Friday, July 15, 2016

Elucidating the Secrets of Consistent Creamy Milk Kefir

I think my title is too long, but I'm going with it. I'm answering questions on milk kefir ALL the time. I usually refer people to Dom's Kefir site. He is the king of kefir knowledge. But with around five years of kefir making experience myself, here are my own tips:

First, I'll give the basic kefir making protocol. Really, this is the easiest ferment you can do. And one of the highest probiotic counts per lick. Yes a lick. Even just breathing it as you prepare it is giving your body benefits, if you're like my dear husband and refuse to drink it. (I hide it for him sometimes.) I've compared standard strains in homemade kefir (which is really only a sampling, because it's not been thoroughly studied) and it contains almost every strain I've seen in most commercial probiotics, in HUGE cfu counts. In otherwords, if you have milk, and you can get grains, then you can make yourself some really powerful probiotics for only the cost of your milk. This is amazing. Some still find they need commercial ones as well, but this is our main source of probiotic goodness. And it's effected some powerful healing.

Okay, now that I've rambled about *why* you want to make it...

Here's the basics:

  1.  Find a clean glass jar. Put in grains. 
  2.  Pour milk over them. To start - do about 1 cup of milk per 1/4 c of grains. After they're at home in their cozy jar, you can increase the amount of milk (without necessarily needing more grains). Cover with a loosely screwed lid (not metal), or a thick cloth, or use an air-lock jar. The last option is best for flavor, but not critical.
  3.  Check on it after about 12-24 hours. Tip the jar and see how the kefir is looking. Has it thickened? After about 8 hours you can give them a gentle shake, helping distribute the milk over the grains. It's not critical to shake them though. After about 24-36 hours it should be done. You can tell because it will be thicker and have a distinct kefir smell. If it separates, no big deal, just stir it up. It will be a bit more sour, but just fine. After the grains have been in the same jar a week or so, the flavor will mellow out, and when finished it will thicken up a bit like jello does, pulling away from the jar when you tip it.
  4.  Using a clean non-metal utensil, fish out the grains and put in a clean dish temporarily. I have plastic forks dedicated to this purpose, but you can use a strainer if you like, even metal. Just don't have them touching metal long, it will kill the grains.
  5.  Dump your finished kefir into a jar for drinking or storage. It will keep in the fridge a month at least.
  6.  Return grains to original fermenting jar. Pour new milk over them. Put back in cozy place and return to step 3!

Now on to typical questions:


What kind of milk can I use? Any kind, just not UHT. Only dairy milk has nutrients the grains need to ferment properly, but you can use extra grains to ferment other milks, they just won't be able to be re-used too many times. Yes, you can ferment breastmilk. You can also ferment plain cream (though I find that easiest to do by adding finished kefir to the cream, instead of grains.)

Do I wash the grains? Nope! Don't rinse them! The only time I would is to feed a non-dairy person the grains or for use in implants.

Should I use a clean jar each batch? I find it works best when you let the grains "make themselves at home" in their little space. I just scrape out the finished kefir, but leave plenty of residue in there and put the grains back in. We wash the fermenting jar periodically, maybe every few months, when it gets crusty or something seems off. No, I've never had mold.

Do I need to sterilize the milk? (as when making yogurt) It's not really needed. However, conventional dairy or other pasteurized dairy is more easily contaminated with other cultures that float in the air, so some people find that heating the milk to sterilize it, and then cooling again before making kefir improves the taste. The kefir cultures are very strong, so most people do not do this or notice a need to do so. I've never heated the milk myself. If you have quality milk, I'd certainly not bother with sterilizing.

How much is okay to drink daily? How much do you want to drink? I think your body will let you know what is a good amount. My children drink as much as 3-4 cups daily, depending on the day! But if you are new to it, start with a small amount (less than a tsp) to assess your tolerance and deal with any die-off, if there is any. As it is very powerful, some find they need to work their way up to larger amounts.

My kefir is so sour! This is a sour fermented dairy product, yes. However! If it is very sour, it could be over-done. Did it separate into whey? Was it too warm? Are there too many grains for the amount of milk? Or too few? Are they getting a bit yeasty?  How long have they been in their fermenting jar? I find they take a week or two to mellow out whenever in a fresh home. Are they growing and multiplying and looking healthy (like cottage cheese curds almost)?  The secret to mellow kefir seems to be a relatively consistent temp and the right balance of other factors mentioned, such that it is finished in 24 hours and a new batch is made each day.

What temp do they like?
I find about 75F is great. In the summer, I find a cooler place in my house. In the winter, I keep it by a heat source, such as the crock pot or on a plant heating pad that increases temp slightly above room temp. Warmer ferments faster, cooler ferments slower.

After 24 hours, it still seemed very thin, is it done? Sometimes it needs a little bit longer, as much as 48 hours. Just check back with it a bit later. You can drink under-fermented too, but it will have less probiotics. If you let it go too long, you'll just have very sour kefir and eventually it splits into kefir cheese and whey. Don't do that too often though, it is hard on the grains. Once the grains are well established in their jar and the temp is right, it is usually done perfectly right around 24 hours, however, in a fresh jar it may need longer, and in colder temps it will need longer.

I'm lactose intolerant/have milk allergies, can I drink milk kefir?
Sometimes. I used it to help heal both types of intolerance (to protein and sugar of the milk) in my kids. Fermenting it fully helps reduce the amount of lactose to a very minute amount. Many lactose intolerance people can handle it when fully fermented. The milk proteins seem to be broken down and more easily digestible as well. That being said, there is no guarantee, and if your milk allergy is severe, I'd be very cautious. My kids tolerate regular dairy now because of kefir though, so it was great for us.

Where can I get grains? Just find a friend who is making milk kefir! Or Cultures for Health, or a friend online. They travel well, freeze well, and generally are just very robust. I just put in a plastic zip lock with a little fresh milk (then double bag) and drop in the mail.

My kefir smells a bit like sourdough (yeast), is something wrong? Check if it is too warm or the lid is on too tight. I find kefir in my airlock almost never turns yeasty, because it can off-gas without picking up other things in the air. Even though it is usually just the good yeast from the grains taking prominence, resting the grains in yogurt for a day can help restore a good balance.

Do I have to make it every day? We aren't consuming it fast enough! I do admit, easy as it is, I get tired of attending to the grains each day! But they make the nicest, most mellow and creamy kefir when consistently refreshed every 24 hours. What is finished will keep in the fridge for a month or more, and there are lots of alternative uses. Ultimately though, figure out how much you will use on a daily basis, and just make that. Ratio of grains to milk should be about 1/8 c grains to 1 cup milk (give or take). If you'll only drink 1/2 cup, then just use a small jar and ferment only 1/2 cup. Also - if you need to take a longer break, you can freeze the grains. Just defrost in the fridge when ready to use, and put in fresh milk and start over. The first batch or two after being frozen might be a little odd, and sometimes I toss those in compost, but usually they're just fine.You can just keep the grains in the fridge between times you want to make a batch of kefir (they will still ferment the milk they are in, albeit more slowly), but I find this tends to make the kefir more strong, and the grains less perky. Daily batches result in more mellow flavored kefir.

My grains aren't reproducing well, what do I do? See above questions - if all other conditions seem right, it's possible they got contaminated. We've had accidents where a grain that touched a licked spoon (or worse, was in someone's mouth) got tossed back in with the others unknowingly. If the grains seem a little smaller each day, or are getting darker (dead ones eventually become orange), they could be dying. Always good to have back ups in the freezer! Healthy grains should be slightly clear-white, plump, and making more of themselves each day.

Can I make kefir from what I bought at the store? Generally no. There are no grains of course, and commercially produced kefir is normally made from carefully selected probiotic strains, not kefir grains, and generally the strains are not strong enough or in sufficient quantities that it could ferment other fresh milk. It isn't bad to drink, but won't be as rich as homemade.

Help! I have too many grains! Find a friend who needs kefir, or freeze some for back up in case you lose your current ones, or eat them, or just toss into the compost bin! When they are happily established, I find it doesn't hurt the finished kefir if there is a high ratio of milk to grains, but eventually they just take up too much space.

Are milk kefir grains the same as water kefir grains? No. though similar in appearance, they have very different microbial symbiotic complexes. Water kefir is a different ferment entirely.

Should I keep it far away from other ferments in the house? Generally yes, especially yogurt! Usually the kefir is fine, but other fermented items might pick up a kefir-y flavor.

What else can I do with kefir? Well, aside from consuming it straight or mixing into smoothies or kefir ice cream or added to soups or any other way you want to eat it, you can use it on your skin, in the garden, and elsewhere. It's fantastic for fungal infections, weird skin complaints, diaper rash, all kinds of stuff. I've used it as face wash that leaves my skin soft and smooth and re-balances the skin flora. I've seen it heal strange rashes we couldn't identify. It's gotten rid of fungal garden diseases. It's amazing.

Have more questions? Leave a comment!

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