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Kefir: What It Is, What It’s For, How to Make It

by Elizabeth Skipper | October 22nd, 2014 | Ask the Chef
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kefir pdI’ve seen kefir in the yogurt section of my grocery store. As it comes in bottles, I assume it is thinner than yogurt.  Is it pretty much the same as the drinkable yogurt? Is it a useful ingredient for cooking?  It only comes in large bottles, so I’m hesitant to try it.

Yup, kefir is thinner than yogurt. It’s similar, though I wouldn’t describe it as the same as drinkable yogurt; the flavor’s a little different. I’m spoiled, as I make my own kefir and prefer it to the store-bought variety. If you like drinkable yogurt, though, you should probably try kefir.

It comes both flavored and plain. The flavored one is for drinking and the plain, while certainly suitable for drinking, is also useful for cooking. So maybe that’s what you should start out with, the plain. You can flavor it yourself – sweeten and flavor it with maple syrup, or make it into a smoothie with fruit like strawberries or peaches. Then if you’re not crazy about it, use up the rest of the bottle as you would buttermilk. It’s great for biscuits, pancakes, waffles, muffins, scones, etc., and keeps well, too, so you shouldn’t have a glut on your hands.

Homemade is more healthful and cheaper. So if you decide you like it, here’s how you’d go about making your own. First you need to obtain some kefir grains (pictured), which are actually a form of SCOBY, or Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria & Yeast. They look like small to medium size pieces of cauliflower, and can be purchased on-line or traded for with folks who enjoy fermenting foods. You can ask at a health food store, or see if you can find someone on Craigslist or Freecycle who might have some to sell/trade. If you want more hand-holding, buy them online. Any reputable source will give you complete instructions. Once you have some grains, the rest is easy.

Trust me when I say that. Kefir is a mesophilic culture, which means it ferments at room temperature (unlike yogurt, a thermophilic culture, which requires heating.) So all that’s required is to plop the grains into milk, stir it up a bit, and allow it to sit at room temperature until it begins to set. Depending on the ambient temperature, this could take as few as twenty-four hours. Then refrigerate until you’re ready to use it. If you leave it out, it will continue to ferment and get more tart than you’ll care for. The grains are infinitely reusable, and if happy in their environment, will reproduce until you have more than you know what to do with. Then you can start trading them yourself, or feed them to your own or someone’s chickens, or compost them.

Don’t be afraid of being stuck with a large bottle; it’s only a quart. Get some, and let me know what you think.

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