At any time my kitchen can look like, well, a kitchen or the laboratory of a mad herbalist. My kitchen has seen sour- dough, yogurt making, canning, hydrosol distilling during lavender harvest, and winemaking. I’ve even made Kombucha tea! All of these have ended up with herbs or spices in them at one point or another—it’s inevitable since I have over 30 different types of herbs in my greenhouses.
My latest discovery is kefir. It is believed that kefir originated over 2000 years ago in the Caucasus Mountains of Europe. Kefir is actually fermented milk. Unflavored, it tastes a lot like plain yogurt and has the texture and tang of buttermilk. It’s a very healthy drink with beneficial yeast, vitamins, minerals and 10 times the probiot- ics or live cultures that are in yogurt. Kefir comes from the Turkish word “keif ” which translates to “good feeling.”
The great thing about kefir is how simple it is to make in your own kitchen. All you need is milk, kefir grains, a strainer, a bowl and containers to make and store it in. I make and store the kefir in glass canning jars because glass is nonreactive. The hardest thing about making kefir is acquiring the live kefir grains, and that can be ac- complished by finding someone who has extra or ordering them off the Internet. It is important, as with all cooking, that the containers and utensils used for making kefir are very clean. I simply hand- wash everything and rinse in hot water after every use.
My Internet order of kefir grains contained only about a 1⁄2 teaspoon of the grains. The grains you purchase should arrive with instructions on how to care for them. The mail-order grains arrive small and dormant. The first thing you have to do is coax them back into action. This basically means putting them in a small amount of milk in a glass container on your counter and changing the milk every 12 hours for about three days. Kefir is forgiving if you forget to change the milk at the right time. You will notice the grains be- coming larger, there will be more of them and the milk will start to thicken quicker. Unlike making yogurt there is nothing to heat up. Kefir doesn’t need to be kept in a warm area to make it work. I keep my extra grains in a jar of milk in the refrigerator. They still make kefir and the grains still multiply.
To separate the kefir from the grains, put a nonreactive metal strainer over a bowl and slowly pour the contents of the jar into it. Make sure to scrape out the bottom of the jar to get all the kefir and grains. Stir and nudge the thick liquid through the strainer. The grains will remain in the strainer. Put the grains into a clean jar and add milk for you next batch.
After the first three days increase the amount of milk to 1 cup and when you have at least a tablespoon of grains you can increase the amount of milk to a quart. One tablespoon of grains will make up to a quart of kefir.
Kefir has many uses. It can be used in place of buttermilk in recipes, used to make salad dressings or smoothies, drained to make a soft spreadable cheese, or just consumed plain. My favorite way to use kefir is to make a smoothie—especially when local fresh fruit is in season. A kefir smoothie—it not only tastes good, it’s good for what ails you!
Karen Nelson is the owner of Nelson’s Herbs in Edwardsburg, Michigan. She and her husband, Ken, have lived on the farm for 23 years. She writes a gardening column for the Edwardsburg Voice.