I never thought I’d have to set up “territories” on my kitchen counters.
The crock of continuous brew kombucha occupies the east end of the kitchen island, the sourdough starter lives in between the sink and stove, and the occasional fermented veggies (like sauerkraut) reside near the overflowing egg bowl.
And now, there’s a new member joining the club:
I’ve been aware of kefir for a long time, but always figured I had enough cultured dairy in my life (aka the yogurt, the buttermilk, the sour cream, the fromage blanc… catch my drift?), until I realized kefir might just be the very answer to a problem I’ve had for years. But more on that in a minute…
What is Kefir?
Kefir is an ancient, cultured probiotic beverage, kinda like a drinkable yogurt.
(I pronounce it KEE-FER, but I think the “proper” way to say it is “Ki-FEER.)
When I first heard about kefir, I couldn’t figure out why I would make drinkable yogurt instead of eating yogurt with a spoon. However, I’ve since learned that kefir is loaded with probiotics (even MORE than yogurt and it’s a pretty darn cool cultured dairy product.
Where did Kefir come from?
No one really knows how kefir grains began or where they came from, other than we know it originated somewhere in the mountains of Asia.
For some reason, this aspect of kefir completely amuses me, as we’re all guzzling this fermented milk of unknown origin.
Hey, it seems to be working out well, dontcha think?
Anyway, kefir is created from kefir grains, which are little colonies of microorganisms. (Don’t worry– they don’t contain any gluten/wheat– they simply resemble clumped grains or cottage cheese, hence the name.) These kefir grains were originally used to fermented milk in a sheep’s stomach to become a drinkable beverage with loads of health benefits.
A Quick Note about Water Kefir….
There are two kinds of kefir: water and dairy.
Water kefir a water-based, lightly sweetened fermented beverage that tastes like kombucha.
Water kefir is very similar to dairy kefir, in that you can make it a home with grains. Except instead of milk, you use the grains to add probiotic-fizziness to sweetened water.
If you are dairy-free, look into water kefir instead of the classic milk-version of kefir. You can grab water kefir grains to get started right here.
I’ve made water kefir in the past, and in fact, it is the culprit for one of the most epic explosions in my kitchen to date. I had a blueberry water kefir on the counter that I had let ferment for too long on a hot summer week. The lid blew off and blueberry water kefir sprayed all over the walls and ceiling of my kitchen and made it look like I had murdered someone. Good times.
However, that particular explosion was my fault (and not the norm), so don’t let it deter you. It’s good stuff.
Although you can convert milk kefir grains into water kefir grains, it’s a complicated process. Therefore, if you’re craving water kefir, I’d suggest just buying water kefir grains to keep things simple.
Why is Kefir Good for You?
Everyone knows that yogurt is good for you, but kefir is even better. In fact, milk kefir can contain up to 61 different microorganism strains (source).
When I had strep throat last year, natural remedies weren’t working as well as I needed, so I finally went to the doctor to get antibiotics. After the round of antibiotics, I knew that I had to increase my gut bacteria, which was damaged by the antibiotic use.
I initially sought out store-bought kefir to bolster my gut, but have since learned that store-bought kefir is often not made with kefir grains but with lab-raised bacteria. It’s still good for you, but not as powerful as homemade kefir, so once again, homemade ends up being the best option.
How to use Milk Kefir?
So whaddya do with this runny yogurt stuff?
You’ll need to replenish your kefir every 24 hours (more on feeding kefir grains below). Each time you do this, you’ll be left with the finished kefir (usually about 4 cups), which can be stored in the fridge for several weeks.
Initially, I was concerned I’d end up with 87 jars of kefir in my fridge, but my kids have been drinking it as fast as I can make it. (I like to add a little bit of maple syrup or honey* to it to lessen the tangy taste.)
Kefir is tangy like buttermilk, but it also has a bit of an effervescent snap. It can take a little while to get used to it, but I’ve found most folks take to it quickly.
In addition to drinking it straight, you can also use it in smoothies, milkshakes, or as a buttermilk substitute in many recipes (like my buttermilk biscuits).
*use code “JILL” to receive 15% off my favorite raw honey.
What Sealed the Kefir Deal for Me
When I purchased the book The Art of Natural Cheese-making by David Asher, I could scarcely believe my eyes when I read that instead of the cheese culture packets, you can use milk kefir as a culture for almost any type of cheese you can make at home.
Therefore, if you can keep your kefir alive, you don’t have to buy anymore cheese-making culture packets from the store.
(Because honestly, it has always bothered me that in order to make cheese, you have to keep buying cheese making culture packets.)
Asher writes: “Every cheese in this book [and there’s a lot of cheese recipes in this book!] and many more can be made with kefir as a starter culture. It is a universal starter containing both mesophilic and thermophilic bacteria that are adaptable to cheese-making in any conditions. Kefir grains also serve as a source of bacteria for aging cheeses because kefir contains bacterial species that feed on the products left behind by lactic acid bacteria. Kefir culture provides successions of ripening bacteria to any aged cheese. Cheeses made with kefir as a starter do not taste of kefir, their flavor is akin to traditionally made raw milk cheeses.” (source)
This is revolutionary, I’m telling ya.
Why didn’t I think to question this sooner?! OF COURSE people didn’t have little powdered packets of cheese culture back in the day… Duh.
Mesophilic cultures and thermophilic cultures are the most common cheese-making culture packets that you have to have on hand. Kefir, however, is more diverse and can be used for almost all types of cheese-making adventures. For most homemade cheese recipes, the average amount of kefir you need is about 1/4 cup, which really isn’t that much.
How to Make Milk Kefir
You won’t believe how easy this is… If you’ve ever kept a sourdough starter, then you will have no issue making milk kefir.
NOTE: Keep your cultures in separate areas in your kitchen to avoid cross-contamination. I like to feed mine at the same time as part of my daily morning routine.
1. Source your kefir grains. You can get them from a friend who already makes kefir or you can purchase kefir starter grains online. When the grains arrive in the mail, they’ll be dehydrated and look like breadcrumbs. Simply follow the directions that come with your kefir grains to rehydrate them. (You basically add a bit of milk each day until they are hydrated again.)
2. Once the kefir grains are active, you just need to get in a rhythm. Place the grains in a quart-sized jar and fill it up with fresh milk (I use raw milk).
3. Place the jar on your counter at room temperature and let it sit for 24 hours. The next day, the milk will be thickened.
4. Strain the kefir grains out, use the finished kefir however you like. Add fresh milk into the jar with the kefir grains again and repeat.
Kefir Kitchen Notes:
- Remember that you’ll be producing 4 cups of kefir each day. If you go on vacation, just like with sourdough (here are my tips on troubleshooting sourdough), you can keep your kefir grains in milk in the refrigerator. It might take a few days to reactivate them, but it’s really that simple.
- The straining process was super cumbersome to me at first– until I figured out this quick hack: When I started attempting to strain my kefir, I used my big wire mesh strainer over bowl to catch the grains and capture the finished kefir in the bowl. Since it’s so thick, I had to continually scrap the mesh with a spoon to keep things draining, and then I was left with a LOT of dishes every morning. Since then, I’ve stumbled across this super-handy kefir lid set from reCAP Mason Jars. The lids screw right onto any mason jar, and the little straining inserts pop in. It’s drastically cut down on my dishes and made the straining process infinitely less headache-inducing.
If you want to grab these awesome lids for yourself, and you do so before the last day of July 2020, you can save 20% on a set of reCAP mason jar straining lids when you use the code HOMESTEAD as you check-out. (Bonus: you can also use the lids as shakers and strainers for a million other uses in the kitchen). Anything that makes a daily task easier for me is a huge win for me.
So there you have it– I am officially a kefir fan and as I start using it in more cheesemaking techniques, I’ll keep you posted!
Do you use kefir? What are your favorite ways to flavor it?
More Heritage Kitchen Tips:
- My Heritage Cooking Crash Course will help you gain confidence in the kitchen without wasting time
- Cooking with Salt: History and Cooking Tips for Heritage Cooking
- How to Grind Your Own Flour
- Easy Sourdough Bread Recipe
- How to Use a Fermenting Crock
- How to Bottle Kombucha at Home
Check out my homestead mercantile for more of my favorite homesteading and cheesemaking supplies.
I love this! I made milk kefir years ago and stopped because of a similar frustration with straining. These kids are amazing! I’m also really interested in using kefir as a cheese culture! I will be digging into that more. Thank you!
Keffir comes from Caucuses, Eastern Europe. Adding any sugar, like maple syrup causing increased oxidative damage in your body. You never ever combine fat and sugar, or protein and sugar. It supposed to be tangy.
I blend avocado and raspberries in mine and It thickens it even more and gives it a lovely taste
veronica moore says
I use it in any recipe that calls for milk, pancakes, sweetbreads/doughs, etc.
I made milk kefir for years (until my 3 year old dumped it down the garbage disposal one day!) but I never could get into making it every day. Instead, I’d put the grains in a quart sized Mason jar in the fridge with some fresh milk. About once a week I’d take it out, pour it into a pitcher, fill it up with more milk, and leave it out for 24 hours. This was way easier to manage and it worked beautifully for me! As for straining the kefir, I’d just use a slotted spoon to remove the kefir grains from the pitcher after the 24 hours were up. Back into the Mason jar with fresh milk and in the fridge it would go until the following week! If I ever needed a break, freezing the grains in milk always worked well for me.
Connie Hoffman says
How long can you keep it in the fridge dormant w/o feeding it?
I hold my kefir grains in milk for a week or so in the fridge. We only make one batch of kefir a week. After straining the grains from the finished kefir, put them in a smaller jar with milk (pint jar instead of quart) and refrigerate. You can store them this way for 1-2 weeks before use. They hold just fine. When it is time to make a new batch of kefir, strain the storage milk and put the grains in a quart jar with fresh milk. The storage milk is not quite kefir. It is more sour-tasting. I usually use it to make biscuits of pancakes. Hope this helps!
RuthAnn Wachsmuth says
Coupon not working. Bummer!
I have the same David Asher book and i’ve been making great lactic goat cheeses (aged goat cheese) using kefir as a culture. No one likes the taste of kefir in my house, so I just make approx 1 cup of kefir everyday and use the previous day’s kefir to culture the day’s milk. It’s so practical, i love it !
The only thing is that when my goats dry up this winter, i don’t know how i’ll be able to keep the grains alive for 2-3 months until the goats kid again. I doubt that the grains will last that long in the fridge, and I don’t want to be spending money on store-bought milk to make kefir that noone will drink. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it ! 🙂
I’ve stored my kefir grains by straining out the grains and drying them on a small piece of parchment paper. When thoroughly air dried, maybe 12 hours, I pack them in dried milk and freeze the whole works. I doubt they’ll survive a year, but I’ve had no problems with several months of storage this way.
I did the same this this past winter when my goats dried up a few months – I stored them, dried out, in the freezer. They came back alive just fine after several days this spring. I had a back up set packed in milk in a small container in my fridge for that time, too, and they were fine.
Lesley Moyer says
I think you are totally overlooking the best and most probiotically charged by product of kefir…that is the whey! It is liquid gold and full of the best probiotics to keep your immune system in tip top condition. A ‘shot’ of whey a day for young and old alike is the best!
Roger Kocher says
I was told that I should not use metal with keffir so I am using a nylon strainer and silicon utensils. Do you know anything about this?
I use a stainless steel strainer and spoon and an old glass jam jar covered with kitchen paper and a rubber band. I wouldn’t use any reactive metal nor anything plastic for long term contact.
Kayla- Prairie Homestead Assistant says
It’s recommended that you don’t use reactive metals with Kefir, just like sourdough.
Jill, when you use kefir in place of culture for your soft cheese recipe (the 1/2 gallon jar + 1/8 tsp culture + 2 drops rennet), how much kefir do you use in place of the 1/8 tsp culture? I have the Art of Natural Cheesemaking book and I’ve recently revisited it now that I have a better understanding of cheesemaking after trial and error this past year, but I’m still struggling at times to figure out how to substitute kefir if I’m using a recipe not in his book . . .
Jill, I use your soft cheese recipe most days (1/2 gallon jar + 1/8 tsp culture + 2 drops rennet). How much kefir would I use in place of the 1/8 tsp culture?
I’ve had the Art of Natural Cheesemaking for the past year, but I’m just now having that light bulb that you had about how kefir can be used in place of culture – for mesophilic AND thermophilic recipes. I’m trying to figure out how to use kefir in cheese recipes not in his book that I already love – like yours.
Erin Jones says
I just got my Kefir starter in the mail. It says NOT to use raw milk to activate it, but to use pasteurized milk. Fresh raw milk is all I have. Does it really matter?
I was just going to ask that question…I killed mine the last time I tried it and was wondering how people are doing this all the time …I only have raw milk and I don’t want to pasteurize it
Angela Stewart says
I started my kefir as directed except for the 3rd day I forgot about it & it sat for 48 hours. Did I ruin it? It taste very sour & I’m not getting very much milk from it. I’m pour in 1 cup each time I strain it from the grains. Am I not adding enough milk?
I realize this is late to the party, but there is a way to make a starter culture for cheeses without the kefir (with that many species of bacterium, would the results always be a consistent flavor?).
The New England cheese company had a book for sale (found them on your recommendation) by Ricki Carroll: “Home cheese making”. You can make a mother culture of mesophilic or thermohilic starters (page 16-17). The process is much the same as your buttermilk propagation, except the milk and container are sterilized first.
Can you use already soured (raw) milk to make kefir? Thank you!
Cris - Prairie Homestead Team says
Soured raw milk can work, but soured milk can change the flavor of the finished kefir, so it is best to do a small batch to see if you like it.