This understated star of fermented foods has been around for centuries, providing extraordinary bacterial assistance to the human microbiome.
If you’re into living, probiotic foods and you already have a sourdough starter bubbling away on your kitchen bench or a kombucha ‘mushroom’ gracing a dark shelf, then dairy kefir will need no introduction. Known as dairy kefir, milk kefir or simply kefir (pronounced kef-fear), this unlikely fermented food is thought to have appeared many thousands of years ago in Central Asia, when people began domesticating and milking animals.
While the culture itself looks like innocuous little cauliflower florets, it packs a big punch in terms of probiotics, with a list of beneficial bacteria and yeasts as long as your arm, far outweighing anything you will find in the highest-quality commercial or homemade yoghurt.
What Is Kefir?
Kefir, like kombucha, is a type of SCOBY – or Symbiotic Community Of Bacteria and Yeast. It’s a living culture that is happiest when kept at room temperature and feeding on the milk sugars in the fresh milk you provide it every day. In this way, it’s very similar to keeping a sourdough starter; feeding it daily keeps it alive with plenty of lactic acid bacterial activity.
In return, kefir will provide you with a daily drinking yoghurt that can range from mildly tart to extremely sour and it’s pleasantly bubbly, which is why it’s sometimes referred to as the champagne of milk.
The SCOBY, also called culture or ‘grains’, are quite rubbery to touch and vary in size from thumbnail small to occasionally growing as large as your fist. The biology of the kefir culture is self-reproducing, but it cannot be created. So you’ll need to obtain your kefir culture from someone who already has one. Once you do, with plenty of care your kefir culture will multiply to the point you will be asking friends to take some off your hands.
It’s becoming widely accepted that the health of our microbiome is key to our overall health, with the bacteria in our gut heavily influencing our immune system. Fermented foods such as milk kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi and miso are already pre-digested, and will soothe your gut lining, replenish your gut flora and help you digest other foods. Fermented foods have more nutrients available to the body in a more absorbable way, and they aid detoxification.
People have attempted to find out which strains of bacteria and yeasts make up the kefir culture, and you can find lists claiming up to 30 species. Yet this is potentially a mere fraction of the diverse, thriving community that makes up a SCOBY. Some of the known favourites such as Lactobacilli, Saccharomyces, Acetobactor and Leuconostoc are closely related to the microbes found in our gut, making kefir an excellent probiotic.
Caring For Kefir
Keep your kefir in a glass jar or ceramic bowl on your benchtop immersed in the best-quality milk you can find. Milk kefir will happily live on pasteurised, homogenised or raw milk that comes from any animal. To feed your kefir, strain the culture out every 24 hours to obtain your fresh batch of drinking yoghurt, then place your culture back into a clean vessel and pour fresh milk over the top to start again. As long as you do this every 24 hours – 48 is okay, too – you can find a rhythm with feeding and straining that works for you. Your kefir should live in a warmish part of your kitchen, but out of direct sunlight.
Tend it well and your culture will grow until you have more than you need. You’ll know when your milk kefir is getting too sour to consume within the 24-hour period, and possibly separating into curds and whey. At this point you can remove some of the culture and pass it on to your friends or feed them to your chooks who will go nuts over them, while some kids have been known to relish the chewy sour ‘lollies’ of a milk kefir SCOBY.
Your culture will remain alive in the fridge for up to a week, if you need to take a break from the daily feeding. Place the strained culture in a jar with some milk, put the lid on and place it in the fridge. It can stay in the fridge and get fed weekly, but you will not get the lactic acid bacterial activity that you will get at room temperature. To store your culture longer term, you can either freeze it in a ziplock bag, or rinse and dry them completely with a teatowel and store them in a jar in the cupboard.
How To Consume It
The easiest way to consume your highly probiotic kefir is to drink it! While the flavour may take some getting used to, you will come to a point where you crave it and look forward to your daily glass of milk champagne. If straightup isn’t your thing, you can add kefir to a smoothie or your morning cereal. Milk kefir can also be used as a starter for just about every cheese imaginable, as well as your homemade yoghurt or cultured butter (see sidebar).
If you are consuming milk kefir for the first time, it’s best to start with a just half a teaspoon a day and, if well tolerated, build up from there. Some people can react to this highly probiotic food with anything from tummy rumbles to a more urgent dash to the loo. Once you know your gut can handle it, build up to one cup per day and you will be consistently introducing a host of beneficial microbes to your intestinal flora.
Once you get into the rhythm of making kefir every day, you might like to branch out and try a second ferment. Leave at room temperature for 12 hours before transferring to the fridge. And exercise the same caution you would when fermenting something like ginger beer – milk kefir can become explosive.
Homemade Versus Store-Bought
Dairy kefir is now readily available, however, as is often the case with the commercialisation of living foods, you are going to make a far superior product at home. What you buy in the shops is a terminal product, meaning it cannot be kept alive as a starter for your next batch of kefir drinking yoghurt, and will have a questionable mix of microbes. If you know someone who makes dairy kefir they will no doubt love to share it. Try your farmers’ market, or you can buy kefir grains online.
THIS RECIPE IS FROM SHARON FLYNN’S NEW BOOK FERMENT FOR GOOD. ANCIENT FOODS FOR THE MODERN GUT (HARDIE GRANT 2017)
500 ml cream
¼ cup milk kefir
2 bowls of iced water
Pour the cream and milk kefir or grains into a jar ensuring there’s some headroom. Cover with muslin cloth, secure and leave at room temperature for 24–48 hours, stirring each day and tasting as you go. It’s ready when it’s sour and tangy.
Tighten the lid and shake vigorously for a couple of minutes until the butter separates from the buttermilk. Strain and shape the butter into a ball and, holding it in your hands, immerse in iced water and squeeze gently to remove the buttermilk. When the water becomes cloudy, pour it off and repeat. To avoid it melting, keep it cold by dipping it into the second bowl of iced water. You’ll know you’ve squeezed all of the liquids out when the water remains clear. Shape your butter and salt to taste.