In 1908, the Nobel-prize winning Biologist, Elie Metchnikoff, was the first to say that our digestive system might be aided by lactobacilli, which is a friendly bacteria – probiotics. He mentioned the people of the Caucasus Mountains could attribute their longevity and good health to the consumption of soured milk. Today, there is a lot of interest in the benefits of soured milk and the resulting probiotics. Kefir is a case in point for these studies as it is the drink the Caucasus shepherds originally discovered while carrying milk in their leather pouches.
Kefir is a popular drink common in Eastern Europe and Western Asia. It is made from fermented milk from cow, sheep or goat. It is made by inoculating the milk with kefir grains. These grains are a combination of bacteria and yeast which form a complex matrix with proteins and sugars. They are produced during the fermentation process, so with each process, more grains are produced which can be used for the next one. The kefir grains are bought or sometimes donated between growers. They are quite small and white or yellow in color, containing bacteria such as lactic streptococci, lactose-fermenting yeast, and kefiran, a water soluble polysaccharide produced by the grains themselves during the fermentation process.
To make Kefir, the milk and kefir grains are mixed in skin bags and left overnight at room temperature. Traditionally, the skin bag is hung on the door knob so that any time the door is opened or closed the bag is stirred, continuously mixing the kefir. The result is a sour-tasting, carbonated, slightly alcoholic drink that is similar to yogurt in consistency. For a sweeter tasting kefir, you can get water kefir, which is kefir made with water, sugar, lemon juice and dry fruits such as figs. The alternative is to blend frozen fruits with the kefir to make a smoothie. You can also get dairy-free kefir made from soy milk and coconut milk.
As for the health benefits, kefir is rich in probiotics and B vitamins. If the kefir is allowed to ferment for a longer period of time, it will have a more sour taste, but it is rich in folic acid. Research has shown it to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol in rats, but this is yet to be verified in humans.
It’s easy enough to buy kefir from a local store if it caters to the tastes of people groups that live in the area. Otherwise, any Eastern European or Russian food store will sell it. If you would like to make kefir at home, here’s a simple recipe:
- Ingredients: 1 tablespoon of kefir culture (also available from specialist stores), fresh milk (or you can use soy milk or coconut milk if you’re lactose intolerant). You’ll also need a 500ml glass jar.
- Ensure you have clean hands, a clean jar and clean non-metallic utensils to prevent contamination as the risk of bad bacteria thriving in sour milk is quite high.
- Put the kefir culture in the jar and fill ⅔rd of the jar with milk before covering with the lid. A lot of gases are produced during fermentation so you need the space to ensure the jar doesn’t break. The alternative is to use a jar with a rubber gasket that can allow the gases to escape.
- Let the mix stand at room temperature for 24 hours. The length of time for fermentation depends on your taste – 12 hours for a lighter, sweeter kefir, or even 48 hours for a thicker, sourer kefir. The hotter the ambient temperature, the faster the fermentation process. So if you are in the West, it’s probably best making kefir in the summer months.
- Strain the kefir into a clean jar using clean hands to remove the culture or a wooden spoon. The culture is easy to identify as it is jelly-like in appearance and surrounds the kefir grains. This jelly-like substance is kefiran.
- Once you have the kefiran, place it into a clean jar. You can add more milk to this jar to make another batch.
As you can see, these are quite simple steps to follow. The main point is hygiene, as stated earlier, to ensure your culture does not become contaminated. Kefir is a ‘live food’ – the cultures will continue to thrive. With this in mind, you can vary the taste and consistency of your kefir by doing a few things:
- Timing: We’ve already seen from the recipe above that you can have a sweeter kefir if you allow it to stand for a maximum of 12 hours. Some people can leave it for 2-3 days and get a very sour kefir that’s not for the faint-hearted. You can leave the mix in the fridge for a few days as the low temperatures means the kefir will take longer to ferment.
- Double Fermentation: Once you’ve completed the recipe above, leave the kefir to continuing fermenting without the grains for another 12 to 24 hours. Then you can put it in the fridge.
- Continuous fermentation: Again, not for the faint hearted as the result is a very sour and fizzy kefir. The first batch of kefir you made is your main store, and you keep adding batches of kefir to this one. For this, you will need a very large jar with a rubber gasket to ensure the gases escape safely.
As kefir continues to ferment, you will continue to get more grains. You can use this for more kefir or pass them on to a friend. To store the culture, just put it in a clean jar, cover with some milk, and place in the fridge. Remember the low temperature slows down the fermentation process. When you’re ready to use it, let it stay out in room temperature for a few hours to revitalize the bacterial culture.
Finally, it’s best to store kefir you’ve made in the fridge, as mentioned earlier. However, if you want to keep it at room temperature, be aware that it will continue to ferment even without the kefir grains. To do this, always use a jar with a rubber gasket, and be prepared for very sour and fizzy kefir.
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