What is Kefir?
They say the word kefir originated from the Turkish word “Keif” which means “good feeling”. That’s your first clue that you may just end up loving it. It’s said to have originated in the Caucus mountains, where shepherds would keep their milk in leather pouches and it would ferment into fizzy, cultured milk. What causes this fizzy fermentation (and delicious tart, sour taste) is the secret.
Kefir grains are a symbiosis of over 30 different microflora clumped together into little colonies called a SCOBY, that looks like cauliflower florets, making it more of a plant than “grains”.
Now about that feel-good feeling – it is becoming increasingly accepted that your gut plays as big a role in your mental health and moods as your brain does. All the little organisms forming a community in your gut – the good ones that you want there that is – they help your body process hormones, and it’s even been discovered that 90% of your body’s serotonin is made in the gut and depends on the help of these little creatures!
That’s where kefir comes in – it’s a probiotic par excellence that’s even a notch above yoghurt when it comes to creating healthy gut culture. Whereas yoghurt cultures act as food for the microflora in your gut as they pass through, kefir cultures actually colonise your gut with the healthy microflora you need. This includes yeast that combats unfriendly salmonella and E. Coli, as well as that famous nasty, candida.
This sometimes causes some confusion – there are two kinds of kefir – water kefir and milk kefir. Some people think that they are interchangeable, but in fact they are not, they are two distinct and separately developed cultures.
Milk Kefir: If you want to make milk kefir, which feeds on the milk sugar lactose, you need to get milk kefir grains, a cauliflower-like opaque culture. Although fermenting milk with kefir makes it much more digestible for those who are lactose intolerant, if you are vegan, or are really sensitive to milk, you can try water kefir instead. You can culture non-dairy milks with milk kefir SCOBY, but the results may be iffy. If you do do it, you will need to immerse your SCOBY in dairy milk every few batches to refresh it with some lactose. It has a delicious, tart yoghurt-like taste.
Water kefir: has a string of interesting names – bees, Japanese Water Crystals, Graines Vivantes, Balm of Gilead – and has a transparent appearance. It feeds on cane sugar, fruit juice and coconut water. it needs sugars to survive. Its origins are hazy but it is thought to have originated in Mexico. It has a pleasant tart, fermented taste with a subtle fizz.
Kefir’s health and healing effects are numerous:
- Colonises your gut with healthy strains of beneficial microflora
- Promotes a wide variety of microflora that is believed to be even more potent than those found in yoghurt (yoghurt bacteria feed beneficial bacteria as they pass through, kefir actually provides the beneficial bacteria that stays in your gut)
- Contains beneficial yeasts that are known to destroy pathogenic yeasts such as candida
- It contains bacteria that yoghurt doesn’t, that actually penetrate the gut lining to cleanse, purify and strengthen the intestinal walls and help your body become more resistant to dangerous pathogens such as E. Coli, salmonella, candida overgrowth, and intestinal parasites
- Improves various digestive diseases, promoting healthy bowel movement and easing diarrhoea
- The bacteria in kefir are powerful detoxifiers
- Helps assimilate nutrients in the gut and enhances the use of certain trace minerals and B vitamins
- It has a soothing, relaxing effect on the nervous system which can help those with insomnia, anxiety and depression
- By restoring the gut balance, kefir can help issues such as blood sugar imbalances, sugar cravings, weight gain, poor immunity, low energy and digestive disturbances
- It has been found to have anti-cancer properties
- Antibiotics literally mean “anti life” and that’s what they can do to your gut, kill the healthy microorganisms that are so important to your health. Kefir can help recolonise your gut with the good flora you need if you have been on antibiotics.
In the specific case of milk kefir…
- Helps your body assimilate calcium found in milk. Full cream milk is the best milk to use as it also contains vitamin K2 which keeps your bones strong and arteries clear
- The lactic acid bacteria in kefir predigest lactose making it easier to tolerate for those with lactose intolerance
- It makes the nutrients in milk more available and easily digestible (kefir should not be heated before you take it, it would destroy the healthy enzymes)
In a nutshell (or a SCOBY), a healthy gut makes for a healthy immune system, fortifying you against all manner of diseases.
You can make kefir regular part of your routine and reap the benefits. Even just a tablespoon or two a day makes a great probiotic supplement. You can also pep it up with flavours or add it to your smoothies.
How do I make my own Kefir?
For a start, you will need to get hold of the correct kefir grains – water or milk. You can either buy them, or some people are happy to share some of their kefir culture with each other, if you know someone who’s a kefir enthusiast.
The beauty of culturing your own kefir is that once you get going, you can have kefir for life – the culture keeps growing. It’s like having a new pet that makes you lots of healthy probiotics for as long as you feed it and look after it properly. So treat your SCOBY well!
Once you have the grains, you’re ready to go. If you have bought dehydrated grains, you will first need to prepare them by letting them feed on a few batches of milk or sugar water to get strong again. If you get them live from a friend or buy them hydrated, you can pop them in and they’ll get down to business immediately.
Dehydrated grains can be stored for a while in the fridge until you are ready to use them, but hydrated ones should be used as soon as possible.
Now we’ll look at how you can make your own Kefir using either milk or water Kefir culture.
You will need
- Your Water Kefir grains
- A glass jar to contain the liquid you want to ferment. Bear in mind that your culture needs to breathe. You can either use a jar with an airlock, or you can do the simple version of covering it with a paper towel or muslin cloth and securing it with a rubber band
- Coconut water or fruit juice if you are doing one of those options
- Sterilise your glass jar/fermentation vessel by putting it in hot boiling water for 3 minutes then throwing the water out
- Heat 3-4 cups water. To make larger batches, use up to 8 cups water
- Pour into glass jar/fermentation vessel
- Dissolve ¼ cup sugar per litre of water
- Cool to 20°C – 25°C (room temperature)
- Add water kefir grains.
- Cover the top of the glass jar/fermentation vessel with either an airlock (preferred) top or with a coffee filter or cheese cloth or paper towel secured by a rubber band
- Place in a warm spot, 20°C – 30°C, to culture, for 24 to 48 hours
- After culturing is complete, prepare a new batch of sugar water as you did for the previous batch
- Separate the kefir grains from the finished kefir water and place water kefir grains in the new batch of sugar water you have just prepared
The finished water kefir is now ready to do one of the following with:
- Consume immediately just as it is
- Add flavourings to it and consume immediately
- Refrigerate and consume when cold
- Add flavourings, refrigerate then consume when cold
- Do a second fermentation
A second fermentation is when you leave your already cultured kefir (with the grains removed) outside the fridge a bit longer. The result is delightfully zippy and fizzy.
- Put the cultured kefir in an enclosed bottle and leave out the fridge for another day or two to carbonate. This puts more “fizz” into your kefir drink
- You can also add flavours then put in an enclosed bottle, and leave it out the fridge for another day or two to carbonate and then refrigerate
Flavouring ideas: Ginger and dried cranberries or Lemon juice or Vanilla
Tip: The actual water kefir (the liquid, not the grains) may be used to culture non-dairy milks for a non-dairy milk kefir alternative, as well as culture delicious nut cheeses!
Coconut water kefir
You will need to first get your kefir grains nice and strong by feeding them in a few batches of sugar water first if they are dehydrated when you receive them, before you can make coconut water kefir, as coconut water doesn’t have a lot of sugars in it. Once your grains are well fed with sugar water and going strong, you can make a batch of coconut water kefir. Alternate every couple of batches of coconut water kefir with a sugar water version to keep them viable.
- 1 litre coconut water
- 3 tablespoons water kefir grains
- Optional flavours: 1 cup fresh fruit (berries, ginger, lemon, vanilla)
- Place the water kefir grains in the coconut water. Cover the jar loosely with a tight-weave towel or coffee filter, secured with a rubber band
- Culture the coconut water 24-48 hours
- Once the culturing process is complete, remove the kefir grains
- Place the grains in prepared sugar water (recipe above) to strengthen again for 24 – 48 hours
Fruit Juice kefir
Making fruit juice kefir is pretty similar to making coconut water kefir. You can’t keep your grains going in it indefinitely, and you will need to revive them in sugar water periodically. It adds a lovely tart taste and health probiotics to your juice, but be careful not to make alcohol! Don’t culture for more than 24-48 hours if you’re going to be sharing your kefir with your kids, though you can go up to 72 hours if you want a bit of a kick.
Tips: It’s best to use organic juice as chemicals in commercial juice can damage the kefir. Also keep in mind that kefir grains that you have cultured in fruit juice make a very unpleasant tasting sugar water kefir when you first return them to the sugar water, as they’ll take a bit of time to adjust back.
Grains cultured in fruit juice don’t really grow, so putting them back in the sugar water will be necessary if you want to keep culturing. You could keep one batch of sugar water for your fruit juice kefir grains exclusively and then have another batch of sugar water kefir you drink from.
Now that you’ve got the right probiotics in your gut, it’s important to keep them just as strong and healthy as they’ll make you. The bacteria in your colon thrive on non-digestible fiber, also known as prebiotics. Feed your bacteria with two to four servings of garlic, whole grains, artichokes, bananas or honey so they’ll be happy campers. Some probiotic supplements come with prebiotics in them, but know that they’re usually listed as inulin.
And as a final tip, bacteria in the belly love fiber. They break it down, leaving behind nourishing acids in the process, so it’s a win-win. Try get a good dose every day of fibre from fruit; vegetables and whole grains.