Choosing a Kefir Culture: Grains vs. Powdered Starter
There are two types of cultures available for making kefir. The traditional method is to use kefir grains, which are a naturally occurring organism originating in the Caucasus (milk kefir grains) or meso-America (water kefir grains). Neither variety of kefir grains actually contains any grain such as wheat, rye, etc. but they are referred to as “grains” due to the appearance of the culture. The second option is known as a powdered kefir starter. This culture is created in a laboratory and is a direct-set variety starter culture, which means it is meant to be used once or maybe recultured a few times before the culture weakens. There are distinct advantages and disadvantages to both types of cultures.
Kefir Grains and Kefir Starter: What They Have in Common
Probiotic beverage. Both kefir grains and kefir starter can be used with numerous types of milks and other liquids to create a probiotic beverage containing live strains of yeasts and bacteria.
Milk products. Both milk kefir grains and kefir starter can be used with various animal-based milks or coconut milk. Neither is very effective when used with nut or soy milks.
Sugar-based liquids. Both water kefir grains and kefir starter can be used with sugar water, juice, and coconut water.
Ease of use. Both kefir grains and kefir starter are quite easy to use, even for someone who is new to making their own cultured foods.
One way in which kefir grains and kefir starter differ is in the number of strains of beneficial yeast and bacteria available through the starter culture. Generally speaking, powdered kefir starter has 7 to 9 strains depending on the particular brand of starter. Milk kefir grains generally and water kefir grains each have around 400 strains (including subspecies), making kefir grains the more nutrient-dense method for making kefir.
Kefir grains are reusable, and with proper care can be used to culture batch-after-batch of kefir. The kefir grains are simply placed in milk or sugar-based liquid, allowed to culture, then removed and placed in new milk or sugar liquid. A small amount of the kefir made with powdered kefir starter can often be reserved and added to fresh milk to make a new batch of kefir. Generally it can be recultured several times before the bacteria weaken significantly. The number of times powdered kefir starter can be recultured is dependent on a few factors including the freshness of the milk, hygeine, and how quickly the kefir is recultured.
Another way in which kefir grains and kefir starter differ is how the cultures are cared for. Kefir grains can turn out a new batch of kefir every 18 tp 48 hours, but to keep them healthy, they must be cared for each day and switched out to new milk or sugar-based liquid every 18 to 48 hours. Small batches (1 to 2 cups) can be made if it becomes difficult to keep up with consuming the kefir being made.
Powdered kefir starter is well suited for individuals who do not wish to make kefir regularly. Kefir starter is kept in packets in the refrigerator or freezer and when kefir is desired, a packet of starter is simply added to the milk and allowed to culture. As stated above, kefir starter can often be recultured a few times before the bacteria weaken significantly.
Powdered kefir starter can be ideal for a family that is traveling and can not maintain a daily regimen using fresh grains, for instance.
While kefir grains are more costly upfront, over time kefir grains are the far more economical option since they are truly reusable and can turn out a new batch of kefir every 18 to 48 hours.
We generally recommend kefir grains as the most natural, economical, and nutrient-dense way to make kefir. However, it is not always practical to maintain kefir grains on a daily basis and therefore in situations where it is more practical to make kefir only periodically, we recommend opting for the powdered kefir starter.