So I’ve started making kefir.
Kefir isn’t technically a cheese (although, strictly speaking, none of the cultured dairy I’ve made, including the ricotta, has been “cheese” because none of it has involved any kind of rennet? Who knows), but it is a cultured milk product that is vaguely related to yoghurt, so I’m putting it under this heading.
Why Kefir? My wife, who is generally not a fan of anything less cheese-like than old cheddar or a fairly firm blue, asked me this the other day. It is, after all, basically just milk that’s Gone Off in a very specific way. Here’s (essentially – I’ve expanded it a little bit) what I told her:
So, I love yoghurt. I love it on pancakes. I love using it instead of sour milk to make coffee cakes and muffins and stuff. I love it as a base for a creamy salad dressing for winter veggies. I love it with maple syrup and frozen service berries as a breakfast. It’s fantastic. It’s also expensive as fuck. Plain yoghurt that isn’t full of thickeners, but also isn’t Organic, runs about $3/kg. A kilogram of yoghurt, at my house, lasts about 2 days, if I use it as a breakfast food. Longer if I use it as a topping or a dressing, but it’s primarily a protein source and major meal component, when I have my druthers. I’m not down for spending $10 a week on yoghurt. But I’m buying a $6 gallon of milk every week anyway and, over the summer, I was having about 1L of every gallon go bad on me. So I thought: Why don’t I make yoghurt?
Except that, every time I try to make yoghurt all I get is a skiff of yoghurt floating on top of a litre+ of whey. Not helpful. That, or I thicken the milk with powdered milk (not cheap) which gets me yoghurt, yes, but it gets me chalky yoghurt that I don’t want to eat as a breakfast food.
So I decided to look up mesophilic dairy cultures and try my hand at those.
And try, I did!
My first attempt was actually using powdered “kefir starter” which… works. Ish. But the kefir I got wasn’t very thick. Basically, a powdered starter will only ferment the milk up to a certain point, and that point was a little runnier / more watery than I liked.
But then! A friend of mine arrived at my birthday party (about 2 weeks ago) bearing a jar of milk for me. Floating in the milk were a few tablespoons of kefir grains happily getting their ferment on. 😀
So, as they say, it was on. I set the jar down on top of my chest freezer (warm, out of direct light, not likely to get knocked over) and let it do its thing for a few days. The kefir grains did their job fantastically (maybe too fantastically?) and I wound up over-fermenting things just a little bit.
This isn’t the end of the world, especially if you’re wanting thick kefir to begin with, but it did mean that – after I poured off most of the whey (kefir totally separates into curds and whey, fyi – it doesn’t mean something’s gone wrong, that’s normal and your kefir is okay) – I actually had trouble separating the curds, which I wanted to use in lieu of chevre, from the kefir grains (which you have to strain out, so that you can ferment more milk).
Kefir grains, by the way, are a SCOBY. They’re like the weird jellyfish/pancake thing that develops in, and creates, kombucha, but rather than being a jellyfish/pancake, a kefir SCOBY is dozens (or more!) of translucent little blobs like tapioca pearls.
So I bugged my fermento/DIY friends on FB and they all gave me suggestions for how to handle this little problem.
What I ended up doing was the easiest option possible.
I transferred everything except the poured-off whey (more on that in a follow-up post) into a larger jar – the one I’d first fermented sour kraut in, as it happens (don’t worry, I washed it VERY well to avoid flavour-crossing) – topped that jar up with milk, and let it sit, covered in a clean dish cloth, for another few days.
After enough time had passed that my ferment was starting to separate, I poured off some of the whey, but kept some in the jar. I shook everything up a little bit, and then tried straining the grains again.
Suffice to say, it worked.
What I ended up with, once I’d strained the kefir into a clean, 1L mason jar, was about 3C of drinkable fermented milk. (If I want something more like a cheese, I would need to ferment my kefir longer, drain off more of the whey, and put a little more work into pushing the curds through the strainer to separate them from the kefir grains).
Which brings me to: So, How Was It?
It was. Fermented. It was really fermented.
See, I’ve been drinking a lot of those 1L bottle of “yop” style kefir that you can get at the grocery store. I love them, they are delicious. But they’re also pasturized. Meaning that, yes, they’re not fizzy. But, more to the point, they’re not actively boozy anymore.
That’s pretty relevant.
Especially when you’ve (mixed it with some maple syrup and (fake) vanilla extract, and) packed it as your lunch f
or a day of modeling. In a high school. For an exam.
I’m a light-weight, but I didn’t think I was that much of a light-weight. O.O
I’ve since learned that Kefir isn’t a “beginner” pro-biotic ferment like Sour Kraut. It can give you headaches and digestive issues for the first few days, if you’re not used to it, and it’s… wise to start slowly. So maybe my having started with 2C of the stuff had something to do with why I was dizzy. Then again, maybe the kefir, alone, wasn’t enough food to cover an afternoon of physical labour and rapid changes in planes/levels (lots of 30-second poses) and I should have brought nuts or other carbs with me as well. Not sure.
Regardless, the very definite alcohol smell threw me for a loop.
That said, I’m still enjoying it. (Felt weird about having it on school grounds, which I’m pretty sure is Not Allowed, mind you). It fizzes on my tongue like a weak mimosa, if that helpful for giving you an idea of what the ferment level is. 🙂
Beyond that? If you have Texture Issues, kefir may not be for you. At least not as a beverage. (As a beverage: Shake it well, but not TOO well, because even after straining the grains and a lot of the whey out, and storing it in the fridge, a jar with a lid screwed on will be under pressure! Let the gas off every 1-2 days or so to avoid exploding jars). It’s grainy. Tiny curds suspended in liquid. Not smooth like the grocery store stuff (I don’t know how they get it smooth, but I suspect it involves some kind of thickener like carageenan). You might enjoy it as a cheese spread though, maybe blended with garlic and thyme to be used a bagel or as a topping for beets, or else sweetened and baked into a torte or even used as frosting for red velvet cupcakes.
I’m currently drinking the last of my first batch of kefir, while my second batch ferments away in its jar on top of the freezer. I look forward to incorporating kefir (and kefir products – like strained soft cheese, or using the whey to kick-start other fermenation projects) into our meals. 😀
Meliad the Birch Maiden.
 Combine diced raw apples and steamed diced celeriac, toss with plain yoghurt plus some prepared mustard and ground nutmeg. Serve. It’s amazing. Also works for khol slaw with carrots and cabbage. Also works as a cheaper-than-goat-cheese topping for boiled beets and/or perogies.
 Possibly because I was drinking iced herbal-fruit teas (no milk), rather than hot chai (which I put milk in), and that was just enough of a change for me to lose a litre every week to spoilage.
 Not the end of the world. I can use gone-off milk to make coffee cakes, same as I use yoghurt. But I don’t necessarily want to be baking in August, either.
 Which is thermophilic, meaning that you have to heat the milk up and keep it at a fairly consistently warmer-than-room-temperature, but cooler than the “keep warm” setting on my slow-cooker, temperature while the culture is doing its thing.
 Meaning that the culture does it’s thing at room temperature.
 Which you can also use to make water kefir, coconut milk kefir, and, in a neat twist, even grape juice kefir (apparently). A friend of mine has heard tell of fermenting grape juice kefir for a day or two specifically to stain the SCOBY grains purple so that they’re easier to see. I haven’t tried this, myself, but I’m kind of curious. Could I make a cherry-berry “country wine” cordial using kefir grains? Inquiring minds want to know!