Many people who have done milk kefir for a while can attest to that moment when you open up the fridge and suddenly see lines of jars filled with milk kefir.
Milk kefir grains are like workhorses on steroids. In 24 hours, just a few grains can eat through 4 cups of milk. Some people with big families (or big appetites) love it. Other people over produce kefir or get frustrated by continually doing tiny batches every 24 hours.
The good news is that there are ways to slow down production and give you and your grains a little break from all the work (without hurting them).
Method 1 - Use 1 cup of milk or less each day
- You may only need a couple small grains
- Healthy for grains and ferment
- Time consuming
Small ferments are very healthy for the grains and the resulting kefir is typically really balanced and healthy. All you really need is a couple small grains or even just one large one.
However, the time and effort to strain, collect and clean the new jar, strainer, bowl, etc every 24 hours for 1 small cup of kefir can be understandably frustrating after a while.
The following methods help give you a break from continually fermenting.
Method 2 - Ferment for 48 or 72 hours
- Healthy for grains and ferment
- Less time consuming than 24 hour ferments
- Typically requires raw or minimally processed milk
- May not work if its too warm
The amazing thing about grains is that they can naturally adapt to longer schedules. If you continually do short ferments, the yeast will be more active and the ferment will be done in 12-24 hours. If you do a longer 48-72 hour ferment, it may over-ferment at the start, but they will adapt and start to slow down more.
However, its much easier if you have access to raw milk or cooler temperatures.
Switching to 48 or 72 hour milk kefir ferments is a good option for some, especially if you are lucky enough to have access to raw milk. Raw milk tends to ferment slower and more bacteria rich. That means its less likely to separate early and over-ferment. There's also significantly less concern of spoilage bacteria, so its easier to do larger slower ferments. Minimally processed milk can also work, but not quite as well as raw milk.
With highly processed milk, it tends to ferment faster and separate quickly. When there's significantly whey separation early in the ferment, the grains get pushed to the surface and get more air exposure which is not healthy for the grains. It makes it difficult to do longer than 24 hour ferments.
This method also works better with cool temperatures (70 degrees or lower) as it will be naturally slower and less yeasty. Which means that its less likely to separate early and will allow you to do the longer ferments if desired.
It will change the flavor though to be more sour / tart and less yeasty. Some people love it that way, while others prefer the yeastier 24 hour ferment
Method 3 - Ferment for about 2-3 weeks and then rest grains the fridge for a week
- The healthiest fridge method for the grains
- Allows for a 1-week break every month if desired
- Still quite time consuming
Fridge storage has the potential to imbalance the grains when not done right. Most of the time the imbalance is temporary, but if its stored for too long or too often, it can permanently change how the grains work and may stop them from growing.
This method tends to work fairly well for the grains. After fermenting at room temperature for 2-3 weeks, the grains are at an optimal state and can typically handle a rest in the fridge for a few days without much trouble.
The best way to store milk kefir grains in the fridge is simply in a closed jar of milk. As long as the grains are submerged in liquid, they should be fine.
Even though this method is fairly easy on the grains, it may not be easy on your schedule. It's a great solution for those who want to take a vacation.
The next method makes more sense for most schedules, but its a little harder on the grains.
Method 4 - Ferment for 2-3 days and then take a break for a few days
- Convenient schedule
- Can be hard on the grains long term
This method makes sense production wise. You and your grains work hard a few days, make enough kefir for the week, put the grains in the fridge and then take the rest of the week off.
It can work fairly well, but its not the most ideal method for the grains. The constant switching from room temperature to fridge that often can create issues for the grains and may stop them from growing at some point. Also the first batch out of the fridge tends to be slow and (possibly imbalanced), so you have to take that into account every week you start up again.
As long as you stick to at-least 2 room temperature batches and not store the grains too long in the fridge, it can work long-term.
Method 5 - Ferment directly out of the fridge
- Very easy and convenient
- Some people prefer the flavor
- Not as healthy for the grains
Simply do your regular room temperature ferment ratio, but instead of letting it sit out at room temperature for 24 hours, put them in the fridge for about a week (it can vary, so do a taste test after a few days).
The biggest issue is that grains have evolved and adapted to room temperature ferments and that’s their optimal state. They can somewhat adapt to fridge ferments where there’s a shift in strain dominance as some strains do better in the cold and others are suppressed. Sometimes it can lead to imbalance. But you will know as the resulting kefir just won’t smell or taste right. The other issue is that long term fermenting in the fridge can stop the grains from growing in the short-term and possibly permanently.
Methods we do NOT recommend
Starting the ferment in the fridge and then finishing at room temperature
This method can work in the short-term, but the constant switching from cold to room temperature will usually imbalance them as they cannot properly adapt to the extreme changes.
Starting at room temperature and then finishing in the fridge
Same as above. The continual extreme change is hard for the grains to properly adapt to and may cause long term issues.
Taking breaks longer than a month
If you store the grains in the fridge for longer than a month, they may never fully recover. They will typically still produce decent kefir, but it may be different and they may slow or stop growing after that.
Making kefir at home is a fun healthy endeavor. However, making kefir every day can be both time consuming and a little difficult for busy schedules. Sometimes a break is needed due to schedules, vacations or lack of time.
There are several options to slow down production or make life easier without killing the grains off. You can lower the amount you do each day, slow them down to 48 or 72 hour schedules or use the different types of fridge methods to slow them down.
So which is the best method? I think the best method is the one that works best for you and your schedule. Ideally you want to avoid putting the grains in the fridge if possible, but in the real world, that's not always possible. Milk kefir grains are hardy and adaptable and will be perfectly fine with occasional rests. So go with what works best for you.
What is your ideal way to slow down production?