Milk kefir: What is it? How does it taste? What’s its history? Why is it good for you? How is milk kefir different or better than yogurt? Perhaps most importantly: how do you make the best tasting milk kefir?
In this article, we’ll answer all these questions and more, plus share our tips on how to make the best tasting homemade milk kefir based on our own experiments and taste-test results.
Between The Tyrant and I, we’re currently consuming about a quart of milk kefir every two days, and we’ve completely fallen in love with the tangy, creamy goodness. We knew milk kefir was a great probiotic, but until digging into the research literature to write this article, we didn’t realize just how good it was – or how much better a probiotic milk kefir is than its more famous cousin, yogurt.
Once you read this article, we hope you’ll start making your own milk kefir at home. Given how good it tastes, all its health benefits, and how easy it is to make, there’s no reason not to start.
What Is Milk Kefir and Where Did It Come From
Nobody knows precisely when, where, or how milk kefir came to be. It’s generally believed to have originated as far back as 500 CE somewhere in the northern Caucasus Mountains in modern day Russia (the same area that hardneck garlic comes from!).
Imagine having milk-producing livestock such as cows and goats, but no fridge to store it in. This challenge is one reason that nearly every traditional society on earth developed various fermentation techniques to preserve their food, including both animal and plant products.
In the case of milk kefir, families took great care of their milk kefir “grains,” which are a symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast (aka SCOBY). The grains were passed down from generation to generation. Traditionally, fresh milk was placed into a leather bag hung over an interior door in a house and everyone in the family would jostle the bag any time they walked through the door to keep the contents well-integrated.
The milk kefir grains were considered sacred and nobody was supposed to give away the grains to outsiders. That all changed in the early 1900s when Russian government scientists learned about the mysterious health benefits of milk kefir and the long lifespans and good health of the people who consumed it.
The government was able to get 10 pounds of milk kefir grains from a local prince, in exchange for not charging him for kidnapping the woman they’d originally sent to charm him into giving up the grains willingly (that’s an abridged version of the story!).
The Russian government then began the process of mass producing milk kefir for other Russian citizens and milk kefir soon spread around the world.
The Health Benefits of Milk Kefir
We’ve written extensively on the health benefits of fermented foods both as a nutritional powerhouse and as a probiotic. Even if you haven’t read our articles, you’ve likely heard and read about the human microbiome in various news stories, and how the trillions of microbes living in your digestive system can help keep you healthy while outcompeting pathogens and bugs that might otherwise make you sick or chronically ill.
It just so happens that milk kefir is one of the most powerful probiotics available, given the sheer quantity and diversity of beneficial bacteria and yeast it contains. Compare the beneficial microbes that are likely present in milk kefir relative to the microbes in regular yogurt:
What does this mean for your health?
For starters, if you’re lactose intolerant, you can actually consume milk kefir without experiencing any digestive problems because the lactose in the milk has already been digested by microorganisms.
Now here’s where things get really interesting… In a review of the available scientific literature on milk kefir titled The Microbiota and Health Promoting Characteristics of the Fermented Beverage Kefir published in 2016 in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, scientists revealed some rather remarkable findings:
“Whole kefir, as well as specific fractions and individual organisms isolated from kefir, provide a multitude of positive effects when consumed. These range from improved cholesterol metabolism and wound healing, to the modulation of the immune system and microbiome, and even the potential alleviation of allergies and cancers.”
The researchers go on to detail some of the known benefits of consuming milk kefir (please read the full review to get the details of how/why milk kefir works for each benefit listed below):
- Cholesterol Metabolism and ACE Inhibition – Given that heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the US and the West in general, the fact that milk kefir can reduce serum cholesterol levels is a big deal.
- Pathogen Exclusion – Want a healthy GI system full of good microbes that can outcompete and block the bad guys from taking up residence? Milk kefir is a potent tool to achieve this objective.
- Antibacterial and Antifungal Properties – Milk kefir was found to be as effective as pharmaceutical antibiotics and antifungals. However, the difference is that milk kefir works by inoculating you with good microbes that outcompete the bad guys, whereas the listed pharmaceuticals kill virtually every microbe in your system, both good and bad.
- Antitumor Effects – Milk kefir was found to have “significant antitumor activity against multiple cancer cell types.”
- Wound Healing – Wounds treated with a gel made from kefir grains healed much faster than non-treated wounds.
- Anti-Allergenic Effects – Multiple studies show that eating kefir can help control allergic reactions.
How to Make the Best Tasting Milk Kefir
Ok, now that you know how awesome milk kefir is for your health, you might want to know how to make the stuff. Unlike yogurt, which is typically made from “thermophilic” cultures which require precise warm temperatures to get optimal results (usually meaning you need a yogurt-making machine), making milk kefir is ridiculously easy.
Traditionally, making milk kefir meant you had to acquire milk kefir grains that you’d then need to keep alive by straining and feeding with new milk, and also dividing as the grains grow. This is the same process you go through if you have a sourdough starter or kombucha mother. This requirement isn’t a problem if you intend to regularly eat kefir. However, it can be a bit overwhelming if you don’t stay on top of it.
Thankfully, there are really good commercialized kefir powder starters that you can use instead of grains. They contain all the good microbes of kefir and allow you to make as much kefir as you want within 24 hours without having to worry about ongoing maintenance.
We had milk kefir grains years ago, but they died due to our neglect. Thus, we’re currently using a milk kefir starter – our favorite kefir starter is this one from Yogourmet.
One packet of starter = one quart of delicious kefir in 24 hours. You just have to follow the instructions that come with the starter packets.
Milk Kefir Taste Test Experiment
Since we like to experiment, we’ve tried four ways of making kefir from the Yogourmet kefir starter to see how different methods would effect the final product
- Method #1: Exactly as instructed on product directions. 1 packet of kefir starter per 1 quart of cooked milk (we use whole grassfed organic milk).
- Results: best flavor, best consistency, fastest production (24 hours).
- Method #2: 1 packet per 2 quarts of cooked grassfed organic milk.
- Results: took 24-36 hours, a bit longer than option 1, as one might expect. Slightly more acidic/tangy taste as well, but it’s a good way to stretch your budget.
- Method #3: 1 packet of starter per 1 quart of uncooked raw local milk.
- Results: Since there are so many living microbes in raw, unpasteurized milk, it took 72 hours for the microbes in the starter to convert the milk into a final kefir product, but the flavor was excellent – perhaps even a little better than method 1. Here we should post a legal disclaimer that many people think you should never consume raw milk because it could kill you or make you very sick if it hasn’t been produced by a person or company who knows what they’re doing. Thankfully, we have access to MilkyWay Farms raw milk, which has been in operation for decades without anyone ever getting sick from their raw milk.
- Method #4: 1 cup leftover milk kefir from previous batch per 1 quart of cooked grassfed organic milk.
- Results: This took 48 hours and resulted in a very good final product as well. Apparently, for safety reasons, you can only use this method a few times before you need to start again from scratch.
So what method do we recommend? For fastest, easiest, and most consistent results, go with option #1 – especially when you’re new to making milk kefir. If you have more time or are feeling more adventuresome, start experimenting and seeing if there are other ways to produce an equally delicious milk kefir.
Update (4/1/2019): Here’s a way we’ve figured out how to cut costs on powdered milk kefir starter despite our milk kefir addiction: We’ve been using the Yogourmet starter for 2 years now and still LOVE IT, but if you eat as much as we do, it adds up quickly!
We add 1 packet of starter to 2 quarts of uncooked, whole grassmilk. Once we’ve eaten most of it, we make sure to reserve 1/2 cup of the milk kefir and use that to make 1 new quart of milk kefir (instead of the powder). We repeat this up to 3 times, until the milk kefir begins to taste too “funky”. Once the flavor becomes more pungent than we like, we start over again from new packets.
A couple of other recommendations:
- No plastic – Always make milk kefir or any fermented food in glass or ceramic, not plastic (we use standard quart jars when making milk kefir). You don’t want the compounds in plastic leaching into your fermented foods.
- Dynamic, living foods – Milk kefir is a living food comprised of trillions of beneficial microbes, e.g, it’s very dynamic. This means the longer you let it sit on the counter or in the fridge, the more the milk is digested by the microbes and the more sour the final product will taste (refrigeration slows the process). The end product will taste different from hour to hour and day to day, so make notes about when you like it best so you can try to reproduce that result when you make future batches.
Unfortunately, you can’t produce your own milk kefir grains by making kefir with a starter powder. However, you can buy a half cup of kefir grains if you want to go that route – these kefir grains have excellent customer ratings plus they include a free ebook. Given our current milk kefir consumption rate, we’d probably save quite a bit of money over a year by making kefir from grains rather than starter. Unfortunately, the tyrant finds the kefir made from grains to be a bit too funky for her taste.
Our favorite ways to consume it include:
- Adding homemade granola (Aaron’s mom makes the best!), nuts, seasonal berries, and maybe even some chocolate to it;
- All by itself with a touch of local honey;
- With some of our home-grown stewed peaches + a bit of local honey;
- The Tyrant’s new breakfast favorite: with a scoop of Acai Maqui Powder, hemp hearts + some local honey.
No matter how you decide to produce or consume it, we encourage you to make milk kefir part of your regular diet. It’s a delicious, nutritious probiotic that is awesome for your health. Finally, please be sure to source your milk from healthy, happy cows when you do!