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Wow! Lot’s of milk kefir questions out there. I asked for questions and you answered with lots of great questions. If you have questions that weren’t answered in this post, please ask in comments.
“What is it? How is it made?
While the name is deceiving, kefir grains are not actually grains. The word grains just refers to their appearance. The creamy white blobs that make up the grains are a matrix of yeast and bacteria held together with a polysaccharide substance called kefiran (that’s the sticky gooey part). This matrix of yeast and bacteria consume the sugars in milk converting them from the more difficult to digest lactose to an easy on the tummy galactose. They also produce lactic acid which is what gives kefir it’s tang.
To make kefir is beyond simple. Just take bunch of grains (I use about a few tablespoons per quart) and drop them in milk. Leave it for about a day. 12 hours for a milk kefir, 24 for a good tang, and up to 48 hours for a strong almost cheesy flavor.
For more detailed directions, check out Lydia from Divine Health’s post on making milk kefir: Milk Kefir in a Pickl-It.
Where can I get kefir grains?
The best place to get grains from is from a friend who is already making them. That is where my current batch came from. That was 2 years ago and they’ve multiplied enough to supply numerous other friends with fresh grains.
If you’re local to me, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I usually have plenty to spare.
Fresh is best but dehydrated is fine. I got my first batch of grains from Cultures for Health and they kept me in business for a long time until we moved and I killed them during the move.
Outside the US and don’t have a friend making kefir? While I can’t verify the source as being awesome, I’ve also seen kefir grains being offered on Amazon.com as well as Ebay. Anyone else know of a good place to get cultures?
What is the difference between yogurt and kefir?
Taste and texture wise, kefir has more of a yeasty taste than yogurt. It is also not nearly as thick. Kefir is a drink and not something you spoon up. It is very similar in consistency to buttermilk, ideal for smoothies.
Health wise, kefir is far more diverse than any yogurt you’ll find in the store or make at home. Most yogurts contain 1 or 2 different strains of bacteria where kefir can contain 27 strains of bacteria as well as numerous strains of beneficial yeasts (yeasts are an important part of our gut biome as well as bacteria).
You will also likely have more units of bacteria in your fresh kefir than you would from store bought kefir or yogurt, especially if you take care to make it anaerobically (in a jar with an airlock). Certain lactic acid bacteria are more sensitive to oxygen than others, like bifidus bacteria (check out KerryAnn’s article on oxygen sensitive bifidus bacteria). The store bought variety have also been sitting on the shelf for an unknown amount of time. The longer it sits, the more bacteria die off. The fresher the kefir, the more good buggies to enjoy.
How many times can I reuse my milk kefir grains?
Indefinitely! This is why I prefer using kefir grains as opposed to a kefir powder. Kefir powder is meant for one use only but kefir grains will continue to produce kefir for many many years if properly cared for. Your kefir grains should even reproduce so you can save some, share with a friend, eat them or feed them to your pets.
Why is my milk kefir runnier now than it used to be?
In my experience (and in hearing from others) this seems to happen when the seasons change. Going from warmer to cooler temps and vice versa. In the summer especially, kefir tends to be thinner. It cultures faster, separates more easily and when mixed back together, it’s usually thinner. Milk kefir cultures best between 68-72F. It can handle hotter or cooler temps but the result is usually a thinner kefir.
My milk kefir curdled. Why did it do that and is it still ok?
Yes! Please don’t throw it out! Milk kefir can curdle if it’s warm, if you have too many grains in the milk or if you let it go for too long but it’s still perfectly fine to eat. Try using less grains and shortening the ferment time. It might be tricky getting the grains out if it’s really curdled. Do the best you can and once it’s strained, use a blender to whip it all back together. Or you can make this extra curdled kefir into a great kefir cheese.
”My one question is about storing it frozen in a mason jar with a white screw on lid and then how to thaw it and store it after – what are your thoughts on this?”
Personally, I freeze my kefir grains in a vacuum sealed bag. Lots of air can get in easily with the white lids which can lead to freezer burn. Kefir also is an anaerobic culture so getting out as much air as possibly is the best option. A jar with a vacuum sealed top would be another better option.
Kefir grains can keep for several months in the freezer. Once you are ready to thaw and use them, just pop the frozen grains in a cup of milk. It will take a few batches to revive them so I only use 1-2 cups of milk per batch every 24 hours until the milk begins to set. My cats get the not quite kefired milk or you can cook with the spent milk.
Can you ingest kefir while breast feeding/pregnant?
Yes, it is a great supplement for a pregnant and/or breastfeeding mom. Pregnancy (if not before) is an excellent time to get your gut flora in order (you’ll be passing this along to your baby during birth). I increase my intake of kefir while pregnant and nursing. If you are just starting off drinking kefir, start slowly to avoid a harsh die off. Try a 1/4 cup a day and increase the amount as you tolerate it.
How does it compare to store probiotics?
While I have not seen actual numbers, I personally believe getting your probiotics in food form is far superior than in pill form. See my article here: Probiotics vs Fermented Foods. Milk kefir in particular is an excellent probiotic. It has around 27 strains of beneficial bacteria and many beneficial yeast strains as well. Check the back of your bottle of probiotic pills. How many strains do they have listed?
How much do you have to eat daily?
I advise people to let their body be their guide. Start off slowly. Milk kefir, when fermented correctly, packs a powerful punch. I would start off with a small serving of about 1/4 cup a day and see how your body reacts. If you have significant gut dysbiosis, you’ll likely have a die off reaction, aka feel yucky. Build your amount every few days as your body tolerates it. Two of my kids drink up to a quart of kefir a day where I only drink about a cup a day. (I can tolerate more, I just don’t desire more).
“I have about 3 months where I don’t have access to raw milk to make milk kefir with. I do not want to use regular store milk. Is there a way to preserve some of the kefir grains that I have, so I don’t have to start over once I get more milk and can start again making kefir?”
Yes, you have a few options. You can easily freeze them for 3 months. As I mentioned earlier, I like to freeze mine in vacuum sealed bags for the best protection. I suspect they will actually last much longer than a few months this way, I just haven’t tried. If you don’t have a vacuum sealer, double bagged with all the air pressed out should be fine for a few months.
You can also dehydrate your grains. Gently rinse off any milk, spread across a tea towel (smooth towel), and let a fan blow over the top. You can also put them in a dehydrator on the lowest setting.
Or, to keep them fresh and happy, keep them in your fridge and just swap out the milk weekly. You can use store bought milk for this (not UHT) and just toss the milk or feed to your animals if you have pets.
On a side note, making milk kefir out of commercial milk is actually a great way to make that milk better for you. Before I found my source of good organic grassfed milk, I used milk from the store and added some culture back into it. Instead of doing a full ferment, I would do it for just a few hours (around 6) so the taste didn’t change much and it wasn’t thickened yet. Not ideal but better.
Can it be made so it’s not fizzy? I like making milk kefir smoothies but don’t rally enjoy the fizz.
So you don’t like milk soda? Yeah, it can be a little weird. The best way to make it less fizzy is to make sure you use an airlock. An airlock will let the air escape unhindered. If you make your kefir in a fido alone, the gasses can really build up. Also, certain fruits are more prone to making lots of bubbles. Strawberries, pineapple and kiwi are a few that I can think of. Add these fruits prior to eating and not as a second ferment. Did you hear of my kiwi explosion? Up the airlock and sprayed all over the ceiling. Quite spectacular.
How can I get the strawberry flavor to be creamy and tart like Trader joes?
Hmm, let me know if you find out. I suspect the liberal use of sugar is probably the most likely cause of the super good flavor (most store bought kefirs use a lot of sugar). My Strawberry Cream Kefir is amazing. It tastes like strawberry ice cream to me. Kefir is naturally tart so that’s the easy part.
Do you have any opinion on raw vs. pasteurized? If we are reintroducing beneficial bacteria back into pasteurized milk, then do we get similar result with either kind? Thanks!
Kefir is actually one of the easiest ways to culture raw milk. When using other yogurts, in order to maintain a pure starter culture, raw milk needs to be heated to kill off the naturally occurring bacteria and enzymes. You can culture raw milk, you just can’t use that cultured raw milk to culture more milk because it is no longer a pure culture. Kefir grains, on the other hand, are perfectly fine to just plop into raw milk. My grains are very happy on their raw milk diet. Raw milk kefir will be runnier than pasteurized due to the enzyme content but it still makes a great smoothie.
If you cannot obtain fresh milk from the farm, grassfed organic pasteurized milk is second best and conventional milk is third. Don’t use UHT (ultra pasteurized) milk, organic or not, it’s not good stuff.
How long is too long to have it fermenting in the cabin with the grains?
I recommend fermenting for at least 12 hours and no longer than 48 hours. It mostly depends on how warm you house is. I strain my grains once the milk sets. You can tell by tipping your jar slightly, the kefir should pull away from the side. How long you let it ferment is just personal preference. The longer it goes, the more sugar is eaten out and the more tart it will be.
If you accidentally let it go longer than 48 hours, it should be ok to a point. Eventually the grains will eat everything in the jar and die. Strain the grains out and add new milk to see what they do. After a few batches, you ought to be able to revive them.
What about fermenting in the fridge (with an airlock) to slow it down? Or for someone who doesn’t want/use daily batches, is there a better way to hold the grains and make it just a couple times a week or so?
This is actually a decent option for someone who just doesn’t want a quart of kefir every day. Place it in the warmest part of your fridge (the top shelf or door). This will slow down fermentation so you only have to replace the milk once a week. Do an occasional batch at room temperature to keep the grains happy, maybe once every 2 weeks.
If you don’t want to make kefir on your counter top everyday, keep the grains in the fridge with fresh milk between batches. Place grains in a jar with enough milk to cover. Replace milk weekly if not in use.
After fermentation, does it need to be stored in the fridge with an airlock for the few days it is being used up or can I put it in a more ‘easy pour’ bottle then?
Storing kefir in the fridge with an airlock is ideal but not practical (for me it isn’t at least). Pouring from a Pickl-it is a pain and is messy. We drink our pretty fast so I feel fine putting mine in an easy to pour from bottle. First I put it in the fridge in the Pickl-it with the airlock until it’s cooled and is less active. When we are ready to drink it, I’ll pour it into a swing top bottle for ease. Just be careful not to shake to much before opening. It can spray you! I do highly recommend using a bottle that is hermetically sealed because milk is sensitive to oxidation and bifidus bacteria in particular are very sensitive to oxygen. No oxygen=more good buggies!
Does milk kefir contain alcohol?
It actually does is very small amounts since it contains beneficial yeasts. The amount is so negligible, I don’t hesitate letting my kids drink as much as they want.
You might have to be careful with second ferments if you are adding anything sugary like fruit. If you are worried about there being alcohol present in your kefir, don’t leave it on the counter after adding fruit. Refrigerate it immediately and consume within a week.
Lisa Herndon’s book “Lisa’s Counter Culture: Pickles and Other Well Bred Foods”
Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about kefir and more: Dom’s Kefir Site
Cultures For Health’s Milk Kefir FAQ