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Culturing Kefir

Kefir is an ancient culture for fermenting milk.  It originated in the Caucasus Mountains where it is revered for its ability to enhance longevity.  Kefir grains are added to different kinds of milk to produce a thick drink similar to buttermilk, but with a wider range of fermenting agents that produce a wealth of nutrients. Kefir is consumed daily in Russia, Poland, and other Eastern European countries.
Blueberry Kefir Smoothie

The kefir grains are made up of both beneficial bacteria and yeasts that form a matrix with the appearance of cauliflower florets.  The grains have a slightly creamy yellow color and propagate in milk to form new grains that grow when properly cared for.  Commercial varieties of kefir may be cultured at home as well, but will not form the grains and have been shown to lack some of the beneficial properties of traditional kefir, such as the ability to lower LDL cholesterol.

Kefir is easier to care for at home than most house plants; however, the grains will die if they are not fed regularly with fresh milk.  Other things that can harm the grains include chlorinated water and metal utensils.  The utensils used for processing kefir should be made either of plastic or of glass.

Large Kefir Grain

The kefir grain on the left has been lightly rinsed, but you can see that white areas are curds that are forming, while cream-colored areas are the grain itself. You can also see bubbles, which are produced by the yeasts in the grain. The grains produce a tiny amount of alcohol which may be detected as carbonation. Because of the 1% alcohol the yeasts produce and hence carbonation, gases should be released from the container from time to time. When culturing kefir at room temperature, leave the lid loose on the jar.

To obtain kefir grains, you must find someone who cultures kefir in their home.  Searching on line for a local person who has extra grains to sell or give away is the best way to obtain them.  There are newsgroups and forums for kefir and other home-grown cultures where information and supplies can be found.  Most likely you already have the utensils you will need to culture kefir.
Handy utensils include large and small plastic strainers, a ladle, a coffee scoop, a spatula, a plastic or glass bowl, jug, and glass mason jar. You can get by with just a few implements. Some people like the old glass-lidded mason jars that can still be found sometimes in second-hand stores. A 1.9 litre Bernardin jar will hold a bag of milk with extra room for headspace.
Kefir Tools
Kefir Jar 1.9 litre

Headspace is important in the jar to allow for expansion of the culture as the yeast cells and beneficial bacteria are multiplying.

Once you have obtained a few grains, you will need fresh milk in which to grow them.  You can use whole or skim milk and still expect a thick consistency from the finished culture.  Kefir cultures most quickly at room temperature, but will also work when refrigerated.  You can leave the culture on the counter over night and then in the refrigerator for a few days if you are not in a hurry to drink it.  The flavour becomes smoother after the kefir has been refrigerated for a few days and can develop a sweet taste.

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While the culture is fermenting, it’s important to jostle the jar or stir the milk so that the grains come into contact with unfermented milk until the entire batch has thickened.  As soon as you see the milk begin to separate into curds and whey, you can remove the grains and strain the kefir into a glass or plastic container.
To strain the kefir, have a plastic strainer over a large glass or plastic bowl and pour the kefir in, removing the grains and pressing any curds that have formed through the strainer with a plastic ladle.  If unsure whether a lump is a curd or a grain, press the ladle against it: a grain will feel rubbery and firm, while a curd will easily go through the mesh.  Have a fresh jar of chilled milk ready to receive the grains as they’re removed from the kefir.
Straining Kefir
Kefir in a Cider Jug

The strained kefir can be poured into a glass jug or a clean plastic cider jug or other food-grade non-metallic container.  Before serving, give the jug a good shake, as you would for buttermilk.  Kefir makes a wonderful ingredient in pancakes or baked goods, stroganoff, or custards like rice pudding.  You can strain it in a coffee filter to make cheese, similar to yoghurt cheese.

One of the most popular uses for kefir is in a smoothie.  Add frozen blueberries, mango pulp, ginger syrup, or juice to the kefir to sweeten it and add to the nutrient value.  Kefir has a smooth, creamy consistency and a mild, distinct flavour.

Visit the Wikipedia page for kefir.

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