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FAQ: Kefir Grains 101
Questions in this Section:
What should kefir grains look like?
What's the difference between dried and fresh/live Kefir grains?
How do you know if the grains are 'healthy'?
What size are kefir grains?
What size is best for kefir grains to be?
Are all kefir grains the same?
What are kefir grains composed of?
What strains of bacteria and yeast are found in kefir grains (and kefir itself)?
How long do active kefir grains last?
Do kefir grains need to be fed every day?
Do kefir grains have a milk preference?
What are the tiny sticky threads between my kefir grains?
Should kefir grains float?
Do kefir grains change shape?
What causes grains to change appearance or shape?
Why do my kefir grains look like ribbons?
What is the orange or hard crust discoloration on the surface of kefir grains?
What are the seasonal differences in kefir (summer vs winter, etc)?
Do you have to be gentle with kefir grains?
Can you cut/blend/tear kefir grains?
Do you have to wash or rinse your grains?
What if a grain drops onto the counter or floor?
Should I give my kefir grains a rest once in awhile?
Do you always have to use the grains to make kefir?
How fast do kefir grains grow?
How can you encourage kefir grains to grow more quickly?
What if my grains are not multiplying at all?
Can you make your own kefir grains or get kefir from just milk?

What should Kefir Grains look like?

Kefir grains look a lot like little cauliflower florets. Up close, their pattern is somewhat like coral, or a brain. They can also look like smooth, flat shreds of ribbons during the warmer months (or when crowded in a jar).Their color ranges from creamy off-white to white. They are soft, bouncy and squishy, like a tiny squeeze toy. Dried kefir grains color is usually like a light cheddar cheese, becoming darker (deeper orange) as it gets drier and ages.

What's the difference between dried and fresh/live Kefir grains?

We offer both choices because there are unique benefits to each. The fresh kefir grains re-balance quickly and begin producing drinkable kefir within just a few days of arriving after shipment. This is an excellent option if you live within the U.S. and are able to be home to receive the grains when they arrive and attend to them immediately. If you are either a) not located within the U.S. or b) not able to attend to the fresh grains immediately upon arrival, then dried kefir grains are the best option for you. These will take a little longer to activate - about a week or so to 'wake up' and balance to where they are producing a drinkable kefir. This is a great option if they will be in transit internationally, since they are in a dormant stage and will not degrade or be as likely to be damaged as the fresh grains. This also gives you the option to stick the dried grain in your cupboard or refrigerator if you receive them but are not yet ready to use them (or want to hang onto them as a backup source or a gift to give).

How do you know if the grains are 'healthy'?

Kefir grains are very resilient and will strive to maintain their health at all times. As long as your grains are converting milk to kefir that is not 'off' they are just fine. They may get stressed and change shape or smell a bit (more yeasty or more stringy looking), but they will bounce right back given the right conditions. They range from creamy white to a dark ivory and coiled brain-patterned balls to bumpy ribbons. Even when they are not growing they can still produce a healthy drinkable kefir (such as in soy or almond milk), though its best to give them optimal conditions so they can grow.

What size are Kefir Grains?

Kefir grains sizes range all over the place depending on what stage they are at in their life cycle, along with what season it is, what milk it is in, how often it receives fresh milk, and the list goes on! Kefir grains usually stay around the size of a marble (1/2" or 2 cm), but they are constantly reproducing much smaller 'baby' grains (the size of a rice kernel and smaller). Sometimes one grain will continue to grow without breaking apart naturally, and get 1-1 1/2" inches (3-4 cm) in circumference. We have also seen kefir grains when in a stretched, ribbon form, grow to 5 or more inches long (13 cm) and an inch or 2 wide. Typically the smaller the grain, the more productive it is because of the greater amount of surface area exposed (many small grains vs one large grain). Smaller grains tend to produce the optimal consistency and flavor desired for a kefir.

What size is best for Kefir Grains to be?

Kefir grains can grow to be quite large, however that does not mean that they are better. In fact, when the grains are smaller, there is more surface area involved which produces a better kefir (they also tend to grow more easily at a smaller, more manageable size as well). One of the smoothest kefirs we've personally tried was when we threw some of our grains in a blender to make them extremely small. Not only did they produce a thick creamy kefir, but they produced it more quickly, grew quickly, and even returned to their original size after a few weeks.

Are all kefir grains the same?

All kefir grains are alike, but they are not the same. Just as all people are humans, but none are exactly alike, kefir also varies from one to the next. Some kefir grains ferment more quickly than others, some more tangy, some more sweet, and some more fizzy. You will see that your kefir grains will be continuously morphing themselves from season to season and year to year. Part of the kefir process is learning to let go of the desire to keep them exactly the same (no matter what you do, they will be in a constant state of growth and change) and learning to look forward to its many suprises, just like raising a pet or child.

What are Kefir Grains composed of?

The grains are a symbiotic relationship of over 30 different strains of beneficial bacteria and yeast. The bulk of the grain that you see is a combination of insoluble protein, amino acids, lipids (fats) and soluble-polysaccharides (complex sugars). Scientifically speaking, the content of a freeze dried kefir grain has shown to be composed of 4.4% fat, 12.1% ash, 45.7% Muco-polysaccharides, 34.3% total protein (consisting of 27% insoluble protein,1.6% soluble protein and 5.6% free amino acids) as well as a trace amount of unknown substances. Amorphous and crystalline iron is also found in small amounts on the surface of the grains under a microscope.

What strains of bacteria and yeast are found in kefir grains (and kefir itself)?

To view a list of all bacteria and yeast strains found in kefir, please view our 'Strains' section.

How long do active Kefir Grains last?

Indefinitely with good care - they are a living, consuming organism that are in a constant state of reproduction. Some may get weaker over time for one reason or another (neglected, frozen, etc), but they will nonetheless do all they can to keep marching on! They have already lived over a thousand years as it is.

Do kefir grains need to be fed every day?

The short answer is yes. Kefir grains need to be strained every 24 hours (or 48 at the max) and given fresh milk. If you or your grains would like to take a break, stick them in the fridge, refreshing them weekly with new milk. This can be done for a couple weeks, then they should be brought back out to room temperature. If you need a longer break, view our section on storage.

Do kefir grains have a milk preference?

The short answer is yes, they prefer what milk they are used to (just as a plant prefers to stay put rather than be transplanted), but they will gradually and happily adapt to new milks. If they are produced in goat milk, their preference will be whole goat milk, if cow milk, they will prefer whole cow milk. Kefir grains do best when the full range of nutrients they require are available to them. This includes the milk sugars, proteins and fats. Many people notice that their grains take off and thrive when given full-fat milk.

What are the tiny sticky threads between my kefir grains?

When you move kefir grains apart from one another you may notice some sticky thread-like strings hanging and stretching between them (think pulling a pizza slice and its dangling cheese strings). It will look like fine thread-like spider web material stretching and sticking when the grains are separated from one another. This is actually a great sign that your grains are healthy and growing. Absence of these threads is ok too - a lack of these does not mean anything bad! These threads are simply known as kefiran by the kefir community and they are a gel forming soluble polysaccharide. You may notice even more during the summer, or if you're trying a new milk. These will often change over time and from season to season, coming and going. This polysaccharide is part of what makes kefir creamy. It is similar to the same compounds found in starch, cellulose, gum and glycogen. Bacteria, fungi and algae have all adopted an ability to produce this as a form of protection from drying out, reproducing and adhering to their food source more efficiently. This promotes viscosity in the kefir and is also soothing to the digestive system (aloe vera juice and gel contains copious amounts of polysaccharides).

Should kefir grains float?

Yes, sometimes. Most kefir grains encapsulate some of the carbon dioxide gas that the yeasts give off while fermenting. Also, some grains have less density than the milk, and simply float. Some will be dense enough though (and manage to avoid capturing bubbles) that they sink. If you are using dried milk powder, and all the grains are at the top, simply add some more water to increase the density which will allow the grains to relax a bit. Sometimes grains that have been subjected to severe freezer burn, high heat or their outer layer is too encrusted and hard from being dried (or old), also float (and they may not be able to be revived). In this case these grains will usually have a darker color and less soft and sponge-like texture. It is best to see if these are able to propagate new grains (though they themselves may not recover) or toss them if no growth or kefiring is achievable with them. If they reproduce new grains, then you can toss them once you have enough of the new grains (you will be able to still visibly tell which ones are the old, darker ones to be tossed).

Do Kefir Grains change shape?

Yes, they actually go through seasonal changes just like a plant would. This is in response to the weather, temperature, amount of daylight being most likely a combination of all three. In the summer, kefir grains can become more 'relaxed' and stretch out a bit, seeming more limp and spiral-shaped. In response to very hot weather we have found that they can stretch out even more, looking like flat smooth shreds of ribbons. This can also happen when there is overcrowding in the jar or not enough fat in the milk. In the fall (or cooler environment) you will see them start to coil up again into a more tightly wound brain-like patterned balls (or cauliflower florets) for the winter.

What causes grains to change appearance or shape?

A change in temperature, season, milk brand or %, or space/milk quantity can all affect grain appearance and shape. Pressing or squishing them (or blending them) can also change their appearance for awhile. Because of different proteins, fat amounts or minerals available in different milk %'s or brands, grains can change appearance or shape. Changing temperatures can also dramatically change the shape of kefir grains. Also, the amount of milk available will have an affect (more milk being desirable) on the grains. Grains put under ideal conditions will eventually return to their normal more rounded shape.

Why do my Kefir Grains look like ribbons?

In response to very hot weather we have found that they can stretch out, looking like shreds of ribbons. This can also happen when there is overcrowding in the jar or not enough fat in the milk, squishing or pressing the grains (or blending them) or a combination of all 4 of these factors. Our hypothesis is that they are just adapting to a more rapidly depleted food source, and stretching themselves to look for more nutrients. This does not mean they are unhealthy, it is simply their way of adapting to reach more food. Sometimes it simply seems to be a response to warmer weather and they are slightly more 'relaxed', and then binding and coiling upon themselves more in the colder weather. You can try giving it more milk, a less crowded environment (take out some of the grains) or a cooler area to ferment and they will usually return to forming a more coiled shape again. When straining, try not to squish or squeeze the grains with your hands or spoon.

What is the orange or hard crust discoloration on the surface of kefir grains?

Kefir grains can sometimes get encrusted by the fat of the milk. This can happen when the milk is not changed regularly, or if you have been using your grains in cream to ferment sour cream etc. It can also be a result of drying out too much. Dried kefir grains can appear to have this because their outer layer was the most exposed during drying. Using non-homogenized milk (cream floats to the top) can also expose the grains to excess fat, especially if they are not stirred back into the milk once in awhile during the fermenting process. Once they start to grow, this will slowly disappear. In all these cases it is best to place your grains in a bowl of fresh cool water (or kefir) and gently rub them free of their crust with your fingers. You can also toss them in a blender to open them up and expose fresh, un-crusted sides (which will grow better and produce a better kefir). Resume fermenting, with regular milk changes.

What are the seasonal differences in Kefir (summer vs winter, etc)?

Kefir, like all living organisms, goes through intricate and subtle changes with the seasons, climate, temperatures and environment it is in. Just like you can mark the seasons with a tree budding, growing, turning colors and discarding its leaves, kefir also will constantly be in flux and going through seasonal patterns. Kefir will ferment much more quickly in the summer and warmer temperatures. It will be thinner and may be more lumpy or inconsistent as well. It may especially be inconsistent during spring and fall, or whenever there is a large disparity of temperatures (such as a cold night and hot day). Kefir will tend to be more creamy and mild in the winter and cooler temperatures (and more zesty and sour in the summer). Part of the beauty of the symbiotic nature of kefir is that each strain has a certain strength and weakness. Together, they are able to ferment at a wide range of temperatures. Keeping this in miind, you will realize that because of this, a certain temperature will allow some strains to perform much better, while others may be temporarily suppressed. This contributes to the differing tastes and textures of kefir throughout the year. Some people notice it is more cheesy in the winter (possibly due to the certain yeast and other strains being stronger), while in the summer it may be more bread-ish and light in flavor.

Do you have to be gentle with Kefir Grains?

Kefir grains are pretty hardy little guys. Just like grass, it can take a good beating but it will wear down over time if exposed to excessive stress. To give you an idea, kefir grains will survive a blender, a hammer, freezing, some heat (but not cooking), and of course, drying. This does not mean they should be handled this way - care for them like you would any pet, and they will be extremely happy and productive for it!

Can you cut/blend/tear kefir grains?

Yes. In fact this will help your kefir to ferment better when your grains have gotten to large. Keep in mind this can sometimes result in the grains growing back in a more ribbon-shaped fashion. This is just a response to the slight stress of the breakage. They will eventually resume their more coiled, round shape though, and is nothing to worry over!

Do you have to wash or rinse your grains?

Some people like to do this, but it was never done traditionally and is not necessary at all. By nature, they are a symbiotic mass of microflora that has self-inoculating properties, protecting itself from foreign bacteria or yeast. The lactic and acetic acids it excretes also protects it from becoming contaminated. Many have observed that when they stopped rinsing their grains, they grew better and produced better kefir. Sometimes they can get fat deposit (crusty, orange colored areas) that may indicate they need a gentle scrub and rinse though. If you wish to rinse them, make sure it is clean, non-chlorinated water. Simply run them under flowing water or swish them around in a bowl of clean water, and pat dry.

What if a grain drops onto the counter or floor?

Immediately rinse it under cool or cold clean water with clean hands and gently rub it to make sure all dust and debris are rinsed away. It will usually be just fine to join back in with the other grains and ferment as usual. If you are uneasy about adding it back in to your ferment, just rinse it and eat or toss to your pets or your garden!

Should I give my Kefir Grains a rest once in awhile?

It's always helpful for everything under the sun to have a break once in awhile. A couple times a year is quite sufficient, they will keep going regardless of getting a rest or not, but it seems they do appreciate a vacation once in awhile. Read below for how to rest your grains.

Do you always have to use the grains to make Kefir?

Kefir liquid actually also contains billions of microscopic organisms that are effective at making a yogurt-like consistency out of milk when you stir in a tablespoon or two in a cup or two of milk and let sit out or in the fridge for 24 hours. It will dilute and get weaker each time, so its best to start with freshly made kefir (from kefir grains) each time for the freshest and safest ferment. But this is a great option for fermenting other liquids or making a quick batch in a pinch.

How fast do kefir grains grow?

Although not nearly as fast as water kefir, milk kefir grains do grow and you will soon have much more than you started with. They typically grow about 5% during the winter or under cooler conditions and 10% to 25% during summer or under optimal warm conditions. It is also interesting that smaller grains will reproduce much more rapidly than larger grains (this is because there is a greater surface area that can grab nutrients from the milk).

How can you encourage kefir grains to grow more quickly?

Many factors are involved in creating an optimal environment for kefir grains. Keeping within their preferred temperature is essential to the speed of grain growth. Providing them with proper nutrients is also vital (they seem to love whole raw milk the most). Making sure they remain on the smaller side, and that they are not encrusted or dry helps them to have as much access to milk as possible, so they can propagate more quickly. Adding a little whole cream can sometimes give them a boost as well. Lastly, making sure they are constantly given a fresh supply of milk ensures they are not sitting too long between feedings (and slowing their metabolism).

What if my grains are not multiplying at all?

Sometimes grains for one reason or another are stubborn and will simply not grow. They will usually still properly ferment milk into kefir though, and is not something to be concerned about. If they are floating, not soft, and not producing kefir, they are not viable any longer. Browse through the grains 101 section here to see if there may be some factor involved that you can improve to help encourage growth. Check your temperature, your milk type (they really love full-fat milks), and make sure there are no harsh residues of soap or any antibacterial agents on any of your jars or other kefir supplies. In some cases, grains that have too thick of a dried crust or have been subjected to freezer burn or extreme heat may not revitalize. Also In this case they will most likely be floating and not as spongy and moist in texture. It is best at this point to start anew.

Can you make your own kefir grains or get kefir from just milk?

No, kefir grains must be obtained. Kefir grains reproduce, but one cannot create the grains or have them spontaneously occur in milk. Raw milk traditionally was let to sit out (there were no refrigerators not too long ago!) which would turn to buttermilk. Raw milk contains naturally occuring bacteria and yeast, which will slowly ripen and convert milk to buttermilk. Pastuerized (any store-bought) milk is not capable of doing this since most of those natural bacteria and yeast are killed in the heating process. UHT milk is even more devoid of these. Either way, kefir cannot be created and is not reproducable without obtaining real kefir grains to start with.

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