Making and Using Kefir

kefirAwhile ago a friend asked me for my tips on how I keep my milk kefir. I’ve had more failures than successes with kefir over the years, so I really understand where she’s coming from. To be honest, I think my current state of kefir success is due entirely to the luck of my current needs matching up with the process.

At the end of this article I have a tip sheet compiled from the info in the post–for those who are in a hurry, or familiar with kefir and just want the quick version!

What is kefir?

Let me back up for a moment and just review what in the world kefir actually is. There is a lot of lore around kefir, as with all of the various pass-along ferments such as kombucha, sourdough, “friendship bread”, and so on. Kefir, like kombucha, is made with a SCOBY–a Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast–that lives and grows, in this case, in milk. The kefir SCOBY needs dairy milk to stay alive, but can apparently be switched between dairy and non-dairy milk for anyone who can tolerate some dairy but prefers to consume other milks, as long as it regularly spends some time in a dairy environment.

Like kombucha and yogurt, kefir is a source of probiotics, friendly bacteria that help our digestion, and other processes in our bodies. While the science around whether it is possible to permanently change our gut microbiome through ingesting probiotics is spotty, I have read evidence that shows ingesting probiotics does keep us healthier.

In taste, kefir is a little like yogurt, but with a “fresher”, “cleaner” taste. For myself, after years of enjoying yogurt, I don’t really enjoy kefir straight-up, but I use mine in smoothies and don’t notice a bit of difference.

Some people can react to the high probiotic count in homemade kefir. It is very fresh and has literally billions of healthy bacteria. I have read suggestions of starting with a tablespoon a day, and then increasing by tablespoon once you find you can tolerate it.

For myself, I find that having my kefir-based smoothie in the morning feels great, whereas the few times I’ve tried to have a smoothie for a snack later in the day, it has hurt my stomach. I don’t know the reason for this, but now that I’ve noticed the trend, I make sure to keep my kefir consumption to the morning only.

Kefir vs. Yogurt

So, if kefir is so similar to yogurt, why in the world should you switch to making kefir?

The answer is simple: as in, kefir is so simple to make. The kefir culture is mesophilic, which means that, unlike yogurt, the culture grows in the moderate temperatures of your countertop. The upshot? Making kefir doesn’t require a pot, thermometer, stove-top or warmer. It’s as simple as pouring and walking away.

And as you likely already know, making your own dairy-based probiotics is SO MUCH CHEAPER than buying them, either in food or pill form. My daily kefir only costs me about 38 cents, and it is a food source as well, not just a vitamin.

Also, when you make your own fermented dairy you eliminate the plastic packaging that most purchased yogurts and kefir drinks are sold in.

My Way with Kefir

I think this is the third or fourth time I’ve tried to make kefir work for me, and this time it is working! Here is what is working for me, and a few tips on what I’ve learned through my trials and errors.

The key to kefir success seems to lie using it on a regular daily basis. Unlike kombucha, a slower-fermenting SCOBY, kefir seems to be somewhat less resilient, and I notice it is much, much happier with a daily refreshing of milk.

From what I’ve read, this is also likely what keeps kefir safe, as with such regular switching to a clean container, and fresh clean milk, it seems to be much less likely to get contaminated than kombucha.

If you are going to be traveling and have to break your kefir routine, you can put your refreshed SCOBY in the fridge for a few days. I’ve been told the ratio is 1 tbsp kefir to 1 cup milk, and that should be fine for 1 week. I find that even leaving it and refrigerating for a day or two leaves my kefir sluggish; however, a few days of daily refreshing and use has always perked it back up.

Keep in mind this is an occasional lapse, within a regular daily use pattern: if you are not using it daily, you may not find success. I think that was my biggest problem in the past. That, and I tried to ferment too much milk with too few grains, not realizing the 1 tbsp to 1 cup ratio was the best.

Daily Routine

I keep my kefir in a mason jar on the counter, covered with a paper coffee filter secured with an elastic band. I make and use about a cup of kefir each day, using it in my morning smoothie.

Every morning I scoop the SCOBY from its current container into a clean mason jar with a plastic spoon, and pour a cup of fresh milk over it. I then pour the finished kefir from the original jar into my Magic Bullet jar for my smoothie. I use 2% local non-organic milk, but you can use any kind of dairy milk you prefer.

In this way, my SCOBY grows, and I’ve found once every couple of months or sooner I am able to split off a chunk to share with a friend. I love this culture sharing aspect of kefir, but if you are not inclined, the grains can be composted instead. I don’t have data on the safety of consuming them.

The ratio I was told when I got my grains was a tablespoon of SCOBY to a cup of milk. This ratio works well, but as the SCOBY grows, the fermentation speeds up. Warmer weather or a warmer environment also speeds up the fermentation. I have heard the word “overfermented” applied to kefir, but I don’t believe there is any problem or danger with consuming overfermented kefir. It does get more sour, and some people won’t like it, but in my smoothie I don’t really notice.

However, when I notice that my kefir is overfermenting in 24 hours, it tells me that my SCOBY has grown bigger than my needs, and it is time once again to share.

Kefir Tip Sheet

  • ratio is 1 tbsp SCOBY to 1 cup milk
  • kefir works best when refreshed every single day
  • when SCOBY doubles in size, you can split it off, give half away to a friend, and go back to your 1 tbsp to 1 cup ratio
  • you can refrigerate it in fresh milk for up to a week, though it will likely be sluggish for a few days
  • revive and re-invigorate your kefir with several days of daily refreshes
  • kefir may like higher-fat milk, so when dealing with sluggish kefir, a shot of cream may help to liven it up
  • use a fresh clean jar each day
  • cover with a breathable cover like a paper coffee filter secured with an elastic band, to keep out contaminants
  • if you are not used to kefir, start with 1 tbsp, and increase the next day, to see how your body tolerates it
  • I have found kefir can make me feel gross if I consume it later in the day, but in the morning it gives me no problems
  • Fermentation time is related to temperature. It will go faster in the warmer months, and slower in the cooler months.
  • in the cooler months it may benefit from being located near the stove
  • the warmer temperatures will also make the SCOBY grow faster
  • I’ve read that you should never touch your SCOBY with metal. However, stainless steel once in awhile shouldn’t be a problem. I do use a plastic spoon to scoop it out when I have one available.
  • there is a ton of kefir information out there on the internet. A good place to start is Cultures For Health.
  • It is more than likely you can find a source for a free SCOBY where you live. Try Google, CraigsList, Kijiji, Facebook, or word of mouth. There are also many folks who sell their grains, which can be great if you want a reliable source. Due to the fact that kefir seems to really like daily attention, I would try to find a local source rather than get one shipped through the mail, but there are several places that will guarantee their shipments.

Good luck everyone! And please let me know if you have any other tips, or any other questions about making kefir!

Kombucha Hypothesis

I am very sorry to all the people I have promised to give a SCOBY to and then haven’t followed through. I have a confession: I’m scared to let strangers who find me over the internet, even kombucha-loving strangers, know where I live. And I have also been very crap about SCOBY delivery 😦  Sorry, strangers!

BUT! I have a Kombucha Hypothesis that may just negate the need for SCOBY delivery altogether!

I’m not sure if you remember, but I’ve written before about how crazy tough and virulent the kombucha mother is. Like a mother bear separated from her cub! She will take a beating and come back in full force!

So, I was thinking, all scientist-like, that store-bought ‘bucha is, or at least should be, a raw, unpasteurized food. Thus, it should have live yeast/bacteria in it. Thus, it should be able to produce a new baby, just like these babies I found in my Apple Cider Vinegar.

So I bought me some Kombucha (paid nearly 5 bucks for it!) and let it sit out for about a week with the cap off. And voilà: a tiny little newborn baby SCOBY floating in it!

Now, the second part of the hypothesis, and this is the really exciting bit, is that IF a bottle of ‘bucha can produce its own little SCOBY, it SHOULD be able to produce a BIG SCOBY in a new batch of tea & sugar. Right? I know this contravenes our new sugar-free diet, but come on, this is science!

I don’t have an answer for you yet; my experiment is brewing away, and I will fill you in as things progress. But if this works, it will mean (nearly) free Kombucha for ALL!!!!!

(I feel like a cartoon mad scientist right about now.)

The sci-fi weirdness of kombucha

I know anyone who tried my kombucha gave me that look like, “This is very strange.” But little did they know just how strange it is!!!

I left my kombucha brewing up on the shelf for the last few months, and I also left two jars of bottled kombucha sitting on the shelf to see if they became more bubbly. I had no idea what would happen, or just how weird it would become!

The big kombucha jar grew baby after baby, on top of each other, topped with one pancake over an inch thick!

And even stranger, both smaller jars grew babies from out of thin air–er, liquid! And not just one, but three or four super thick disks that ended up sinking down to the bottom of the jar.

The liquid inside smelled like a sweetish vinegar. I didn’t dare taste it, but I bet it would be something like plum vinegar and make for some interesting sweet and sour sauce. For someone very brave about consuming science fiction/science project outcomes.

This stuff is amazing. I’m still mulling over what application it could possibly have, to grow thick gelatinous forms that take the shape of their container. You could probably make some really freaky prank organs if you had the right shaped jars . . .

Then there’s the story I read about someone flushing their old scobys down the toilet and having them grow and fill her septic tank. It seemed like an urban (or rural) myth until I watched my own personal freakazoid creatures reproduce mysteriously.

So . . . you might think I would have given the project up after such a strange encounter, such bizarre and slightly frightening growth, such unexplained and strange smelling living organisms . . . but no. I’m back on the kombucha train. This time I’m brewing only one small jar. It just seems less frightening in smaller quantities.

Now that I know the kombucha cannot be killed. I might as well enjoy some tasty kombucha tea while I play host to this science fiction creature.