Miss Muffet ate it with her curds.....!

Either strain it (to separate the whey and make kefir cheese or yogurt) - the whey will last 6 to 7 months in a tightly sealed glass container in the fridge - or shake it up and put it in the fridge as usual.