Kefir, from start to finish
From a few kefir grains in the bottom of a bowl to a delicious smoothie, here's what you need to join the growing kefir movement. (All photos: Enrique Gili)
Along with a surge in the popularity of traditional homemade foods, enthusiasm for pickling, fermenting and canning is at an all-time high — all part of the movement sprouting across the country that embraces DIY vegetable gardens and support for organic practices in general. If you belong to the tribe, then kefir may need no further introduction, but for everyone else, here's a brief explanation.
Kefir is a dairy-based yogurt-like drink that has its origins in the mountainous Caucasus region of Russia widely regarded to be the birthplace of wine and cheese making. Millennia ago, pastoralists discovered the process of fermentation and the practice spread widely throughout the Mediterranean as a way to preserve grapes and dairy products well beyond the growing season.
Flavor-wise, kefir tastes like a tangy cross between buttermilk and goat cheese — except better. Adherents swear by kefir's health benefits for the same reason kombucha is consumed. It boosts the immune system and is quite tasty, once you become accustomed to the flavor.
You don't need special equipment to make kefir and it requires only two ingredients: kefir grains and whole milk. (Well, three ingredients if you want to get fancy and add something extra, like lemon peels.) Plus kefir's creamy texture and full flavor make it a wonderful addition to baked goods and smoothies. After making a batch or two, you might want to experiment further and master the ins and outs of the fermentation process.
How to get started: First, find a kefir-making friend by posting a note at the food co-op or online at sites that cater to the fermenting community. Next, get your supplies and gear. Kefir grains are composed of symbiotic yeast and bacteria, resembling tiny cauliflower florets. Once they've been activated in milk, you’ll have plenty of grains to spare to make your next batch of kefir.

Equipment you'll need

  • 2 sealable glass jars
  • 1 glass or plastic bowl
  • Rubber band
  • 1 plastic sieve or cheesecloth
  • 1 wooden spoon or rubber spatula
  • 1 to 2 tbs. kefir grains
  • 3 cups whole milk
  • 2 or 3 lemon peels (optional)
Cooking directions
  1. Place 1 to 2 tablespoons of kefir grains into a clean 1-quart glass jar. Pour 3 cups milk into the jar. Place 1 to 2 tablespoons of kefir grains into a clean 1-quart glass jar. Pour 3 cups milk into the jar.
  2. Cover jar with cheesecloth, paper towel or napkin and secure with a rubber band. Cover jar with cheesecloth, paper towel or napkin and secure with a rubber band
  3. Store jar at room temperature (70 to 85 degrees) and away from direct sunlight. After 18 hours, check milk for taste and consistency. Fermented milk thickens and tastes tangy. If nothing happens after 24 hours, refrigerate jar overnight. Remove from fridge and check every few hours. Store jar at room temperature 70 to 85 degrees and away from direct sunlight
  4. Let taste and smell be your guide. Over time, kefir will become increasingly sour. Ideally it should taste like a cross between goat cheese and buttermilk with a creamy texture.
  5. Strain contents through sieve into a bowl, separating grains from milk, and tamp sieve with a plastic spatula or wooden spoon to remove excess liquid. Add lemon peel to bowl. Pour kefir into a sealable glass jar and return kefir grains to the mother ship for future batches. Lemon peel added to a strained kefir mixture

When in use, kefir grains can be stored at room temperature in a glass jar with a loose-fitting lid. When pockets of clear liquid form, add whole milk.

When handling kefir grains, use plastic or wood utensils. It’s widely believed that metal will react with the grains, which over time reduces their ability to ferment milk.

Kefir grains hibernate at temperatures below 60 degrees and can be stored in the fridge for up to three weeks at a time. To reactive grains place them on the counter for 24 hours and add whole milk.

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