Move over, kombucha. The latest obsession in fermented foods is kefir, a tangy yogurt-like drink that's popping up across the country. It's loaded with beneficial bacteria that can keep your gut healthy, and it tastes good, to boot!
While trendy, this buzzworthy beverage is anything but new. Experts believe that people figured out how to make kefir around 2,000 years ago, in an effort to extend the freshness of milk. Despite its ancient roots, kefir is more relevant than ever.
"With the growing focus on fermented foods and their impact on our health, kefir is becoming more available and accessible. You can now find it in conventional supermarkets, big health food stores and even small, independent stores," said Will Cole, D.C., a leading functional-medicine expert, mbg Collective member, and the author of Ketotarian.
You can spend months taste-testing different kefir brands until you find your favorite one. But why not learn how to make kefir at home, instead? The technique is surprisingly easy, and once you try your homemade kefir, it'll be love at first sip. Here's everything you need to know about how to make kefir in your own kitchen (along with some reasons you should!).
Why you should learn how to make kefir at home.
Making kefir is a lot simpler than making many other types of fermented foods. There are only two ingredients and five steps in the entire process. But if you need an extra dose of motivation to finally give it a try, take a look at the many health benefits of this beverage.
Kefir is loaded with both prebiotics and probiotics—types of microorganisms that promote a healthy gut.
"The research on probiotics and digestive health is exploding," said Nour Zibdeh, R.D., an integrative dietitian and gut health specialist in Virginia, and author of The Complete Acid Reflux Diet Plan. "They help improve the immune system, fight pathogens, synthesize certain vitamins, and keep a balance between good bacteria and bad bacteria in the gut." Zibdeh is one of many health and wellness experts taking a closer look at the benefits of the probiotics found in kefir, as well as other fermented foods, like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh, and yogurt.
"Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, said that all disease begins in the gut, and the research is catching up to that Hippocratic wisdom," Cole added. "The majority of health problems we face as a society today begin in the gut microbiome. Things like anxiety, depression, brain fog, and even cancer all have links in the medical literature to underlying gut issues."
What's more, kefir packs a punch of vitamins and nutrients your body will love. One of the effects of fermenting milk into kefir is the production of vitamin K2, said Cole. This important vitamin has been linked to lower risks of cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and death. Kefir also has a decent amount of vitamin B12—a vitamin critical to the prevention of birth defects and the formation of red blood cells and overall brain health. When you drink kefir, you'll also fuel your body with protein, calcium, phosphorous, and magnesium.
"Kefir isn't a bottle of magic but a component to bringing more healthy things into our diet for an overall healthier gut," said Cole.
Health benefits aside, there's also another very good reason to learn how to make kefir at home: You can control exactly what's in it. Store-bought kefir may have added sugars, natural and/or artificial flavors, thickening agents, and preservatives. You can avoid these and other potentially dubious ingredients by making your own kefir from ingredients you trust. The only two ingredients you'll need are milk (dairy, goat, or coconut) and kefir grains (more details on recommended ingredients below!).
"If someone really wants fruit-flavored kefir, they can just get or make plain kefir and mix in their own fruits. That way, you get the benefits of real strawberries, for example, not just the flavoring and sugar," said Zibdeh.
Finally, homemade kefir isn't just good for your body—it's easy on the wallet. "If you have time to spend in the kitchen, making plain kefir can be cheaper than buying it at the store," said Zibdeh. The most expensive parts of getting started are buying the kefir grains and cheesecloth. Those items (plus a bottle of milk) shouldn't run you more than about $25 in total. After your first batch, all you'll need is more milk to make a second (and a third…and a fourth!). And since the majority of that time is spent just waiting for your batch of kefir to ferment, you can easily tackle other items on your to-do list in the process.
The best milks to use in kefir.
The first step in learning how to make kefir at home is choosing the milk you wish to use. Cow's or goat's milk has been traditionally used to make kefir. Since this will form the base of the drink, make sure you're getting dairy you feel good about.
"The majority of milk in our society today is not healthy. Most cow milk is homogenized and has the fat removed, along with a lot of the nutrients and fat-soluble vitamins," said Cole, adding that you should only buy full-fat milk to make dairy kefir.
"At a minimum, go with organic dairy," added Nour. "Organic dairy farmers aren't allowed to use any hormones and aren't allowed to use the milk from cows being treated with antibiotics. With the spread of antibiotic resistance, we need to reduce our exposure to antibiotics through food sources."
When it comes to how to make kefir at home, the best milk to use is from grass-fed cows. This will give your kefir a rich flavor and nutrient composition. You could also look for dairy labeled as "A2," said Cole. "Most milk is beta A1-casein, a subtype brought about by the crossbreeding of cows over the last thousand years or so," he said. "But ancestral casein is beta A2, which is found in other cows and is healthier. It's cropping up in different health food stores."
No matter which type of dairy milk you go with, just make sure it's pasteurized, said Nour. "Raw milk isn't pasteurized and may pose a health risk to some people with low immunity," she explained.
If you're lactose intolerant or just looking for a plant-based alternative, you can make dairy-free kefir out of coconut milk or coconut water instead of cow's milk, said Cole. The technique for how to make kefir is exactly the same as the one outlined below, regardless of the liquid base you start with.
What to know about kefir grains.
When you read about how to make kefir, you'll discover that only two ingredients are required: milk and kefir grains. Chances are good that you already have the first one in your fridge. But where do you begin looking for kefir grains? And more importantly, what the heck are they?
"Even though they're called kefir grains, they're not grains at all," explained Cole. "They're symbiotic cultures [made from both yeast and bacteria]. They look like little bunches, similar to cottage cheese."
These grains work the same magic on kefir as SCOBY does on kombucha: fermenting liquid into probiotic-packed goodness. Some people go to their farmers' market in search of kefir grains from someone in the community. But if you can't find them locally, you can also order kefir grains from a number of online stores, including Thrive Market, Cultures for Health, Fusion Teas, and even Amazon. You should expect to spend $7 to $20 on a starter kit, plus shipping.
While shopping for kefir grains, there are two varieties to choose from: live and dried. Live kefir grains can be added to milk to start making kefir right away while dried grains will need to be rehydrated in fresh, pasteurized milk for a few days before you can use them. Both types of kefir grains work equally well and can be reused over and over again. Plus, kefir grains grow over time. Give some of your extra ones to a friend who also wants to learn how to make kefir—sharing is caring!
How to make kefir at home.
The origins of the word kefir come from the Turkish word "keyif," which translates to "feel good." While some may associate that name with the drink's delicious flavor and health benefits, we like to think it refers to the feeling you'll get when you see just how simple (and affordable!) it is to make. Here's how to make kefir at home.
Ingredients and equipment:
- 2 cups of fresh milk (Recommended: Full-fat, grass-fed cow's milk, goat's milk, coconut milk, or even coconut water)
- 2 teaspoons active kefir grains
- Clean glass jar
- Wooden spoon
- Rubber band
- Airtight pitcher with lid
- Pour the milk into the glass jar and gently stir in the kefir grains with a wooden spoon.
- Spread the cheesecloth over the rim of the jar. Use the rubber band to secure it in place. It's important to allow some of the carbon dioxide formed during the fermentation process to release, so don't seal the jar with a lid. (Otherwise, the container could burst.)
- Place the jar on your kitchen counter away from direct sunlight, and cultivate some patience (it's the hardest part of how to make kefir!). The mixture needs to sit at room temperature (65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit) to ferment for at least 12 hours but no more than 48 hours. The warmer the room, the faster your kefir will ferment. You can taste test your kefir every few hours until it's just as thick and sour as you like it.
- Once you're happy with your kefir, turn the cheesecloth-covered jar upside down over a pitcher to strain the kefir and catch the grains. You can save these kefir grains in a small container of fresh milk in the fridge until you're ready to make another batch. (Or toss them in a couple more cups of milk to start your next batch.)
- Pour yourself a glass of kefir, and enjoy! Place the lid on the pitcher with the remaining kefir and put it in the fridge. Homemade kefir keeps for up to a week. If you notice any separation, use a whisk to mix your kefir back together.
Optional: There are also techniques for how to make kefir with other flavors, like the fruity ones you can find at the grocery store. Simply follow steps 1 through 4 in the instructions above, then pour some of your homemade kefir into a blender with a half-cup of chopped fruit (like berries or bananas) and pulse until smooth. Store your flavored kefir in the fridge for up to a week.
How to use homemade kefir.
Once you've learned how to make kefir, you'll probably start doing it all the time. But what should you do with all that homemade kefir? After all, there's only so much you can drink. The good news is that you can incorporate kefir into a variety of other foods and drinks.
"You can put it in fruit smoothies or add it to certain breakfast foods, like chia seed pudding. You can also add fruit to it to create a parfait," said Cole.
Love rich, creamy salad dressings? Rather than using yogurt or buttermilk, try making a creamy dressing with kefir instead. That tang will kick up the flavor of a big bowl of crisp greens and chopped veggies. Likewise, you can use kefir instead of other types of dairy to make baked goodies (like banana muffins!) extra moist.
"You can also make a summery soup by adding kefir to a fruit salad," said Zibdeh.
But for the ultimate summer refreshment, freeze your homemade kefir in ice-pop molds overnight. (Bonus points for adding finely chopped strawberries and mini chocolate chips!). If that's not a reason to learn how to make kefir, we're not sure what is.
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