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It's always more fun to DIY. Every week, we'll spare you a trip to the grocery store and show you how to make small batches of great foods at home.
Kefir is a fermented milk drink that originated several thousand years ago in the Caucauses. It's thick, creamy, and brimming not only with minerals, vitamins, amino acids, and enzymes, but also with probiotics and beneficial yeasts, too. Plus, it's easier to make than yogurt and the end product is practically lactose-free -- great news for the lactose-intolerant among us.
More: Craving creaminess without dairy? Cook this pasta entrée tonight.
To get started, you'll need some basic equipment and two ingredients: milk and kefir grains. This recipe calls for full-fat cow's milk; you can use rice or coconut milk in place of cow's milk, but the grains won't multiply like they normally would, and you'll also have to use dairy milk to "perk" them up every now and then. It's also best to use organic milk -- or even better yet, raw milk, if you can find it -- but plain, everyday homogenized milk is fine, too. (And the fermentation process is thought to replace a lot of the goodness that is lost through pasteurization and homogenization.)
You'll have to source your grains (these aren't actual grains, but combinations of yeast and bacteria similar to a kombucha SCOBY) from a preexisting culture. If you can't find a friend to give you his or her extra grains, do a quick Google search to find grains for order. When kefir grains are properly cultured, they'll reproduce regularly, which means you won't run out of grains for your future batches (and you'll have plenty to share with friends who come knocking).
Makes 1 liter
4 to 6 tablespoons milk kefir grains
1 liter milk
Pour the milk into your glass jar and add the kefir grains. Cover the top of the jar with muslin and secure it with a rubber band. Next, place the jar in a dark place (I put mine in the pantry), and leave it for 12 to 24 hours, until you see that the liquid is beginning to separate into curds and whey.
In the summer the mixture will ferment quickly, but at colder temperatures, this process will take longer. Avoid making kefir in rooms hotter than 90° F; at this temperature, the milk might spoil before the grains can culture it.
Pour the entire contents of the jar into a plastic sieve placed over a bowl. Gently shake the sieve from side to side to encourage the kefir liquid to drain through. If I have left the jar sitting for a bit too long and really solid parts have formed, I rest the sieve in the bowl of drained whey. I mix the solid parts gently back into the grains until the really firm curds are loosened, and then I lift the sieve back up and re-strain the liquid. (The firm curds will loosen when you pass them through the sieve, while the springy kefir grains -- similar to tiny cauliflower florets -- will maintain their structure.)
The strained kefir is now ready to be used. Drink it plain or sweetened, or substitute it for milk, yogurt, or buttermilk in your baking and cooking. Strained kefir can also be stored in the fridge for up to a week.
Use the strained kefir grains to make a new batch in a clean jar; there's no need to rinse the grains between batches.
You can make as little or as much kefir as you want: I usually make 1/2 liter every other day. The grains will not survive outside of milk, which means you either have to use them to make more batches of kefir milk (which I never object to), or say goodbye. You can slow down the production by letting the mixture ferment in the fridge instead of the pantry.
Another option is to keep the grains in milk (that is, unstrained) in the refrigerator, where they'll survive for a good couple of days if you go away or you simply want a break. I recommend discarding the kefir liquid if you've left the mixture for more than 4 days. Simply strain the kefir grains and use them to start a new batch.
If you only have a tablespoon or two of grains to begin with, just use a cup or so of milk until your grains have multiplied enough to ferment more milk.
You can freeze excess kefir grains: Rinse them well, pat them dry on a clean cloth, coat them lightly in powdered milk, and then freeze them in a double-lined plastic bag. Keep in mind that kefir grains that have been frozen don't always ferment milk like they should: It may take up to three months of fermentation before they produce consistently good batches of milk kefir.
Photos by Emma Galloway