Kefir for Dummies - What the Heck is Kefir?
Fermented foods have been a part of mankind for thousands of years. Long before the advent of refrigeration, fermentation was a means to preserve food and provide a source of sustenance when harvests were lean.
Recently though, due to the rising interest in all things gut health, fermented foods are once again in the spotlight.
Popular ones over the past few years include yogurt, pickles and kombucha. However, a “new” food has landed in the spotlight and been granted its own “health halo.”
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That food is kefir, a fermented yogurt-like drink that’s packing a serious nutritional punch.
We’ve got all the details on this “old is new again” food below as well as how you can make your very own batch of kefir right in your own home.
Let’s start by answering a very simple question…
What the Heck is Kefir?!
Kefir is cultured, fermented milk beverage similar in taste to yogurt, but with a thinner milk-like consistency than your typical run-of-the-mill yogurt. Much like yogurt, kefir is high in protein, calcium, & vitamin D. It has a tart and tangy flavor and the subtlest hint of carbonation thanks to the natural fermentation process.
As you might expect, kefir is made with a “starter” culture, but unlike yogurt, whose starter is just bacteria, kefir is fermented using a combination of bacteria and yeast. This combination of bacteria + yeast is referred to as “kefir grain.”
However, kefir grains are not your conventional grains, such as wheat, barley, or rice, and they do not contain any gluten (which is yet another reason for kefir’s immense popularity these days as seemingly everyone is scared of gluten thanks to the Paleo/keto crowd).
So, what type of “grain” exactly are kefir grains?
Basically, kefir grains are a collection of polysaccharides, kefiran being the most abundant of the lot. Nestled in the matrix of polysaccharides are combinations of yeasts and bacteria which live in harmony alongside each other and feed on the lactose of whichever type of milk they are mixed.
What do kefir grains look like?
Essentially, the live kefir grains look a bit like cauliflower florets and have a quasi-gelatinous texture.
Where Does Kefir Come From?
The name kefir comes from the Turkish word “keyif,” which refers to a feeling of pleasure or joy usually felt in a state of relaxation. Another way of describing it would be the happy, relaxed feeling you get after having a few drinks.
Although kefir seems relatively new on the nutrition scene in the United States, it’s actually been rather popular across Europe and Asia for many years.
What’s the reason for the sudden surge in the popularity of kefir?
Growing interest and research into the science of gut health and probiotics.
What are the Benefits of Kefir?
Numerous research studies have been conducted on the potential health implications of kefir consumption. Among the list of benefits attributed to consuming the fermented milk are:
- Improved lactose digestion (meaning kefir can be consumed by those who are lactose intolerant) 
- Improved blood sugar regulation 
- Reduces cholesterol 
- Enhances gut health 
- Antibacterial and antifungal properties 
- Boost immune system
How Many Calories Does Kefir Contain?
Exact calories and macronutrient amounts will vary based on the brand you purchase, or particular milk you use to make your kefir (more on that in a minute), but on average, a cup (240ml) of store-bought whole milk kefir contains roughly:
- Calories: 160
- Protein: 10 grams
- Carbohydrates: 12 grams
- Fat: 8 grams
- Calcium: 300mg (30% Daily Value)
- Vitamin D: 100 IU (25% Daily Value)
- Vitamin A: 500 IU (10% Daily Value)
As we mentioned above, kefir also delivers a boatload of beneficial probiotics, leaving you with a fully belly happy gut.
Kefir Vs. Yogurt
Since both yogurt and kefir are both fermented milk-based foods, the two are frequently compared to each other. And, in fact, the two do have a lot in common.
Both kefir and yogurt have tart and tangy tastes as well as a supremely creamy texture. They both are also traditionally made from dairy. And, as we mentioned above, both are high in protein, calcium, probiotics, and potassium.
Despite sharing a number of similar features, the two dairy-based products do have some notable differences.
Chief among these is in the amount and diversity of probiotics. Kefir contains several important strains of the gut-friendly bacteria not commonly found in yogurt. Included among the list of probiotics found in kefir, but not yogurt, are:
- Lactobacillus Caucasus
- Acetobacter species
- Streptococcus species
- Saccharomyces Florentinus
- Leuconostoc Cremoris
- Bifidobacterium Longum
Additionally, kefir also contains beneficial yeasts, such as Saccharomyces kefir and Torula kefir, which help control and destroy pathogenic yeasts in the body.
FYI, the primary strains of bacteria found in yogurt are Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus.
Continuing with the differences between kefir and yogurt, kefir has a thinner texture than yogurt, making it best to consume as a drink.
The methods used to produce each are also quite different. Yogurt typically begins its culturing and fermentation under heat, while kefir ferments at room temperature.
In regards to calories, a cup of store-bought full-fat yogurt is about the same as a cup of kefir:
Now that we’ve discussed the differences between yogurt and milk, let’s learn how we can make it right at home.
How to Make Kefir at Home
The great thing about making your own kefir, aside from avoiding the expense of the store brands, is that, unlike making your own yogurt, you don’t need any heat source to make it.
So, in the event there’s a zombie apocalypse and you don’t know how to start a fire, you’ll be able to make your tart-and-tangy milk drink while evading hordes of walkers.
To make your own batch of kefir, all you need are a few simple things, most of which you probably already have lying in your cabinets:
- 1 teaspoon active kefir grains
- 1 cup milk of choice (cow, goat, sheep, coconut, or cat)
- A glass jar (or mason jar)
- Paper coffee filter or cheesecloth
- Rubber band
- Non-metal stirring utensil (i.e. wooden spoon or silicone spatula
- Non-metal mesh strainer
- Combine 1 tsp of kefir grains with one cup of milk in a glass jar
- Cover jar with paper filter and secure it with a rubber band
- Store jar in a warm place (such as your countertop or kitchen table) that’s at least 70°F for 24-48 hours (Note: the longer it ferments, the tarter and tangier it gets, so adjust fermentation time based on your taste preferences)
- When the mixture has thickened to a buttermilk-like consistency and has a noticeably tangy taste, it’s ready to be strained.
- Strain the kefir through a non-metal strainer into a container and drink, or store for up to 1 week in the refrigerator.
As for the leftover, strained “grains” DO NOT THROW THEM AWAY!!!
You can reuse the grains and get started on your next batch of kefir by placing the strained grains into a glass jar and adding in another cup of milk. Repeat the steps above and you’ll have more kefir waiting for you when you finish the first batch.
Now, here’s a few things to keep in mind:
- As time goes on, the grains will continue to multiply as you continue to make more and more kefir. You can throw away the extra grains, or, even better, share them with friends who have shown an interest in making their own kefir.
- If you tire of drinking kefir, but don’t want to throw away the grains, put them in a glass jar along with a cup of milk and store in the refrigerator.
- The reason to avoid using metal instruments is that metal can weaken the kefir grains, so if you want full potency kefir, nix the metal and use plastic.
- Make sure room temperatures don’t exceed 85-90°F, as that can cause the milk to spoil. In line with this, you should also keep your fermentation jar out of direct sunlight (i.e. on a window sill).
- You can flavor your kefir by adding your fruit of choice to the strained kefir and letting it “marinate” for another 24 hours. Then you can drink your fruity kefir as is, or strain the fruit if you don’t want the chunks.
Other Uses for Kefir Besides Drinking
Let’s say for instance you’ve got a bunch of kefir lying around, but you really haven’t been in the mood to drink it and your friends/family aren’t interested in it, either. What else can you do with it?
Well, much like yogurt or whey protein, when you get tired of using it in its conventional manner (i.e. protein shake), you can repurpose your kefir for cooking and baking.
Basically, anything you can do with milk or yogurt, you can do with kefir.
Here are a few ideas for ways to spice up your kefir:
- Make it the base for your morning smoothie or post workout shake
- Drain the runny “whey” from it and make kefir cheese
- Mix in seasonings to create a tasty ranch or onion dip
- Mix into muffin or pancake batter for extra fluffy breads
- Use in place of milk as the base for frozen desserts such as ice cream or popsicles.
- Use as a marinade to tenderize and flavor meat
- Use a creamy base for salad dressings
The Bottom Line on Kefir
Kefir is an old-world dairy product that has gained renewed interest thanks to the surge in attention gut health and probiotics have received in recent years. It’s low in lactose, high in calcium and protein and packs a probiotic-punch like many other fermented foods.
What do you think of Kefir?
Have you tried it?
Are you willing to trade in your tub of Greek Yogurt for a bottle of Kefir?
Leave a comment down below with your thoughts.
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