Crazy About Kefir
By Carolyn Richardson
You were looking for the fat-free milk, but something else caught your eye. Kefir, a sweet and sour beverage found in your grocer's dairy case, may be your next purchase. Kefir is fermented milk, with the consistency of a drinkable yogurt that is formed by live bacteria acting on yeast and milk or a non-dairy liquid. The live cultures have ‘probiotic’ activity, which when eaten in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit.
Kefir can be made from a variety of milks, including cow, goat or sheep milk, as well as from rice, soy, almond, or coconut milk. A particular kefir’s nutritional qualities will depend upon the milk base. In US grocery stores, most of the kefir is made with cow’s milk. If it is labeled as “organic”, then it will be free of hormones, antibiotics and pesticide residues.
Animal milk kefir is rich in protein, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, B-vitamins, and vitamin K. Unless a source of sugar or fruit is added, its carbohydrates are entirely from the milk. When kefir is made with milk that contains fat, it is a good source of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid found in meat and milk that may improve the body’s lean muscle mass to fat ratio.
Kefir for Your Health
Because kefir contains lots of live microorganisms that help to digest the lactose in milk, kefir is usually well tolerated by people with lactose intolerance. Kefir’s other health properties arise from its probiotic actions that are specific to the bacterial strain. Certain strains excel in supporting a healthy immune system while others are best for gastrointestinal complaints. While all kefirs sweeten the system, manufacturers should not make specific health claims unless they can provide citations to published references that support claims for the particular strain used.
Kefir in Your Kitchen
You can drink kefir or use it to make a nutritious smoothie. (See this recipe for a Blueberry and Flaxseed Smoothie.) Simply use kefir in recipes as you would yogurt or milk. For instance, you can add your favorite fruit or to your morning cereal, or as a replacement of buttermilk in your pancake or waffle batter. You can use kefir to make mashed potatoes, or in bread pudding or as a marinade. Any recipe that calls for buttermilk will work with kefir.
Buy It or Grow Your Own?
The ancient shepherds of the mountainous regions of Eastern Europe made kefir by fermenting milk in leather pouches, but you can make kefir at home in 12 to 48 hours. (48 hours will make a thicker, sour kefir, while 12 hours makes a is thinner and sweeter kefir.) The entire process is fairly simple. To get started, you will need to decide which variety of kefir to prepare, and purchase kefir grains, the dried combination of yeast, bacteria and milk referred to as a 'kefir culture starter'. As kefir ferments, it gets sour and fizzy. The temperature determines how quickly the culture works. Kefir can ferment in the fridge for up to 5 days, but at room temperature during the warm summer months, it's ready in less than 12 hours. Every batch produces a few more kefir grains, and in time, you’ll have large batch that can be stored with some milk in a jar in the fridge.
But if you’d rather not turn your refrigerator into a lab experiment, most grocers carry kefir in a number of varieties. To find non-dairy and organic options you may have to visit health food stores like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. If price is a consideration, the starter kits can run anywhere from $11 to $40, while a quart from a grocery store costs similar to a gallon of milk, between $3 and $6 depending on the variety.
Do you drink kefir?