How To

What on Earth is Kefir?

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An ancient fermented-milk drink, probiotic-packed kefir offers a healthy dose of good bacteria, says naturopath Louise Kane Buckley.

Text by Cherrie Yu, illustrations by Tim Cheng

culture 1What exactly is kefir?

Kefir is a fermented milk drink thought to originate with goatherds in the Caucasus Mountains. They would mix goat’s milk with kefir “grains” – a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast that looks like cauliflower and acts as a fermentation starter – and hang it in sacks on a door to sour, letting it bash against the wood to keep the milk and grains well mixed. Rich in probiotics (good bacteria), kefir contains up to 40 strains of bacteria compared with four to five in yogurt, sour cream and buttermilk, with corresponding benefits for the gut.


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What is the difference between water kefir and milk kefir?

Water kefir and milk kefir are both easy to make and recommended for initial experiments at home. A combination of kefir grains, water and sugar, water kefir is similar to soda with a slightly sweet taste that can be simply flavoured any way you like. Milk kefir is simply milk and kefir grains and tastes a bit more sour. In both cases, the grains need a food source to “feed” on; lactose in milk kefir and sugar in water kefir.


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What are the benefits of kefir?

The bacterial benefits of milk and water kefir are similar, but the nutritional content varies depending on what you are fermenting. The fermentation process produces bacteria, and once digested, allows the body to absorb the nutrients from the food source. Adding molasses or coconut sugar to water kefir, for example, allows the body to easily absorb nutrients in the sugar such as zinc and magnesium. We like to drink milk for its calcium and rich nutritional benefits, but it’s not bioavailable. The body needs factors such as enzymes and bacteria to absorb the nutrients from milk.


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How long should kefir ferment?

Temperature and humidity are key factors in determining fermentation time. The warmer it is, the faster the fermentation process. In Hong Kong, kefir fermentation generally takes eight to 24 hours in summer and 12 to 48 hours in winter.


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How should kefir be consumed?

Kefir grains will ferment anything that has a sugar source, including milk, almond milk and coconut milk. To make coconut yogurt, add kefir grains to coconut meat and blend to a creamy consistency. You can also use it in baking. Gluten-free products can be too dense or crumbly for some tastes, but adding kefir makes it lighter and fluffier. You can even make ice cream and jelly with kefir.


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Where can I acquire kefir grains?

Kefir grains are not something you can create. Kefir dates back more than 2000 years ago, so it’s incredible that it’s still around. Many places sell kefir grains on the internet. The grains arrive freeze-dried or dehydrated and have to be rehydrated, because bacteria doesn’t die. In Hong Kong, try Facebook groups such as Fermenting Hong Kong or websites such as Cultures for Health and Amazon.


culture 7How can we culture kefir at home?

To make milk kefir, put the grains in milk, and cover with a towel or tissue sealed with an elastic band to keep out dust and bugs. Fermentation creates carbon dioxide, and if you seal the container with an airtight lid it may explode. Leave it overnight and in the morning take the cover off and strain the grains for the next batch. In the Russian method, you drink the unstrained kefir with the grains until there’s 20 per cent left and top up with fresh milk. Glass containers are the ideal way to store kefir.

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