Kefir: Clever Cultures

Kefir is a probiotic, fermented milk drink which is made by fermenting milk with kefir ‘grains’. The ‘grains’ are not actually grains, rather they are a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY). For the purposes of this article I will be referring to them as kefir grains. Also, this article deals with milk-kefir rather than water-kefir.

A jar of kefir grains with milk, ready to cover and ferment
A jar of kefir grains with milk, ready to cover and ferment

I’ve mentioned kefir a couple of times before. Probiotic foods like kefir have been a central part of my diet ever since I experienced amazing benefits from using the probiotic Symprove when I was experimenting with food intolerance testing. It turned out, for me, that the digestive issues I was experiencing were immeasurably improved by the use of probiotics.

After realising these benefits, I delved into lots of the research around probiotic foods. I read books such as The Good Gut by Justin and Erica Sonnenburg; who work at the Stanford University Department of Microbiology and Immunology and share much of their amazing research on the microbiome. As well as looking at the scientific research, I also came across countless anecdotal accounts from a whole host of people who had used probiotics to heal a number of ailments. I attended a course with The Cultured Club in Belfast to learn the basics of how to make kefir, kombucha and fermented vegetables and from there I taught myself how to make a plethora of fermented foods.

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A bowl of kefir with berries, bee pollen and cacao nibs

Probiotics supplements are expensive. I love including homemade fermented and cultured foods in my diet that are loaded with probiotics for a fraction of the cost. Kefir is probably the easiest of all the fermented foods to make and I have supplied the instructions within this post!

What does it Taste Like?

Kefir grains essentially live-off and eat the sugar (lactose) in the milk you pour on top of them. Whilst a cup of milk (250ml) will contain just over 13g of sugar, a cup of kefir will usually contain less than 1g sugar (the longer you ferment, the less sugar will be left). This of course changes the calories in the milk after it has become kefir – reducing them by about 50 calories per cup. It also means that kefir tastes different than milk. It is like a more tangy or sour tasting version of natural yogurt. Sometimes, it can even be a little effervescent.

kefir, probiotics, gut health
A glass of kefir with berries

Kefir is thicker than milk, but not as thick as yogurt – it could be described as a more pourable yogurt. Some people I have given it to have said it reminded them of the butter-milk they used to drink as a child. (I’ve never drank butter milk straight so I can’t comment!) Personally, I love the sourness of kefir – and often drink it on its own, but likewise I also add it to smoothies, salad dressings, make cream-cheese and dips with it – there are endless possibilities even if you don’t like the taste of it on its own!

Kefir also contains far more probiotic strains than yogurt, which you will see on the label typically contains between 2 and 7 strains of bacteria. Homemade kefir has been found to contain between 30 and 56 strains of bacteria and yeast when tested (Schwenk, 2015, p.10). Commercial kefir can often contain much less than this – always read the label!

Preliminary results from a University of Florida microbiology class showed kefir to have 10 billion CFUs (colony forming units) per millilitre – yes millilitre! Thats a lot of probiotic bang for your buck. Namely 150 billion CFUs per tablespoon! This study is still underway as they are now researching particular microbial strains present in the kefir so the final paper has not been published yet, but when it is I will link it here!

kefir, probiotics, gut health
Kefir-based salad dressing along with some lacto-fermented tomato ketchup.

I have begun to see ready-made Kefir drinks pop up in the fridges of health food shops, but it is often very highly priced – remember, once you have your own grains it will really only cost you the price of the milk you use to make kefir at home. When fed regularly with milk, your grains will last and continue to grow and multiply so you can share them with your friends and family!

How I discovered Kefir: 

The first time I tried kefir, back in 2014, it was a jar of ready-made kefir that I picked up in a health food shop. I used it to make a smoothie – in fact the photo of my very first kefir-smoothie was The Clean Coconut’s first profile picture for quite a while!

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It wasn’t until 2015 that I learned far more about kefir and decided to go looking for some grains. I went to various health-food shops asking where I could source the actual grains for making my own kefir, but to no avail. Little did I know the kefir grains were going to find me first!

Back at home I was tidying the kitchen when I found a bowl sitting on the table covered by a plate. I lifted the plate and saw some milky porridge which I assumed somebody must have been saving for later? Odd! I almost threw it out, but then I figured someone obviously left it there, covered up, on purpose.

A couple of days later and I saw that same bowl on the table, covered by the plate. God, I thought, that milk will be so sour by now! Yuck! When I lifted it to clear it though, it smelled fine. Must be a fresh bowl of porridge I thought. Why has somebody left a bowl of uneaten, cold porridge out on the table again?

Another couple of days passed and I had been talking to my mum about kefir and how I was dying to find some grains of my own – after everything I’d been telling her about it, she really wanted to try it too! In fact, she had just signed up to a series of podcasts from the Hay House World Summit and a couple of them were solely dedicated to probiotics, gut health and; kefir! What a coincidence! We listened to the amazing stories of Donna Schwenk and Chuckling Goat amongst others and were excited to locate some grains to start making our own kefir ASAP.

Back in the kitchen, my dad is at the sink with a sieve and that bowl of porridge. “Ew Dad! why have you left that porridge there all day – what are you doing with it – WAIT?? Is that… KEFIR??”

“Its a mushroom.” he replied.

“A what?”

“Its great stuff. I got it from someone at work, very good for your stomach” he added.

“Oh my God Dad – that is kefir! YOU have got kefir grains – how long have you had these?? This is exactly what we’ve been looking for!”

Turned out my Dad had been making kefir for about three weeks right under our noses! Its not exactly the most common thing to find so you can imagine how shocked I was to discover that, my Dad had some all along! I ran out of the kitchen to tell my mum and it was as if it dawned on both of us at the exact same time! Because Dad had been calling the kefir grains a “mushroom” she hadn’t clicked it until that moment either!

Following on from that my mother got to speak to Louise Hay on Hay House Radio after we had listened to all the wonderful podcasts from the World Summit. She told her how much we had learned from the wonderful probiotic podcasts and shared our little story about how those kefir grains were simply determined to find us 🙂

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Where to find the Grains

To get your hands on some kefir grains of your own, you will need to find somebody who makes their own kefir. Every time I make a batch of kefir my grains grow and multiply so I have been able to grow enough to give some to family and friends. If you really want your own kefir grains but don’t know of anywhere to source them, get in touch with me via my contact page.

 Ingredients and Tools:

  • Kefir “Grains” or SCOBY
  • Milk
  • A glass jar or ceramic bowl (not plastic or metal)
  • Elastic band
  • Tea towel
  • A plastic sieve
  • Wooden spoon or spatula
  • Funnel (If storing your kefir in a glass bottle)

Method:

  1. Place your kefir grains into a clean ceramic dish or glass jar. I love the Kilner or Ikea storage jars for making kefir. You will need to make sure that the glass/dish is not hot – remember your grains are living, so both hot and cold extremes can kill them.
  2. Over the grains, pour some milk. I choose organic milk to make my kefir. Don’t worry too much about the ratio of milk-to-grains, the only time a problem will arise is if you don’t give them enough milk and they starve. A good rule of thumb is to use at least 250ml milk per tablespoon of grains, however you can use more  milk than this if you wish to make more kefir!
  3. If using a jar, leave the lid open. Once the grains and milk are inside, cover the jar or bowl with a tea-towel or muslin cloth and secure the edges with an elastic band so that the opening is sealed. (Beware that, especially in the summer, fruit flies may be attracted to kefir that is not properly covered and this could destroy your batch – so be vigilant about keeping it tightly covered!).
  4. After 24 hours, your kefir will be ready. You will need to use a plastic sieve (grains do not like metal – never use a metal spoon to handle them either) to separate the grains from the kefir-drink. Put the kefir drink in a glass bottle using your funnel, or into jug, and store it in the fridge. It will last for a very long time int the fridge – it won’t spoil like milk would. However, the longer you leave the kefir in the fridge the more tart it will become.
  5. Return your kefir grains to the original dish or jar you used to make your kefir. Pour more milk over them and leave for a further 24 hours before repeating the process.
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Kefir with blueberries and a Raw Rev vegan protein bar

Notes:

  • If you leave your grains fermenting for longer than 24 hours, the sourness of your kefir will increase significantly. Any longer than 48-72 hours and you risk killing or starving your kefir grains. You will know they have died because, whilst they might look okay, they will no longer ferment the milk for you. To prevent this, ensure that you feed the grains with fresh milk every 24 hours.
  • Never rinse or wash your grains with water (especially chlorinated tap water!). This can kill strains of bacteria and reduce the potency of your kefir. If you feel you need to rinse them between batches (you don’t!) then only use milk to rinse them.
  • If you don’t want to continue making kefir, or are going away on holidays, you can store the grains in the fridge, covered in milk. The coldness of the fridge will slow down the fermentation so that the grains will not eat through the lactose in the milk as quickly. You can store your grains in the fridge for up to a week on about 500ml of milk (Or at least a cup of milk per tablespoon of grains). The more milk you give them, the more food they will have so I tend to give them a bit extra when they are in the fridge. After a week has passed, you can change the milk and continue storing them in the fridge for a further week. If you are going to be away for more than a week you will need to add significantly more milk to ensure the grains will have enough to feed on.
  • When you decide to begin using your grains again they may likely take a little bit longer to ferment as they have been ‘sleeping’ in the fridge. The first time you try to make kefir with them after waking them up you may need to leave them for 48 hours rather than 24.
Kefir, probiotics, gut health, pancakes
My Protein Pancakes, served with banana, berries and a probiotic vanilla kefir-cream dip

There is SO much more that you can do with homemade kefir and I hope to share this with you in some upcoming posts. For example, you can flavour your kefir by doing a second ferment and you can separate the whey from your kefir and use it to ferment vegetables and make probiotic lemonade with it too!

You may well have heard about some of the health claims associated with fermented foods like kefir. I haven’t gone in to all the research around probiotics in this post as there just isn’t enough room! However I will discuss this in an upcoming post. Whenever I see some promising research I will be sure to share it on my Facebook and Twitter accounts!

I hope this post has made it a little bit clearer what I’m talking about when I mention kefir in my Facebook, Instagram and Twitter posts and pictures!

If you have any questions or if you’ve tried kefir before I’d love to hear from you! 🙂

The Clean Coconut x

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References:

  1. Schwenk, Donna. Cultured Food For Health. USA: Hay House, 2015.