Kefir is a fermented milk product similar to yogurt, which originated in Russia. This tangy, creamy milk product is sometimes referred to as the “champaign of milk” because of its fizzy effervescence. The natural carbonation gives kefir a light, foam, creamy texture, even when made with low fat milk.
How is Kefir Made?
Kefir is made from milk that has been gently heated to eliminate possibly pathogenic bacteria. Next, a specific mixture of bacteria and yeast cultures are added to the milk to begin fermentation. The unique mixture of bacteria and yeast give kefir its distinct flavor and texture. The starter cultures for kefir are often referred to as “kefir grains” as they look like small, lumpy, granules, similar in appearance to cauliflower.
The bacteria Lactobacilus caucasius ferments lactose in the milk into lactic acid, which provides a tangy flavor. Saccharomyces kefir and Torula kefir, two yeasts used to make kefir, ferment lactose into a small amount of alcohol and carbon dioxide, which is responsible for the carbonation.
Yogurt vs. Kefir
Yogurt and kefir differ based on the type of cultures used to ferment the milk. Yogurt uses only bacteria, primarily lactobacillus species, while kefir uses both bacteria and yeast. Although yogurt can range in texture from a thick liquid to a semi solid, gel-like consistency, kefir is primarily liquid.
There are many recipes for kefir, which differ based on the specific bacteria and yeast used to ferment the milk and the type of milk used. In European countries, kefir is often made from goat, cow, or even camel’s milk. Most kefir sold in the United States is made from cow’s milk.
Kefir is available plain, which has a bright, tart flavor. To make it more palatable, many companies sweeten the kefir and add flavors like fruit or vanilla. Flavored kefir is closer in flavor to yogurt and may be more easily accepted by those who are new to kefir.
Kefir can also be made with non-dairy milks, such as almond or soy. These non-dairy kefirs are made using the same bacterial and yeast cultures, and offer the same pro-biotic benefits, making them an excellent alternative for vegan consumers.
How is Kefir Used?
Kefir is most often consumed as a cold beverage. Most people consume kefir because of its enjoyable flavor and texture, but some feel it aids in digestion and calming an upset stomach. Kefir can also be mixed into smoothies, poured over cereal or granola, or used in baked goods.
Purchasing and Storing Kefir
Kefir can be found in most health or natural food stores in the refrigerated dairy section. European markets may also carry kefir. Kefir making kits can also be found in specialty stores or online. These kits provide the kefir culture “grains” and instructions on how to safely ferment your milk.
Because kefir is a fresh product with live cultures, it should be kept refrigerated. After opening kefir, it should be consumed within five to seven days.