How to (really) make milk kefir

Oh, hi everyone! Before I go barreling in to blogging again, let me sum up the last month or so.
Rest, go on vacation to see best friend, finally feel like I am doing with schooling, get over the feeling like I have to shoehorn activities into each day otherwise they don’t get done, relax for real, come home, have amazing fellowship for 2 days, be lethargic for a week, have sinus issues for a week, regroup, and plot out blog posts for the month of June.

And here we are now!

One of my ongoing tasks with this blog is to prove that real food is indeed for everyone. That it IS possible to make these foods and live this kind of life even if you don’t have the ability to be at home all day. Let’s face it, between soaking, sprouting, letting things ferment, and all the other prep work, it can be very intimidating. My key to “doing it all” is simple: I don’t. I decide which things are most important to me in terms of health, ethics, and logistics. What’s going to do the most for my body, can I justify my purchases, and do I have enough space for everything.

Cultured and fermented foods are a big part of my diet. Somehow, however, I have managed not to write much of anything about them until now. (Have you seen my sourdough tutorial?) But they were the first noted diet addition when I started eating traditional foods in 2009. Fortunately there is a brand of fermented vegetables available in the northeast called Real Pickles. I quickly got hooked on their sauerkrauts. I also started buying milk kefir from the supermarket, then the farmer’s market, then last year started making my own. It plays a big role in the Body Ecology diet. I decided that since I already bought my own raw milk every week, buying grains for culturing would quickly become a more frugal option.

Why eat cultured and fermented foods?
In a phrase: they’re good for you. Extremely good. Most every culture on earth has some form of cultured food as part of their diet. It’s not only a method for preservation. Cultured foods, when consumed regularly, build probiotics in your gut. They play a vital role in your overall health. These days, between not consuming fermented foods and high use of antibiotics means that most of us have very poor levels of good bacteria in our guts.

There’s one thing about cultured foods. They take time to culture. I can’t speak for water kefir or kombucha, but milk kefir also takes time to strain if you use grains. Usually the instructions for making milk kefir look like this:
1. Put grains or culture in fresh milk.
2. Cover.
3. Let sit until milk takes on a yogurty/custardy consistency.
4. If using grains, strain out grains. If using a culture, retain some of the kefir for the next batch.
5. Put grains/culture in clean jar with new batch of milk and start process again.

There is just one little thing with my making of kefir. I make it in mason jars. When I got my kit from Cultures for Health, I received dehydrated grains and a plastic mesh strainer. So let’s go back to that straining step, shall we?

That’s not a large strainer. I tend to culture at least a cup of milk each time. It’s not going to all fit in that strainer. Let’s also note that bit of kefir escaping over the lip of the jar. I’m too cheapfrugal to let any of this deliciousness run down the side and somehow not find its way into my belly.

This means that when I strain kefir, I want to be there to make sure all of it gets in the jar. I’ll be honest, it takes me about 15 minutes to take care of the kefir this way. The time turns into a meditation for me, because I am so focused on the work and can’t really do anything else then. It’s comforting. I also like being able to slow down this way.

Incidentally, I recommend checking your kefir daily. During the cooler months it takes two days to culture, no matter how much milk is in the jar. When it’s warmer, I have to strain daily. In fact during very hot and humid days I could possibly strain off twice a day. The time to do so is just not there.

So now, I present…
Soli’s guide to REALLY making milk kefir

(This guide presumes you have active milk kefir grains. If yours are dehydrated, follow the instructions you are given to make them active.)

1. Check that your kefir is ready. It should resemble the consistency of yogurt. Get your mesh strainer (and NEVER USE METAL, the culture will corrode the metal over time), a clean jar, lid, and a spatula.

2. Start pouring some of the kefir through the strainer into the jar below. I like to run the spatula between the kefir and jar to loosen it up and make pouring easier. (I also like to lick some of the kefired cream from the spatula. You’ll only have this option with non-homogenized milk, because the cream rises to the top.)

3. Use the spatula to help move the kefir through the strainer quicker.

4. As the strainer empties, pour in more kefir. You may need to scrape the jar to get the kefir clinging to the sides. Something else I do is scrape the bottom of the strainer, which seems to help make things go quicker.

5. When you get to the end, you’ll see your grains in the strainer. Get as much of the kefir into the jar. I don’t worry about some kefir clinging, and have never had an issue with things going sour or bad.
Transfer the grains to a clean jar, and cover with milk. Cover the jar and start the process again!

6. Place a lid on your strained kefir. I like to date them, in case I don’t remember which jar is older. You can see my geekdom and how long I’ve been planning this post by the date here…

7. Drink up and enjoy! You can keep your kefir plain, do a second culture with spices or fruits, make it into smoothies, or even salad dressing. The latter is a great option if your kefir is tasting a little more sour than you like. I made this salad dressing last week. It’s SO GOOD.

Do you make kefir or other cultured drinks regularly? Do you want to try doing so now?

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I’m sharing this post at Monday Mania, Traditional Tuesday, Real Food Wednesday, Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways, Simple Lives Thursday, Fresh Bites Friday, Fight Back Friday, and Seasonal celebration Sunday.

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32 responses to “How to (really) make milk kefir

  1. I’ve had good results covering the kefir jar with a cloth napkin, secured by a rubber band. It seems to ferment better with a little air. I have the same filter you’re using, but found it frustrating for kefir (works great for kombucha), so I use a plastic colander over a pyrex quart measuring cup. It has bigger holes and the process goes very quickly. The dogs get to lick the colander. By the way, dogs love kefir — even the most picky! Good luck with your fermentation adventures.

    • As you can see from mine, I just cover with a towel. With the recent flurry of people talking about needs for fermentation I’ve been wondering about milk kefir. It does seem to want and need some air to get things going.

      My next hope is to start doing second ferments. Last year, though I was having to strain daily (and using a gallon of milk each week JUST for kefir), I was also drinking it so much that I did not have enough around to let sit with something else.

      Thank you!

  2. I have gone through two pkgs. of grains and waiting for the third. My kefir grains get lost. They are so tiny. The spatula seems to smash them into the strainer. I am very careful and have tried rinsing. There are less each batch, not more. On the second purchase I used a linen bag. Didn’t work, it held in clabbered pieces of milk as well as grains that are minuscule, and I end up drinking the grains with the milk in frustration. Very messy to use tiny bags. My third pkg. Is on the way. I can’t afford to fail. It has only been a couple of months. How can I keep these grains from getting lost in the thickened, clabbered kefir? Does someone have a better method?
    Your pics are of very small grains. I would be draining for hours.

    • This is a big reason why I use the spatula and take the time I do. No idea why they have not gotten huge but they are definitely potent grains. Are you getting dehydrated grains? How long are you letting them soak before they come to life?
      I’d recommend asking whoever you get the grains from for some help with this. Buying that many packages doesn’t seem right.

  3. Thanks. Right after writing this, I received my new grains. They are a bit bigger! Yeah C for Health! I’m going to put them in a very, very fine yoghurt cheese strainer and sit the strainer in a cup of milk while I rehydrate. Maybe this will work to keep the grains in and the thickened milk out, but still they will be soaking. I need to invent a kefir grain ball to hold them and let milk in and out while it bobs in the jar. LOL thanks for getting back to me.

    • You’re welcome, Leslie, and I wish you much luck with this batch! If something goes wrong though, you might want to find people in the area with successful grains and see if you can get some of theirs.

  4. Great post! I do love kefir! 🙂 I actually put my grains in some muslin cheesecloth, that way they don’t get lost and it is easy to rinse. Although I still have to strain through a colander like you do in order to not make a mess and I find it helps with keeping the consistency uniform and creamy.

  5. Thanks for the tutorial! I just (finally) found a raw milk supplier in my area and kefir is the first thing I want to make with it. I know I’ll be re-visiting your tutorial to make that happen!

  6. I have just started using kefir as well. However in stead of buying dried kefir grains, i found someone on Craig’s list selling some for a very reasonable price.
    They are quite much bigger than the one’s in the picture. I use about a third to half cup in a mason jar and then fill 3/4 full with milk. Also, instead of straining with a spatula, i just use my fingers and pick them out. I pu tthe grains in a clean mason jar, i put the kefir in another jar in the fridge until i am ready to use it. I don’t lose as many grains that way. Messy, yes. But finger licking good :-).

  7. I couldn’t find a plastic strainer, so I bought a package of cheesecloth. This will be my second attempt. I received my first grains from a lovely local lady who taught me how to make water kefir and dairy kefir. I was doing great for months (over half of 2011) and we were using it for everything one would use buttermilk for and it was great!

    Then the holidays came and family descended upon us. Our simple life turned chaotic for awhile and I forgot my kefir for a week. PHew-weeee! It stunk to high heaven! I was draining it over the sink because the end product was simply inedible. The grains had gotten soooo small they also went through the strainer and down the drain. 😦

    I recently connected with a local homesteading group and found another lovely local lady with excess kefir grains. Just got them yesterday! Your directions are exactly what both local ladies taught me, including the exact same strainer and jars! LOL One uses an XL Pyrex measuring glass and lets the kefir sit and drain on its own (covered) before using the spatula. The other uses a wooden spoon to help it along from the beginning.

  8. This post is awesome! I’m going to bookmark it because you’ve included so many other things to think about that I want to remember to look more into (kefir sald dressings, kombucha, and fermenting in general!)

    Thanks for the great ideas and the detailed directions!

  9. I strain my kefir nearly the same way you do! The only difference is that I put a canning funnel in between the jar and the strainer. This really helps ensure that all the strained kefir goes into the jar and not onto my counter. 🙂 I also like to gently stir the kefir in the strainer. I find that if I leave it alone to strain on its own most of whey goes through but the curds stay in the strainer with the grains, whereas if I help it along with my spatula everything except the grains strains nicely.

  10. I love milk kefir – haven’t tried making it yet though, I wish we had a source of raw milk for it. I do make water kefir (slightly different grains) and that is fun to experiment with. Your tip about labeling the jar is a good one too I keep meaning to do that. 🙂

  11. We use kefir every day, specifically for my 20-month-old daughter, along with here and there for my husband and myself. I got my grains and strainer also from Cultures for Health. I have found the same issues as you and particularly the fine mesh of the strainer very frustrating, and developed a tweak on it. First I took a metal fork and punched the tines of it through the strainer many times to make a strainer with larger holes. Not as large as my finest colander, but larger than the original fabric. This allows the liquids to pass through the strainer more quickly but still holds onto the grains. The second part of my method is that as I fill the strainer I tap the plastic handle sharply against the side of the jar. The centrifugal force of the tapping forces the kefir through the strainer more quickly. I will say, you need to take a little care of how full your strainer is, and every so often you may get a little spattering. But, once you get your tapping mojo down, the process to strain a quart of kefir, which is what we use daily, goes in less than 5 minutes.

    Another thing to mention, I use low-heat pasteurized, un-homogenized milk and it gets a lovely layer of butter fat at the top of my kefir jar every day. We’ve taken to scooping that off with a spatula and storing that in the fridge. Over the course of several days we accumulate enough to use in a batch of scones, or other baked good in place of the butter. Lovely!

  12. I just set the strainer over a funnel when straining out the grains. I keep my finished milk kefir in a Bormioli Rocco bottle in the fridge for drinking. It is one of these: I have a few of them and use one for my beet kvass as well.

  13. Like Carrie up above my kefir grains are quite large. I fish mine out with a stainless steel spoon, plop them in the bottom of a clean mason jar, and start over. I make my kefir with raw milk and the grains grow rapidly so I don’t worry if I don’t get them all, even with giving them away to friends far and near I still always have waaay more than i need.

    • After some of the comments here I got in touch with CFH to see if they knew why my grains might not have gotten bigger. They said that sometimes they just don’t grow. It might also be where I keep them (near the stove), so I moved them a little away and I will see what that does for them.

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  15. I have yet to try this, but now I am prompted to do so! Thank you for sharing this at Seasonal Celebration Sunday! Rebecca x

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  17. A Table in the Sun

    I am about to begin kefir culturing, so this post is definitely speaking to me.

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  22. I know this is an old blog, but figured I’d chime in anyway to help someone else who likes to read comments.

    Inorder to cut down on the mess of straining and to make it go quicker I use one of the funnels I have for canning foods. It works great to keep the mason jar (both regualar and wide mouth) rims clean and you never loose any kefir goodness down the sides. I do about 16 oz daily and it takes no more than 2 minutes to strain. Thanks for blogging about kefir.

  23. This site is very interesting. Can’t wait to try the dressing. I have been making milk kefir from live grains for about 6 months. Raw milk is the key. My grains grow and multiply so fast that I have to throw some away at least once a month. I process them in a canning jar. (3 of them), but when I strain, I use a very large strainer (wish mesh) and hook it on to my pyrex bowl. I don’t have much time, so I just start stirring and gently push with my spatula for about 3 minutes. I have a half of a bowl of fresh kefir. I usually blend them with frozen blueberries or strawberries and drink away. Sometimes if I don’t have a chance to drink it all, or want to make a larger quantity with the fruit, I put the bowl in the refrigerator, I was wondering how long the strained kefir kept in the refrigerator, but I get the idea that it’s about a week. I also heard that you should not use a clean jar every time, because it uses the culture in the jar for a boost. I clean my jars twice a week. Don’t let it over process. That’s when it gets sour. If you see whey (liquid) it is overdone. Go by the consistency rule. If you know any farmer who has cows, you should be able to get raw milk from them. I am lucky because a lady where I live milks 2 cows every day totaling 14 gal of kefir per day. She even has to waste it sometimes. Also, I just put a coffee filter over my jar and screw on the ring.

    • Kathy, it sounds like you have been blessed with the kefir. How wonderful! My grains still have not grown from the beginning but they make wonderful kefir. I’ve even started to do second ferments and need to write about that. Thanks for stopping by!

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  25. Great article! I wish I had read about not using metal earlier, I have a lot of mason jar lids with corrosion around the edges now. I only just found out about plastic-versions of mason jar lids 😛

    Another thing you can try is putting the grains into a muslin bag. Then you can skip the filtering!

    I totally agree that these things are amazing superfoods. I actually found evidence they can reduce your total caloric intake everyday… in other words, kefir can help you lose weight! If you’re interested, check this out:

  26. i make raw milk kefir. i cover mine with a natural coffee filter, works great!

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