How kefir transforms your diet
This miraculous gift of fermentation is the key to healthier, more delicious dairy!
I love the tangy, delicious flavor, creamy consistency and confirmed health benefits of live, probiotic-rich fermented beverages like kefir milk.
Unfortunately, the kefir milk typically found at grocery stores tends to be an expensive, less healthy and fake version of the real thing.
That’s one of many reasons why I recommend that you get and keep live kefir grains.
No, kefir grains are not grains like wheat grains — they’re a specific collective of friendly microorganisms that, when added to milk or just about any drink containing sugar, initiates a natural fermentation process.
In other words, kefir grains are like a sourdough starter, kombucha scoby or vinegar mother. They’re used, cultivated and shared for the purpose of fermenting foods.
Kefir grains are especially valuable in an industrialized food context, because they enable us to make fermented dairy products using pasteurized milk.
What’s wrong with industrial milk?
For many thousands of years, all uncooked dairy was both raw and fermented. Pasteurized and unfermented dairy is historically new to the human diet.
You can see sad echoes of the glorious past of cultured dairy in the supermarket dairy case, most commonly in the existence of product categories like “sour cream” and “buttermilk.”
Have you ever wondered why buttermilk is “cultured” and butter is not? After all, fermented buttermilk is a byproduct of fermented butter. So how is one fermented and the other is not?
In fact, supermarket buttermilk isn’t buttermilk at all — it’s not the byproduct of the butter-making process. When you see “cultured buttermilk” on the container, it’s skim milk inoculated with isolated starter culture bacteria and yeast to simulate buttermilk. “Sweet cream buttermilk” is a similar product, but with pasteurized cream used instead of skim milk.
Supermarket buttermilk is “fermented” in the same way that yeast-leavened bread is “fermented.” A particular and limited subset of microbes is applied to obtain a specific outcome. Yeast is used for bread to make it rise, but it’s an incomplete fermentation and doesn’t transform the dough into something amazing. Likewise, cultures are added to milk to result in a sour taste, but the resulting product doesn’t taste like buttermilk.
Store “buttermilk” also tends to contain flavorings, gums, thickeners, stabilizers, preservatives and artificial colors. The result is a lousy drink that isn’t buttermilk, doesn’t taste good and isn’t all that good for you.
Here’s how your great, great, great grandparents did milk. They milked the cow, goat or sheep. To separate milk from cream, the milk was allowed to sit at room temperature for a few hours, during which time the cream rose to the top, the milk sank to the bottom, and all of it fermented thanks to the microbes naturally present in fresh milk. (Fresh milk is loaded with massive quantities of healthy microbes designed to boost the immune system of calves with instant perfect gut flora.)
They might have kept some of the cultured cream for making other foods. Or they would use the cream to make butter, a process that involved agitating the cream until butter separated from buttermilk.
The raw milk, already fermented, might be consumed immediately. Whatever wasn’t consumed or made into butter, buttermilk, yogurt or cheese, would become “clabbered,” which means it was allowed to continue fermenting. When eaten as a dish, clabbered milk was called clabber. American farmers, especially in the South, used to eat clabber with brown sugar, molasses, nutmeg or cinnamon, or fruit. It occupied a similar place in the diet as yogurt.
The introduction of pasteurization, however, killed clabber and now this once-common food is essentially lost to history.
It’s not so much that our ancestors fermented milk. It’s that they had no way to stop it from fermenting. And they welcomed that fermentation because it preserved their milk in the absence of refrigeration and transformed milk into a dozen other foods.
Until refrigeration and pasteurization, all dairy was raw and fermented, from Ancient Rome 2,000 years ago to Ancient India 3,000 years ago and long before that.
Pasteurized and unfermented dairy foods are far less tasty and healthy than the real thing.
And that’s why kefir is so beneficial. Kefir is wonderful, because it enables us to ferment pasteurized milk and cream, making it similar to the dairy humans consumed for thousands of years.
Kefir grains enable you to easily make crème fraîche, cultured sour cream, cultured butter and cultured milk that are free of the additives you’ll find in supermarket “cultured” dairy.
In addition to enjoying kefir’s substantial health benefits, I love to keep my own cultivation of kefir grains because that allows me to make a variety of fermented foods, which are staples in my kitchen. Making my own fermented European style butter, for example, is more nutritious and delicious than regular organic butter. (That amazing butter from Normandy, France, is tastier because it’s fermented.) Natural fermented butter is typically made with raw cream from cows that are 100% grass fed their whole life. Grass fed raw cream is naturally rich in probiotics and other nutrients.
Sadly, finding raw cream is not always easy or simple, as raw foods are banned from sale in some parts of the United States and in many countries around the world.
When I can’t get my hands on grass fed raw heavy cream, I buy the best high quality organic heavy cream I can find (that comes in a glass bottle) and use kefir grains to ferment it. This process not only basically “unpasteurizes” the cream by fermenting it with cultures, a process that results in flavors and health benefits akin to what’s typically found in raw, lightly clabbered cream, but it will also allow you to make crème fraîche and sour cream. I can also use it as a starter in cheesemaking with rennet. And, of course, I use kefir to make probiotic-rich beverages including kefir milk.
The kefir you make at home is healthier and less expensive than any kefir product you can buy readymade. You can also avoid the plastic bottles that kefir tends to come in.
Store-bought kefir drinks also have more liquid and less strain varieties of kefir cultures. Homemade kefir is more nutritionally dense, and has 40 to 60 different strains of probiotics compared to roughly 10 in commercially produced ones. You control exactly what goes into your kefir so you can choose the highest quality milk possible and make as small or as large a quantity you wish, making sure none goes to waste. And you can ferment it more or less to match your taste and what you’re making with it.
Additionally, when you keep kefir grains at home, you have the option to quickly make butter when you need it if you have some heavy cream in your refrigerator. You can make sour cream cultured with kefir as well. Even coconut milk and nut milks can be cultured with kefir making them far healthier and more nutrient rich for consumption.
What is kefir and where does it come from?
Kefir cultures probably emerged in nature somehow, were captured by humans, then disappeared from nature. It may have emerged in China, but has been cultivated in the Caucasus region (populated by people renowned for their longevity), later spreading into Russia, Turkey and then across the world. Now, kefir has been passed from person to person over thousands of years, and that’s how it survives.
Kefir grains are remarkable microorganisms consisting of bacteria and yeast that cluster together into a grain-like form. When larger clusters form they look like tiny cauliflower pieces. Kefir grains are made up of over thirty species of bacteria and at least one species of yeast that support one another symbiotically. And all we need to do to keep kefir alive is to feed it with milk or cream.
The human species enjoys a wonderful, mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship with kefir. We sustain and cultivate kefir microorganisms, ensuring their reproductive survival; kefir improves human health.
Kefir grains feed on the lactose sugars in milk and transform them into lactic acid. The bacteria and yeast ferment the sugars in different ways. The yeasts convert simple milk sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide, which is what gives kefir that mild effervescent taste. Whereas the bacteria causes the cultured milk to become more sour as it converts the sugars into lactic acid.
We’ve grown suspicious as a culture about foods like bread and milk, and the industrialized versions of those foods caused health problems, leading to widespread gluten- and lactose-intolerance. Many people falsely believe that bread and milk is bad for you. But it’s just the unfermented, industrial versions that harm health.
Lactose-intolerant people can safely drink kefir dairy because the lactose is transformed, just as it is in natural raw fermented dairy. Evolution never prepared us to drink pasteurized unfermented dairy.
That’s why pasteurized, unfermented dairy is not part of The Spartan Diet, but raw and fermented dairy is.
One important note about raw dairy: We can’t offer a blanket recommendation for raw milk, unfortunately, because we can’t know your source.
Because raw milk can’t be industrialized, the industrialized dairy industry has made sure that raw milk is illegal in most places. That turns buying raw milk into a kind of shady drug deal in countries and US states where raw milk has been outlawed. If you can find quality raw milk that’s tested and regulated for safety, then we recommend that. If not, kefir milk is the next best thing. (Using kefir with raw milk is also great.)
Like other naturally fermented foods, kefir beverages have a tangy sour taste that doesn’t appeal to everyone, especially at first. Other kefir foods, especially kefir-fermented butter, however, would be preferred to conventional industrial butter in a blind taste-test by most people.
Either way, kefir helps protect against lifestyle illnesses because of kefir’s anticarcinogenic, anti-inflammatory and anti-pathogenic effects. Kefir is so powerful in fixing what makes certain foods intolerable for people to consume that those sensitive to the effects of certain foods such as lactose intolerant could slowly introduce kefir cultured dairy back into their diets again. Kefir even helps reduce high cholesterol.
On the care and feeding of kefir
If you’ve got a friend with kefir grains, ask for some. They’re self-replicating and easy to grow, so your friend will be happy to share. Otherwise, you can buy kefir grains on Amazon, Cultures for Health, Etsy, Yemoos or any of hundreds of online stores available through a Google search.
If you order kefir grains online, they’ll be exhausted from the trip. Just place the grains in a glass jar of fresh milk, and change the milk every day for 3 to 5 days, or until the grains are successfully making strong milk kefir within that 24-hour period.
If you’d like to slow down the growth of your kefir grains, place your grains with fresh milk in the refrigerator and feed them every month or so.
I always keep kefir grains in a whole pint of cream. That way, I’m always just a few minutes away from fermented butter, fermented whipped cream, crème fraîche (cultured cream), Mexican crema espesa (cream fermented with buttermilk). It’s also ready to go for baking or hot chocolate.
I’ve kept kefir grains in refrigerated cream for up to two months without feeding and it’s always great. (The larger the volume of milk or cream, the longer they can go without feeding.)
No Spartan Diet kitchen is complete without wonderful kefir grains working their magic on whatever dairy foods and drinks you enjoy.
Recipe: Homemade Fermented Butter
Butter is delicious. Adding a dollop of it on warm, home-made, ancient-grain sourdough bread right out of the oven is a heavenly treat. And real butter — traditional butter — is cultured, as it was for thousands of years before pasteurization and refrigeration came along.
Since it’s difficult for most of us to get our hands on raw and cultured cream, I’m sharing a wonderful way of making probiotic-rich cultured butter at home using kefir grains.