Milk kefir is made from one of two cultures – a mother culture called “Milk Kefir Grains” or a powdered culture starter designed specifically for making kefir. The latter contains a proprietary blend of various bacteria strains, the former is a bit more complex.
What are Milk Kefir Grains & Where Do They Come From?
Milk kefir grains are a mother culture made up of polysaccharides, the primary of which is kefiran. Within this matrix of polysaccharides exists both bacteria and yeasts which exist in symbiosis both with each other and the milk it cultures and feeds from. These grains have a gelatinous feel to them and appear in a sort of miniature floret shape, much like cauliflower.
The bacteria and yeast composition of milk kefir grains tend to vary according to their origin as well as their culturing environment. In other words, where the grains came from and where they are currently being used can impact the makeup of the microorganisms existing in the milk kefir grains.
LEARN MORE: Composition of Milk Kefir Grains
Can You Grow Kefir Grains from Scratch?
This is a common question and one worth delving into. Most sources agree that the milk kefir grain culture was harnessed somewhere near the Caucasus Mountains. The grains themselves are quite unusual in that no other cultured dairy product is known to come from grains.
Though the specifics of the origination of milk kefir grains is fairly shrouded in mystery, one thing has been made clear: milk kefir grains must be acquired. The specific polysaccharides, bacteria, and yeasts that make up milk kefir grains have been handed down from generation to generation. You can, however, multiply your milk kefir grains in order to pass the culture on.
Can You Make Kefir Without Grains?
Depending on your definition of milk kefir, you can! Milk kefir grains are a very specific culture with a very specific combination of microorganisms. Milk kefir containing all of the bacteria, yeasts, and the polysaccharide kefiran cannot be made without milk kefir grains.
Milk kefir can, however, be made from a proprietary blend of bacteria that mimic those in the milk kefir grains. These powdered starter cultures make a cultured dairy product similar in flavor and viscosity to milk kefir made from grains, but it does not contain the exact properties of kefir made from grains.
How to Get Kefir Grains & Cultures
1. Decide Which Kefir Culture is Right for You
Choosing the milk kefir culture that is right for you should be based on your own personal needs. The two kefir cultures – milk kefir grains vs. direct-set culture – can be chosen based on what you want in your cultured kefir, how much kefir you’d like to make, and how long of a time frame you’d like to keep making kefir.
- If your preference is for a simple cultured dairy product containing some of the bacteria present in traditional milk kefir, a kefir starter culture might be right for you. If, on the other hand, you prefer to make milk kefir for the specific strains of bacteria and yeasts as well as the much-touted polysaccharide kefiran, then acquiring milk kefir grains is a better option.
- If you’d like to make milk kefir only occasionally, then choosing kefir culture starter may be the better option. Alternatively, if you’d like to make a fresh batch of milk kefir every day or two, then choosing milk kefir grains may be a better option for you.
- Finally, if you are only looking to make milk kefir for a brief period, then a kefir culture starter may be the most convenient option. Conversely, if you are wanting a culture starter that can be used time and time again, then milk kefir grains are a more practical option.
2. Decide if You Want Fresh or Dried Kefir Grains
Milk kefir grains generally come either in a fresh or a dehydrated state.
Often the easiest way to get fresh kefir grains is to get them from a friend already making kefir at home. They can be purchased online as well, but must be shipped swiftly and placed immediately in fresh milk upon arrival or else they can become distressed and die due to a lack of food (milk).
Dehydrated kefir grains are in a dormant state and while care should be taken with them, they are not in as fragile of a state as the fresh grains are. Dehydration does create a minor stress on all cultures, but with proper activation they should be up and running in no time.
Dehydrated kefir grains also have the advantage of having a longer shelf life. This is advantageous in that it gives you a buffer of time both in the shipping of the grains and in the time frame you have once you receive them.
Whether you decide to make kefir with a starter culture or kefir grains, we're excited you're considering adding this wonderful fermented food to your routine! Check out our collection of expert advice on making milk kefir at home and then grab a Milk Kefir Starter Kit when you're ready to get started! You can do this! Happy Culturing!
Prado, M. R., Blandón, L. M., Vandenberghe, L. P. S., Rodrigues, C., Castro, G. R., Thomaz-Soccol, V., & Soccol, C. R. (2015). Milk kefir: composition, microbial cultures, biological activities, and related products. Frontiers in Microbiology, 6, 1177. http://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2015.01177