I have been meaning to post about how I make kefir from the grains I got from my freedomgardens pal Theresa. Its only taken 6 months to pull this post out of my draft folder and finally finish it! Kefir grains are interesting in that they cannot be made in a lab persay as a culture, the only way to get more kefir grains is to keep some happy until they grow (propogate) and you have so many grains you end up having to give half of them away unless you're making huge qualities of kefir daily. My grains came from Theresa, who got them from a friend, who got them from a friend in Missouri, and at some point those came from New York, and thats as far back as I personally know....theres something very cool having a culture with a lineage. :)
In the interest of time I'll spare you the details of what kefir is, its history, and the science behind it. To find out more then you ever wanted to know about kefir, check out Doms Kefir In-site, he seriosly answers any question you could ever think of and then some. I learned by reading and rereading Doms site, and he updates it regularly with more info, recipes, and methods for using kefir grains for fermenting other drinks. I still check it out every week because theres so much still to learn, and he has a ton of info on his sites.
Why do I bother making it? To summarize, I drink it because its like yogurt but tastier, its fizzy, and because I think its really cool how these little cauliflower like 'grains' turn milk into something different.
Because I am working with a dairy product, I make sure everything that touches the milk or kefir is very clean, not sterilized, but just washed with hot water and soap and rinsed very well. Remember we are activly trying to give the milk a good environment for the kefir to ferment as it would, and if any other 'bad bugs' get into the party it can cause issues.
Cindys Step by Step kefir culture methods ( if you want more photos to double check your work, see Doms instructions)
My basic kefir making supplies are:
1 glass quart canning jar (washed in hot soapy water, rinsed very well, and air dried) and its 2 piece lid
1 glass quart jar of fresh milk/kefir grains thats cultured as long as I've intended (more on this later)
jug of fresh milk, fresh from your animal or from the fridge.
*** if you have never made kefir before and have just gotten your grains, you should have a small bowl of your kefir grains soaking in a bit of cool, filtered and very importantly unchlorinated water (chlorine kills things, dont kill your grains) and 1 jar of fresh milk ready to go
1 small strainer that fits in the opening of your quart jar (some people avoid metal, I never had a problem with my particular little strainer)
1 small bowl/dish for collecting the kefir grains as they get strained out
1 long handled spoon, for stirring
First of all, observe your grains. Take a whiff of them, either the jar of cultured milk with the grains floating in it, or your shipped container of grains in their liquid. Its normal for them to smell slightly yeasty, or kinda sour like a good yogurt ( the longer its cultured the more 'tangy' it smells), but not bad like rotten milk or heaven forbid rotten eggs, that means some other bacteria got into your culture or the milk and contaminated your liquid. Do not drink the liquid, but do not throw away your kefir grains, they can be rinsed and reused, but more on that later. The more you get used to making kefir, the more you get a sense ( and smell) of whats normal and whats bad.
I start and end my kefir culturing in the fridge, so when I am about to stain my kefir the grains have either sunk to the bottom, or more often risen to the top and are trapped in this thick mass of what looks like curds or foam on the surface, depending on how long it was culturing, if it was culturing at a lower temp in the fridge vs at room temp, and how often I disturbed the kefir by shaking the jar or stirring. I break it up with a spoon to make straining the grains out of the liquid easier.
stirring results in something like this, kindof a creamy cottage cheese stuff, which is your kefir grains and the coagulated kefir ( a mixture of milk and a substance called kefiren) that sticks to them and protects them.
place your strainer over your clean quart jar, and slowly pour in the cultured kefir, its thick so give it a few seconds to strain thru, its easy for it to get a little backed up if its very thick or theres a big clump of grains. Gently stir the kefir in the strainer if needed with a clean spoon to gently break up any large lumps and free up that thick kefir from the grains to fall into the collecting jar below ( thats the most concentrated stuff right there, whats on the grains themselves). I find that gently tapping the strainer on top of the jar shaked the kefir thru faster and knocks off a good amount of the very probiotic 'curds' thru the strainer and into the kefir below.
As our strainer fills with grains tip them into a little clean bowl and voila, you have a glass jar full of ready to drink kefir and clean ready to resuse kefir grains for your next batch. Depending on the batch its perfectly normal for the grains to sometimes have more or less 'curds' sticking to them. I tap the strainer until most of the creamy stuff have been knocked off.
If you are just starting off with new grains from the internet or a friend, strain the kefir grain/water mixture thru the strainer, discard the water and now you are on the same page: a batch of happy little kefir grains ready to go back to work. I know its tempting to touch the grains , they have a firm, rubbery and slimy feel to them, but try to only do this once in a great while with very, very, VERY clean hands so you don't get germs on your grains- not to mention they are very slippery and easy to drop down the kitchen sink. (don't ask how I know this)
You should now have your clean jar full of freshly strained, ready to use kefir, your little bowl of kefire grains and 1 dirty jar that was the culture jar.
Don't wash the jar.
No, I'm not kidding. We're taking advantage of a little thing called continuous fermentation, that is, that kefir clinging to the sides of that jar when mixed with the kefir grains and fresh milk will help jumpstart the next batch. But before you dump in the grains and milk, get a papertowl moist with hot water and wipe off the inside rim as well as the thread on the outside rim, since if any icky bugs were lurking from exposure to air thats where they'd most likely be. If the idea of reusing your culture jar freaks you out, go ahead and wash it out with hot soapy water ( double checking the rim and screw thread on the jar), triple rinse it, and make sure the jar is cool before jumping your kefir grains into it. Adding a spoonfull of the just strained kefir to your fresh milk will do the same thing. Or don't knock any of the creamy curds off the grains the way I do. Or all of the above.
Everyone has their own way that works best for them. Some people always add up to 1/4 c of the strained kefir back into the 'new' culture jar to help ensure the 'good' culture is thriving in the milk and quickly lowering the pH, which lessens the chance of a 'bag' bacteria interfering. I usually only add kefir to fresh milk when the grains have been 'resting' in the cold fridge for more then 2 weeks or its a new batch of grains that may not be up to full power yet after the stress of being shipped.
The fresh strained kefir should taste kinda like yogurt with its own slightly yeasty tart tang to it, the longer its been culturing or the amount of grains in the milk will affect how strong or sour (acidic) the kefir is. No 2 batches taste the same, at least not for me. I've had people come to me and ask why their new kefir grains produce kefir that doesnt taste or smell quite right, not bad, just not what they expected. I say give it a bit of time. It could be the grains adjusting to a new routine, new brand of milk, switching from goats milk to cows milk, a different dairy, or the temperature changes in your kitchen over the year. Depending on how well the grains were treated in their past certain cultures may have died off or taken over- kefir grains are made up of multiple organisms from some 4 different genus groups. Some people swear by organic milk because they fear antibiotics excreted in non-organic milk can affect your kefir. Sounds totally plausable to me but so far I have had great luck using non-organic, but non-rbst milk from my local store ( and local cows) cold right out of the fridge with no issues.
The usual ratio of kefir grains of milk is anywhere from 1-3 tablespoons of grains to a quart of milk. More grains means the milk cultures faster and is usually thicker. I like that. Every couple of weeks my kefir grains will have doubled in volume as they continue to grow. This is when I split my kefir grains into 2 batches of about 2 T each. I keep my extra grains in the fridge in a jar of milk "resting" while I culture the other half or I give them away.
So now you have your culturing jar with your kefir grains and milk, ready to go- you reach for your canning lid/ring combo to put it on- WAIT. Don't put that top on until you have made sure the underside of the lid, the ring, the thread on the jar and the inside rim of the jar are clean. Use a new paper towl moitened with hot water to wipe it well. Especially if you're using the culture jar without rinsing it, make darn sure you clean the rim and thread!
Ok, so NOW you can set your lid and ring on, or if you're reusing some other type of jar, the screw on lid. Do not tighten the lid, you don't want an airtight seal here, which is why I like 2 piece lids better, I can leave it just a bit loose so as the kefir cultures and makes CO2 you dont get pressure building which could blow up the jar.
Store your fresh strained kefir in the fridge with a clean lid a bit loose as well, or if you'd like fizzy bubbly kefir only fill the jar 3/4 full then put the lid on tight ( so the Co2 gets trapped into the liquid like soda, its really good).
Take the culturing jar of grains and milk and set them in a dark, warm place. It cultures faster the warmer it is, so I usually leave it overnight at room temp on my counter. The next morning I 'burp' the jar by unscrewing the lid all the way to let out any trapped gas, tighten well, shake gently, then loosen the lid up again. I then put my cultured kefir in the fridge for another day or two to then let it slowly culture at cooler temps for a thicker, less sour kefir.
I've noticed theres a slight color change to the milk as it cultures. In this photo from left to right: kefir grains +fresh milk, 8 hours culture time, 12 hours culture time
If I just left the jars of culturing kefir or the strained kefir out at room temp alone undisturbed for 24 hours ( or less if its warm or theres alot of grains for the volume of milk) I get this:
The kefir basically cultured quickly, lowering the pH so the kefir literally seperated into curds and whey, like in cheesemaking. The whey can be clear, whitish or even slightly tinted yellow. Its still perfectly drinkable, just stir it with a spoon and it easily breaks up into a thick creamy consistency, but very tart. If you leave strained kefir out at room temp to this stage you can carefully pour out the whey and straining the solid curds in cheesecloth or butter muslin to make a soft kefir cheese! Just like making yogurt cheese, its very tasty with herbs on toast or crackers and keeps in the fridge for up to 2 weeks tightly covered.
If you really hate the tartness of kefir you can culture it entirely in the fridge, it will take anywhere from 4-7 days at that temperature but it seems to favor certain strains of yeast and bacteria in the grains that don't leave the kefir as strong and tart. Then after straining mix in a glass with honey or some other fruit syrup, or in a smoothie and you have a very healthy pro-biotic drink. :)
I've been very lucky in the 10 or so months that I've been making kefir on a bi-weekly basis to have only once had an issue where a batch that had been 'resting' in a jar of milk in the back of the fridge for 3 weeks went "off" and smelled terrible, like sour rotten milk, and the whew had a slightly green tinge to it. I had been gone on vacation for 2 weeks and when I came back had forgotten to change the milk- so either the kefir got too acidic and somethign went wrong or a tiny bit of unwanted bacteria that would normally be kept in check by all the good yeasts and bacteria in the kefir grains got a foothold and had a long enough timespan to develop.
What I did was strain the kefir like usual, throw out the undrinkable kefir, and using very clean hands in a bowl of cool, filtered and unchlorinated water I gently washed and rubbed the grains to get all the milk off of them, they were still kinda slippery to the touch which is a good sign. I changed the water about 5 times until the water was clear and I couldnt rub anymore milk or little whitish curds off, leaving the light yellow kefir grains totally clean looking.
I then let the kefir grains sit in a jar of room temp, filtered unchlorinated water overnight ( this is called purging or fasting the kefir grains, try not to do this unless you have to, it can damage the balance of organisms in the kefir grains and it takes them a bit to recover and be at full culture strength again). The next morning I strained off the water and placed them in a clean jar with about 2 tablespoons of fresh yogurt with active cultures and 1T of fresh milk. I got that tip online since the cultures in the yogurt will help reinnoculate the kefir grains with the lactobacillus cultures we want and kill off any unwanted bacteria. I don't know the science behind this and havent experimented, but it sounded like a decent idea at the time. If you have multiple jars of kefir in your home you can also use 1/4 cup of fresh strained active good kefir to soak the grains in. After letting this mixture sit in the fridge for a day or so I strained the grains out like usual, added them to a jar of fresh milk and havent had a problem with them since (2months).