I am not going to lie. I have never been a big fan of milk products, unless it happened to be in the form of ice cream, frozen yogurt, or cheese. Yogurt wasn't even high on my list, so the idea of making kefir (which tastes a lot like yogurt) was not all that appealing to me at first. (If you aren't familiar with kefir, I suggest you start here.)
My daughter was the reason I decided to start in the first place. She had always loved dairy products, but had developed some pretty serious digestive issues and was at the point where she had eliminated all dairy and lots of other generally healthy foods from her diet just to try to alleviate some of her symptoms. In order to help her heal her gut, I started researching foods that are naturally high in probiotics, and kefir was at the top of that list. When I dug a little deeper I learned that not only does the fermentation process naturally eliminate almost all of the lactose (the sugar that triggers issues in those who are lactose intolerant) in the milk, it also supplies the body with healthy enzymes and bacteria that can help it to process lactose from other sources. These healthy strains of bacteria can even colonize the gut, displacing the bad bacteria and helping to heal "leaky gut syndrome", a condition strongly indicated by my daughter's symptoms.
THE PROCESS TO MAKE MILK KEFIR
The process is so simple anyone can do it. All you need is milk and some kefir grains (which can be purchased on Amazon). The kefir grains aren't grains at all, but grain-like colonies of yeast and lactic acid bacteria. To me they look like cottage cheese in the shape of little clumps of cauliflower.
You basically put the grains in a glass jar, pour the milk on top, cover with a breathable cover like a cloth or coffee filter and set aside for about 24 hours. When it's done, separate the grains from the kefir and start again. You can use the grains repeatedly and as long as you keep them fed (with fresh milk every day or two), they will pretty much last forever. And they will multiply- so plan on sharing these little guys and all their health benefits with all your friends!
For a step by step, illustrated guide on making basic milk kefir, click here.
STRAINING KEFIR FOR GREEK YOGURT, SOUR CREAM AND CREAM CHEESE
1. Place a 5" stainless steel mesh strainer over a deep bowl, then drop in a coffee filter; Make sure the strainer is at least an inch above the bottom surface of the bowl.
2. Pour in your prepared kefir, making sure it doesn't overflow the coffee filter. I can usually get about 2 cups of kefir into a standard coffee filter. Leave it on the counter for 15-20 minutes and pour off the whey that collects in the bowl (Some people keep the whey- once I get a chance to explore all it's potential uses I will update my recommendation here!) Transfer the whole thing into the refrigerator. You'll want to check on it every few hours and drain the bowl as needed (this is more important if your bowl is shallow- if the whey fills up and reaches the level of the strainer the kefir will stop draining). Keep straining until the kefir has reached the "proper" consistency for your planned use.
3. That's basically it! When your kefir is done to your liking (the right consistency for what you plan to use it for) transfer it to a glass storage container or to a bowl and eat it up! The kefir in this image has reached a thicker, cream cheese consistency. About half of the volume was drained as whey, so what remains is about 1 cup of kefir cheese. See notes below for specific instructions on my favorite kefir foods.
GUT-HEALTHY GREEK YOGURT, SOUR CREAM and CREAM CHEESE
I refer to my strained kefir as "kefir cheese" but just by adjusting the length of time in the strainer, it can be transformed into a nutrient-dense, probiotic-loaded food alternative for all of these:
Sour Cream: The consistency will be about right in just a few hours of straining. To transfer it to a container, I carefully place the kefir in the filter onto a cutting board (this provides support to keep the filter from tearing). Then with a silicone spatula, I gently flatten the filter and scrape the kefir into a bowl.
Creamy Greek Style Yogurt: Timing and process is basically the same as for sour cream (above). Once it's in a bowl, though, I stir in a few drops of vanilla extract and a drizzle or two of organic honey just to offset the tartness. My favorite way to eat this is by topping with fresh blueberries, pecans and a few cacao nibs- yum!
Cream Cheese (or Goat Cheese): Allow to strain in the refrigerator for 2-3 days, until it reaches a thick, cream cheese consistency. If you want to speed up the process, transfer the kefir/coffee filter combo to a loose mesh bag and hang it above a bowl. (Or check out how I got a little creative with a recycled mesh avocado bag below!)
FURTHER ADJUSTMENTS FOR FLAVOR AND CONSISTENCY
- The level of tartness will depend on the fermentation process you used (i.e.the ratio of grains to milk, temperature and time) so you can adjust the flavor by making tweaks to your process on future batches (see basic kefir-making process here).
- If the kefir seems too thick, or if you want to turn your kefir cream cheese back into yogurt or sour cream, just blend in a small amount of unstrained kefir until it's the perfect consistency.
- If you want your kefir to be extra creamy, hit it with an immersion blender.
- To speed things up, I will sometimes transferred the coffee filter to a loose mesh bag (i.e. a recycled avocado bag). Rather than try to hang it from my refrigerator shelf above a bowl, I loosely secured the mesh over a bowl using a twist tie and dropped the coffee filter on top. The mesh is a lot looser than my strainer so it allows the liquid to strain out faster, and the extra air contact helps it dry out faster too. In the photo to the right, you can see the extra whey that has collected in the bottom.
DON"T FORGET TO GET CREATIVE AND HAVE FUN!
Play with added ingredients! I added some diced scallions and some Herbs de Provence to my cream cheese kefir to make a super fast and healthy veggie dip. I also used it to make a Waldorf salad and experimented making frozen yogurt-ish treat. You can use kefir in any recipes that call for yogurt, sour cream, cream cheese, even goat cheese if you first get it to the proper consistency. (For a goat cheese substitute, I start with very mildly fermented kefir that provides a creamier, less tangy flavor). Also, the probiotics will survive both refrigerating and freezing. And although heating can kill the live probiotics, the kefir will still retain all the healthy minerals and nutrients and will remain virtually lactose-free!