Big Batch Kefir
BIG BATCH KEFIR

If you are already a little familiar with kefir and the basic process for culturing your own kefir at home, read on!  If not, you should probably start here where I provide a brief overview of the health benefits and simple steps to get started with small, daily batches. To learn about the benefits of Living Foods in general, start here: Living Foods

EASY TO LOVE

The first time I made my own kefir, I was hooked! The process was so easy, and other than the kefir grains (which I purchased on Amazon) I already had everything I needed: a slotted spoon and a glass mason jar. I probably could have continued that indefinitely if it wasn't for one, small problem: I always have to fiddle and find ways to make things better. I wanted my kefir to have a thicker consistency so I began to play with different techniques to reduce the liquid whey. The most effective way to produce thicker kefir is with an extremely simple process (explained here) that uses a coffee filter.  I also discovered along the way that just by blending in a little vanilla extract and honey with an immersion blender I could transform my plain kefir into rich, creamy, magical elixir. Okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it is really good! Suddenly my family, who was not all that into my drinkable kefir at first, started to eat this new and improved version so often that we were constantly running out.

GETTING COMPLICATED

Fast forward 2 months. I upgraded from one small jar to two, larger jars. That alone wasn't a big deal, except every morning I would follow a process that looked like this: I would begin by grabbing my previous day's phase 2 batch (i.e. the thickened kefir) from my refrigerator.  My phase 2 setup consisted of 2 deep bowls stacked with mesh strainers and coffee filters. After 24 hours, most of the whey would end up in the bowl, and a thicker yogurt-like kefir would remain on top. I would pour the whey down the drain and peel away the filter from the thickened kefir curds, transferring them to a mixing bowl for blending (phase 3). I would wash and dry the bowls and strainers and set them up with new filters for the next batch. Then I'd grab my 2 jars of cultured kefir from the pantry and separate out the grains by pouring each jar through a small mesh strainer of kefir into a clean jar. I'd transfer the strained grains into 2 additional clean jars and add fresh milk to begin a new batch (phase 1). Then I'd pour the filtered kefir into the 2 prepared coffee filter stacks and place those in the refrigerator overnight. If that sounds complicated and messy- it was!  My kitchen felt like a mini-kefir factory with jars and bowls and strainers everywhere. Each day I would have to wash a minimum of 6 jars and lids, 2 small bowls, a small strainer, 2 medium strainers, 2 medium bowls, 1 large bowl, and an immersion blender. Needless to say after weeks of doing this daily, it started to get a little old!

THE END OF MY ROPE (ALMOST) 

One day (I must have been extra tired and grouchy that morning), I finally decided I was ready to take a long break from the whole messy process! Problem was, I had read that kefir grains were delicate and needed to be treated like babies; that they are sensitive to temperature and need a fresh supply of milk daily. Some people claimed the grains could be stored in the refrigerator for a short time, as long as the milk was changed out fairly frequently (every few days). I also found a site that offered instructions on how to dry the grains out and freeze them for long term storage, but the outlook for success (successfully reviving them later) seemed pretty low. Neither of these options worked for me. I remember thinking, 'There's no way I am keeping a gallon of organic milk on hand just to feed these little monsters when they aren't making edible kefir!' I was standing near my sink that morning with a strainer full of grains, ready to dump the whole lot down the drain. Then it dawned on me, I had nothing to lose by doing a little experiment.

While my motivation stemmed from the need to simplify the process and reduce the time, effort and amount of dirty dishes, the BIGGEST negative for me was the level of commitment I thought it required. I thought that I couldn’t take a break from it. I was so worried that my "kefir babies" would just self destruct that I actually went so far as to drop my kefir babies at my friend’s house so she could take care of them while I was away on a weeklong vacation!

Well thankfully I have discovered that myths are positively untrue. I have taken breaks from my kefir making- this last time for 3 weeks- without having to dry and freeze my grains or even feed them on a regular basis. And, on the day I decided to start again, I had a delicious, creamy batch of kefir the very next day.  I was SO happy to figure this process out that I had to share it.

WHAT YOU NEED:

Ingredients:

  • 1-1/2 to 2 cups kefir grains
  • 1 gallon milk
  • optional: vanilla extract and honey; also fruit and nuts or anything you like as a mix-in or topping!

Tools:

  • 1 gallon glass vessel (or larger)
  • clean dish towel to use as a cover
  • large mesh strainer (stainless steel)
  • 2 deep bowls (big enough to hold strainer, tall enough to leave room for liquid below)
  • quart size mason jar with lid
  • measuring cup (I use scoop-type, dry measuring cups for this)
  • large slotted spoon
  • silicone spatula (a wooden spoon would work too, but a spatula is easier on the strainer)
  • immersion blender

EASY, BIG BATCH KEFIR, STEP-BY-STEP

Kefir Grains in Jug

1. Place about 1.5 to 2 cups kefir grains in a gallon size (or larger) glass vessel.

If your grains have been refrigerated in milk for under 2 weeks, just pour all the contents in the jar- grains and storage milk included- into the vessel. If it's been in the refrigerator for longer than 2 weeks, be sure to strain out the grains, discarding the storage liquid first.

A note about the storage liquid: Depending on the length of time your grains were stored, the liquid you drain may be good to eat. I find that the storage milk from grains that have been refrigerated for just one week makes perfectly drinkable kefir. But, if it's been in there for 3 weeks it gets a little too cheesy for me, so I normally just toss it. It's probably perfectly safe to add to the vessel but there are so many variables (including the length of culturing time, the ratio of grains to milk and the refrigeration temperature) that it's really best to decide for yourself.

2.  Add about 14 cups of cold, fresh milk to the vessel and cover. If your vessel has a loose fitting glass lid, cover it with that. If not, cover it with a clean kitchen towel and secured it at the rim with a rubber band (you just want to make sure your kefir can breathe). Drape another towel around the vessel to block out the light.

Note: It's not necessary to measure the milk. A gallon is 16 cups, so if you are starting with a full gallon just fill up the vessel until you have about 2 cups left.  You'll need what's left to store the kefir grains tomorrow.  Be sure to leave at least an inch or two of an air gap at the top because the kefir mix will expand overnight. The glass lid on my vessel is loose enough to work for this and the towel will keep out the light out. If your vessel has a rim at the top like mine but you don't have a glass lid, use a rubber band around the top to secure the towel.

3. Allow kefir to culture for 24 hours, stirring at least once before going to bed at night, and once first thing in the morning.

I've found the best time to start the batch is any time from noon until 5 or 6 pm to get the thickest, creamiest results. That's because it's a 24 hours fermentation process and I've found I can encourage a really clean separation of curds and whey by timing when I stir it. If I start it in the afternoon/early evening, I'll stir it up once or twice every few hours until bedtime, leave it alone for 8-10 hours through the night, and then stir it once (or maybe twice) before straining it the next day. The key is, as soon as I see the whey (the transparent part) begin to separate out to the bottom of the vessel, I leave it alone.  The amount of whey at the bottom will continue to grow as the kefir ferments. See notes below to see how to know if the kefir is "done".

Stirring to Separate the Grains

4. Set a mesh strainer over a bowl or pot. Using a slotted spoon, gently scoop the kefir and grains from the top of the vessel into the strainer until the strainer is half full. With a silicone spatula, stir the kefir and grains and/or tap the strainer bowl on the rim of the bowl to separate the grains from the kefir. Transfer the kefir grains from the strainer to a storage jar. Repeat this step until you've taken as much of the creamy kefir and grains from glass vessel as you are able to with your slotted spoon. 

This is probably the most tedious part of the whole process but remember, you are making a week's supply of kefir in once shot. As you stir and tap the strainer on the edge of the bowl, the thickened kefir will drop to the bowl and the kefir grains will remain in the strainer.

kefir grain storage

5.  Top your grains in the storage jar with the reserved (~1.5 cups) fresh milk. 

A note about storing the kefir grains: Once all the grains are transferred, make sure the milk covers the grains. Remember the grains may expand a little as they sit so you'll want to make sure they don't dry out. I like to shake the jar every few days and will sometimes top off the milk if needed.

Kefir and Grains Separated

6. Once you have scooped out the grains and the thicker kefir on top, what remains in the glass vessel should be very liquid and mostly whey.  Pour this through the strainer into another deep bowl, and transfer the last of the strained grains into the grain storage jar. You should now have one bowl with thick creamy kefir, one bowl with liquidy kefir, and jar with your kefir grains and fresh milk. Screw a lid on your grain jar, cover your bowls with plastic wrap, and place all 3 in the refrigerator. (You can skip ahead to step 8 if you want to eat your thick kefir right away, but I prefer to chill it first.)

In this picture you can see the separate kefir components- grains, thick kefir and thin kefir. You'll also see that the glass vessel has mostly whey left at the bottom. On occasion I have been able to get practically all the white kefir and grains out of the vessel, leaving behind only liquid whey at the bottom of the glass vessel and this was one of those times.

liquid kefir separation

7.  By the next morning, the curds (creamy white part) in the bowl with the liquidy kefir should have dropped to the bottom and the whey (golden transparent liquid) will be on top. Gently pour the whey that's at the top right down the drain (or, if you like to keep the whey, into another storage container). Stop pouring when you get to the good stuff (the creamy white part). Those creamy curds can now be blended with fruit for a drinkable treat, added to your thicker kefir bowl, or strained through a coffee filter for a cream cheese replacement.

Check out the coffee filter process here.

Kefir Flavoring

8. As a final step, I like to blend my kefir with vanilla and honey using my immersion blender. Eat right away or cover and refrigerate for later. 

Sometimes I will divide the kefir into single-serving size, wide mouth mason jars that make it easy to grab and go later- all you need to do is top it with fresh cut fruit and nuts. Our favorite topping combinations include blueberries & almonds; strawberries, pecans & cacao nibs; or apples, walnuts & cinnamon. This kefir is also great for making overnight oats!

A FEW MORE PHOTOS AND NOTES

 

Cultured Kefir

Here's a view of one of my batches first thing in the morning on day 2 (about 12-16 hours after starting it). The grains have floated up and have formed a fairly solid layer on top. You may notice that little pockets of whey will have formed around the kefir grains, but there typically won't be a clean separation of the curds and whey yet. Make sure to give it a good stir!

Finished Kefir

This is how my kefir usually looks about an hour or two after the first morning stir. It's begun to separate into curds (creamy white part) and whey (transparent yellowish liquid), with the grains at the very top above the curds. Once I see a clean separation like this, it's best NOT TO STIR it again*. The kefir on top will continue to culture as time goes on, and you'll notice the amount of whey at the bottom will continue to grow.

*If you do stir late in the process, the kefir will still be good, but the separation won't be as clean so will most likely end up with a thinner result.

Stronger Kefir

This is how my kefir usually looks when it's just about ready to "harvest". The strength of the finished kefir can be tweaked by adjusting the fermentation conditions; more grains, warmer temperatures, and a longer culture time will result in a stronger kefir with a thicker consistency and a tangier flavor. If you prefer a milder, creamier flavor but still want a thicker consistency, you can always reduce the strength by reducing time, temperature, or grain ratio, and then strain your kefir through a coffee filter to thicken it by removing some of the excess whey.