Milk Kefir: the Tangy Probiotic Drink

There are many ways to get natural probiotics into your diet. Kimchi, yogurt, and kombucha are just a few of my family’s favorites. Recently, we decided to add milk kefir to the mix. You never can get too many probiotics!

Milk Kefir: the Tangy Probiotic Drink

What is kefir?

Put simply, kefir is a probiotic dairy drink that has a tangy taste. The type of bacteria used to ferment kefir is primarily what makes it different from yogurt. There are quire a few other differences, most of which can be seen in this article from Cultures for Health.

As a probiotic, kefir provides a nice variety of beneficial bacteria and yeast for your digestive tract. When you consume probiotics as part of your diet instead of in a pill, the healthy bacteria can take hold much more effectively.

strained milk kefir grains
Straining kefir grains.

Those who need to avoid gluten do not have to worry about kefir “grains.” They are not seed grains at all.

Milk kefir grains are actually small clumps of several types of bacteria. I think they strongly resemble the clumps in cottage cheese after they are active.

While the tangy flavor of kefir can be an acquired taste, its healthy gut benefits make it well worth it. But, it doesn’t have to be consumed by itself.

What can I do with kefir?

If you want to go the historical, traditional route, just drink finished kefir by itself. The flavor improves slightly if you refrigerate it, but even then my husband doesn’t like the tangy taste. As I said, it is an acquired taste.

Kefir shake with chia seeds.
Kefir shake with chia seeds.

My personal favorite way to use kefir is as part of a shake. Mix in a little bit of protein powder and some flavoring, and you can get past the tang.

My most recent experimental shake was with strawberry flavored protein powder and baobab powder. Even my husband enjoyed it.

Besides as a drink, kefir can be used in many ways. You can replace milk, yogurt, or buttermilk in almost any recipe and still achieve great results. I successfully used kefir in my sourdough waffles recipe without changing the flavor.

Unfortunately, heating the kefir does reduce the probiotic benefit. I only use it in heated recipes if I am running low of something or if I have excess kefir that I need to use up.

One other note about using kefir before we move on. While the process turns milk into something that lactose sensitive people can consume, kefir may trigger a reaction in those with milk allergies. If you have a problem with problem with regular milk, use kefir with caution or use water kefir instead.

How can I make milk kefir?

What you need

You only need kefir grains and some type of milk to make kefir. I use whole milk for the creamiest texture (it’s also what we have in the house anyway), but any kind of milk will work.

You don’t need very many tools either: a glass jar, a non-metal strainer, a breathable cover, and a rubber band. When the kefir is really thick, I also use a silicone spatula.

I use a canning jar that has measurement lines on it. If you don’t have one, you’ll need a measuring cup. My preferred cover is a coffee filter – I have a lot of them and they are cheap, so the cover is easy to replace. I also use the ring of the canning jar lid instead of a rubber band.

For your strainer, I really recommend that you use something with a fine weave, but not too fine. You could use a coffee filter to strain the kefir, but that will take a long time. Cheesecloth also works, but can end up trapping the grains. My favorite tool is a cheap nylon mesh strainer.

milk kefir starter grainsIf you don’t have most of those tools or kefir grains, you might be interested in getting a good Milk Kefir Starter Kit. If you only need the milk kefir grains, I very successfully used this product.

You could save the money on kefir grains if you know someone who already makes kefir. The grains multiply over time, so your friend might be happy enough to share.

How to get started

If you don’t have that friend, you’ll probably need to activate some dry kefir grains. That’s how I started.

The dry grains that I ordered came with excellent instructions on how to activate the grains. If you get some that don’t, here’s what you need to do:

kefir in one cup of milkFirst, stir your dry kefir grains into 1 cup of cold, pasteurized, whole milk. If you want to use a different milk, wait until your kefir grains are fully activated.

Next, secure your breathable cover over the jar and set the jar in a warm spot out of direct sunlight. A temperature range of 68°F-85°F is best. If you have some other fermentation projects going (sourdough, kombucha, wine, etc.), keep your jar at least 4 feet away.

Each day, you’ll need to strain the kefir grains off of the milk. If the milk thickens in less than 24 hours, add 1/2 cup more milk to the grains than before. If not, strain anyway and put the same amount of fresh milk as before.

It could take anywhere from 3-7 days for dry grains to become active. As long as the smell and taste isn’t like spoiled milk, you can use whatever you strain off of the kefir grains.

If your kefir gets very thick before you can strain it, you will probably need to use something like my silicone spatula to gently move the creamy dairy around on the strainer. Depending on how fine the weave of your strainer is, this might take a little while, but it will work.

After your kefir has been working for a while, you might notice that the grains have multiplied. Eventually, you’ll be making more kefir than you can use. Then you get to become the friend who shares a portion of your kefir grains.

Is there anything else I need to know?

One very important thing to remember when working with your kefir grains is that they should never touch metal. Most metal will cause a small reaction in the grain’s bacteria that will likely kill it. If it doesn’t actually die, it will at least become impaired for a few days.

There are a few things to keep in mind if you want to use a different milk other than whole pasteurized milk.

  • Lower fat milk will produce a thinner kefir.
  • Raw milk can have more bacteria than pasteurized milk, so be sure to use the freshest milk.
  • Use a milk that has some level of lactose. Coconut milk has had varying degrees of success, but almond milk should not be used.
  • Avoid ultra-pasteurized milk. The overly “clean” environment is hostile to the milk kefir grains.
  • Wait until after the kefir grains have fully activated before switching to a different milk. When you do, it will help a lot to transition slowly (gradually increase the ratio of the new milk to the whole milk). Expect a day or two of decreased thickness as the grains get used to the new milk.

During the winter, or if your kitchen is just colder than 68°F anyway, you may need to find a way to insulate the kefir. I need to deal with that right now. One way to insulate the culturing kefir is by wrapping it in a dish towel. Other solutions can be found here.

Finally, if you are having trouble with your milk kefir grains, try out this list of troubleshooting tips.

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