Milk kefir is made from kefir grains – a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY). It is traditionally used as a probiotic drink, however, it’s also great for smoothies or as a buttermilk substitute. It can even thicken like yogurt!
I’m really lucky. My homemade kefir grains are descended from the culture that has been in my husband’s family for years. They are part of a tight-knit community from the Caucasus. The birthplace of milk kefir. So it’s quite likely that my kefir grains were brought over to Canada by some relation.
No pressure kids… but you got to take care of the family kefir grains. They belonged to your great, great grandparents!
Why make milk kefir?
Homemade milk kefir is not the same as store-bought kefir. Store-bought kefir is usually just a mix of bacterial cultures, resulting in a drinkable yogurt. Because traditional kefir is made from a symbiotic culture of yeast and bacteria, it is not shelf-stable enough for grocery stores.
However, milk kefir is the perfect dairy culture for home use.
- It is much easier to make than yogurt. Since it ferments at room temperature, you don’t need to heat the milk before culturing.
- Milk kefir is a great replacement for buttermilk in baking.
- You can use kefir grains to culture whipping cream for ice cream and cultured butter.
- You can use it to make soft cheese.
- Kefir can be used as a starter culture (either as whey or straight kefir) for fermenting most everything.
- Cultured dairy is the best way for probiotics to survive digestion.
- Milk kefir has many health benefits.
Where to get kefir grains
The most difficult part of making kefir is finding the kefir grains. Most health food stores carry a powdered “kefir” starter, which isn’t actually real kefir. It’s a bunch of the bacteria strains found in kefir and is not robust enough to be reculture more than just a few times.
If you want to maintain your own colony of kefir grains then you need to either buy freeze-dried grains or make friends with someone who has grains.
Types of kefir grains
There are a few different types of milk kefir grains.
I have a single, larger, cauliflower-like grain. While it does occasionally make babies, it usually stays in one large mass.
When I was a Tracebridge, Katie’s grains were very different from mine. They were individual little grains that needed to be strained from the milk. So clearly there are a few varieties out there!
I highly recommend getting a larger cauliflower-like grain. It is so much easier to maintain because it floats after it’s finished fermenting. So you just need to scoop it off the top of the milk. No need to strain the kefir.
Everything you need to know about milk kefir
The recipe below provides information on how to make a single batch of kefir. Here are some more details for anyone wanting to know everything there is to know about milk kefir.
1. How to take care of kefir grains
- Kefir is happiest in fresh milk at room temperature. Try to pace your culturing so that you can keep your kefir out of the fridge for at least 3 days a week. If you only use a little bit of kefir, then just culture 2 cups at a time with 1 Tbsp of grains.
- Happy kefir will keep multiplying, so you’ll end up with more grains than you’ll need. Though the grains are edible, I would recommend passing them along to a friend instead.
- If your grains turn a funny color, then it’s likely that they’ve picked up some invasive mold/bacteria. Unfortunately, the best way to fix this is to throw them out and start anew. (I’ve had my grains go pink on me a few times. Luckily, I was able to get a new batch from Brad’s mom).
- Kefir can contaminate other cultures (yogurt, sourdough, etc.). It’s best to store your ferments in different rooms.
- You don’t need to wash your grains. They just need fresh milk to keep them healthy and strong. Water is unnecessary and probably harmful considering your water is likely chlorinated. I haven’t washed my grains in years… in fact, washing my grains was probably why they went pink!
- As long as you aren’t using a reactive metal (like copper or cast iron), it’s fine to use metal with your grains.
- If you need to take a break from culturing, then you can leave your kefir grains in double the recommended amount of milk, in the fridge for up to 4 weeks.
- Here’s some advice for traveling with your grains.
Milk kefir can be used as a replacement for buttermilk, yogurt, or milk. It can taste strong and sour, or mild and creamy depending on how long you culture it. If you find the flavor too strong, reduce your culturing time. It’s fine to culture it for only 4 to 6 hours if you prefer the taste!
We serve plain kefir as milk for breakfast. And since cereal is our usual weekday breakfast, we go through plenty of kefir!
Here are the two main methods of flavoring kefir:
- Add the flavor right when you serve it, by mixing in fresh fruit, juice, or jam.
- Do a second round of fermentation by adding flavors to kefir after removing the grains. This results in a soda-like beverage. If you want more info, here’s a post on how to make milk kefir sodas.
Making thick kefir
Kefir will naturally thicken during culturing. But it is a careful dance between lovely thick kefir, and separated over-cultured kefir. (Here’s a post on what to do with over-cultured kefir).
There isn’t a perfect recipe to prevent kefir from over-culturing. It will depend on:
- the milk to grain ratio
- culturing temperature
- type of milk (even different brands of milk will impact kefir)
If you really want thick, yogurt-like kefir, then you will need to heat the milk to 180 F (80 C). This will denature the milk proteins allowing them to thicken when exposed to acid. Be sure to allow the milk to cool to room temperature before adding the kefir grains. Otherwise, you could accidentally kill your kefir grains.
How To Make Milk Kefir
Want to make milk kefir? Here’s everything you need to know about how to make your own probiotic and delicious kefir. It is so much easier than yogurt!
- Prep Time: 5 minutes
- Total Time: 5 minutes
- Yield: 1 liter 1x
- Category: Beverage
- Method: Fermented
- Cuisine: Caucasus
- Diet: Vegetarian
- 4 cups (1 L) of milk (see notes)
- 2 Tbsp of kefir grains (see the section above for details)
- This basic recipe is perfect for making thick milk kefir. See the sections above for details on making smaller batches or keeping your kefir from over-culturing.
- Mix the milk and kefir grains in a glass jar or pitcher. Cover with a loose-fitting lid, cloth, or paper towel. You don’t want to use an air-tight lid as kefir will carbonate. Leave the container out at room temperature for a minimum of 4 hours and up to 24 hours depending on how strong you want the kefir to be. The longer you leave it the more sparkling and sour it will become. We like to culture for 6 to 8 hours.
- To slow down the fermentation, store the kefir in the fridge. When you are ready to enjoy your homemade milk kefir, remove the grains and place them in fresh milk for reculturing.
- Store the finished kefir in the fridge. It will continue to ferment, so you will end up with separated kefir if you don’t drink it within a few days. See the section above for more details on how to take care of your kefir grains and flavor your milk kefir.
- It’s fine to use cow’s milk, goat’s milk, or sheep’s milk. However, you will need to use a different recipe to make vegan kefir using coconut milk.
- My kefir grain usually floats after 8 hours of fermenting, so I simply scoop it out with a spoon. If you have the tiny kefir grains then you will need to pour your kefir through a strainer.
- If you have too many grains or you leave your kefir out on the counter too long you will end up curdling your milk. This is perfectly good to eat! Turn it into kefir cheese for a delicious and probiotic cheese spread.