Monday, September 22, 2014

Monday Meet Whole Foods: Kefir

This post is waaay overdue! For those of you who have been waiting for it, I apologize! For those of you who didn't know you were waiting for it, I apologize as well. It's been a while since I've done an installment of Monday: Meet Whole Foods. For those of you who aren't familiar with this series, I like to introduce a healthy whole food and teach you a little bit about how to use it. I hope to do lots more of these in the future, but today's is especially important. Hold on to your hats, folks, today I am pleased to introduce you to:
A kefir grain
How do I say Kefir?
I pronounce this word "Kee-fur", but as I was doing research for this post, I found various sources saying why or why not this pronunciation is or is not correct. It's beyond the scope of this post to argue any pronunciation points, I'm simply here to share what's awesome to me about Kefir (and in case you're wondering I plan on pronouncing it "kee-fur" for the remainder of the post :).

What is Kefir?
Kefir is a fermented milk drink made with milk "grains". Kefir tastes and looks like sour plain yogurt. It is a bit runnier than the plain yogurt that you buy in the store. Kefir is made by adding kefir "grains" to milk. I use cows milk, but goat's milk or sheep's milk will all work. Kefir grains look like little cauliflower florets, but are soft and squishy. They are a living, live organism and will grow and reproduce over time as they are "fed". They feed off of the sugar, lactose, found in milk. Like other living organisms, kefir grains will lose viability and may even die if they are not cared for properly.

How do I make it?
Believe it or not, kefir (the drink) is VERY EASY to make. You simply add the grains to a clean container that is three-fourths full of milk, place a lid on the container, and then let the mixture sit for several hours at room temperature to culture or ferment. The time that this takes will vary, but usually with a ratio of one Tablespoon kefir grains to one cup of milk it takes about 24 hours. When it is cultured to your liking, you remove the kefir grains (with a plastic spoon or strainer) and place them in a new jar of fresh milk to culture. If you're not ready to culture a fresh batch right away, the kefir grains can be kept in the cultured milk in the refrigerator for a few days or in a jar of fresh uncultured milk in the refrigerator. When you're ready to start making it again, simply remove the kefir grains from the refrigerator and start the process over again.

Just a note about this process, kefir grains that are kept in the refrigerator won't be as viable as those that are kept at room temperature, meaning they won't reproduce as often or culture the milk as fast. If your grains aren't reproducing as quickly as you would like, try minimizing the time they spend in the refrigerator to encourage them to be more viable.

It is important not to leave the kefir grains culturing in the milk for too long at room temperature. Your kefir will get very strong and will not be enjoyable to drink at that point. Don't worry if you've let it go a little too long and the whey starts to separate from the curds (like little miss muffet). My rule of thumb is, your grains are still fine and the kefir is still safe to use as long as there is no mold growing. If there is mold growing, I recommend you throw the whole thing out and begin over again (with new grains). If there is no mold, you should still be fine to begin again using the same kefir grains, discarding the sour kefir if you can't use it.

A few more tips for success making Kefir:
From what I've read and heard, Kefir is best made and stored in glass containers. It's also best to keep it out of direct sources of sunlight. Kefir can withstand some heat, but will lose it's viability if it gets too hot (cooking will kill it). Freezing your grains may also damage them, so it's best not to freeze them. It is best to use plastic spoons, lids, and strainers when working with kefir. You will want to keep your jars covered to avoid contamination. If you have a metal lid on the jar, just make sure the kefir does not "touch" the lid, and you should be fine to keep using it. If storing in the refrigerator for more than 2 weeks, feed the grains with new, fresh milk every few weeks to make sure they stay alive and active.

What kind of milk do I use?
We usually use whole milk when we make kefir. In fact, we have been drinking only whole milk lately. Raw whole milk would be wonderful if you have that available to you at a reasonable cost, but we usually just use the whole milk from the store. There is some debate about whether milk from sources other than animals will work for kefir. From what I've read, other forms of milk (like coconut, almond, etc.) may be able to culture kefir, but the grains will not thrive and grow in them. I'd love to hear your experience with this as well if you've tried other types of milk.

What do I do with the Kefir milk?
The easy answer is drink it. My husband drinks his straight. I on the other hand am a little more picky by nature so I love to use it in smoothies. My aunt loves to sweetened it and eat it with this yummy granola. You can strain it through cheesecloth and make something that resembles a sour cream cheese. You can make kefir ice cream. You can sweeten it and eat it like yogurt. Add berries or fresh fruit if you like. Use it in a salad dressing. However you choose, just consume it. It's good for you. To obtain all of the health benefits of kefir, it needs to be consumed raw. The live bacteria is what is so good for you. It can be cooked, but it loses it's main health benefits. If you are making too much kefir to use exclusively in raw recipes, using it in place of buttermilk or milk in a recipe is a good option. I've read that a 1:1 ratio will work for kefir in place of buttermilk. A 1 to 1:1.25 ratio works best for kefir in place of milk (use 1.25 times the kefir if the recipe calls for milk).

Where do I get the grains?
Unfortunately, kefir grains can't just be grown themselves. You have to have a source for them to start with and then you can produce more. The best way to obtain grains would be to find someone who makes kefir and see if they will grow and donate some to you. That's how I obtained my grain to start with. A dear woman in my neighborhood who is a walking encyclopedia of healthy habits gave it to me and showed me a lot of the things that I'm sharing with you today. It's been about 15 months now and we are still happily producing kefir from the descendants of that original grain she shared. We now have "his" and "hers" jars that we keep in operation. I'm not kidding and here's proof:

Having 2 jars going works well for us. One time I accidentally ground up my grains in my smoothie (which is perfectly fine by the way - they are edible) and had to beg some from the "his" jar. Of course he was happy to share since I was the one who gave him his (but only after teasing me that it would cost me something...hahaha). So it's good to have a backup just in case. We've given away several of our little baby kefir grains to aspiring kefir growers and it makes us happy when we do. Unfortunately I don't think it's a very good option for me to ship these babies halfway across the world and back right now to all my dear readers so if you don't know me in person, I'm really sorry, but you'll have to find another source. 

You will want to do the research yourself since I didn't actually obtain mine this way, but here are just a few sources of live kefir grains that I've seen in my research that you could look into:
Cultures for Health (Amazon) (affiliate link*)
Lifetime Kefir (Amazon) (affiliate link*)
Fusion Teas (Amazon) (affiliate link*)
Snowberry Organic Cultures (Amazon) (affiliate link*)
Kefir Lady (non-affiliate link)
Yemoos Market (non-affiliate link)
Dom's (non-affiliate link)
Donna's Store (non-affiliate link)
Benefits of Kefir (non-affiliate link)

What you are looking for are the living milk kefir grains (if you buy the dry grains you will have to spend some time re-hydrating them, which is okay, but living would be best). Once you buy the living grains you should be able to keep growing them time and time again without having to purchase anything else. There's also water grains and you can also convert the milk grains to water grains, but those topics are both way beyond the scope of this post.

How healthy is Kefir?
Kefir grains are packed with good micro-organisms, micro- and macro-nutrients, essential vitamins and minerals like proteins, vitamin B, vitamin K, folic acid, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, among others. Kefir, like yogurt, is a wonderful source of natural probiotics. Probiotics are the live organism (healthy bacteria) that are naturally found in our digestive tracts. These good bacteria help rid our systems of harmful bacteria and boost our immune system's response. Kefir is thought to contain nearly three times the probiotic count as yogurt. Kefir also helps improve lactose digestion. Many people who can't digest milk (due to lactose intolerance) can digest kefir. The beneficial bacteria contained in kefir can actually colonize the intestinal tract keeping our digestive tract clean. My family has seen a huge benefit to drinking kefir in helping to improve our immune system's response and help in digestion. Historically, kefir has been recommended and been successful in the treatment of conditions such as constipation, diarrhea, gastrointestinal problems, hypertension, allergies, respiratory disease, ischemic heart disease, and many others. There are so many wonderful benefits to drinking this wonderful natural source of probiotics. If you're interested in reading more, do some searches online for health benefits of kefir and then go get started making it!

Got a recipe?
I hope this post was helpful for you in learning all about kefir. This week I'll be sharing one of my favorite recipes using kefir and look for more to come in the near future. If you have a favorite recipe that uses kefir, please feel free to leave a comment or send me an e-mail!

Information for the post came from: My neighbor friend, the sources listed above, and

*I do receive a small profit if you click and buy from this link, but please still do your research as it may not be your best price, value, or option. 

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