Friday, March 2, 2012

Kefir: What It Is, Why You Should Drink It, and How You Make It

Ran across this on my private journal and thought I should share it with you all. I wrote this back it 2007 after I first started making my own kefir, back when I was still ill with Lyme disease:

It's been suggested that I write something for a community I'm in, about kefir. I've never considered myself to be a very good writer, and add to that the brain-fog related to my Lyme disease that's been flaring up lately, and you may very well be in for a painfully retarded post. The brain fog makes it not only more difficult to think of certain words, but it also affects my ability to be clear and concise. So forgive me if this is neither (though I will do my best!). Oh, and it also increases my preexisting tendency to write pointless rambling paragraphs. ;)

 "What is kefir?" 

 The first question people inevitably ask about kefir is "What is it?" So I shall tell you. Kefir is fermented milk (any kind of milk; cow, goat, sheep... camel; even non-mammalian milk such as soy and coconut milk will produce kefir*). The name kefir comes from the Turkish word "keif" which is loosely translated "good feeling" or "feeling good". Some alternate names for kefir include "Tibetan Mushrooms", "Snow Lotus", and "Yogurt Plant" to name a few. "Yogurt plant! Ah, so it's like yogurt, right?" It is vaguely similar (in fact, much of the kefir you can buy in the store is not real kefir at all, but thin yogurt). So if that's the case, why bother with kefir, right? Yogurt is easier to come by, so why not just stick to that? Because kefir (real kefir, at least) is chock full of vitamins and probiotics that your poor yogurt only dreams of having (comparing yogurt to kefir is kind of like comparing Chuck Norris to Jack Bauer -- they're both people, but that's about the extent of their similarities; yogurt and kefir both come from milk, but that's about the extent of their similarity -- it's also a funny comparison since Jack Bauer's real name is Keifer Sutherland. Hah). And because of it's high vitamin and probiotic content, kefir is ideal for those who are struggling with illnesses of any kind, or simply those who are trying to maintain a healthier lifestyle in this crazy world that attacks such a thing from every angle imaginable. The probiotics have a little party in your intestinal walls and make them happy again -- something most of our intestines aren't familiar with, due to poor diets, internal and external stress, environmental toxins, and illness. The vitamins of course contribute to overall well being, protect proper brain function etc., And since kefir is especially high in B 12, it can be especially good for those in need of a little more energy (I dare anyone to say that's not them!). 

"So where does kefir come from?" 

 Kefir is made from nothing more than fresh milk, and kefir grains. Don't let the name fool you though; the biomass that turns milk into kefir is not a grain like wheat or oats. It's much more like a mushroom; a gelatinous glob of bacteria and yeasts (the good kinds) in a sort of womb made up of protein, lipids, and kefiran that ends up resembling overcooked cauliflower. Interestingly, no one seems to know where kefir grains originally came from though. Centuries ago it was discovered in the Northern Caucasus mountains (a region between Iran and Turkey, where the tribes people are all exceptionally healthy, and attribute their health and long life to their "probiotic jewel") and brought to other parts of the world only as recently as 1908. Where the Caucasian people got it though, only rumor tells -- some of the Caucasians say, "The grains were a gift from God provided over 1,000 years ago." Some seem to believe they were given to the people by the prophet Mohammed (and believe he received them from Allah). Others think kefir grains may be the manna described in the Bible ("Now the house of Israel called its name manna. It was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey." Exodus 16:31). I'm not sure what to think about where it came from, but that doesn't really matter, anyway. Originally kefir was made as a means of preserving milk, before the convenience of refrigeration was available. The art of kefir-making has been preserved throughout the years though, and we are finally learning about the incredible health benefits of this form of preservation. There are many variations when it comes to the creation of kefir; secondary fermentation is a good example of this (which can increase the folic acid content by up to 116%!). 

"So why should I be drinking kefir again?" 

 Because it tastes so great! Okay, so that's only really a pleasant benefit; the real glory of the thing is in it's incredible health benefits. Beginning sometime around the eighteenth century, kefir grains were considered almost miraculous for their ability to heal. The tribes-people would protect the secret of the process of kefir-making, and the mother-grains with their very lives. A family in posession of kefir grains was thought to be very wealthy. Many of the supposed benefits of kefir have yet to be "proven" according to organizations like the FDA, as kefir hasn't yet obtained a lot of attention from the medical/scientific communities. Recent experiments performed on mice though showed that kefiran (remember that's part of the composition of the kefir grain) exhibited strong anti-tumor properties. The author of one of these Japanese studies initially began the research on himself, ingesting kefiran to try and correct Ulcerative Colitis (inflammation and sores in the lining of the colon and rectum). He succeeded in his attempts to correct the disease, and started research on the antiinflammatory properties of kefir grains. The author of the study also found that his RSI (Repetitive Stress Injury) symptoms disappeared after ingesting 1/3 cup of kefir grains for 7 days, furthering his theory that kefir has strong anti-inflammatory abilities. Other studies showed that daily ingestion of kefir liquid significantly supressed high blood pressure and also significantly lowered blood glucose in obese insulin-resistant KKAy mice. It also successfully treated constipated rats. Additionally, the good bacteria and yeasts in kefir have been shown to inhibit E. Coli and salmonella in lab tests (in other words, kefir is anti-microbial). Kefir is also being shown in studies to be an immune system modulator -- that is, a slow/weak immune system will be strengthened, and an overactive immune system will be calmed. As stated previously, kefir also contains many vitamins, minerals, amino acids and enzymes, including calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, B2 and B12, vitamin K, vitamin A and vitamin D. This is especially true if you can make kefir from grass-fed milk. And don't forget all the good bacteria (Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis, Streptococcus thermophilus, Lb delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus, Lb helveticus, Lb casei subsp. pseudoplantarum and Lb brevis) and yeasts (Kluyveromyces, Torulopsis, and Saccharomyces, acetic acid bacteria; to name a few). Kefir has been used successfully to treat allergies, yeast infections, cancer, and TB to name just the few I remember reading. Hospitals in the former Soviet Union use kefir to treat patients with an incredible variety of illnesses. Another great thing about kefir? Even most who are lactose intolerant can drink kefir without ill-effect, because the yeasts in the kefir grains eat up most of the lactose (and the longer it ferments the more lactose the yeasts consume). 

"How can I obtain my own kefir?"

The easiest way, one might think is to buy it at a grocery or health food store. This is not ideal for several reasons though; 1) the cost is significantly higher when purchasing commercially produced kefir, as opposed to making it yourself, 2) the odds are high that even in a "healthy" drink like kefir you will find perservatives such as MSG (a highly dangerous excitotoxin) added to it (and don't be fooled just because the label doesn't say "MSG"; the government allows MSG to be hidden in more than a handful of additives that sound harmless such as "natural flavoring" and "spices", 3) Companies who produce kefir, like any other company is likely to be primarily interested in turning a profit and not making the absolute best product for their customers, thus the fermentation time for commercially produced kefir is likely to be lower, thus lowering the nutritional value of your kefir. So what am I suggesting? Making your own kefir, of course! Don't worry that you won't do it right, or don't have the time; once you obtain the grains, making your own kefir is a snap! I'll explain how in just a moment. 

"How do I make my own kefir?"

Making your very own kefir is an incredibly simple process. First thing you'll want to do is obtain your own grains; you can purchase them online, or do a google search for "Kefir Grains" (or if you're very fortunate you may have a friend who is already making their own kefir, and after a few weeks they'll be able to share some grains with you). You should be able to find a variety of websites offering kefir grains for no more than the cost of shipping. You could even try a website like the International Kefir Grain List where people from all over the world offer their extra grains (some for a small price, others for just the cost of shipping). You can even obtain freeze-dried kefir grains from some healthfood stores, but fair warning; not only will some in the kefir community "shun" you for making "fake" kefir, but these grains will not grow like real kefir grains do. So you have obtained your grains: Now what? Now you want to take a large, clean jar (glass is best) and plop your little grains in there with some milk (about 1 cup of milk for every approximate tablespoon of grains), cover it (if you cover it tightly be sure that the gases have a way to escape; if the seal is too tight, and the extra space in the jar too small, the jar could explode from the build up of pressure as the milk ferments!), and allow it to sit at room temperature for 12-24 hours. As I mentioned before, there are many variations in how kefir is made; you can cover the jar more loosely and your milk will ferment a bit more slowly, leaving you with a milder taste. You can ferment it beyond 24 hours for a more sour, fizzy drink. You can remove the grains, and put your kefir into beer bottles, and allow for a secondary fermentation which will create an even fizzier, yeasty beverage. Whenever you deem that your kefir is ready, you can strain out the grains, and drink the kefir immediately, or refrigerate it for longer storage (it will continue to ferment even without the grains, but at a much slower rate now). You can also "store" your grains in milk in the refrigerator if you don't plan on having fresh kefir ready for consumption every day. The grains can also be frozen for short periods of time, or stored in water (though this is not ideal for the health and happiness of your grains and should not be done for more than a day or so every two weeks). 

 BE AWARE: Recently shipped kefir grains will not produce a "proper" kefir the first batch or so. The shipping time creates an excess of yeast in the little grains, thus creating a drink that is grossly akin to baby spit-up. When your first batch or two turns out like this, do not be discouraged; this is normal. Also, new milk (i.e. switching from cow to goat, or goat to soy) can cause the grains to "freak out" in a sense, and create another nasty dud batch. Do not be dismayed; this too is normal. And too, be aware that switching from say, 1% milk to whole milk can cause a change in the taste and texture of your kefir. 

Just for my own future reference, due to my "brain fog" this took all night to write, and I'm not exaggerating. 

*one should be aware that consistantly culturing your grains in non-mammalian milk will cause them to cease growing as the grains need certain nutrients to grow that are only present in the milk of mammals.

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