Introduction to Milk Kefir
For a long time yogurt, the cultured milk product that very likely originated in Bulgaria, was the only cultured milk that westerners were aware of, besides their beloved buttermilk and sour cream.
Recently, though, there has been an interest in the cultured milk product known as kefir. Similar to yogurt in that it has a delightful tang, kefir is just a bit thinner than yogurt and is often called a “drinkable yogurt.”
The History of Milk Kefir
Milk kefir, like most cultured foods, has a long and rich history rooted in simple agrarian culture. It is most likely that kefir was developed by accident centuries ago by the people of the Caucasus Mountains. The kefir grains were then a result of the symbiotic relationship between the beneficial bacteria and the yeasts and other organisms in the milk kefir.
Kefir grains are a gelatinous mass harboring a generous variety of bacteria and yeast from which one can make continual batches of kefir. Milk kefir can also be made from a powdered kefir starter for those who do not wish to maintain kefir grains by feeding them on a daily basis.
(There’s no actual grain in kefir grains – they are just called “grains” because they are small and numerous, like grains of sand.)
Many purists, however, argue that true kefir can only be made from kefir grains. Kefir grains contain dozens of microorganisms, some of which haven’t even been identified. Therefore, the powdered starter couldn’t possibly mimic the microorganism content and richness of the kefir made from grains.
Names and Pronunciations
The word kefir is said to stem from a Turkish word keif. Keif loosely translates to “good feeling,” most likely because of how consuming kefir made the people of the Caucasus feel. Kefir has been pronounced in a host of ways:
There really is no right or wrong way to say kefir, as different cultures and communities tend to say it slightly differently. The only distinction that might be made is between milk kefir and water kefir, milk kefir’s cousin made from sweetened water.
How it Works
Making kefir is extraordinary simple, but there is a bit of science to it.
The kefir culture, whether from the grains or powdered starter, consists of bacteria and yeasts that interact to create a symbiotic culture. This symbiosis allows the bacteria and yeasts to be fed and rely upon one another for the perpetuation of their existence.
That is to say, it is their relationship that allows the culture to inoculate the milk and create what we know as milk kefir.
When kefir grains or culture starter are added to milk the bacteria begin feasting on the lactose, or milk sugar, in the milk. This feeding process produces by-products such as lactic acid, very small amounts of alcohol, and carbon dioxide, and also causes the bacteria and yeast to reproduce and permeate the prepared milk kefir. The milk sugar also nourishes the grains themselves, allowing them to grow and reproduce.
It is important to understand that kefir grains need food to survive, just like all other living things. Their food is milk and the sugar it contains. Once the kefir is done culturing it has consumed all of the food available to it from the milk.
At this point the kefir is best for consumption, and the kefir grains are in need of food. If the kefir grains are allowed to remain in the milk past that point, the grains will begin to starve and stress the culture. Straining out the kefir grains and moving them to fresh milk is ideal.
Once you get this cycle down you can create fresh kefir indefinitely, while keeping your kefir grains strong and vital.
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|Milk Kefir Grains|
|Milk Kefir Starter Culture|