Kefir: Bringing Home a Little Old-World Magic
I live with a household of microscopic beings that contribute to my enjoyment, and nourish and enrich my health. These little beings of antiquated lineage have the ability to transform the ordinary into something much more: a drink, an elixir. They do this thanklessly, and I contribute to the dance, becoming an integral part of the process. I am grateful for the relationship I have with my microorganism friends. Kefir, cheers! Here’s to you!
Living in the modern world can be stressful. This can affect even us stay-at-home moms: The world is very different from that of our great-great-grandmothers, and our lives have become increasingly busy, with little time left for traditional, old-school nourishment. Gone are the days when multi-generational families lived and worked together, becoming a community in themselves, at the end of the day sharing a well-prepared meal and perhaps listening to stories told by their elders.
In contrast, we have been bombarded with media that show us visions of fast-paced families all bustling about, each member going his or her separate way during the day, regrouping in the evening and grabbing a readymade meal. In truth, many families already live like this. Like mothers all over the world, I strive to provide the best for my family. It is wonderful when we are able to find some bit of the old world that fits into our schedule. For me, kefir is that something— a probiotic drink that offers something for everyone.
I became interested in kefir after learning about the probiotic benefits of cultured and fermented foods through the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit group that focuses on teaching traditional nutrition. For thousands of years, people all over the world have been supporting the health of their families through cultured and fermented foods. Culturing and fermentation was a way of preserving certain foods without refrigeration, as well as boosting their nutrient value. Culturing can help provide added probiotics, micronutrients, vitamins and enzymes for better digestion.
Many cultured foods can take practice and experience to get a consistent result, but kefir is easy, even for the novice cook: It takes little time, and is versatile in the kitchen, renewable and inexpensive. I am a busy mom, and although I love to cook and have been culturing for more than a decade, it is precisely these attributes that make kefir near and dear to my heart.
Legend of the Grains
So, where did kefir come from, and what exactly is this wonder culture? The origins of kefir are somewhat shrouded in mystery. Perhaps forming by spontaneous wild fermentation, kefir has been used for more than 2,000 years by the long-lived inhabitants of the Caucasus Mountains. This extensive mountain range, the dividing line between Europe and Asia, is one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse places on Earth. The Muslim peoples of the Caucasus considered the kefir grains a gift from God, a sacred food. Grains were passed down from generation to generation; to this day, people in Tibet enjoy a breakfast of kefir cultured in yaks’ milk and flavored with salt. I cannot help but feel connected to this process when I consider that my grains come from such a long tradition of honor and care.
The precious grains, often referred to as “jeweled grains,” were brought to Russia; the legend of the journey is a story filled with romantic intrigue, involving a Caucasus prince and a beautiful girl. From there they have traveled westward ever since. The grains themselves are not true grains, but are a gelatinous matrix of bacteria consisting of various strains of friendly yeasts and lactobacilli, lipids, sugars and proteins.
There are two varieties of kefir grains. Milk kefir grains, which are cultured in a dairy medium such as cow, goat, sheep, yak, nut or soy milk, transform ordinary milk into a slightly effervescent, slightly sour beverage that is much higher in gut-friendly microorganisms than yogurt (a cultured dairy product with which most of us are familiar). Milk kefir grains are opaque, pale cream to yellow in color, and resemble cooked cauliflower. As they feed, they produce more grains over time.
Sugar kefir grains, also called water kefir, feed on a mixture of sugar and water, often with dried fruit added for additional flavor and trace minerals. These grains are similar to milk kefir but do not have the same bacterial complexity. They are smaller in size, and transparent in appearance. Sugar kefir results in a beverage that is fizzy like soda, but unlike the highfructose corn syrup drinks on the market, this tasty treat is full of enzymes and probiotics. It’s a favorite of our children, and even the sweet neighbor kid who is a known picky eater.
Now that you know a bit about what kefir is and its history, how does it relate to practical, in-home kitchen magic? Well, I said before that kefir is easy, and it is. The only equipment you need is a jar or bowl of sufficient size to hold your milk and grains—I use canning jars; they are food-safe and available everywhere—a strainer made of food-grade nylon or stainless steel, and a large-mouth canning funnel for returning the grains to the jar. (Do not use iron, aluminum or any other material that might have a reaction to lactic acid, as these metals will leach into the kefir and could kill your grains.)
To make milk kefir, use the bestquality milk you have available. Combine your kefir grains with milk in a 1: 7 ratio (i.e., ½ cup of grains will culture one quart of milk, and so on) in your jar. Secure the lid to prevent insects from checking your kefir out (they love kefir, too!). Set your jar on the counter and wait, every now and then giving the jar a gentle shake to stir things up. The culturing should take 12 to 24 hours at room temperature. The milk protein will coagulate and separate from the whey; at this stage the kefir is ready. Strain out the kefir grains. If you wish a tarter flavor and higher folic acid content, leave the freshly strained kefir out to culture further while you start another batch with your grains, beginning the process again with fresh milk. Kefir grains can be covered with milk and stored in the refrigerator for up to a week; they will continue to culture, but at a much slower rate.
The Right Milk Matters
Twelve years ago I made an online purchase of live kefir grains. I had already been aware that there were packaged starters that would make a few batches of kefir before becoming exhausted, but being a bit frugal, I was not interested in continuously purchasing a product that I would be dependent on. I did some research, discovering that kefir grains were the origin of kefir, and were self-replicating— as long as I did my part in caring for the grains, they could last forever. My grains came to me live with “mail lag” pick-me-up instructions: Feed me, feed me, feed me. I did, and they grew.
In the beginning I was just learning about raw milk and the many well-researched reasons to drink it. I hadn’t been able to find it, so I started out with pasteurized, homogenized market milk. Making kefir with milk that already was devoid of enzymes and that had been altered on a molecular level through the homogenization process was a bit tricky at first, but I soon learned to time the culturing to 12 hours on the counter and 12 to 48 in the refrigerator. This allowed the bacteria to work on the lactose and casein, turning my market milk into a raw, enzymatic drink with a fresh, lively taste. I next began using cream-line milk, which is available in many health and natural food stores; it comes in glass jugs and you can see the cream right on top where it should be. Because this milk is also pasteurized, I used the same method as I had for market milk.
At last I was able to obtain fresh, grass-fed, raw milk. With this live milk it was possible to make a super-yummy kefir with complex little taste explosions. Like a fine wine that gets better with age, raw milk availed itself to further experimentation in timing.
Today my kefir grains grow on a diet of raw goats’ milk that I milk daily. My grains are bigger than ever— some as large as a quarter! The natural homogenization of fats in goats’ milk makes for a deliciously creamy texture. Over the years my family has enjoyed kefir in many forms. We make a soft hung cheese by straining the kefir through a cheesecloth or thin cotton dish towel overnight and letting all the whey drain out. In the morning salt, herbs and garlic are added; everyone loves cheese and veggies. These days kefir replaces buttermilk in most of our recipes; pancakes and Irish soda bread rise beautifully, and my daughter loves kefir ranch dressing. For a fast, quick meal anytime, we use it in fruit or veggie smoothies, and for breakfast my youngest daughter and I like the old-world standard, kefir and salt.
The cycle is complete: One day I will pass my kefir grains on to my daughters.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #32.
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