By Lorelei Kellogg

Kefir, like yogurt, is a cultured, enzyme-rich food filled with friendly micro-organisms that help balance your “inner ecosystem.” More nutritious and therapeutic than yogurt, it supplies complete protein, essential minerals and valuable B vitamins. Hailing from the Caucasus region of Eastern Europe, kefir grains, also known as the “grains of the prophet,” have a rather colorful history. According to legend, the grains were given to the people of the Caucasus by the prophet Muhammad. As a result, the process for making kefir was a closely held secret until the end of the 19th century, at which time it gained popularity as a cure-all and was sold widely throughout the Russian Empire.

Kefir “grains” are actually small cauliflower-shaped growths made out of active bacterial and yeast cultures. When placed in milk and allowed to culture, they create a slightly creamy, sour, tangy, and sometimes effervescent, beverage. The grains will multiply if taken care of properly, and can be stored in the refrigerator in fresh milk or dehydrated in the event that you find you want to take a break from kefir production. You can also buy powdered kefir culture, although purists will insist it isn’t the same thing. However, if you have never tried kefir and aren’t sure if you’ll like it, powdered cultures are a good place to start.

Most grains will come with instructions, but if you get them from friends or other means, the following covers the basics. Place the grains in a clean, non-reactive container, such as a glass canning jar, and cover with milk.  Use approximately one tablespoon of grains per two cups of milk. If you use more or fewer grains, the kefir will ferment faster or slower accordingly, so don’t panic if you want to make smaller batches. Just toss all your grains in the milk you want to culture and keep a close eye on it. Cover the mixture with cheese-cloth or a coffee filter, and let it sit at room temperature for the desired length of time. Kefir can be cultured for anywhere from 12 to 48 hours. The longer you let it sit, the more sour and thick it becomes.

Culturing time will vary depending on the temperature of your room; what takes 24 hours in December may only take 12 in June. Be sure to watch your culture for signs of over culturing. I recently forgot about my kefir and wound up instead with a cheese-like substance that looked remarkably like a soft boiled egg, minus the yolk. I tossed the entire batch, after digging through to retrieve my grains.

When the kefir has fermented to the slightly thick and creamy stage, give it a gentle stir, strain the liquid into a clean jar, cover and refrigerate. It is not necessary to rinse the kefir grains before making the next batch.  Simply place them in a clean container and add fresh milk and start the process again. If you want to try a truly traditional (read: still fermenting) drink, store your finished kefir (sans the grains) on the countertop instead of the fridge, cover and let it ripen for eight hours or so. Your kefir will continue to ferment even though the grains have been removed, resulting in what I can only assume is super-kefir. While I have never tried this myself, it is my understanding that by storing the kefir at room temperature you are creating a much more traditional, fizzy beverage.  My preference for only mildly sour kefir has kept me from attempting this simply because I have heard this method packs quite a sour punch.

Kefir can also be made in the refrigerator. The culturing process takes longer due to the lowered temperatures and results in a slightly different product. Kefir made this way tends to be thicker and less sour than its counter-top counterpart. Simply place the grains in milk as you would normally, then place the container in the fridge, and let it sit for up to a week.

When culturing kefir at home, it is important to experiment. Kefir fermentation can be greatly affected by the ambient temperature, so be sure to keep an eye on any countertop batches. Always use clean containers and never drink kefir that smells “off.” Store excess grains in fresh milk, and be sure to strain and add fresh milk every few weeks. You can also dehydrate your grains and put them in a sort of stasis if you plan on taking an indefinite break from production. Kefir is wonderfully refreshing and delicious by itself, or blended into fruit smoothies, or it can be used in recipes that call for yogurt, milk or buttermilk.

If you are interested in making your own kefir, you can find the starter locally at La Montanita Co-op or Whole Foods, or the following websites may help:

Try making our Kefir Pancakes!

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