My Bacteria-Laden Milk Baby

An Introduction To Kefir

On today's episode of Things That Will Alarm My Mother...

This is food. I'm going to eat it.

To immediately calm everyone's gag reflex and simultaneously freak out anyone who's ever taken food safety: no, it's not lumpy, sour milk, and yes, it has been sitting unrefrigerated for over 48 hours. What you're looking at is a tiny bottle of organic cow's milk infected with kefir grains. Instead of growing mold and curdling, these little grains, which aren't actually grains at all, are fermenting the milk by eating up its lactose, thereby making the milk the consistency of drinkable yogurt and creating probiotics.

Probiotics, as anyone not living under a rock probably knows to some extent, are bacteria that are the Miracle-Gro to your bowel garden. The inside of your body is full of germs, as is your skin and pretty much the entire world around you. If Disney's Recess taught me anything, it's that the world can't live without bacteria; there are millions of different kinds of germs, but they fall into categories of good and bad. Bad ones make you sick, good ones help you thrive. Your large intestine, in particular, is full of these little buggers, and they use the foods you eat to make things like Vitamin K, Vitamin B12, and Biotin. While most of the foods of the Standard American Diet are terrible for us and feed and create bad bacteria in our intestines, there's been a recent upsurge of pro- and prebiotics, supplements meant to encourage the growth of good bacteria so that we can avoid creating food sensitivities and infections of the digestive tract.

Back before the year 2000 or so, when "probiotics" wasn't even a word (and apparently still isn't, according to my spellcheck), people around the world kept their gut bacteria healthy by eating fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and yogurt. Nowadays foods like these are mostly fake-fermented; the containers of yogurt in the grocery store may say they've got lots of healthy germs for you, but it's likely they're dead or not there in the first place. It's actually not legal for most yogurts to contain yeast cultures, and a large quantity of milk products are over-pasteurized, which kills off any bacteria they may have had introduced in their creation. A traditionally fermented milk product like kefir may look a little sketchier, but is full of germs that have eaten up the lactose - so those with intolerances may actually be able to eat it - despite pasteurization, and creates an environment of good bugs ready for consumption.

While it might look like a science experiment, the bacteria created by a fermented food is actually - and I know this sounds backwards - antimicrobial, and basically kills off any pathogens that might want to take up space in a jar of unrefridgerated milk. In this way, it's almost impossible for fermented foods to go rancid, unless you do something wrong, in which case it's very easy to tell. My little bottle of kefir, happily munching away at its milk sugars, kind of smells like eggnog right now. If I were to leave it until there were no sugars left, say, over a couple weeks, and the kefir grains starved, my milk would probably start growing yummy-looking blue mold and smelling like, well, rancid dairy. We as humans are pre-programmed to sense when foods might be bad for us, which is why we tend to prefer sweet fruit over bitter greens. Your nose and taste buds will tell you when something is terribly wrong with what you're eating (with the exception of man-made food-like substances a la TV dinners, because they're full of chemicals that confuse your sensors).

The general process is this: take a spoonful of kefir grains, which look like chunks of ricotta cheese, and dump them in a jar of milk.  Cover, tightly if you want carbonation. Let the milk sit at room temperature for at least 24 hours, but no longer than 48 or so. Once the kefir grains float to the top and the fat in the milk starts separating, give it a sniff. It should smell sour, but not rotten. It might startle you at first, but the scent should not have you gagging and running for the nearest air freshener. Once your 48 hours are up, strain the grains through either a plastic or stainless steel strainer into a storing container (or glass, if you want to drink it ASAP), and return the grains to their bottle. Give them some new fresh milk, and enjoy your fermented stuff. Kefir takes a bit of getting used to - it tastes like a slightly sour unflavoured yogurt. I tried putting honey on it the first time, which tasted great, but a spoonful of sugar with your probiotics isn't something I'd recommend for the long term.

Kefir can be used to make pancakes, smoothies, yogurt dips (tried it on homemade latkes the other night!), and a host of other foods. You can drink it straight-up, like I do, preferably before meals. It's an excellent tonic for helping digestion, as are all fermented foods.

The one rub of this whole endeavor is finding the grains. Although they can be bought, SCOBYs ("symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast" - what kefir grains and the weird jellyfish-looking growth you use to make kombucha are) for fermented drinks are a sort of black market item that you generally acquire by donation from another person. Way less sketch than it sounds, I promise. SCOBYs will multiply over time, so if you've had a ferment for a while, expect to either throw the extra stuff in the compost or find someone who wants it. Sharing is caring, people. Speaking of, I have some happy kefir grains, if anyone wants some. Got them from school.


1) I was told you could ferment non-dairy milks with these same grains, as long as you gave them cow's milk every once in a while so they didn't starve, but my experiment with almond milk honestly just looked too nasty to drink. Feel free to give it a shot.

2) Although kefir grains should eat up all the lactose in the milk, be wary if you have milk sensitivities. The figurative shoe won't fit everyone. I've been having it exclusively once in the morning, as I don't normally drink cow's milk, just to see how it'll effect me. If you have any reason to be unsure, use discretion.

3) PLEASE make sure you're always washing your kefir bottle between uses. There's nothing worse than having to cry over spilled milk (I went there) because it's contaminated with mold. Keeping your ferments sanitary should always be top priority!

4) If you've got more kefir than you need or are going to go away for a while, give it fresh milk and store it in the fridge. The cold will slow the fermentation process.

Happy bubbling!
- Leah

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