You may be asking yourself, what the heck is kefir? Kefir is a cultured milk product like yogurt, but better. Yogurt has become a very popular probiotic food, if not the most popular probiotic food, available in grocery stores. I think most consumers know that yogurts with live active cultures are good for healthy digestion. What many people don't know is that kefir has more live cultures than yogurt. In most yogurts, you will find only two major strains of bacteria, but kefir can have 30 or more strains of bacteria and yeast. When it comes to maintaining a healthy gut, diversity is important. Check out my article My Bacteria, Part 1 for more information about gut bacteria and prebiotic/probiotic foods.
The first thing to do is find some milk kefir grains. The grains are a fascinating phenomenon. Check out the Wikipedia entry for kefir if you're interested in learning more about the grains' origins or the benefits of drinking kefir. For now, you just need to find some grains. (Note: there are two kinds of kefir grains: milk kefir and water kefir. Personally, I have never tried water kefir. The following information is only about my homemade milk kefir.)
If you know somebody who makes kefir, just ask them for some grains. A great thing about kefir grains is they grow quite fast and you always have extra grains to share. If you don't know anybody currently making kefir, you can purchase grains online. Right now I'm making kefir with dried grains that I purchased on Amazon. These grains had been dehydrated for long-term storage, and it took a little while to bring the dried grains back to life. If you get fresh grains from a friend, you won't have any delay.
Next, you will need to find a high-quality milk source. Traditionally, kefir is made with fresh, raw milk from cows or goats. Raw milk is illegal in my state, so I found the next best thing. The milk I use is minimally processed and locally sourced from Hartzler's farm. They feed their cows grass, pasteurize the milk at low temperatures, and do not homogenize. The cream literally rises to the top in this milk, and you can scoop it out for a nice treat, or shake the bottles every day to keep it mixed. The flavor of this milk is amazing— very creamy and a little sweet, like milk should be. It also comes in reusable glass jars, which I return to the store in exchange for a deposit. My kefir-making process produces no waste, which is another benefit over purchasing commercially produced kefir in plastic bottles. You can make good kefir using any type of milk except for ultra-pasteurized. The ultra pasteurization process destroys nutrients in the the milk, and it's not suitable for making kefir. Like with cooking, better ingredients make a better end product.
Finally, you will need just a few pieces of hardware. I use two mason jars with plastic lids, a big measuring cup, a nylon mesh strainer, and a plastic spoon. Kefir can react with metal, so I stick to all glass or plastic in my process. You could use a stainless steel strainer and spoon without any negative reactions, but they are a little rough on the grains. I put links at the bottom for the exact equipment and starting grains I use.
When I first received my dried grains, I put them in a jar with 12 ounces of milk, covered with the lid, and let the jar sit on the countertop for 24 hours. Pretty simple. The dried grains came with a start-up instruction sheet in the package, but I didn't pay much attention to that. In my case, I only plan to drink 12 ounces of kefir every day, so I put the grains in 12 ounces of milk. You really can't mess up this part. What's important is what happens every day after the initial start-up. It took a few days for the grains to re-hydrate and start growing. Just stick with the process of giving them fresh milk every 24 hours and drinking the kefir every day. It's good to taste the kefir over the full spectrum of development from very mild to very tart. If you're lucky enough to start with fresh grains, try about two tablespoons with 12 ounces of milk. You will learn to dial in the ratio as you go along day to day.
Making consistently good kefir requires a daily routine. You can pause the process for vacations and such, but I'll explain that later. Here's my daily process:
1. This is my jar of milk with the grains inside after sitting on the countertop for 24 hours.
2. Open the jar and pour all the contents into the nylon mesh strainer over a large bowl. I like the shape of the big Pyrex measuring cup.
3. You can see the grains and the kefir sitting in the strainer. Lightly stir and tap the strainer on the bowl until all the kefir passes through and just the grains remain. Be gentle with the grains; you don't want to break them up too much or smash them through the mesh.
4. Rinse and dry the empty jar. Then scoop the grains back into the jar with the spoon.
5. Add 12 ounces of milk to the jar on top of the grains. Then leave the grains and milk on the countertop untouched for 24 hours and then go back to Step 1.
The kefir in the bowl is ready to drink. I take it a step further and do a second fermentation. To do this, transfer the kefir into the second clean jar and store in the refrigerator for another 24 hours. I like to drink it cold, and the extra time in the fridge kind of smooths out the flavor and gives it a nice effervescence. Kefir has been described as "the champagne of milk," and the second fermentation is how you can achieve that slight carbonation. Also, during the second fermentation is when you can add additional flavoring, like berries or honey if you want. I like plain kefir.
If you do the second fermentation, you will always have one jar of kefir on the countertop and one in the refrigerator. I always use the same two jars and just rinse them out with hot water and dry them with a paper towel. After I strain the kefir from the countertop jar, I leave it in the big measuring cup while I take the second fermentation out of the fridge and pour it into a drinking glass. Then I transfer the strained kefir into the refrigerator jar. The basic progression is:
1. Fresh milk on the grains (countertop jar)
2. Strained kefir in the fridge (refrigerator jar)
3. 2nd-day kefir ready for me to drink (in a glass)
Pictured here in the glass is my cold kefir from the fridge and the strained kefir in the jar ready to go into the fridge for 24 hours.
The Curds and Whey
If you're using good milk and following the daily process, your grains will grow pretty quickly. Eventually, you will have too many grains in the milk, and it will separate into curds and whey. This is the first stage of making cheese. If you want to make cheese, you could intentionally let it separate and follow a cheese-making process instead of drinking the kefir. When I see that my second fermentation batch has separated after 24 hours in the refrigerator, I know to remove and discard about 1/3 to 1/2 of the grains from the countertop jar. You could share these grains with a friend, or feed them to the dog... or just toss them out. I have to remove grains about every 3 to 4 days. The ratio of grains to milk determines the acidity, and too much acidity causes the separation of curds and whey. You could get a bigger jar and add more milk to the grains and make bigger and bigger batches of kefir. I only want to make 12 ounces of kefir per day, so I remove grains.
If your countertop jar separates during the first fermentation, that's okay, too. You might have to work a little longer to retrieve the grains from inside the curd. Just keep gently stirring and tapping the strainer down on the bowl. The grains will eventually reveal themselves. The grains may have a little curd stuck to them but just keep following the same daily process. The fresh milk will rinse off that excess curd. Make sure to remove some grains at this point, or add more milk if you want to increase batch size.
Here is a jar that separated during second fermentation. You can clearly see the curds on top and the whey on the bottom. It's still good to drink. I just shake it up before pouring it into a glass and remove some grains from my countertop jar. It has a tart, acidic taste kind of like plain Greek yogurt. As mentioned before, you could start making homemade cheese with the curd at this point, or use the whey in other recipes.
At some point, you will need to pause the kefir-making process. There are a couple of options. For a short break, I just put my countertop jar, with the grains and a lot of fresh milk, into the refrigerator. The cold environment will slow down the kefir-making process and extend it for about a week. I have heard that if you let it go too long, the grains will dissolve as the kefir becomes overly acidic. A higher milk-to-grains ratio will be helpful here. If you plan to go more than a week, you could freeze some of your extra grains for about a month. Hopefully, at this point, you have shared your grains with someone, and they will have extra to give back in case your frozen grains struggle to wake up from cryostasis. If all else fails, you can just purchase new dried grains and start over again, but with a little planning, that extra cost can be avoided.
Here are links to the exact equipment I use and the grains that got me started. Click the images to see them on Amazon.
Like I said before, a higher-quality milk will make a higher-quality kefir. Hartzler's is the best milk I could find locally. It's minimally processed from grass-fed cows, pasteurized at low temperatures and non-homogenized. It's just how milk should be. The returnable glass bottles allow for a zero-waste process.
Delicious milk from Hartzler's Farm in glass bottles.
Thanks for reading about my kefir-making process. It's very simple. After a couple of days, you will establish a rhythm. The end product made at home from grains is much better than the store-bought "kefir-like" product. This is the only way to make real kefir. It's more cost effective because you only add milk, and you will have tons grains to share. I'll be happy to answer any questions in the comments section below. Please like and share!