KEFIR // the local food report

I'm going to keep this short. You're reading this in late October, but I'm writing to you in early September, trying to finish things up before the baby comes. Which is hopefully not before I get it all done! So without further ado, I'd like to introduce kefir. 

The other day I visited with my neighbor, Helen Miranda Wilson, who happens to be quite the fermenter, and while we were there to talk sauerkraut, I ended up learning about kefir too. It's a fermented dairy product, and like homemade yogurt, it's tangy, tart, and delicious. But it's actually made fairly differently—with kefir grains, which are living organisms, a community of over 30 different types of microbes. 

Yogurt is made by bacteria, too, but unlike with yogurt making bacteria, kefir grains are essentially born—formed from spontaneous symbiosis in the right conditions. They're gelatinous and translucent, and they turn whole milk into a thick, delightful substance excellent for topping with fruit and yogurt. The finished product is amazingly good for you, and the fermentation process is pretty neat.

From here, I'm going to let Helen take the wheel. This is, in her words, with her photos, how to make kefir, once you get your hands on some kefir grains.

From Helen Miranda Wilson, kefir maker, of Wellfleet: 

"When I run out of kefir, I take out the bowl of kefir grains and fermented milk which I have been holding on the bottom shelf of the fridge.

I then strain this mixture through a container, using a stainless steel sieve with a handle. Nonreactive vessels and utensils—stainless steel, glass, plastic or non-lead glazed ceramic—must be used. To push the kefir though the mesh, I stir the kefir and culture grains gently with a hard plastic spatula and also tap the sieve, hard, over the container I'm transferring it to.

Once it's empty, I wash and dry the nonreactive bowl I use to incubate and hold the fermenting mixture in. I add as much whole, organic, cold milk as I want in proportion to how much culture I have. You don't have to scald the milk, etc. as you do with with yogurt: it's so much easier! These scobies are amazingly robust and they don't peter out.

Unfortunately, raw milk and fat free or 2% milk don't make as good a result. Not enough for the culture to eat? Sandor Katz might know why!

I then dump the grains into the milk bowl, give them a good stir, cover them with aluminum foil and put the bowl in a warm place for about 24 hours. I use our gas stove oven which has a pilot light that's always lit and a constant temperature of 85 degrees F.

If you leave the fermenting mixture out in a warm spot, keep checking it after a day: it will still work but may take a bit longer. When the fermentation is complete, it should look more or less like the photo below. The whey will have separated out and it will seem to have curdled a bit. It can look slightly yellow, a bit nasty, but it's not!

The mixture will all be smoothly recombined once it's been strained and stirred. It will then have a thick and creamy consistency and a clean, tangy, wholesome taste that's better than any store-bought kefir I've ever tried.

When it's reached this final stage, I simply store the covered bowl in the fridge. It can sit there for weeks. When the strained batch I'm eating has run out I repeat as above.

You can also eat the delightfully chewy grains. As time passes, the colony grows. For optimal fermentation, you don't want to have more than you can feed in the milk.

Once, I forgot the grains-milk bowl for almost a week in the oven and it seemed too far gone. It smelled off and had some green mold on the top. Some of the grains looked brownish. I picked those out, rinsed the others off with tepid water in a sieve, under the tap, and started over—no problem. Worked fine."

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All text, photographs, and other original material copyright 2008-2010 by Elspeth Hay unless otherwise noted.