Most cultures have some kind of fermented food in their food history. Most cultures still include a fermented food/drink within their daily meals. Kefir, Kombucha, sauerkraut, pickling (see here and here for recipes) and making yoghurt has become very popular again. It is not a coincidence that there is also an increased interest in using natural methods to help combat the increase in digestive weakness and immunity issues coming up in our own health and that of our children. Fermenting is a key way to help re-balance and re-build the body’s strength and health. Here is an insight to my journey, using fermentation to heal.
Bacteria is not something to be feared. It is natural and all forms (even Candida and Helicobacter Pylori) are essential to health and for optimum performance for the body. As we will see, with any ferment- the ingredients (what the bacteria feeds on) and the environment (ph, temperature and contact with oxygen) are very important to get fermenting right. Our bodies now more than ever are becoming more acidic with our diets containing more processed, sugar laden and dead (pasteurised and containing non natural ingredients) foods. These two factors will contribute the imbalance of our gut bacteria alone without adding in overuse of anti-bio tics and over sterilisation of our environments with chemical cleaning products.
However we are turning around from it in a big way and wanting to become food producers and using natural methods more and more. Every small step will have a big impact; Kefir is a little step that is relatively easy to take.
When I first got my Water and Milk grains off of someone I had no idea what to do. All the instructions I could find (and there are a lot of internet sites out there!) were different. It seemed very confusing and a little over my head. Until one day I thought- oh well let’s just try it and see what happens. I now teach courses on how to make it (and Kombucha- that is a whole other FAQ!) and I strive to make it accessible and exciting to get others to build communities in order to share and learn together. In that way I decided to put together a FAQ to try and encourage others to take that first step! These are a list of all the questions I am commonly asked and my answers.
Q. What is Kefir?
A. Kefir is a blend of yeast in bacteria living harmoniously. It is a natural pro-biotic. Kefir grains, whether water or milk, are essentially cultured beneficial bacteria and at the essence the same.
Q. So why is one called Milk Kefir and the other Water Kefir?
A. When the liquid is fermented, the grain will take on some of the liquid and will also change colour and consistency. So while the bacterial properties of the milk and water kefir are the same they potentially look different. However I have used water kefir grains to produce milk Kefir and vice versa. It sometimes takes a couple of batches and maybe a little rinsing to get the product back to tasting exactly the same as before- what I end up with is still Kefir.
Q. What do I need to make Kefir?
A. You need the grains, a liquid to ferment (any milk or water, juice or sweet liquid), vessel to ferment in (normally glass jars or jugs) a cloth to cover the top (to keep out dust and bugs) a plastic strainer and spoons. Metal and Kefir do not mix well so everything should be plastic or glass that comes in contact with the kefir.
Q. Why are my grains not multiplying like everyone elses?
A. Kefir is alive and every grain is different. I have used the same grains (albeit passed on many times) for over a year now and no two batches of Kefir have turned out the same. I have used different milks, ratios of liquid to grains and even tried to change them from milk to water and vice versa. Every time I get kefir, sometimes I get a lot of grains other times I don’t! You just have to remember that the grains need food (sugar), temperature (body temp) and they like agitation (so stirring them can also have an effect). Try using a UHT if you are normally using fresh or vice versa. Try adding some sugar or changing the time you ferment for to see if any of that has an effect. If you have a few grains then start with a smaller amount of liquid to let them grow, then add the amount as the grains multiply. I started with 1tsp grains:1 cup liquid. Failing that get some grains off someone in the community!
Q. My water Kefir grains are not working as well and my kefir is thick like syrup, is it ok to drink?
A. I find it can help by using a combination of switching environments, adding acidity (sometimes ie lemon juice) rinsing and resting. If you have alkaline water lemon juice works well as does adding egg shells. If you have distilled water or a filter which may take away minerals an egg shell or a pince of salt can sometimes revive grains. I have been using a mix of sugars- coconut sugar, molasses, maple syrup or dates. I sometimes use a combination of all of the above. Sometimes adding a bit of ready made water Kefir to the mix works nicely too when they are a bit tired. Lastly rinsing the grains in plain water overnight can also help, simple strain and add to sugar water in the morning.
Use your senses to decide whether it is safe to drink. Smell, taste as well as sight are very important in anything to decide what is right for you and your body. Then when you have tasted some, what is your gut instinct, act on that it is more reliable than what I can tell you from here!
Q My milk grains seem to have disappeared or are reducing in number?
A I have found that in this temperature the grains seem to be producing a thicker kefir quicker but straining them is becoming difficult. I am now keeping more of a yoghurt starter to make my kefir. When the temperature cools down the grains will be easier to detect and will look more like a cottage cheese. See above also to get your grains to multiply.
Q How do you know if it has gone off?
A Kefir in milk has a slightly cheesy scent (like off milk) and a sour taste. It is down to preference. If there is visible green or black mould then normally I would say to dump the kefir and start again- or scrape off the mould and use the remaining kefir in the bath. The water will taste fizzy and a little sour. It will have a vague sulfur-y smell. If it smells really sulfur-y then either leave with the lid off for a while and taste it, otherwise pour it down the sink and re-populate our environment with some good bacteria!
Q My milk kefir has separated is it off?
A. Not necessarily, just stir it up it is fine to use as long as it doesn’t smell like rotten eggs etc as above. It is really up to you what you consume. Cheese is mouldy and relies on bacteria so the worst that will happen is it becomes like a blue cheese! Start to use your power of smell and taste agin and rely on instinct. Ferment to taste and take it further and further each time. The worst that can happen is diarrhoea.
Q I really don’t like the taste. What can I do?
A. Either mix in a little with other things for example mix a little into a smoothie or dilute with some coconut water or other real fruit juice. Add some fizzy water or play with second ferments. Add fruit or herbal teas, flavourings and a little extra sugar to try and educate your palate again. 2 weeks of tasting things can change your taste buds.
Q. How do I get my kids to drink it
A. Same as above- however kids are more likely to want what you are having- so lead my example and don’t ask a child to try and eat anything you are not willing to try or have yourself! (actually same goes for wanting kids to stop eating things too!)
Q. What is the difference between Kefir and probiotics as I am happy taking my capsules?
A. They are cheaper to use then bottled probiotics. They are also alive and not freeze dried like in the capsules so are ready to inhabit and balance the bacteria in your digestive system. Safe for everyone Kefir can be taken while pregnant and is great for babies (not the milk kefir before the age of one) Capsules will help promote good bacteria but will not take up residence like Kefir does (source) Also Kefir has 35 strains of alive bacteria working together in symbiosis. How many strains are listed on the back of your probiotic capsules? Check out this report
Q If it is so simple why would I take a course to learn how to do it?
A My course is designed to help give you confidence. To learn how to make Kefir and to taste all the different types to find one type that you and your family will like. To understand what to do with it, how to do a second ferment and to leave with ideas motivation and a group of people you can share recipes, disasters, triumphs and brainstorm with. It is to return to fermenting roots, rituals and to use food as a community builder.
Hope this helps and get in touch if there are any other questions you have or want to find out where to get some grains to get going with. Or you can buy the book here;
DO you have any favourite Kefir Recipes?