What is kefir?
These days, most people are aware of the ‘good bacteria’ that help maintain a healthy digestive system. Perhaps you have a favourite yoghurt shot to keep your good bacteria topped up. But if you’ve ever wanted to make your own probiotic drink at home, kefir could be the newest part of your daily health regime.
There are two types of kefir, ‘milk kefir’, and ‘water kefir,’ and both are made by fermenting liquids using bacterial cultures. Milk kefir is the most common type, and originated in the North Caucasus, Eastern Europe and Russia, where it was traditionally fermented in goatskin bags. Milk kefir is made from fermented milk, and has a pleasant, tangy, creamy taste, like a thin yoghurt. It is also slightly carbonated, and contains a negligible amount of alcohol from the fermentation process. But most importantly, it contains the same ‘friendly’ lactobacillus bacteria as fermented yoghurt drinks, as well as several other strains of beneficial bacteria. It can be consumed as a drink, used as a substitute for cream or yoghurt in desserts and smoothies, or for buttermilk in baking. Milk kefir is a popular ingredient in cold soups such as borscht in Eastern Europe, and can even be used as a starter for sourdough.
Dairy-free, or ‘water kefir’, can be made using sugary water, fruit juice, or coconut water, and tends to have a sweeter, slightly fermented taste. It is generally used to make natural, home-made sodas, much like kombucha or ginger bug.
Both types of kefir are made using symbiotic colonies of bacteria and yeasts, known as ‘kefir grains’, but as water and milk kefir require different bacteria strains for fermentation to occur, each has its own distinctive ‘grain’. Milk kefir grains cause fermentation by feeding on the lactose in milk, while water kefir grains feed on regular sugar. It is important to use the right type of grain while making your kefir, otherwise the process won’t work, but luckily the two are pretty easy to tell apart - milk kefir grains are creamy white or yellow and look like cottage cheese, and water kefir grains are translucent, like crushed ice.
What is kefir good for? All the benefits
Both milk and water kefir are a good source of healthy gut bacteria, making them beneficial for your digestive system. The healthy bacteria in kefir help to break down food, making it easier for your body to absorb nutrients. By promoting efficient digestion, these bacteria may also protect against digestive disorders like IBS. It is advisable to check with your doctor before using probiotics if you do have IBS though, as excessive gut bacteria can make your symptoms worse.
Milk kefir contains more bacteria than water kefir, and most of the research into potential health benefits has been carried out using milk kefir. It should be noted that milk kefir contains completely different strains of bacteria to water kefir, so aside from the digestive benefits of probiotics in general, the health benefits listed below may not apply to water kefir.
Milk kefir can contain up to 50 species of bacteria and yeasts, even more than shop-bought probiotic yoghurts, including one strain of bacteria, Lactobacillus kefiri, that is only found in kefir. Lactobacillus kefiri has been found to have antibacterial properties, and can inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria like salmonella and E. coli.
It is impossible to give exact nutritional information for milk kefir, as it can be made using the milk of different animals, and the milk may be skimmed, semi-skimmed or full fat. As with milk in general, full fat varieties contain the most nutrients, but are higher in calories and saturated fat. Milk is known to be particularly good for healthy bones, being a good source of calcium, which helps protect against osteoporosis, and vitamin K2, which has been shown to reduce the risk of fractures by up to 81%, but kefir has the added benefit of probiotic bacteria, which help to improve the body’s absorption of these essential nutrients. How much the probiotics actually help is still a cause for debate, however - some studies suggest that they do, while others suggest that drinking kefir is no more beneficial than drinking a glass of milk.
Another benefit of milk kefir is that, despite being a dairy product, it contains very little lactose, and may be more agreeable to people with lactose intolerance than other dairy drinks. This is because the bacteria in milk kefir grains consume most of the lactose in the milk during the fermentation process. It should be noted that milk kefir may not be suitable for everyone with dairy intolerance, however, and if you’re at all unsure, it is better to opt for water kefir instead.
Although it does have many potential health benefits, it is also important to be aware of the possible side effects of kefir. Some people report symptoms including bloating, nausea, intestinal cramping, and constipation, particularly at first. Often these symptoms die down after time, but if they persist, you should stop drinking kefir and consult your doctor. Kefir is not recommended for anyone with a weakened immune system, as the bacteria and yeast may increase your chances of infection. This includes people with conditions such as HIV or AIDS, and anyone undergoing chemotherapy or taking immunosuppressant medication.
How to make milk kefir
1. Take one cup of milk (preferably full fat, as this provides more food for the bacteria), pour into a clean glass jar, and stir in one teaspoon of milk kefir grains. Avoid using metal implements or containers, as this can impair the flavour and weaken the grains.
2. Loosely cover the lid of the jar using cheesecloth or a napkin, and secure with an elastic band. This is important to allow the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation to escape. If you seal the jar too tightly it may explode!
3. Store the jar at room temperature, away from direct sunlight, and leave to ferment. This should take around 24 hours at normal room temperature, but may be several hours quicker in warmer temperatures, and several hours slower if it’s cold. Check the kefir every three or four hours - when it's ready, the milk will thicken and take on a tangy, yoghurt-like flavour. If the milk hasn’t fermented within 48 hours, something has gone wrong and you will need to start again.
4. When your kefir is ready, pour it into a storage container, using a strainer to remove the grains. If you want a daily supply of fresh kefir, simply transfer the grains to a new batch of milk and begin the process again, but if you’re not ready to start fermenting again, you can store the grains in a sealed container of milk in the refrigerator.
5. Now you have your milk kefir, you can either enjoy it right away, or refrigerate it for up to a week.
How to make water kefir
- Pour 4 cups of water and ¼ cup sugar into a glass mason jar, and stir with a wooden spoon until the sugar is dissolved. Unrefined cane sugar works well, as it contains more of the minerals the kefir grains like to eat. As with milk kefir, avoid using metal implements, as this can impair the flavour.
- Add two tablespoons of water kefir grains, along with a dried fig to help feed the grains, and a slice of lemon to prevent the growth of certain less flavoursome yeasts.
- Cover loosely with a muslin cloth and elastic band, to allow the carbon dioxide to escape, and leave to ferment at room temperature. Water kefir takes longer to ferment than milk kefir, and may need as long as 72 hours, depending on how warm it is. Your kefir is ready when it tastes slightly tangy and slightly sweet, indicating that the grains have eaten some, but not all, of the sugar.
- Strain your kefir into a pitcher, and discard the fig and lemon, but keep hold of the grains. These can either be used to make another batch of kefir, or stored in a jar of sugary water in the refrigerator.
- Unlike milk kefir, water kefir is usually fermented a second time, to give it extra fizz. You can also start to flavour the kefir without worrying about damaging the delicate grains. Add a cup of your favourite fruit juice, and pour the kefir into flip-top brewing bottles, leaving at least half an inch to allow for carbon dioxide build up.
- Seal the bottles, and leave on the counter for up to a day (again, fermenting time will depend on the temperature), then transfer to the refrigerator for a further three days to allow the bubbles to settle.
There are several ways to make water kefir, and one deliciously simple alternative is to use your water kefir grains to make coconut water kefir. This healthy tropical drink couldn’t be easier to make. Coconut water contains natural sugars to feed the grains, and tastes great without any additional ingredients to flavour it. All you need to do is add kefir grains and wait.
How to make vegan kefir
The good news is that water kefir is already vegan, unless you add non-vegan ingredients like honey. But what about milk kefir? Is there any way to recreate a traditional milk kefir using dairy-free milk substitutes? In fact, there are two methods of making a vegan milk kefir, and which you use depends on what you’re looking for from the drink.
If you want the extra probiotic benefits of milk kefir, you have to use milk kefir grains, and unfortunately, this process can never be 100% dairy free, as milk kefir grains need lactose, a sugar only found in animal milk, to survive. This means that your grains would need to be stored in animal milk after fermentation, and even if you discard them after their first use, they will have been fed animal milk before you bought them. This method does result in the closest thing to real milk kefir, however, and involves only minimal animal product.
If you decide to use milk kefir grains, follow the recipe for milk kefir, but substitute a cup of your favourite sweetened vegan milk. It is important that the milk is sweetened, to give the bacteria something to eat and kick-start the fermentation process.
For an entirely vegan milk kefir, you can use water kefir grains to ferment sweetened soy milk. This will not contain the same probiotics as dairy milk kefir, as milk grains contain different and more numerous bacterial cultures than water grains. However, this drink will taste like milk kefir, and still have some probiotic benefits.
To make vegan milk kefir using water grains, follow the recipe for milk kefir, but substitute sweetened soy milk, and water kefir grains. As before, the milk must be sweetened to feed the grains.
Recipes with milk kefir
As well as being a healthy and delicious drink, kefir is also a versatile ingredient, and tastes great in a wide variety of recipes.
For a light and sophisticated starter, try this Cold Kefir Soup with Basil and Radish. Creamy, tangy kefir pairs beautifully with aromatic basil and pine nuts, a hint of parmesan, and the crunch and heat of white radish.
We also love these Mango and Turmeric Overnight Oats from Flavour and Savour, made with golden oats and maple syrup, spiced with turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom, and topped with sweet, juicy mangoes.
Recipes with water kefir
There are also plenty of tasty treats you can make using water kefir, like these indulgent Vegan Coconut Kefir Banana Muffins from President’s Choice. Light and airy, with an irresistible tropical flavour, these moreish muffins are perfect for a snack, or afternoon tea.
And if you want a sophisticated drink to go with your muffins, this White Peach and Lavender Soda from Emma Elizabeth Christensen looks pretty as a picture in chunky retro glassware, and has a complex, fragrant flavour that tastes great with a shot of gin.