Photo by Shannon Stonger

Photo by Shannon Stonger

by Shannon Stonger
Health Impact News

Cultured dairy is a traditional food in many cultures. When refrigeration isn’t available fresh milk can only keep for a couple of days before it spontaneously cultures, as in sour or clabbered milk. Adding a starter culture, be it from a previous batch or other source, has long been the method of creating consistent flavors and textures in ones cultured milk.

Milk kefir is one of these cultures. Thought to originate in the Caucuses Mountains, this culture is added to fresh milk and allowed to culture for 12-24 hours, sometimes even longer, and results in a tangy, flavorful milk with the consistency of a pourable yogurt.

The Benefits of Kefir

The word kefir actually roughly translates to “feel good.” There are many reasons that one might refer to milk kefir as a feel-good food.

B Vitamins. The fermentation of any food results in an enhanced B vitamin content. B vitamins are necessary for a whole host of bodily systems and functions. A lack of B vitamins is often noted as a cause of poor energy.

Enzymes. The fermentation process also enhances the enzymes present in the milk itself, if it was raw to begin with. If the milk does not contain enzymes the fermentation process imparts enzymes to the cultured milk.

Probiotics. By now we are all familiar with the term probiotics. These are microorganisms, bacteria as they are known, that give life (pro = for, biotic=life) to your body. This is particularly important for gut health and immune function as approximately 80% of our immune system is dependent on our gut health.

Kefiran. This is a polysaccharide produced exclusively by milk and water kefir grains. This constituent of kefir is known for its health-giving properties. One study suggests that it could prevent commonly occurring diseases while others have linked kefiran to a reduction in tumor size.

An Overview of Making Kefir

Making milk kefir is actually very simple. Kefir is a mesophilic culture meaning that it does not require a consistently warm temperature to culture. It can be as simple as mixing grains with milk and allowing them to sit on your counter for 12-24 hours.

Milk kefir starts with a type of milk, usually cow or goat, but dairy-free kefir can also be made with special instructions. This milk is combined with the kefir culture starter of your choosing. The culture is gently stirred or mixed with the milk to encourage even milk distribution to the grains or the dissolving of the powdered culture starter.

The milk is cultured in an open-air vessel with a breathable lid atop it. A clean tea towel, paper towel, or unbleached coffee filter works well for this. It is now allowed to culture ideally at 60-85 degrees for 12-24 hours.

After this the kefir grains are strained from the milk. The kefir grains go into a new batch of milk and the newly cultured kefir is either consumed, refrigerated, or allowed to ferment a second time in a sealed container.

The process is then repeated as desired.

The Two Types of Starter Cultures

In order to make milk kefir, though, one must have a starter culture. There are two options for starter cultures and both have their pros and cons.

Kefir Grains. Many argue that kefir grains are the only way to make authentic kefir. Indeed, they are the traditional means of making milk kefir and are the source of the kefiran that is so beneficial. Milk kefir grains can be obtained in three different ways:

  • Fresh from a friend or neighbor already making milk kefir
  • Fresh from a company selling kefir grains, online or in-store.
  • Dried from a company selling kefir grains, online or in-store.

If you cannot find them fresh from a friend then you are most likely to find them online. Some well-known sources for kefir grains include:

Kefir grains are not a grain as one would think of wheat or rice. They are a gelatinous cauliflower-like culture containing the many microorganisms of kefir. They often have a yeasty or sour smell, which is perfectly normal as they contain both beneficial yeasts and lactic acid-producing bacteria.

Kefir grains can be used for batch upon batch of milk kefir, so long as they are well taken care of. Milk kefir grains require regular feeding and milk kefir requires regular refreshing of the grain to get the flavor just right. For that reason it is a good idea to remove the grains from the milk kefir every 12-24 hours.

As temperatures warm, fermentation speeds up. When this happens it is common for kefir to require a shorter fermentation time than usual and a larger proportion of milk to kefir grains as well.

Because milk kefir grains can be used over and over again this is a very economical and sustainable choice for the home fermenter.

Powdered Kefir Starter

There is a commercially available powdered kefir starter. This powder, much like a probiotic powder, was created to mimic the microorganisms present in milk kefir. The yeasts, bacteria, and enzymes present in the kefir made from a powdered starter culture are similar, but it is not a complete replica.

The powdered kefir starter does create probiotics and enzymes and B vitamins, as listed above. These are not all exactly identical in type or in number, however. Furthermore, some argue that kefiran is only available in the kefir grains, though others claim it has been mimicked in the culture starter powder.

Making kefir from powdered kefir starter involves simply mixing the powder with milk and culturing similarly to kefir made from grains. Once finished, there are no kefir grains to remove and this fresh batch can be used to make a few subsequent batches. It is recommended, though, that after a few more batches, fresh powdered kefir culture should be added to make a new batch and the process is started over.

On the one hand, powdered starter culture is handy. On the other, it is expensive to purchase and must be purchased for every batch.

The Body Ecology starter culture is often found in health food stores. Popular online sources for powdered starter culture include

Because both produce a cultured milk with many benefits, the choice in starter culture is best left up to the home cook and his or her needs.