If you’re a fan of fermented products like pickles, sourdough, kombucha, kimchi, or sauerkraut, you may also be a fan of kefir.  It is an increasingly popular health food with ancient origins.

Let’s dive into the story of kefir that will take us around the globe and talk about how to incorporate kefir into your cooking.

What is Kefir?

Kefir (pronounced kuh-feer) is a fermented dairy beverage traditionally made from cow, goat, or sheep’s milk.

The milk is fermented using kefir grains. They are not a grain at all, but a symbiotic colony of yeasts and bacteria. Kefir grains resemble small cauliflower florets and are slightly gelatinous in texture. 

The grains are added to milk and left to ferment for 24-48 hours. The bacteria and yeast multiply and convert the naturally occurring sugar (lactose) in the milk to lactic acid. The result is a creamy, tangy, and slightly effervescent beverage that is somewhere between fluid milk and yogurt in consistency. 

After fermentation, the grains are removed before consumption and can be used again in other batches of kefir.

The Origins of Kefir

Kefir has a fascinating cultural history! 

Kefir is thought to have originated in the Caucasus mountain region bordering Russia, Georgia, and Turkey. Nomad herdsmen in this area continuously fermented raw milk from their herd in leather skins using kefir grains. It was a preservation technique when refrigeration or other means to keep milk fresh were nonexistent. Making kefir was a part of daily life for hundreds–or possibly thousands–of years in this region

It’s not known exactly how a kefir grain colony may have started, but cultural legend says they were from the Prophet Muhammed himself–a divine gift from above for good health. It’s likely the cultures started by chance and perpetuated over time.  

Russia took an interest in the benefits of kefir in the early 20th century and it became a staple food in Russia. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that kefir was introduced to other regions of the world.

The word kefir loosely translates to “good feeling” because of its purported health benefits. The people of the Caucasus region are known for their longevity.  Could it be the kefir and their healthy gut microbiome?

kefir being poured from a glass jug into a glass

Health Benefits of Kefir

The fermented milk drink is rich in healthy bacteria with many potential health benefits.  It is a natural probiotic, especially good for gut health.

There is evidence the live microorganisms in kefir also have anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, positively influence cholesterol and blood glucose levels, aid bone health, digestion, and may even play a role in cancer prevention and strengthening the immune system. The probiotic content can vary based on the kefir grains and the region of their origin.

Curious about the nutrition? Whole milk kefir has more protein, fat, and calcium than whole milk. It also has slightly more calories, but less sugar. If you’re watching your fat intake, there are low-fat options and whole milk options.

As for vitamin levels, this fermented dairy product is high in vitamin D and is a good source of potassium.

Kefir vs Yogurt

Although the process is similar, kefir is unique from yogurt because the starter colonies in kefir grains are a mixture of bacteria and yeast. Yogurt is typically only cultured from strains of bacteria. The amount of probiotics in kefir is also significantly higher. It packs a potent dose of these friendly bacteria you want in your life. 

Side angle of a glass ball jar filled with a yellow-range smoothie set on a white marble table.

How to Use Kefir in Cooking

The simple and traditional way to consume kefir is to drink it! Enjoy a glass with any meal or snack.  

Kefir is also a versatile ingredient that can be utilized in the kitchen. Consider these ideas:

  • Add kefir to fruit smoothies.
  • Use in place of buttermilk in baked good recipes such as pancakes, biscuits, muffins, or quick bread.
  • Blend kefir with lemon juice, chopped herbs of your choice, and even mashed avocado for a rich and tangy sauce or salad dressing.
  • Use as a marinade to tenderize meat or the moistening agent in a breading recipe (instead of milk or egg).
  • Think of kefir as an alternative to milk or buttermilk in almost any recipe.  It’s an easy way to get an extra dose of beneficial bacteria into your day. Keep in mind that high heat will kill off the bacteria, so you may lose some of the good bacteria in recipes that are cooked or baked. Kefir still lends a distinct flavor and soft texture you may enjoy.  

FAQ

What is water kefir?

Water kefir is a variation that uses kefir grains to ferment water with fruit, fruit juice, or other sweeteners added–added sugar is necessary for the fermentation process to happen. The result is a sparkling beverage similar to kombucha. Water kefir has similar probiotic benefits, but would lack some of the nutrients in milk kefir such as protein, calcium, and potassium. 

Is kefir made with raw milk? Is that safe?

Any commercially made kefir must use pasteurized milk (before fermentation) based on food safety standards. This ensures harmful bacteria are eliminated and only the good guys can thrive.  In some states raw milk cannot be legally sold, However, if you are in a state where it is legal, exercise caution in making your own or purchasing kefir made with raw milk due to the potential risks for foodborne illness.

Can I make kefir at home?

Kefir grains can be purchased on the internet to make your own kefir at home.  Traditionally the grains were passed down within a family for generations, so you may also try and acquire some from a friend.  Attempts to replicate natural kefir grains have been unsuccessful, so growing kefir grains is unfortunately not an option! You can also purchase powdered kefir starter cultures that aren’t kefir grains, but create a similar result.

Once you’ve acquired the kefir grains, the process is fairly simple. You will need a glass jar, cheesecloth, and milk of your choice.  Place the grains in the jar and pour the milk over the grains. Place the cheesecloth over the mouth of the jar and secure it with a rubber band. The bacteria need oxygen to multiply, so do not secure with a tight lid. 

Leave the jar out on the counter or in a warm location for 24-48 hours while the fermentation process happens. Once ready, strain out the grains through a sieve or fine mesh strainer and enjoy. Kefir should be refrigerated and consumed within a few days. 

Check out this resource from the Probtioics Council for more details. 

Where can I find it in the grocery store?

Most grocery stores sell kefir near the milk and yogurt. We’ve also seen it sold near the kombucha.

Can people with lactose intolerance drink kefir?

Great question! Many people who are lactose intolerant can drink kefir and this is because during the fermentation process, the kefir cultures break down the chains of lactose. For more information and an in-depth explanation, check out this article.

five bottles of kefir on a white background

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About The Author

Lindsey has been a Registered Dietitian for 12 years and holds a Master's Degree in Nutrition Science. She currently works in the food industry and has always been passionate about food and cooking. Lindsey’s food philosophy is that what we eat every day may not always be perfect, but should always be joyful.

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