Kefir: The hardest working grains in the business

Kefir in a glass

What on earth is kefir? This was my initial reaction when my research first took me to the topic of fermented milk-based drinks. I had heard about yoghurt of course, and had a vague idea of what lassi was (combination yoghurt or buttermilk and water drink) but had no idea of kefir.

I needed to find out quickly for I had a deadline to write on this topic. So I put aside a weekend to research the topic. What I discovered about milk kefir over the two days both astonished and inspired me.

It was the historical legend that first drew my attention.* For kefir is believed to have first originated in the Caucasus Mountains between present-day Russia and North Ossetia. According to folk fables (partly immortalised by the old Soviet regime), it was here that the Ossetian people first harnessed the cauliflower-sized grains to ferment the milk they carried. This they did in simple leather bags. Obviously, the Ossetians were thinking of ways to best preserve the milk on their travels however it’s only now — through scientific studies — that we can see the added health properties they would have enjoyed.

Yoghurt is considered one of the greatest sources of probiotics. It contains a number of strains of “good” bacteria that act as a boost to our gut health. However subsequent research (see below) has found kefir to be far more healthy as a source of probiotics than yoghurt. In other words, it’s a “probiotic powerhouse”. With over 40 strains of bacteria compared to the handful supplied by ordinary yoghurt, the comparison is obvious and stark.

Having done the research and written the article, I was intrigued enough to want to try milk kefir. And I had just the source for the grains. My friend Susan from the NSW North Coast has been making fermented foods for many years before it was “fashionable” to do so. If anyone had the grains, and the knowledge, it would be her. And I was right. Not only had she a quantity of the hard-working grains but made plans to ship them down at no charge. This with instructions on how to “care” for them. After the arrival of the grains and a few clarifications via Messenger — Susan was very patient — I was ready to go.

Caring for the grains is the right term, they need to be looked after (I kid you not) to ferment milk properly. Do this and they’ll reward you with the finest probiotic-rich thick yoghurt-style milk drink or food. Neglect them and they’ll sulk. Maybe I need to explain further?

As mentioned, the grains were first believed to have been cultivated where herders may have discovered the storage benefits of fermented milk on their long travels. The grains thrive on fresh milk, turning it into kefir, which can be used as a drink or Greek-style yoghurt. They love work and given the right conditions will multiply. Alarmingly as I found! For it took only a tablespoon of the grains to turn a jar of full cream milk into kefir after one or two days (see full recipe below). It wasn’t long before we had four or five jars of beautiful kefir in our cupboard.

Kefir grains after straining

Quality grains can sometimes be difficult to find. So, if anyone would like to try kefir and can’t source them, please contact me. I can supply you with enough of the workers to get you started, along with Susan’s instructions and a few free pointers of my own on how to care for them and how to make the delicious, oh-so-healthy fermented milk drink or yoghurt.

Milk kefir yoghurt

  1. Beg, steal or borrow about a tablespoon of kefir grains (online or from some health food shops or friends).
  2. Place grains in the bottom of a small jar.
  3. Fill the jar with fresh, full-fat milk.
  4. Leave in a cool place for around one to two days.
  5. When ready (kefir will have risen to the top and the curds and whey will separate), strain through a fine strainer to remove the whey. (If making a kefir drink, keep the whey.)
  6. Using a wooden spoon, press and stir the grains and kefir mix through the strainer.
  7. Remove the remaining grains and start the process again by placing in a jar with milk.
  8. Pour thick kefir yoghurt into a glass container, keep refrigerated and enjoy!

*Interested in learning more about the legend of kefir?

Want to find out more on the health benefits?

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