Heard about milk kefir, but unsure about where to start? Here’s everything you need to know about this healthy fermented milk drink. It’s very easy to make at home; far cheaper than buying ready made. Simply ferment, strain and serve.
What is kefir?
Milk kefir is a cultured, fermented milk. It’s a little like drinking yogurt, but tends to be slightly sour and can be a tiny bit fizzy. If you like yogurt and drinking yogurt, try kefir.
It’s made with regular milk, but has a thick and creamy consistency, about the same as double (or heavy) cream.
What do I do with milk kefir?
I’ve got some suggestions below for ways to use kefir in recipes, but you can also gain the probiotic benefits from drinking it. I suggest that you start slowly, with a small glass or so, to see how you get on (too much too soon can cause a tummy upset – give yourself time to adjust), before drinking larger quantities.
How can I make kefir? What are kefir grains?
Milk kefir is made by adding kefir grains to milk, and allowing fermentation to happen.
Kefir grains range from the size of grains of sand to rice; and combine into blobs about a few centimetres across that resemble cauliflower florets. They are white to cream coloured.
You can also make kefir from a powdered kefir starter. Unlike grains, the powder has a limited lifespan; it will make up to about seven batches, but it will then need replacing with fresh powder.
If you use grains instead of the starter, you can keep making kefir indefinitely.
The grains are a combination of yeasts and bacteria which form a SCOBY – Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast.
The exact composition of bacteria and yeast in the the SCOBY will vary between different grains, but up to 23 different bacteria [source] and nine yeasts have been found in kefir cultures. This is many more than is found in yogurts, even live yogurts. This variety of yeasts and bacteria gives kefir its healthy reputation.
Where did kefir come from? How do I get hold of some grains?
Milk kefir probably originated in the Caucasus mountain of central Asia.
You can buy grains online, or at a health food shop, but many people who make their own kefir are happy to give grains away: they grow rapidly as part of the kefir making process. As a result, there are generally always spare grains around.
There are also quite a few Facebook groups for kefir, and group members will frequently offer their spare grains to newbies – we’ve sent several pouches off to people already this year!
If you do buy them, you have the choice between buying dehydrated or hydrated, ready to use grains. I would recommend you go for the hydrated and ready to use option.
I’ve only been given a few grains. Can I grow them?
Absolutely, yes. Once you get going with milk kefir, a shortage of grains won’t be a problem! They grow really easily; you’ll be giving them away in no time. If you’ve received only a few, then first weigh them and then put them in a glass or jug that’s big enough to take ten times the weight of kefir in milk plus a bit more.
Add the milk, and allow the kefir to ferment. As soon as it’s made, sieve off the grains and start again. Within a few days, you should have plenty of grains for your needs.
What are the benefits of drinking milk kefir?
- As it’s made from milk, it’s a good source of calcium and protein.
- It’s a powerful pro-biotic. Kefir grains can contain 30 different types of microbe; many more than yogurt, so kefir is a great way of supporting gut health, particularly for those with digestive problems.
- Drinking kefir boosts calcium intake, giving stronger bones and helping to prevent osteoporosis.
- The bacteria in kefir transform the lactose in milk into lactic acid, making it far more palatable to those who are mildly lactose intolerant.
- Studies have shown that drinking kefir can help those with allergies and asthma, thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties.
- It’s a great source of protein, phosphorous, vitamins B2 and B12 and calcium.
As we said earlier, go slowly when you start drinking kefir, it is packed with powerful pro-biotics, your digestion will thank you for adding it to your diet, but introduce it gradually.
How to Make Milk Kefir
It’s simple! Add the grains to the milk, cover, and leave on the countertop for about 24 hours. We use a glass jug with a lid, but you can use a jar or bowl. Make sure the lid is not airtight so the kefir can breathe, and that pressure won’t build up in the container.
If possible, give the mixture a good stir every few hours to get fresh milk into contact with the grains. The warmer the temperature, the faster the milk will ferment, and also you’ll learn how sour and thick you like your kefir.
Don’t fill your jug right to the brim. A little carbon dioxide is produced during the fermentation process, so the liquid will expand a little. Give it some room for this! For the same reason, don’t seal the container with an air-tight lid.
The milk will thicken; you can decide when it’s reached the state you like. I find that it’s usable after about 12 hours at room temperature – less on a hot summer’s day – but I tend to leave it longer.
After 24 hours or so (in a cold room, it might take as long as 36 hours, or even 3 days in the fridge), you’ll see that in the top quarter of the jug, the milk has separated into a pale and a thick, white liquid.
Once the milk is sufficiently fermented, you need to separate the grains from the kefir: simply sieve out the grains, and they’re ready to start on the next batch. Some people prefer not to use metal sieves for this, but I’ve never seen any problem.
A bit of stirring the kefir in the sieve with a spoon or spatula is helpful to get it all through. Once you’ve separated the grains, you’re ready to start the next batch.
If you are not ready to make another batch pop the grains into a jar, cover them with milk, pop a loosely fitting lid on top and keep in the fridge for up to two weeks.
Once you are ready to make a new batch simply strain, rinse and away you go. If you leave the grains for more than a few days they will be coated with a thick mucus, and the kefir surrounding them will be set and solid, this is normal and nothing to worry about.
If you have not made fresh kefir for a few weeks the grains may be quite sluggish for the first few batches and take longer to ferment the milk. They will recover and soon get back up to speed.
My kefir has separated! What can I do?
Don’t worry, it’s not a problem! You can just stir or blend it all back together, or should you want you can strain off the whey (I use it in bread making), and make kefir labneh.
How much kefir grain should I use?
We use 5-10% grains of weight of milk. In this range the amount used seems to make no difference in the finished kefir, but more grains do ferment faster.
I’ve heard about something called “secondary fermentation”. What is this?
The grain-free kefir is still a live product, and homemade kefir will continue to change, ferment and thicken in the fridge. Despite the straining there will almost certainly be some tiny grains which pass through the sieve which speed up this process.
We find the kefir gets noticeably thicker and more sour the longer we leave it.
If you want to stop, or at least slow down, the secondary fermentation try straining your kefir twice before putting it the fridge. We have found this makes a huge difference.
What sort of milk should I use for making kefir?
We get the best results from using pasteurized full fat milk, but you can also use semi-skimmed or skimmed. Skimmed and semi skimmed milk will make a much thinner kefir.
You can make kefir with cows’, goats’ or sheep’s milk. The higher protein levels of sheep’s milk will give a thicker and creamier kefir, while goats’ milk kefir will be thinner. Both will have a different taste to cows’ milk kefir.
Can I make kefir with non-dairy milk such as coconut or other nut milk?
Yes. However, as the grains need lactose to survive, you have to refresh them in full fat dairy milk to keep them healthy.
You should refresh the grains by fermenting once in dairy milk after three lactose-free fermentations, in order to keep them in tip-top condition.
Also, you should note that because the grains digest the lactose in milk, you may well find that you can tolerate kefir made with dairy milk if you are otherwise lactose intolerant.
No Fresh Milk? Use Powdered or UHT Instead
If you don’t have fresh milk you can use powdered milk or UHT to make your milk kefir. We tested both ways the other day and it does work.
BUT because most milk powder is skimmed milk powder we recommend using more powder to make your milk up than the instructions recommend. As soon as you can refresh your kefir in regular full fat fresh milk.
UHT – ultra high temperature pasteurised milk, which has a long shelf life and doesn’t need refrigerating before opening can be used to make kefir.
Can I drink kefir if I follow a keto diet?
Kefir is generally suitable for those on a ketogenic diet. If your kefir (or other fermented milk product) uses full fat milk and contains no added sugars or flavourings, most people on a keto diet can have it.
Kefir made from milk contains far less sugar than the original milk. When whole milk is fermented, most of the lactose (milk sugar) is consumed during the process. This leaves it with a relatively low carbohydrate count.
Commercially available kefir has about 3% sugar. If you make kefir at home and leave it for a secondary fermentation, the sugar levels may be even lower.
Can I use my milk kefir grains to make water kefir?
I’m afraid not, no. To make water kefir, you need a completely different type of grain and a dilute sugar solution. Water kefir grains are available from many of the same sources as milk grains.
How to make milk kefir - everything you need to know
- 50 g kefir grains ((you can use up to 100g))
- 1 lt milk ((we get best results from full fat milk))
- Add kefir grains to milk, cover loosely and leave on a kitchen countertop.
- After about 24 hours (or longer, if weather is cool. say under 20C), sieve out grains from fermented kefir.
- Add grains to fresh milk to start the next batch of kefir.
- Drink or use kefir right away; it will keep in the fridge for a few days. Or add flavourings for a secondary fermentation.
- Makes one litre, but it's easy to make more or less: just adjust the amount of milk you use, and then use kefir grains that weigh a total of 5 and 10% of the weight of milk.
- Making kefir is easy. Add kefir grains to milk in a covered but not sealed container. Leave at room temperature for about 24 hours, then strain off the grains (which you use to start the next batch) and enjoy the kefir.
- Once made, kefir will get thicker as it keeps in the fridge.
- Separation is natural just stir before using.
- Timings for the fermentation will vary according to room temperature. It will take about 24 hours at temp of around 20°C/70°F.
- Nutrition information is per 100ml of kefir made with full-fat dairy milk.
- If you're not making kefir for a while, store the grains in the fridge covered in milk. The milk will become thick and jelly-like. To make a fresh batch of kefir, rinse the grains under running water and add to fresh milk as normal. This batch may take a little longer than normal, but after a few batches, the grains will be behaving as normal.
- Kefir and kefir grains have as slightly sour but fresh smell. If either smells funky, discard grains and kefir, and start from scratch with new grains.
- If you want to make it paleo, you can use coconut milk but see my tips on what may happen when you do so.
- This recipe is 2 Weight Watchers Smart Points
What do I do with kefir? What recipes are there using kefir?
Drinking milk kefir has been shown to be beneficial to gut bacteria, so that’s a great place to start. We frequently make overnight oats with kefir and grated apple for a healthy ready-to-go breakfast. We also have a small glass first thing in the morning.
How about making our Easy Kefir Yeasted Bread Recipe?
Or make our Berry Beetroot Smoothie with kefir.
You can also try our 4 Ingredient Healthy Orange Creamsicle Smoothie
What else can I do with kefir?
Give it to your dog! Seriously, your pet can really benefit from a regular helping of a small amount of diluted kefir. Give him any spare grains from it too! We give Herbert a tablespoon every day. He comes running to the kitchen when he hears the fridge open and the kefir jug taken out!
More information about milk kefir
Some articles that I have found useful