When I embarked on making Kefir at home, I expected it to be an extension of our long-established habit of making our own yogurt. However, incorporating this fermented food into my diet took a little trial and error. In honor of Farmer’s Daughter‘s Green Moms Carnival this month on preserving food, I’ll describe lessons I learned making kefir, so that you might find your ideal routine more quickly than I did.

kefir ready for new milkWhile kefir and yogurt both ferment milk, the process and our resulting routine are very different:

  • Unlike yogurt, making kefir with live cultures does not involve heating and cooling the milk.
  • Kefir ferments at room temperature (or lower, as I discovered) and does not require being kept warm over night.
  • Kefir continues to culture until it is consumed, even if the grains are removed, so must be eaten quickly. (The same is true of yogurt, but the process is much slower.)

There are many websites with instructions for making kefir, and some of them make the process seem very complicated and involved. It doesn’t have to be. My kefir routine involves just a tiny bit of planning and adds only a few minutes to my smoothie routine every couple of days.

Standard Homemade Kefir Instructions

  1. Put your grains into a clean glass jar.
  2. Add milk.
  3. Cover jar with a clean towel, not a lid (it carbonates), and store at room temperature.
  4. 24 hours later, or when the kefir reaches the desired sourness, strain kefir grains.
  5. Drink kefir.
  6. Go back to step 1.

That system didn’t work for me in the warm climate of Washington, DC, mostly because I found I was making a quart of kefir every 12 hours. Even when I reduced the amount of grains in the jar, I simply couldn’t keep up. I had to figure out a way to slow production, and since I had been storing extra grains in the refrigerator, where they still fermented the milk in which they were stored, I decided to try putting the whole process in there.

Homemade Refrigerator Kefir

kefir cultureStep 1: Acquire live Kefir Cultures

Many natural food stores sell freeze-dried kefir cultures. That’s not what I’m talking about here.  Live kefir grains look a big like giant cottage cheese clumps or wet popcorn. They are a symbiosis of yeast and bacteria.

Many of the sites that explain kefir-making do so because they are selling kefir cultures. I got mine from the Happy Herbalist and it is quite productive.

Step 2: Condition the Kefir Culture

If your kefir culture had been refrigerated or freeze dried, the first few batches will not be representative of the actual productivity of your culture. Since I started out making kefir at room temperature, my cultures were pretty well conditioned by the time I moved to the fridge. I recommend that you do the same because, while kefir does grow and the cultures do multiply in the fridge, they do so slowly. I use much more culture grains in the fridge than I would at room temperature Don’t start refrigerator kefir until you have about 1/3 cup of kefir grains.

Step 3: Shift Your Kefir Production to the Fridge

kefir With about 1/3 a cup of culture grains to a quart of milk, my kefir takes 4-6 days in the fridge.  I maintain a two jar system and every two to three days I strain a jar of kefir and start again for a constant supply. 

Staying on Track with Refrigerator Kefir Production

I find this system to be very forgiving. If I miss a day or two, the kefir is more fermented than it would be otherwise, but it’s still quite drinkable, especially in smoothie. If I miss several days, I might add milk to the finished kefir to cut the sourness. (Even without the grains the milk will continue to ferment in the fridge.)

Missing several days does throw off the production schedule, so what I might do is consume the newest kefir and 1/2 of the older kefir at once. I’ll then top off both jars with fresh milk. The one that only got 1/2 a jar of fresh milk will ferment faster, so it becomes the next jar consumed. And I’m back on track.

I did have one incident where I accidentally used milk that had gone bad. It didn’t seem to harm the culture, but yuck! I ran several batches of fresh milk at room temperature to clear the culture and went back to my routine.

Note: Some kefir connoisseurs only use raw or very fresh organic milk. Kefir will culture in practically any milk. We purchase from a local farm that does not use added hormones, but is not certified organic. I’ve even tried powdered milk, and was using that when it was just to store the grains, but didn’t like the taste of the resulting kefir. Since higher-fat-content-milk kefir can be harder to strain, I’ve found fresh skim to be my favorite.

kefir smoothieStep 4: Enjoy

There are a few differences to keep in mind between homemade kefir and the kind you might buy at the grocery store:

  • No added sugar! (I sweeten smoothies with fruit and the fructose in my protein supplement.)
  • Commercial kefir appears to be homogenized. Homemade kefir separates into solids and liquids quite easily. (You can see that in the photo to the right.) Blending kefir slows, but does not stop the separation.
  • While most brands of commercial kefir advertise “live cultures” there can’t possibly be as much as in homemade kefir because it would continue to ferment between manufacture and sale (even after refrigeration).
  • I’ve been told that commercial kefir uses fewer varieties of culture because manufacturers need to standardize production. If you’ve got a good citation for this bit of information, please let me know.

Do you have tips for homemade kefir? Leave me a comment.