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Milk Kefir FAQ: Preparation and Supplies

 

Milk Kefir FAQ's 

Part 3 - Preparation & Supplies

Questions in this Section:

How do you make authentic milk kefir?
Do I have to start using my fresh kefir grains right away?
What do you need to make milk kefir?
Can you make your own kefir grains or get kefir from just milk?
Can you use artificial sweetener or lactose-free milk with kefir?
Do kefir grains have a milk preference?
Is metal a safe material to use?
What type of container can I ferment and store my kefir in?
Do utensils need to be sterilized for kefir similar to making yogurt?
How much or how little milk (and grains) can be used?
How much or little kefir can I make?
Do you always have to use the grains to make kefir?
Does the milk have to be warmed before adding it to the grains?
How full can I fill my kefir jar?
What temperature does milk kefir prefer?
Should I put a lid on kefir?
Does Kefir need a breathable lid?
Can you use kefir liquid as a starter (instead of the grains)?
Can kefir be in direct sunlight?

How do you make authentic milk kefir?

Milk Kefir is very simple to make, and its fun to watch the process. People have been using kefir grains for thousands of years, before refrigeration, hand-sanitizers and antibacterial soap, measuring cups and pastuerized milk - it is a wonderful simple, safe traditional method to preserve and convert milk to a delicious drink! Milk Kefir can be made from any type of milk (whole, low fat, non-fat, organic, raw, dried, UHT) cow or goat (and other mammalian milk). In short, the grains simply need to be placed in a jar of milk at room temperature, filled about 60-75% to the top, and cover it with a loose lid or cloth. In 24 hours you will have a delicious kefir! Simply strain to retrieve the grains, put them back in the jar with some more fresh milk and repeat! This can go on indefinitely as kefir grains often outlive their owners! With the strained kefir you can bottle it and let it 'ripen' out on the counter for another day or two, stored in the fridge, or drink it right then and there! Our guide goes into more detail step-by-step for this process.

Do I have to start using my fresh kefir grains right away?

Fresh kefir grains are active and trying to eat. They will most likely have exhausted the nutrients in the milk they were shipped in, so its important to get them in fresh milk as soon as possible. If that's not an option, place the package directly into the fridge, where it will keep for about a week or two (though this is not recommended, as they will degrade in strength and quality and may end up pickling themselves).

What do you need to make milk kefir?

All you need is milk, the grains, a cloth, a strainer and a jar and container to store your finished kefir in, that's it!

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.

Can you use artificial sweetener or lactose-free milk with kefir?

Milk kefir needs real calories to survive, being the lactose sugar found naturally in milk. Artificial sweeteners will not provide kefir with the calories or nutrients it needs to live. Lactose-free milk, such as Lactaid, contains the enzyme lactase to break the lactose sugars down into glucose and galactose. These are simpler sugars that are easily digestible. Since the milk still contains sugar, just in a different form, our hypothesis (since we haven't tested this ourselves yet) is that the milk grains may be able to survive off this, though it is not suggested. It's not even necessary because kefir grains act much in the same way as the lactase put into Lactaid and other brands of lactose-free milk (and that is why kefir is so well tolerated by lactose intolerant individuals!).

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. The grains also prefer less processing in the milk or more natural milk. Milk kefir grains thrive in raw milk, do okay in pasteurized milk and can even do ultra-pasteurized pr UHT milk, but its not recommended as it can sometimes imbalance them long term.

Is metal a safe material to use?

This is a much debated topic without a firm diagnosis. There have even been some studies that show that fermenting milk grains in aluminum didn't seem to inhibit their growth. But it is advised not to use such metals as iron, tin, copper or aluminum. Stainless steel is considered safe by most people. The real concern here is whether the grains have a prolonged contact with the metal. It is never advisable to ferment your kefir or store your kefir in a metal container. Acidic foods and liquids (such as kefir) can have a leaching effect on metal when maintaining prolonged contact. If you are simply using a metal spoon to occasionally stir or retrieve your grains, or a metal sieve to separate your grains from the kefir, this has never shown to be a problem at all. Many people use either a nylon, plastic, wood or stainless steel strainer - all materials proven to work equally well. If you are using a product that recommends not cooking or using acidic ingredients such as tomatoes, then it is also not advised to ferment or store kefir in it either.

What type of container can I ferment and store my kefir in?

Glass, ceramic or a food-grade plastic is recommended. Metal can leach when in constant contact with acidic liquids (such as kefir). A thick glass (such as anchor hocking, ball or kerr) with a rubber seal is recommended to lessen the hazard of stored kefir exploding.

Do utensils need to be sterilized for kefir similar to making yogurt?

No, unlike canning or making yogurt, kefir does not require utensils to be thoroughly sterilized. Just use clean hands and utensils, preferably ones that are designated to just kefir related tasks. Expecially if you are culturing viili, make sure the utensils to do mingle - cross-contamination is very easy between these two cultures. There is no need to boil, use bleach, vinegar etc - a simple hand wash or dishwasher cycle will suffice. Kefir, by its nature, keeps itself sterilized and clean (inhibits foreign microorganisms quite well)- you will notice that even when leaving a utensil out with kefir on it, it will not mold for quite some time. This is why rinsing your grains is not needed (and actually can upset them a bit) and constantly changing to new jars is not necessary either (a jar change once a week or every 2 weeks is just as effective). Make sure lids and cloths are clean as well, and getting washed (if you use cloth lids or bags to hold the grains, wash and then iron it to clean - the iron adds a nice, sterilizing heat that the washer cannot match).

How much or how little milk (and grains) can be used?

Kefir starting out (after being stressed during mailing or from being dried) will usually ferment between a 1:6 - 1:8 ratio. This means 1 tablespoon grains will ferment about 1/2 cup milk, and in time it will increase to about 1:12 (1 tablespoon grains in 3/4 cup milk) to even 1:32 or more (1 tablespoon grains in 2 cups milk). Try using a ratio of grains to milk of about 1:7 - 1:15 for colder climates and 1:20 to 1:60 for warmer climates once they are strong and balanced. Not all kefir is the same; some kefir grains will ferment a glass of milk much quicker than others. We have seen some grains so sluggish it took a cup of grains to ferment 2 cups of milk in 24 hours. Both have benefits - if you have fast grains, you will need less and it could possibly ferment in about 12 hours (especially in the summer). On the other hand, if you have slow grains, you can use more, and have kefir every 24 hours (easier to keep up with). As long as they are growing and producing kefir out of milk, the speed and strength is more of just the character of the particular grain you have, and not something to worry about either way. If your kefir is too sour or separating far before your usual straining time, simply adjust to less grains, or more milk. If you use too much milk, the milk can go off before the kefir grains have a chance to ferment it though, so be sure to understand how much it can do, and gradually increase from there. To get lots of kefir quickly with just a few grains simply keep adding milk without straining. The finished kefir will act as somewhat of a starter along with the grains, quickly turning each addition of milk to kefir. For example, with 1 tablespoon of kefir, you may pour in 2 cups of milk, wait 24 hours, add in another 4-5 cups milk, then in about 12 hours you can top it off with another 9 cups of milk and you will have a gallon of kefir in just about 2-3 days. When kefir is fermented with a higher grain to milk ratio, it will have more acetic acid, less lactose sugar and it will be more sour. Kefir fermented with less grains will be more mild, have more lactose sugar, and more lactic acid (vs the acetic acid).

How much or little kefir can I make?

This is entirely dependant on the amount of grains to milk that you are using. There is no specific amount, nor any kind of limit. If you would like only a cup of kefir a day, simply use just a few tiny grains. If you want a gallon a day, you will need to use around 16 tablespoons (or 1 cup) 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.

Does the milk have to be warmed before adding it to the grains?

No, cold milk is just fine. Especially in the summer, it will help keep the grains from over-fermenting. Warm, freshly milked milk from your goat or cow is also just fine, as its within the safe temperature range (and is in fact how kefir was first made - with fresh warm milk).

How full can I fill my kefir jar?

Its best to do no more than 2/3 to 3/4 full. Kefir needs air space, and it will slightly grow in volume as carbon dioxide gets trapped amongst it while fermenting and expands it. This is especially important if you are putting the lid on tightly, as it can explode if there is not enough available space as it expands.

What temperature does milk kefir prefer?

Between 65º - 82ºF (18º - 28ºC) is its best functioning range. 71º F (22ºC) is the most ideal. Anything above 86°F (30°C) can be damaging. Kefir can actually still ferment anywhere from 39°F to 86°F (4C°-30°C). This is why it will continue to ferment in your fridge, just at a much slower pace. If you live in a tropical or very hot climate, you may need to make some adjustments so that your kefir isn't contstanly exposed to excessive heat (82°F/28°C or more). You can try fermenting in the fridge during the day, and letting it sit out on the counter during the night. Or you can immediately place the kefir in a thick cooler after pouring cold milk into it (or add cool water or a little ice pack in the cooler to help keep it cool). Try using a ratio of grains to milk of about 1:7 - 1:15 for colder climates and 1:20 to 1:60 for warmer climates.

Should I put a lid on Kefir?

Putting a lid on kefir while its fermenting will increase the carbonation (fizziness) of the final kefir quite a bit. Kefir grains thrive when exposed to oxygen and seem to do slightly better when the lid is breathable (a cloth, paper towel, etc). Also, it is safer to cover it with a breathable lid because of the risk of built up carbonation exploding the glass. This can and does happen, usually when a bottle is forgotten, or filled too close to the top. Make sure that if you're putting a tight lid on your kefir while its fermenting that you don't fill the jar more than 2/3 full. Just like soda, kefir will expand if enough
carbonation has built up and not enough space was left; it will burst and climb right out of the jar when you open the lid. You can also achieve a happy medium by loosely placing the lid on the top to make it a tighter fit than a cloth would be, but still loose enough that air can escape. To avoid fruit flies, be sure that whatever lid or cover your are using, that it is secure and there are no large holes that a small fly (or other floating things like dust or pet hair) could easily get through. Keep in mind that when you bottle and store your strained kefir the carbonation will increase at that point too, so
it isn't necessary to try to achieve carbonation during the actual fermentation when the grains are in it. We like to use a cloth and once our kefir is in the fridge for a couple days the carbonation kicks right in!

Does Kefir need a breathable lid?

Kefir functions best when it has oxygen. When you try to go anaerobic (no oxygen), you will be getting basically a carbonated kefir wine. Some people prefer to ferment with a tight lid to increase the carbonation (though this can be done at a later process). It also increases the risk of explosions when the lid is tight. We always ferment ours with a cloth of some kind as the lid.

Can you use kefir liquid as a starter (instead of the grains)?

Yes, kefir liquid 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.

Can kefir be in direct sunlight?

This is not recommended, as it can more easily encourage other bacteria to grow if it heats up the jar too much (just like a fish tank in direct sunlight is more difficult to keep clean). For this reason kefir grains prefer indirect light or dim light (such as in a cupboard) or a cool corner of the kitchen counter.