Fermented milk, or kefir, is one of the most powerfully probiotic foods we can eat. Until recently, I didn’t give it much thought, beyond purchasing a bottle now and then, usually sweetened and berry-flavored, tasting like an oddly zingy milkshake. Kefir, which means “feel good” in Turkish, has been around for thousands of years and is known to traditional societies for its immune-boosting and anti-aging properties.
About a month ago, after receiving a care package of living foods from Vermont, I began making kefir myself. The dried grains that I received in my care package came with a note saying that, although these would get me started, living grains would give a better result. Always enticed by a better result, I ordered some living grains, lovingly raised on goat’s milk, from a rather eccentric lady online. A kefirlady whose entire life’s work seems to revolve around kefir. I can see how this happens.
Like so many other things that we take the time and care to produce thoughtfully ourselves from quality ingredients, my kefir is delicious. It bears almost no resemblance to the bottled fruity stuff, in taste or texture. In every way, my kefir is a living food. And I’ve learned to love it.
Making kefir is a daily commitment.
You begin with a few tablespoons of “grains,” which are actually colonies of microbes–many strains of bacteria and yeasts, growing on a matrix of proteins and polysaccharides. The grains look like little translucent clumps of cauliflower; mine were no more than an eighth of an inch in size, but they can grow as large as a walnut. (How exciting is that!?)
After gently stirring them into a few cups of milk (ideally, raw organic milk), you simply cover the jar and wait. But not too long. The ravenous microbes are at work rapidly consuming the lactose in that milk, converting it to various enzymes, alcohols, amino acids and vitamins, and reproducing themselves at an impressive rate. Some people who are lactose intolerant are able to drink kefir with no problem, precisely because the lactose is no longer present.
This is a good time to run out for some more milk. You’ll be needing it soon. Kefir can take from 10 to 24 hours to ferment. As the grains grow stronger and larger, the process gets faster.
Kefir grains beget kefir grains. Before I could drink my first quart of kefir, I had another. And another. And another. I was starting to worry how I’d keep up.
Then, a funny thing happened on the way to Vermont.
My little kefir keeper jar, with its napkin bonnet snugged on tight, was tucked safely amidst my belongings on the passenger side of the car for the three-hour road trip. Breathing, as kefir likes to do. I like to think it was enjoying the drive to Vermont nearly as much as the dogs and I were. (By now, I was so involved with my daily kefir rituals, I ascribed certain feelings and needs to it. Nothing wrong with that, right? After all, it’s alive.) We all enjoyed a lovely trip.
Until I stopped at the bookstore on my way into town, somehow thinking that the seven books I had with me for the weekend wouldn’t be enough. That’s when one of my dogs found the kefir, removed its bonnet and sucked up half the quart, all in about ten minutes time. (I assume it was Ginnie–a Westie–with her narrow snout and a colorful record of mischievous automobile food capers.)
Lucky for me, I’d brought some spare grains in a jar to share with a friend. Lucky for me, kefir grains reproduce beautifully so, by the end of the weekend, I had enough to share again. Kefir grains gobble up the raw milk faster than I can procure it, at a rate of more than one quart per day. Too much kefir, but how to slow it down was beyond me.
I turned to the only ones I could count on to help–my dogs–both totally devoted, attentive to my needs and always ready to help.
Charlie and Ginnie have demonstrated not just a love of kefir, but an obsession. Tails wag, drool drools and noses wiggle when I’m straining the kefir or even just pouring a glass. They routinely get a little in their food now at every meal. They love it. They look for it. They demand it.
Of course, it makes sense that if dogs love kefir, other animals might too.
The kefir normally ferments overnight on top of the refrigerator. Out of the way, and at just the right temperature, it seems to be the perfect place. I’m not sure what possessed me to leave it on the counter a few nights ago, but I did and it was discovered by a mouse. Yes, a mouse chewed a hole right through the cute little plaid napkin bonnet and, presumably, dipped her head down into the kefir to have her fill. All carefully enough to avoid an untimely kefir drowning, and probably hoping to return again the next night.
Thankfully, I had some spare kefir grains and started all over again, on top of the fridge.
The mouse is getting one last chance to leave the premises for the summer.
Any more shenanigans and I’ll be forced to face my irrational fear of mousetraps to defend the family kefir.