How to Make Basic Milk Kefir

Kefir, blackberry , cherry & cinnamon smoothie Mixed leaf salad, crisped black forest ham lardons, sunflower seeds & kefir dressing Very berry pud with berries dipped in dark choc & strawberry kefir ice cream
Kefir, blackberry , cherry & cinnamon smoothie Mixed leaf salad, crisped Black Forest ham lardons, sunflower seeds & kefir dressing Black & red raspberries with strawberries dipped in dark choc & strawberry kefir ice cream
Pictured above – Three of the many delicious ways to use milk Kefir  

How to Make Basic Milk Kefir – (or How to Cultivate Your Ancestors!)

It took around 3 billion, 799 million, 800,000 years for us to evolve from our ancient, single-celled bacterial ancestors into the complex human beings we are today. Or to quote my zoologist/archaeologist son – roughly 1/3 of the planet’s life thus far!  So it would almost seem like science fiction for us to be able to meet some of our earliest ancestors – let alone to get to know them and to enlist their help in making us healthier!  When we make and eat kefir and other probiotic, microbe-filled, fermented foods though – that’s essentially exactly what we’re doing!  It’s fascinating to think that in cultivating our own kefir, we are actually able to go back and re-connect with some of our original roots in this direct way. My kefir-making journey began 40 years ago when my severely allergic daughter was a very small toddler, which I talk a little about later. Although she was severely lactose-intolerant – like many similarly allergic people she was able tolerate kefir. This is because it actually uses up the often allergenic lactose in milk as energy, to help it grow and to produce it’s numerous compounds which are so beneficial for health. It’s my virtual ‘cure-all’ for almost every ill! Being introduced to Kefir was a revelation and the beginning of a long love affair with friendly microbes – both in our gut and in the soil! 
Meet the ancestors - Kefir grains! 
Meet the ancestors – Kefir grains!
So many people tend to think of bacteria as just being unpleasant, even dangerous, things that make us ill – but nothing could be further from the truth! In fact relatively few actually cause illness. Many more are vitally necessary to the proper functioning of not just our own bodies but in fact to all of the life, both above and below ground, on the planet. The recent and ongoing genetic sequencing of the human gut microbiome has now shown that the majority of the genes in our bodies are bacterial genes – and that these microbes outnumber our relatively small amount of human DNA by as much as 100-1! Knowledge is growing exponentially about how vital the beneficial bacteria in our gut microbiome are – not just in helping to digest our food – but also in producing vitamins, regulating our immune system, reducing inflammation and influencing countless metabolic functions throughout our bodies. Beneficial bacteria also help to protect us from some of the less-friendly ones out there. They recognise, support and communicate with each other a bit like a bacterial social network! In fact it’s recently been shown that they can even communicate with our brains – thereby influencing our moods!  Without any doubt, the greater the diversity of friendly microbes we have both inside and also outside our bodies – the healthier and happier we will be. There are many ways in which our particular microbiome is constantly under threat from the chemicals now so ubiquitous in modern life. Antibiotic use, chemicals in our food, household products or the environment, anti-bacterial agents in soaps and personal hygiene products to name just a few. The list continues to grow and they all affect those friendly microbes which are so vital to our health! With a little thought we can avoid many chemicals though, even simply by reducing our household chemical use and by eating organic food. Probiotics are vital in helping to re-populate our gut with friendly microbes which may have become depleted by chemicals. Kefir has been shown to be a very effective probiotic food and it’s a natural, easy and enjoyable way to rapidly restore and sustain our gut ecosystem, thereby improving our health. It’s also delicious and I find it endlessly useful in a huge range of recipes! I’m always thinking of new ways to use it and you can see just three examples pictured above.
Some people assume Kefir is just another variety of yoghurt but it isn’t!  Kefir is like yoghurt in one respect – and that is that the beneficial microbes in the kefir grains use up the lactose, or milk sugar, in milk in a similar way in order to grow. Unlike yoghurt though, Kefir is made from so-called ‘grains’. These are little communities of bacteria and yeasts, all cosily clumped together in cauliflower-like globules, living and working in harmony. They act symbiotically together to produce kefir’s health benefits. I personally think it has a far nicer flavour than yoghurt – fresher and slightly more ‘tart’ or ‘lemony-tasting’. I stopped bothering to make yoghurt years ago, as there’s really nothing in it which isn’t also in kefir in mega-amounts. In fact, kefir has a far more diverse microbial composition – and therein lies the secret of it’s multitude of beneficial effects for our health. Analysis has shown that it has many more varieties of beneficial bacteria than yoghurt and also a far greater quantity of them. The total number of them actually outnumber those in yoghurt by about forty billion to one! It also contains several strains of beneficial yeasts – of which there are none in yoghurt.
Kefir is said to have been around for thousands of years – it’s origins are lost in the mists of history and are surrounded by myth. It is thought to have been discovered originally by nomadic Caucasian shepherds, who traditionally preserved their animal’s milk by carrying it around with them in sheep’s stomachs. A bit like a kefir hot water bottle, complete with it’s own bacteria. Fast forward a couple of thousand years or so – and now with our recently acquired knowledge of the importance of having a healthy gut microbiome – it’s suddenly become ultra-fashionable! It’s also now becoming increasingly attractive to food scientists and dairy manufacturers, who are looking to produce novel ‘functional foods’ with targeted health benefits. (More on this at the end of the article)
I’ve been making kefir now for 40 years and on my blog I’ve often mentioned using it, or the more easily available yoghurt, in my recipes. Recently so many people have asked me how I do it that I decided it was time to write a blog post about it!  A Polish friend told me a few years ago that if you’re feeling unwell and you go into any pharmacy in Eastern Europe – the first question they will ask you is if you have a kefir culture. It’s considered an integral part of any healthy diet there. It’s also routinely given to hospital patients and recommended for infants, the elderly and infirm (1). It’s certainly one of both my kitchen and ‘functional-food’ staples which I would never be without! I know without any doubt that it’s medicinal and anti-inflammatory properties have helped me and my family recover from many serious injuries and illnesses over the years. We almost never have stomach upsets here – but if for some reason one of us very occasionally eats something out in a restaurant which upsets us – then the remedy is always a kefir fast. That is – just a small glass of kefir 3 times during the day, with additional water for hydration between. The good bacteria in the kefir rapidly get to work and do the rest – calming an upset stomach like magic! The best thing about kefir though, is that despite being now labelled a ‘functional’ ‘superfood or ‘medicinal food’, it tastes delicious, is relatively inexpensive to make and adds an extra something to endless dishes – not just in bacterial terms but in texture and flavour too!  It’s useful in so many ways – in sauces, dressings, ice creams, smoothies, baking etc. You can even use it as a gentle, natural facial cleanser instead of that expensive chemical-filled stuff!
I’ll be writing a bit more very soon about about the magical properties of kefir,  the benefits of double and triple fermentation and making delicious soft cheese with it.  For now though – what you really want to know is how I make it!!
Making your own fermented Kefir from the caulifower-like ‘grains’ is very simple. There’s no magical mystery about it. If you can use a spoon and strain milk – then you can make kefir!  If you remember to look after it well and don’t upset it – it will be with you as long as you want to keep it. It’s a bit like having another pet that just has to be fed and looked after – you get into a routine! The golden rule of any fermenting is that ALL equipment must be scrupulously clean. Always use an environmentally-friendly washing-up liquid – not one of those that says it washes more dishes than any other! Traces of the detergents and other ingredients in some of those chemical-filled washing-up liquids or dishwasher powders can actually still be detected after rinsing more than 20 times! Imagine what that does to your gut and it’s highly sensitive bacteria – let alone kefir!! Anti-bacterial anything will also obviously upset it. For the same reason never handle it with bare hands in case of any possible contamination – always use a silicone, wooden or stainless steel spoon when stirring or draining it. I always keep my ‘kefir kit’ separate from everything else just in case someone uses it accidentally for anything, which can happen although the family are all pretty well-trained by now!
Some people may experience slight flatulence or bloating when they first drink kefir – so take a little time to get used to it slowly, a little bit every day, if you experience any effects. Don’t worry about this – it’s normal. It should only take your gut a week to ten days for all the new good bacteria to settle in, make themselves at home, start getting rid of a few of the unwelcome ones and begin helping you to be a lot healthier! What many people don’t realise is that basically we humans are just a perfectly evolved walking, talking, warm ‘des. res.’ for a diverse microbial ecology, that wants us to be the best place that it can live. In return, if we look after that inner ecological niche as well as we possibly can – then all the grateful microbes living in it will look after us in return – making sure that every cell in our body runs as smoothly and efficiently as it was meant to! It’s a beautiful kind of natural symbiosis with it’s genesis in our most ancient beginnings. 

Making Milk Kefir

1. Kefir showing separation into curds & whey 2. Stirring kefir grains around sieve to drain liquid through into bowl 3. Kefir grains in sieve have been drained & will be put back into jar through jam funnel to prevent any escapees!
1. Kefir showing separation into curds & whey 2. Stirring kefir grains around sieve to drain liquid through into bowl 3. Kefir grains in sieve have been drained & will be put back into jar through jam funnel to prevent any escapees!

Basic equipment needed:
2 medium to large glass jars – one for fermenting and another for storing the kefir in the fridge. Any large jars will do – 750 ml or 1 litre size is fine for a start. It’s best if they have a wide mouth and straight-ish sides as that makes them much easier to clean. Having a screw top is also handy. I find screw top jars useful as you can just half-unscrew them, so that any excess air pressure can escape if the made kefir is stored in the fridge for more than a few days. This avoids disastrous explosions which are very rare with milk kefir but can happen! Remember – it’s still alive and breathing just like you! If you want your kefir to have a bit more fizz – a Kilner type clamp-top jar is useful as you can stop any air escaping, which naturally carbonates it and a Kilner jar will withstand a lot more pressure without disaster! For making water kefir, which is made from a different type of starter culture, I use those very strong, old-fashioned ‘pop’ bottles with ceramic flip tops. You can make a deadly ginger beer using those! 
A large glass, plastic or stainless steel bowl-type jug for straining the liquid into. If it has a pouring side this is useful for pouring it into the glass jar for storage after straining.
A medium-sized plastic or nylon mesh sieve. This should be able to sit into your bowl or sieve neatly to stop any kefir running down the outside of the jug and being wasted.
A flexible silicone-type spatula for stirring and squishing (technical term) the kefir grains around the sieve when straining and rinsing.
A plastic, wooden or stainless steel large spoon for transferring the kefir grains from the sieve into a jar to start a new fermentation. 
A stainless steel jam funnel is also very useful, as this stops any kefir grains from escaping. They’re slippery little customers sometimes!
A large rubber band, new hair scrunchy or similar to securely fasten either muslin or paper kitchen towel over the top of the fermenting jar. This allows any carbon dioxide to escape as it breathes but keeps out fruit flies and any dust or unwanted molds. 

Next for the ingredients:

Kefir grains. 
These can easily be obtained online now (*see note later). They’e usually sold in amounts of about 2 tablespoons. All the ones I’ve seen for sale online now say that they’re organically cultured – but to the best of my knowledge there are actually no kefir grain producers with organic certification! Saying that any food product is organic, unless it is properly inspected and certified, is actually illegal under EU legislation – but despite myself and a friend pointing this out politely on occasions over past few years, both to advertisers and sellers – the ads. are never taken down and some sellers have been very abusive! 
1 litre of full-fat organic milk:
Why full-fat? Well for a start the microbes in kefir grains don’t like low-fat milk – which probably indicates a lot about whether it’s good for us or not! Additionally, there was actually no low-fat milk invented when the ‘grains’ were first discovered and cultured so that’s clearly what they evolved to need! I’ve done lots of experiments using different milks over the years and the grains gradually become weaker and less active if fermented in low-fat milk or in anything other than cow’s, goat’s or sheep’s milk which contain naturally occurring lactose. Many of the vital nutrients in milk are also carried in the fat so that’s another reason why full-fat is better for us. If you’re vegan and you want to culture other milks from ingredients such as nuts – then I’ve found that it’s best to culture the grains in cow’s milk again every so often to give them a bit of a tonic – since it’s the lactose in milk that they evolved to digest and is what need to grow and be healthy. Obviously common sense dictates that they’re unlikely to contain as many beneficial compounds though – since as I’ve already said – kefir evolved in sheep’s milk. A bit like us trying to live in an alien environment – we might manage to survive for a while but we wouldn’t be healthy for very long!
Why organic? There are many reasons for using organic milk. Firstly – it’s much lower in traces of pesticides and heavy metals than conventional milk. It’s also higher in beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants (2). Many kefir makers don’t specifically recommend organic milk but I think it is essential. Although some of the benefits from so-called ‘pastured’ or ‘grass-fed’ milk may be similar to organic – non-organic, pastured cows will have been treated with anthelmintics (worm treatments), liver fluke treatments, pesticides against warble fly, ticks, lice and other parasites and possibly even with antibiotics etc. Most of the chemical treatments for livestock don’t require any withdrawal period before slaughter, or using the milk, so people assume that they’re perfectly safe even if they know that they’re being used – but they are not allowed in organic livestock production. Also the grass, hay or silage which ‘grass-fed/pastured’ cows eat may be regularly treated with artificial fertilisers – thereby reducing uptake of many important nutrients from the soil. The pasture may also be routinely sprayed with selective hormone weedkillers in order to allow nothing but grass to grow in the sward. Selective weedkillers kill all herbs and other broad-leaved, flowering, so-called ‘weeds’ (often nutritious herbs!) that compete with the grass. In addition – many grains or compound feeds are routinely used to top up the nutrition of cows in winter, when grass is naturally lower in nutrients, in order to boost nutrition – whether animals are overwintered inside or outside. Non-organic compound feeds will most likely contain GMOs – and any non-organic grains, legumes included in the ration will almost certainly have been treated with Glyphosate as a pre-harvest crop dessicant. This is in addition to the many other chemical fertilisers and pesticides used in growing – all of which can increase residues of heavy metals such as cadmium in milk. This is a topic that most ‘grass-fed’ milk producers are quite naturally reticent about – to put it politely. They seem to be trying to present ‘pastured’ as an ‘all-natural’, environmentally-friendly, method of production just like organic farming – which it clearly isn’t. Although I come from a farming background and am very sympathetic with farmers, it’s something I get rather cross about, having spent many years promoting organic farming! If it’s so ‘natural’ – then why don’t they just go ahead and get organic certification, since there’s a shortage of organic milk? In my opinion – the only thing that’s better about ‘grass-fed/pastured’ cows is that the cows get out onto pasture occasionally – so they’re clearly a bit happier! (here endeth the rant!)

Note on amounts. 

There is absolutely no need to get hung up on being very specific about ratios of kefir grains to milk, especially when you’re just starting off. Some recipes I’ve seen are so rigid about this, possibly from a lack of experience.  Kefir is a living, flexible thing and in my now long experience of experimenting with it – it will pretty much do anything you want. The only way you will manage to kill it is by starving it of food, or in other words the milk it needs to grow, or perhaps by contaminating it in some way! 
Two tablespoons of kefir grains in 250ml or 500ml of milk is a good rough rule of thumb to start with and will make quite a thin culture. You can increase the ratio of grains to milk considerably as you get use to handling it and perhaps want to make a stronger and thicker culture, which is essential if you want to make a good soft cheese. Just get used to doing it gradually and play around with. The more grains to milk you have – the faster it will ferment and the thicker the culture it will eventually make. The thicker the culture you make – the harder it will eventually be to get the kefir liquid through the sieve though – one needs patience!  Kefir making and other fermenting is a bit like cooking – once you have confidence you can play around and the sky’s the limit!


How to start the kefir fermentation: 

Kefir ferments best at a normal room temperature that we’re comfortable with – about 68-70F or 20-25C. It doesn’t like to be too warm so don’t be tempted to coddle it and put it at the back of your range cooker as you might do with yoghurt!  When you’ve obtained your grains – just put them into the clean jar with 250ml or so of milk and cover the jar with either muslin or kitchen towel secured with a rubber band. Cover all that with a dark tea towel to protect any light-sensitive vitamins and away it will go enjoying itself! Within 12-24 hours depending on how warm your kitchen is – it will have developed into a thicker, slightly more tart, but pleasant-tasting liquid. Try it first of all after one day’s fermenting. As you become more used to it’s taste you can leave it to develop more acidity if you like it. This actually increases some of the vitamins such as B12. If it separates into curds and whey don’t worry – this is perfectly natural but normally only happens when you have a lot of grains in relation to the amount of milk, or if it’s very warm weather. Just give it a stir round with the spatula and re-cover. I’ll talk more about whey in the cheese-making article soon. It’s basically lactic acid, which when you drain it off after making soft cheese from your kefir, can be used to culture and preserve vegetables.
After 18-24 hours at normal room temperature on your kitchen counter, sit the nylon sieve on the bowl/jug and pour all grains and the milk in the fermenting jar into the sieve, stirring the grains gently around a bit with the silicone spatula, rinsing off some of the residue sticking to the grains with a small amount of milk if the culture is very thick. If it’s been in the fridge – it helps to bring it back to room temperature for a couple of hours before you start to drain it, as it will pass more easily through the sieve. Pour all the resulting strained liquid in the jug into a screw top jar and place in the fridge if not drinking it immediately. After that, spoon the kefir grains remaining in the sieve back into the cleaned fermenting jar, cover with some more fresh milk, stir gently, re-cover and the process begins again. 
*Note. When buying new grains online I would be inclined to repeat this process twice before being happy about drinking any of the resulting kefir liquid – but I’m a bit fussy! (Your cat will like it!)
Kefir grains will multiply quite quickly if they’re happy – but remember that if quantities are building up too fast you can always put them into hibernation for a couple of weeks!  Within a short time you may well have more than you can use. Then you could also give some away – with instructions on how to ferment it! Not only will doing this earn you some Brownie points for being so generous – but it’s your insurance against losing yours. Accidents can happen to the best of us but if you’ve given it away you can always ask for some back. My kefir culture is very well-travelled at this stage – it’s gone half way round both Ireland and the UK via various organic friends!
Once made, kefir keeps for several weeks in the fridge, as it contains naturally preservative lactid acid bacteria, so if you suddenly find have a lot of unused homemade kefir don’t worry. Just open the lid of it’s jar occasionally to let any air out or just screw it up and then unscrew a slight half-turn to allow it to breathe. You could also use it to make a versatile soft cheese. More on that soon. I couldn’t vouch for the keeping properties of commercially-made kefir though, as I’ve never tried any.
Don’t leave kefir grains sitting out in the air for too long – so try not to be interrupted for long periods when you’re just in the middle of straining it and then forget about it! (I’ve often done it if friends call – and I always apologise to it afterwards!) It likes to be covered with milk for most of the time. Occasionally if you have a large quantity of kefir grains fermenting in the jar – then some may float to the top and a hard-looking cracked crust can form. If that happens, just cover the top slightly again with a little more fresh milk. It’s not harmful – it’s just it’s way of telling you it’s getting a bit crowded in there! 
Kefir is pretty good-natured really. The only way you can possibly go wrong with it is by either contaminating it in some way or by starving it! It’s a bit like having another pet – just keep it clean and fed, allow it to breathe and it will be very happy! If you find you have far too much or don’t have time to strain it for a couple of days, just stir a little fresh milk into it, put it into the fridge and it will doze quietly for a day or so. Unlike pets – it doesn’t even mind being alone for two or three weeks if you go away – just pop it into the fridge in some fresh milk and it will happily go into hibernation for a couple of weeks with no ill-effects.

A very brief history of my early organic / kefir connection.

I was given my original kefir culture 40 years ago by an American dietician who I luckily met by chance, when my first child was just a small baby being weaned onto solids. I wasn’t able to feed her for various reasons and our GP had luckily realised early on that she was severely allergic to baby formula. Although born a healthy 9lbs 12 ozs – she had lost half her birth weight in her first 6 weeks and was vomiting all the time – although she could keep just plain water down. It was also evident that she also had a condition, rare in girls, called pyloric stenosis. This meant that her stomach instantly rejected any food even without the additional allergy problem – so that she had to be on medication for her first 18 months in order to relax the valve at the lower end of her stomach, so that she was able to keep any food down. This was accompanied by severe pain which was incredibly difficult to deal with, both for her and us. When our doctor realised what the problem was – he recommended that we try a soy milk formula which was unavailable in Ireland then – but if that didn’t work it would be hospital – fast! Our local pharmacy was able to source it in the UK and it was very swiftly transported to Ireland by Aer Lingus – being treated as an emergency. My husband literally ran out onto the tarmac to meet the pilot, who handed it to him as he got out of the airplane! You couldn’t do that now!  Happily the results were instant and magical – without it she could have died. That brings swift tears to my eyes to recall it now. Luckily there was no GM soya in those days – but I weaned her off that formula and onto solids just as soon as I possibly could, having already read widely and researched as much as it was possible to do at that time, without the wonders of the internet. As our incredibly forward-thinking GP had also advised a totally organic diet, I began learning how to grow all our own food organically and I also began researching nutrition and healthy diets in depth within her first year. It later transpired that she was highly photosensitive as well – which meant her skin blistered badly in sunlight, so she had to be totally covered up whenever when went outside. She didn’t have an easy time of it growing up with her many, often painful, allergies. I must say that I’ve always had the greatest admiration for the courage, wry humour and occasionally – it has to be said – sheer, obstinate, bloody-minded determination with which she’s faced the many health problems that she’s had since – bless her!
All I originally knew of my own childhood diet was that I was breast-fed for some months, after which my siblings and I were reared on goat’s milk and eating a very healthy diet, with a wide range of homegrown meats, eggs, fruits and vegetables. We ate odd things like Bircher muesli, Fru-Grains and yoghurt long before anyone else had even heard of them at the time!  As a consequence, I loathed the taste of cow’s milk for many years and found it very difficult to stomach when forced to drink it at school. It tasted absolutely repulsive to me! When prompted by my GP,  I had questioned both sides of the family more closely on any history of family illness. It was then that I discovered that both sides of the family had a history of allergy – being prone to eczema, asthma and psoriasis. My GP was concerned and said that he would not recommend the ‘3 in 1’ vaccination for my children, as they were clearly potentially prone to allergy-based illness. (I will always be so grateful to the late Dr. Peadear Kearns for recommending that my children had all those vaccinations separately. I know of others who sadly didn’t have GPs who were so well-informed for the time and whose children were damaged). Anyway, I discovered that my paternal grandfather had died quite young from severe asthma – and as I’ve mentioned before, my wonderful father died of widespread cancer at the very young age of only 50. I understand now that his cancer was brought on by various environmental as well as genetic causes – another reason I am so anti-pesticides and other chemicals! 
The fast-evolving and relatively new science of epigenetics now shows that if inherited DNA is damaged, then it can change the way it behaves (or in other words ‘expresses itself’) depending on how it may have been affected in previous generations. So my daughter had quite possibly inherited damaged DNA both from me and from my husband’s side of the family. I genuinely believe that she would not have survived her early years without the organic diet which removed as many potentially serious allergens from her diet as possible. I’ve mentioned before that even at a very young age she became knowledgeable herself about what she should and shouldn’t eat – that was essential. I’ve been constantly updating my knowledge of nutrition ever since those early days but was never tempted to become a dietitian or nutritionist, mainly because my career as an organic grower had already started and I’m also an outdoor girl – I’m happiest ‘plugging in’ to the soil and I hate being confined inside in an office! In addition to that – in those days pesticides in food weren’t even considered to be a problem by any of the courses I researched. This seemed mainly due to the false information and carefully edited test results provided by the pesticide industry! In fact many doctors and nutritionists still don’t think they are a problem – and often as a consequence think that organic people are somehow slightly deranged and not to be trusted to behave in a normal manner! This of course again is a view very much encouraged by some university professors with links to the pharma and agricultural pesticide industries – and also a media which finds that mocking organic makes a good headline! To be fair – one can’t expect doctors and nutritionists to also have an in-depth knowledge of how food plants are grown, especially when so many don’t even seem to know what constitutes a healthy diet!  I am happy to say though, that after enduring ridicule and even at times sheer, undisguised malevolence – there are some hopeful signs that this attitude towards organics is finally changing.
Back to my kefir! I’ve had varying reactions from people over the 40 years that I’ve been making it! Until the last couple of years quite a few visitors were barely able to suppress their horror at the sight of the various jars of suspicious-looking liquids bubbling away busily on my kitchen table, looking a bit like the festering witches brew from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with occasional eruptions like those trendy lava lamps of the 1960’s! Some of the more curious people didn’t shy away though and were fascinated – especially the always naturally more open-minded organic visitors. None of those ever went away empty-handed after I’d extolled it’s many virtues! Even though you can buy it in many shops now – making it at home costs less than a quarter of any commercially-made, organic kefir you can buy. Home-made has even been proven recently to contain far more beneficial organisms. That’s not that surprising to me – since apparently industrially-made kefir is cultured not by using actual live kefir grains, which would give a variable product – but instead by using a specific combination of different bacteria which food scientists think are most suitable in order to give a more consistent-tasting, standardised product! Yet again though, when science interferes and decides that it knows best – that ain’t always necessarily so! Nature always knows better and doesn’t give up her secrets easily. The microbes in a truly living, breathing Kefir culture historically evolved to all work symbiotically together and to breathe – not to sit on shelves for weeks, suffocating in plastic bottles!

Here’s some very new kefir science for you!

Scientists from University College Cork here in Ireland have recently been doing a lot of research into the properties of kefir (3). They obtained three samples of kefir grains from three different geographical locations in France, the UK and Ireland – and fermented milk with them in the laboratory. They wanted first to establish precisely what microbes were present in the kefir and then to determine which of those microbes are responsible for producing the different compounds which are thought to be beneficial to health. Most likely, this is with a view to isolating those substances which may be useful for designing probiotic, ‘functional-foods’ with commercial potential. Using metagenomic shotgun sequencing, they found that the genes involved in various processes and thought to produce different health benefits, varied at different times during fermentation of kefir grains over a 24 hour period. Most notably – they found that the microbes from fermenting all three of the kefir grain samples from the geographically different locations followed exactly the same pattern of microbial development over that period, suggesting that they were virtually identical. In all three samples, more than 92% of the microbes were Lactobacillus (lactic acid producing bacteria) These dominated at the early stages of fermentation but as fermentation progressed, other bacteria became more active. They found that genes involved in carbohydrate metabolism and fatty acid biosynthesis were most prevalent at 8 hours of fermenting. Then by 24 hours of fermentation, they found that genes involved in amino-acid metabolism became more prevalent. 
I find this all utterly fascinating, as for many years I’ve been experimenting with various different methods of double and triple-fermenting over different time periods, adding more fresh milk in at the start of secondary fermentations in order to produce a stronger culture for making soft cheese. Unknowingly, I was also possibly improving it’s health benefits too!  Even though I always knew it ‘in my gut’ from experience – I’m delighted that science is now beginning to finally prove kefir’s amazing range of benefits for both body and mind – so that I don’t sound like quite such a complete weirdo any more for banging on about it so much! I’ll watch the developing science with interest – because it can happen that when bacteria which evolved to cooperate with others are isolated – they don’t always behave in the predictable ways that scientists think they ought to. The whole is naturally always greater than the sum of it’s parts! 

More about this and also making soft cheese coming soon!

(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It’s most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find “inspiration” in my work……But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online – I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it’s the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)
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