Kefir (pronounced keh-feer) is a fermented beverage usually made from cows’ milk. However, kefir can also be made from other milks such as goats’ milk, almond milk and coconut milk. Kefir has a similar consistency to runny yogurt with a creamy texture and tart taste. Kefir is made using a starter culture called kefir grains, which means it is loaded with beneficial bacteria.
Kefir grains aren’t actually grains; they are a symbiotic culture of beneficial bacteria and yeast that live together on a matrix of proteins, lipids and sugars. Although Kefir grains provide a range of different species of bacteria, these grains are packed with beneficial Lactobacillus bacteria, which is why kefir is similar to yogurt. This symbolic matrix forms grains that look similar to cauliflower florets in both shape and colour.
Kefir grains are extremely economical and sustainable. With care, these grains can be reused endlessly. There are two types of kefir grains. Water kefir, which has a clear/yellowish appearance depending on the type of sugar they have been fed, and milk kefir grains, which as mentioned above, resemble cauliflower florets.
Both water kefir and milk kefir are delicious and have many health benefits. Kefir is safe for all ages; however, you should be aware that water kefir contains low amounts of alcohol that is naturally present due to the fermentation process. Milk kefir made from cows’ milk can also be suitable for those who are lactose intolerant. The beneficial bacteria in kefir feed on lactose (milk sugar). This reduces the amount of lactose, making it perfect for those sensitive to lactose.
Origin and Etymology of Kefir
The word kefir is thought to have originated from the Turkish word “keif” which loosely translates into “good feeling”. This is probably because kefir is praised for its ability to increase a sense of wellbeing.
The origin of kefir dates back a number of centuries to the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains. The people of this region possibly developed kefir by sheer accident. The shepherds would carry milk stored in leather pouches where it fermented into a fizzy sour type of runny yogurt.
The people of this area were known for their longevity, having a life expectancy of over 100 years. Kefir was a staple in their diet and they lived healthy lives with very little-known disease.
The fermentation process of kefir is very simple. Approximately one teaspoon of kefir grains is added to a cup of milk, this is covered and left out at room temperature for around 24 hours. During this time, the bacteria and yeast in the kefir grains ferment the milk and transform it into kefir.
The fermentation process involves lactobacilli bacteria breaking down sugars and producing lactic acid, this gives kefir its distinct sour taste. The yeast makes alcohol and carbon dioxide while acetobacter species produce acetic acid. The fermentation process lowers the pH level which prevents other potentially harmful bacteria from growing and also serves as a natural preservative.
Benefits of Kefir
Kefir is an excellent source of beneficial bacteria (probiotics) which are known to support healthy digestion. A well-balanced microbiome (the ecology of microbes living in your gut) helps to support the digestive process and can relieve symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea and IBS.
As well as gut health, kefir can support a healthy immune system. The majority of your immune system is located in the gut, so by maintaining a healthy digestive system you are also supporting your immune system. Research has shown that probiotic-rich foods like kefir, help to support and strengthen the integrity of the intestinal lining. This prevents bad bacteria from crossing into the bloodstream which may create problems for the immune system.
Although the nutrient content varies between batches and depending on the type of milk used, in general, milk kefir provides a good source of many nutrients. Some of these nutrients contained in kefir include calcium, potassium, vitamin A,
B vitamins and magnesium. Some of the main health benefits that kefir may provide include:
Supports healthy digestion
Improves gut health
Has antimicrobial effects
Support the cardiovascular system
Supports weight loss
Supports a healthy nervous system
May protect against cancer
May reduce allergy symptoms
Kefir may also support good bone health. Milk kefir provides a source of calcium, magnesium and vitamin K. These nutrients work together to ensure strong and healthy bones. There is also some evidence that probiotic foods such as kefir may improve skin health, cardiovascular health and decrease the risk of chronic disease.
Types of Kefir
There are two broad types of kefir - milk kefir and water kefir and there are a few differences between them. Water kefir is dairy-free, which makes it a good choice for those needing to avoid cows’ milk. Water kefir is also a lighter drink compared to milk kefir and some would say that it is slightly easier to make.
Water kefir is fermented with sugar, and although the majority of the sugar is consumed during fermentation, there will sometimes be some leftover. So, when compared to milk kefir, water kefir may have a slightly higher content of sugar which may not be suitable for those with diabetes.
Milk kefir may also provide more health benefits compared to water kefir. Depending on what type of milk is used, milk kefir provides more nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, potassium and protein compared to water kefir.
How to Prepare Milk Kefir?
Milk kefir is often made with cows’ milk, however, other dairy-free milks can also be used. You simply add kefir grains to the milk and loosely cover. This is left to ferment at room temperature for 12 to 48 hours. For the full instructions, visit our page on how to make milk kefir.
How to Prepare Water Kefir?
Water kefir is very simple to prepare. You need to dissolve sugar, baking soda and molasses in water and then add the water kefir grains. Loosely cover the jar and leave to ferment at room temperature for about 48 hours. The full recipe can be found on our how to make water kefir page.