Kefir – what it is, what to do with it, and why it’s good for you

So I’d arrived in Krakow, and settled into my Airbnb and although my plan was to eat out for every meal, I thought I had better get some basics in, just in case.

A couple of doors along was a convenience store and I went to investigate.

Anyone who bemoans the homogeneity of the supermarket offering should visit Krakow. In this shop I recognised nothing. All I could see was a heartening array of unidentifiable comestibles, helpfully labelled in a gob-smackingly impossible language with none of the normal Anglo-Saxon or Latin linguistic clues to help decipher.

I decided reference points would help and headed to the cold counter looking for the dairy. I bought whatever I thought I could recognise, including something which looked like a sort of sloshy yoghurt.

I’m aware (now) that many of you will be very familiar with kefir (pronounced keh-fear) – but I had never heard of it. So below is a quick description of what it is and how it’s made as well as some ideas for how to use it – including what I invented (highly successful) and what some other experimenters have concocted.

Kefir on sale at a Ljubljan market
Kefir on sale at a Ljubljan market

The difference between kefir and yoghurt

The first thing that I discovered was that I was wrong to think that kefir was a kind of yoghurt.

The active ingredient in most yoghurt and other sour milk products is bacteria, whereas the fermentation process in kefir is set off by bacteria, and slow-acting yeasts. The fermentation activated by the slow-acting yeasts results in carbon dioxide (making it slightly fizzy) and ethanol (which makes it slightly more sour). It can also have a slightly yeasty flavour which yoghurt won’t have.

The bacteria in kefir actually colonises within the digestive tract, whereas the bacteria in yoghurt just travels straight through – so the beneficial effect of kefir will be stronger and longer lasting.

Kefir is made at room temperature, whereas most yoghurt is made by heating.

Kefir grains (see below) can be reused as a starter indefinitely (literally through centuries), whereas yoghurt starter needs to be replaced.

kefir grains look a bit like cauliflower florets or white coral
kefir grains look a bit like cauliflower florets or white coral

What is kefir actually made of?

There are two types – by far the better known is milk kefir which is made with fresh, unpasteurised cow, sheep, goat, or coconut, soy and rice milk. Water kefir is made with sugared water, fruit juice, coconut water, beer wart or ginger beer.

Both are fermented by kefir grains.

What exactly are kefir grains?

Kefir grains are not grains – they are just small, gelatinous-looking particles about the size of a grain of rice or they can be as big as a hazelnut. They tend to cluster together to look a bit like cauliflower florets or white coral, although they can form a flat hand-sized sheet. You have to keep feeding them – moving them on a daily basis from one batch of milk to another.

One rather nice thing about kefir grains is that, to date at least, and despite many efforts, they have proved impossible to manufacture synthetically, they are a truly natural product. The kefir grains used to make the kefir you are drinking could well have been developed from grains joggled about in a shepherd’s saddle bags centuries ago in Caucasia (see Origins of Kefir, below).

The consistency of kefir

I was right to note that the consistency of kefir is ‘sloshier’ than yoghurt – many people consider it a drink. However it can be made thicker by using fuller fat milk, or draining whey from the finished product.

There’s something slightly fizzy about it – as I mention above, this is the carbon dioxide which occurs towards the end of fermentation.

Kefir is more liquid than yoghurt and is often drunk
Kefir – likely to remain popular.

How long will it keep?

Check on the packaging, but it should keep in the fridge for at least a couple of weeks.

Ideas for using kefir

  • As I did, delicious, with raspberries and pistachios – see featured image at the top of this post
  • In Lithuania it’s used to make a marvellous, shocking pink beetroot soup called šaltibarščiai
  • At Aster in London they serve a mousse made with kefir, lingonberries and liquorice, which, according to Diana Henry writing in The Telegraph, “fills your nostrils with the scent of fermented food, sharp fruits and aniseed.”
  • Instead of frozen yoghurt, make frozen kefir
  • On your cereal
  • To make soda bread
  • You can substitute kefir for buttermilk, and so it works well, as buttermilk does, in salad dressings
  • For the same reason it works well in marinades
  • And also in scones, or muffins
  • A fantastic idea from Liz Earle in A Taste Of Home. You can make a no-churn strawberry ice cream with kefir. Preheat the oven to 120°C and put a kilogram of hulled and washed strawberries on a silicon-lined tray. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt, drizzle with honey, and roast for an hour until they are caramelised. Take out half the strawberries (leaving the rest, and the syrup which has developed to serve with the ice cream). Divide these strawberries in half and blend one half. Whip 300 ml double cream with 200 ml kefir together until the mixture starts to thicken. Add in a 400g tin of condensed milk. Fold in the non-blended strawberries. Put into a container you can put in the freezer. Stir through the blended strawberries to ‘marble’. Serve with the reserved strawberries and syrup and a few young basil leaves.
  • Ravinder Bhogal describes a fabulous Moroccan dish, where lamb is slow-cooked, and then served in a sort kefir gravy.

What are the origins of kefir?

Kefir was originally made in the Caucasus – a mountainous area between Europe and Asia, between Russia, Iran and Turkey. A goatskin was hung in the sun during the day and brought in and hung in a doorway in the evening where the constant knocking by passers of the milk and kefir grains within encouraged the fermentation process. Shepherds on the move could make kefir, replenishing the milk with fresh milk from their herds, and mixing the milk and grains in the skins with the movement of their travel.

The legend recounts that Mohammed gave the kefir grains to Orthodox Christian locals, warning them that, if they gave away the secret how they were made, they would lose their magical healing powers. And for centuries the secret was successfully and jealously guarded.

A goatskin kefir bag

The bodice-ripping story of how kefir came to be more readily available

In the nineteenth century, doctors discovered that kefir could help those suffering from tuberculosis and also from stomach problems. But of course, it was very hard to obtain.

The All Russian Physician’s Society saw a commercial opportunity here. They approached the Blandovs, two brothers who owned a big Moscow dairy, as well as cheesemaking factories in north Caucasus, asking them to manufacture kefir grains on a larger scale.  The brothers persuaded a beautiful employee named Irina Sakharova to use her powers of seduction on the Caucasian Prince Bek-Mirza Barchorov. The prince, with difficulty, resisted the temptation, and the downcast beauty, empty handed, began the journey back to Kislovodsk, the city of her employers’ cheese facility.

However, it seems that stealing potential brides was the norm in that part of the Caucasus, and Bek-Mirza Barchorov could see the advantages. He kidnapped Irina, and proposed. She strung him along, allowing the Blandov brothers time to plan an audacious rescue. They were successful and the prince was captured and hauled up in front of the Tsar at the time, Nicholas II. The Tsar required the prince to make amends to the lady. The prince offered all kinds of enticements – gold and jewels – but Irina insisted on, and was given, ten pounds of kefir grains. These were handed on to the brothers, and the rest is history.

I hope Irina was recompensed handsomely for her trouble. At least in 1973 (aged 85) she received a letter from the Minister of Food and Industry of the Soviet Union thanking her for bringing kefir to Russians

In 1973, when Irina Sakharova was 85 years old, the Minister of Food and Industry of the Soviet Union sent her a letter acknowledging her part and thanking her for bringing kefir to Russians.

How is kefir good for your health?

Since kefir is a milk product it contains calcium, but the main health interest is in the probiotic bacteria which are very beneficial to the gut, easing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms such as bloating and cramps.

As I mention above (see ‘difference between kefir and yoghurt’), the bacteria in kefir colonise within the intestinal tract, whereas the bacteria in yoghurt are transient.

Is kefir lactose free?

Wikipedia states that there is very little lactose remaining in kefir, due to the effect of the fermentation process (the enzyme, lactase, is produced which ‘eats’ most of the lactose). Those who are lactose intolerant can drink kefir, Wikipedia says, as long as it contains adequate live bacteria – this indicates a sufficiently long and effective fermentation.

Additionally it tells us that, because fermented milk products move more slowly through the gut, any residual lactose is more easily digested.

Can you make kefir yourself?

Kefir is a fermented product and needs to be treated with respect. Additionally, if you use kefir grains (there is also a powder form), as I mention above, you are on a daily grind. And kefir is readily available in most supermarkets.

But if you really want to try making it, the Cultures for Health site is absolutely brimming with information, and they will also supply what you need.

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