Milk Kefir: Probiotic King

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As a full-time working mom, I don’t find much time to blog anymore–but I DO still have time to make one of the most probiotic-rich foods on the planet: milk kefir. If you’ve read much about health and nutrition in the past few years or perused the health foods section of your grocery store, you’ve probably heard about this popular “drink” that costs a fortune by the bottle. Make it at home, though, and it’s super affordable and super healthy.

So what is milk kefir, and why do I refer to it as a “drink” (in quotation marks)? Milk kefir is a fermented milk beverage that contains several beneficial strains of yeasts and bacteria at a far greater potency than store-bought yogurts, which really don’t have quite the probiotic boost most people assume they do. Traditionally, milk kefir is consumed as a drink; however, I tend to use it as a yogurt and sour cream substitute instead. My girls and I love to eat it mixed with fresh or frozen berries as pictured above, and it also adds a refreshing tang to fruit smoothies or frozen banana “ice cream” (unless you’re adding peanut butter to your “ice cream,” in which case it might taste a little odd!).

I also substitute milk kefir for approximately half the amount of yogurt or sour cream required in recipes such as fruit or pasta salads, adding a flavorful and probiotic kick to our sides. Doing so requires a richer, thicker milk kefir made with extra creamy milk, so I recommend using the creamiest whole milk you can find (I use cow’s milk, but you can also use goat’s milk or coconut milk). If you don’t think your kefir is turning out thick and creamy enough, you can add a few tablespoons of heavy cream when you prepare it as instructed below.

To make your own milk kefir, you can either purchase kefir grains from a company such as Cultures for Health (using grains will give you the greatest probiotic benefit), but if you’re like me and don’t have time to babysit the grains, you can purchase a starter powder that will work just as well (although it will have fewer strains of beneficial microbes). I’ve used various brands of starter powder with success, but I like body ecology kefir starter the best. Although it seems expensive at around $25 per box, it will last you for months because you can use the milk kefir made with a single packet to make up to 8 quarts of kefir (there are 6 packets per box).

Instructions for an initial batch

  1. Heat 1 qt. whole milk in a saucepan to 92 degrees Fahrenheit (about skin temperature–it should feel warm but not hot).
  2. Pour the milk into a 1-qt. glass jar with a plastic lid (if you don’t have a plastic lid, use a coffee filter under the lid to prevent the kefir from reacting with metal); screw the lid on only partway to allow gases to escape.
  3. Stir in one packet of starter powder and allow to ferment at room temperature away from direct sunlight for 24-48 hours, until you notice the liquid whey beginning to separate out; give it a gentle shake every 12 hours or so to keep the cream from settling on the top.
  4. Refrigerate for up to 1-2 weeks (it won’t spoil after 2 weeks, but it will lose it’s probiotic strength).
  5. Shake before using.

Instructions for subsequent batches

  1. Follow the same steps as above, but rather than open another packet, use about 6 tablespoons from your prior batch of finished milk kefir to create a new batch.

Since the starter culture does 99% of the work, it takes very little time and effort to keep milk kefir on hand. If you find yourself using up your milk kefir quickly, you can make a new batch as soon as your prior batch has finished fermenting. If you find yourself using it less quickly, just make sure to start a new batch within a week of finishing a prior batch, otherwise the refrigerated milk kefir will lose its potency and no longer be useful for jump-starting new batches (which means you’ll end up using a single packet for a single batch rather than getting more batches for your money).

If you use raw milk to make your milk kefir, it’s best to heat it to a higher temperature first (145 degrees Fahrenheit is recommended), then let it cool back down to 92 degrees before adding the powder or grains. This essentially pasteurizes the milk, which is a necessary step to prevent the microbes in the raw milk from competing with the milk kefir starter and screwing up your batch (I’ve tried to skip the pasteurization step and ended up with failed batches about 50% of the time, so now I always pasteurize it first). You can also include this step with pasteurized milk that is reaching the end of its shelf life; it might not be good for drinking anymore, but you can culture it into kefir and still make use of it!

For instructions on using kefir grains, refer to the Cultures for Health link above. It requires a few extra steps, but if you have the time, it would be worth the effort for the increased probiotic benefit.