Kefir is a wonder health beverage that came all the way from the mountains of North Caucasus. It can help treat and control a number of illnesses including heart problems, cancer and HIV/AIDS. But am I sounding Greek to you right now? Are the names “kefir” and “Caucasus” new to your ear? What is kefir and where in the world is Caucasus?
Kefir is a creamy fermented drink from cultured milk. It looks like yogurt and tastes like tart but builds your immune system and cleanses your inner systems like no other. But what I find really amazing about kefir would be its contents. It has yeast and probiotic microbes, which are helpful health-building bacteria.
Drinking kefir is downing thousands of living and cultured organisms. Sounds creepy? Not at all. I think of it as letting in helpful microscopic friends inside my body so that they can clean my internal parts; something that my doctors cannot easily do.
So where is Caucasus and how did kefir enter the limelight?
Caucasus, specifically North Caucasus, is the accidental birthplace of milk kefir. This mountainous region is found between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. It has beautiful mountains and rivers, but politics in the Russian borders are killing international tourism. North Caucasus includes Turkey, and it is believed that Turkish shepherds were the first to benefit from kefir.
Shepherds living here about 2, 000 years ago used to carry milk in their leather bags. They noticed that as the milk fermented, it turned creamy, sour and grainy. They consumed this fermented milk and lo and behold, it made them healthier and allowed them to live longer. Soon, people all over Turkey, Russia and other parts of Europe learned to love the healthy beverage. They traditionally made kefir using skin or leather bags that hung on doors and moved constantly to mix the grains well.
Today, I don’t need to actually ferment milk in a leather bag or go to war-torn North Caucasus to produce the health-inducing yogurt-like beverage. I simply need to mix kefir grains with milk and let the grains do the fermenting.
Kefir grains are sold online and in health stores, and even given out for free by a few kefir grain growers and advocates. The grains are tiny, white and creamy cauliflower-like substances. Each grain is a living organism made up of yeast and bacteria that are held together by means of a polysaccharide (long carbohydrate molecules) matrix. The yeast-bacteria symbiosis allows the grains to grow and continue to culture.
Another type of kefir grain is white to yellow in color and more crystalline than creamy. This variant is used to make water kefir. Milk kefir and water kefir are basically the same, but I have discovered that more people are more inclined to making water kefir. While milk kefir is like yogurt, water kefir is like soda or apple cider. Some say it is a substitute for beer.
Now you might happen to be wondering, can I make kefir without grains? Yes, you can. In fact, here is a rundow of how you make kefir with grains.
All the helpful properties in a kefir drink are found in the grains. The bacteria live there and it is the cultured grains that ferment the milk. To produce your own home-made kefir drink ñ whether milk-based or water-based ñ simply put 1 tablespoon of kefir grains in a 500ml glass jar and fill it up with milk or water to ferment. Let it stay for at least a day.
The longer you let it (the kefir) stay, the more it ferments and the thicker and sourer your drink becomes. Remember that the grains are made up of living microbes, and so your drink changes in texture, taste and composition over time, as the microbes mature and grow.
Now how do you make kefir drink without kefir grains? This is actually a trick question, I suppose, because quite frankly you can’t ferment milk or water without using kefir grains. After initial fermentation, however, you can remove the grains and then do a second fermentation to produce a variety of kefir drinks, which is probably what people mean when they talk about doing this.
This is what I do to sweeten or add flavor to my kefir: in effect, I “finish” it without the grains, which might count as an answer to the query as well. I remove the grains, pour my kefir milk into a glass or bottle and add my favorite flavor ñ lemon. But I don’t drink just yet. I let it stay for another day to make sure the lime flavor sticks.
The added flavor depends on how you want your kefir to taste. I definitely don’t want it to be plain tart-tasting yogurt (although it is fine if you want it that way). You can add fruit juices of your choice (cranberry, orange, peach, raspberry, pineapple, mango and so on) or real fruit cuts with ginger and brown sugar.
It is important to “spice up” your kefir only during the second fermentation because doing so on the first could harm the bacteria in the grains. Let the microbes do their job first, remove them and then put in the flavor to make you happy. You can even create kefir smoothies for the whole family.