Kefir is an extremely healthy probiotic food. Its origins lie with
nomadic shepherds living on the slopes of Eurasia’s North Caucasus Mountains
who needed a way to preserve milk without refrigeration. It is now part of
the revival of interest in traditional foods.
There are two kinds of kefir:
dairy kefir, which is cultured from cow’s, goat’s, or sheep’s milk (and even
pure coconut milk), and water kefir, which is fermented from sweetened water
or juice. Water kefir contains sugar (to feed the bacteria) and can be
somewhat effervescent and even can be a substitute for other carbonated
drinks. The taste of milk kefir is tangy and a bit sour, like yogurt or
buttermilk, but it’s more liquid than yogurt.
Kefir is a source of friendly micro-organisms that create
ideal conditions in the digestive tract for the colonization of friendly
bacteria. It provides great nourishment for pregnant and nursing women, and
for those with compromised immunity. There is also evidence that probiotics
can help protect against the negative effects of radiation, antibiotics, and
Kefir is a source of B-vitamins, such as biotin, niacin
(B3), pyridoxine (B6), and folic acid, as well as minerals, enzymes, and
essential amino acids. The amino acid tryptophan is present in significant
amounts, making it a great sleep enhancer. Its protein is partially digested
during the fermentation process, making it easily utilized by the body. The
presence of the enzyme lactase makes it great for those who cannot otherwise
But most important are its probiotic properties. The array
of friendly bacteria found in kefir can control the spread of undesirable
micro-organisms such as harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi. They are a
good defense against the Candida albicans yeast, now implicated in many
health problems in people who are malnourished or whose immune systems are
depleted. Food poisoning and many bowel and urinary tract infections can
also be prevented and treated using high bacterial cultures.
Make It Yourself
Kefir is increasingly available for sale in
supermarkets and other stores. However, it is simple and inexpensive to make
at home, and that can ensure it’s not packaged in plastic or filled with
excess sugar or colorings. It is made from gelatinous particles called
“grains.” The milk kefir grains are sometimes called “Tibetan milk
mushrooms” and water kefir grains are also known as “Japanese water
crystals.” Milk grains are white and somewhat rubbery; they look like
cottage cheese or cauliflower florets. Water grains are translucent white
and somewhat fragile.
These grains contain the bacteria/yeast mixture
clumped together with casein (milk proteins) and complex sugars. Because the
grains reproduce, you only need to buy them once and they will last for
years. They are available in powdered form, but many people find them hard
to reactivate, and they also tend to have a smaller number of probiotic
strains, so I recommend fresh grains. Use the appropriate type of grain for
the kind of kefir you are making because they work in different ways and
Aside from the grains, which can be purchased at
some natural food stores and online, all you need to make your own kefir is
a glass measuring cup, a mesh strainer (preferably nylon and not metal), a
wooden spoon or rubber spatula, and some canning jars. Some people use
plastic containers, but glass is better because it doesn’t react to the
acidity of the fermenting kefir doesn’t harbor unwanted bacteria, and doesn’t contain harmful chemicals
like BPA. Don’t use metal containers or utensils.
Put one to two tablespoons of kefir grains into a room
temperature sterilized jar. (The more grains you use, the faster your kefir
will culture.) Add two cups of fresh milk (preferably organic milk from
grass-fed cows, and raw if you have access to it), leaving an inch or so of
room at the top of the jar. Place a lid or covering on the jar and set it on
the counter (out of direct sun) for between twelve and thirty-six hours,
depending upon how warm your kitchen is and how tangy you like it.
When your kefir is ready, it will look thick and lumpy. Then, pour the kefir into
a strainer set on top of a clean glass bowl or large jar. Gently stir the
kefir until all the liquid has drained into the bowl and you are left with
the grains in the strainer. Some people say to wash the grains with
filtered, non-chlorinated and non- fluoridated water before re-use, while
others don’t bother; you might want to do so occasionally. Put the strained
grains into a sterilized jar, add more milk, and start your next batch of
The grains can also be rinsed, dried, and frozen if you aren’t
yet ready to make another batch of kefir, or submerged in milk and kept in
the refrigerator, which will halt fermentation. You should also store your
finished kefir in the refrigerator.
You can use milk kefir grains to
make coconut milk kefir. However, you should culture your grains in cow’s or
goat’s milk for twenty-four hours once every few weeks to revitalize the
Milk kefir can be used in a variety of ways. You can drink it
plain or flavor it with fruit. It can be added to smoothies. It can also be
drained with cheese cloth to make a soft kefir cheese that can be flavored
with herbs and used as a cracker spread.
Water kefir provides the benefits of milk kefir but
without the use of dairy products. It can be a healthy substitute for sugary
soda, and is a great introduction to home fermentation.
To make water kefir, dissolve a quarter cup of organic, raw sugar in a one quart glass jar
of cool water (or use warm water but let it cool before adding the grains).
Well water, spring water, or mineral water are best because they don’t
contain chlorine; do not use filtered or distilled water. Add approximately
two teaspoons of water kefir grains to your sugar-water solution. Some
people like to add a quarter cup or so of apple juice, a slice of ginger or
half a lemon at this point. Be sure you leave an inch or so in the top of
the jar for expansion.
Place the lid very loosely on the jar so the build-up
of carbonation doesn’t pop the lid (as an alternative, cheesecloth secured
with an elastic band works well) and allow it to sit at room temperature for
twenty-four to seventy-two hours, tasting it a few times to see when its
taste and fizziness are to your liking. Strain off the water kefir grains
and bottle the kefir, again leaving some empty space at the top. If you
haven’t added fruit earlier, you can add any kind of bottled organic juice
or frozen concentrate at this point for flavor.
Allowing the strained water kefir to sit at room temperature for another twenty-four to forty-eight
hours will help develop its carbonation. Store the finished product in the
refrigerator with a tight lid. (Sterilized beer bottles with clamping
ceramic tops are ideal for the final bottling, but canning jars work too.)
Begin the process again with the strained water kefir grains.
Using these basic instructions, feel free to experiment. (There are lots of videos and
tutorials on the Internet if you’re nervous.) Just keep everything clean and
don’t forget that you’ve got something brewing! You’ll end up with a
healthy, yummy, natural food.
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Fermenting Foods by Wardeh
Harmon (Alpha, 2012)
Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods
by Sandor Ellix Katz (Chelsea Green, 2003)
A Guide to Gut Health by Charles Remington in Natural Life Magazine,
Terry Garcia-Haass is mother to two little traditional
eaters. She and her family live on Canada’s west coast where she loves to
cook and write.