Saturday, October 29, 2011

What is Kefir and How Do I Use It (and Why Would I Want To): An Introduction

Cheap Eat Challenge, Part 2: Watch as our family of 6 eats on less than $10/day.

Kefir (pronounced kuh-FEER) is, essentially, fermented milk. Oh stop it with the gag reflex already. What do you think Yoplait's been selling you all these years, cotton candy?

What's so special about it?

1. It's an excellent probiotic and also has lots of protein and calcium. Furthermore, since it is fermented and much of the milk sugars are eaten up during fermentation, it is an excellent food for people who are lactose intolerant.

2. You can ferment it right there on your very own kitchen counter for much less work than it takes to make homemade yogurt since kefir just does its thing at room temperature.

3. And it's much much cheaper than making your own yogurt. Or buying it.

I've been using it in my smoothies since I think that this is a probiotic time of year (in other words, a time of year when we want our guts as healthy as possible in preparation for those joyous bugs our kids will be bringing home from school and those joyous food binges we shouldn't, but might go on over the holidays). I think it would make excellent drink yogurt as well blended with fruit and sugar, although it is too runny to eat as we would eat the types of yogurts we're used to. (However, as a side note, the types of yogurt we're used to have been strained by the companies that make them. Normal yogurt also comes out fairly soft/runny too and then the food companies strain out much of the whey to get the yogurts to a consistency we're used to.If you wanted you could strain your own kefir for a more yogurt-like texture. However, it would still be more sour than plain yogurt.)

Haven't had enough fun yet? Well, from it you can make a soft, although crazy sour, cheese without heating any milk or adding a thing. Easiest cheese ever. My slightly crunchy friend, Vanessa (who introduced me to kefir), and I thought that--while it had some serious sour pop alone--it was really good spread on apples with some peanut butter.

How did I get to know kefir?

I was introduced to it by said slightly crunchy friend, Vanessa. I got some grains last year (the grains are those chunky cauliflower-looking things in the picture at the top of the post) and used it a time or two to bake with, but was--for whatever reason--too daunted or lazy to consume it raw, which is where most of the benefit lies.

And then this fall I kept hearing about probiotic this and probiotic that. I'm not one to ignore a sign when it spits at me in the face. So I got some more grains from Vanessa. And I've become a huge fan.

How do I use kefir?

1. Obtain some grains. They look slightly cream colored or yellowish and somewhat like cauliflower. If you have a slightly crunchy friend, you can ask him/her. If not, you can start your own slightly crunchy movement by ordering online. My other friend, Brooke, got hers here. In the picture up top, you see the grains in the red sieve. They act as the fermenters.

2. Once you've obtained your grains, pour some milk--raw or store-bought over the grains.

3. Cover it with something breathable--a dish towel or coffee filter or something like that. I keep mine in an old yogurt container with this patented lid system. Impressed? But of course you are.

4.Let sit for at least a day. If you're a highly motivated person, you can swish it around a time or two during the day. (Note: If it's hot in your house, you can let it sit for less time that that.)

5. When ready to use, strain out the grains using a non-metal strainer. I use the silicone one pictured at top. (Note: You probably can use a metal strainer, but over time, fermented things corrode metal. Another note: Do not let kefir sit in a metal container because it will corrode the metal and also absorb the metal-y taste and you'll have weird, who knows what kind of kefir.) Your normal kefir will look something like this.

Unless you've neglected it a bit, in which case it's separated and you'll see either a somewhat congealed, possibly slightly chunky looking bit like this (sorry, bad picture),

 or whey like this (depending on whether your whey has sunk or risen).

If it's separated, you can swirl it about with a spoon to get it white again or just dump it through the sieve and let some whey come through and some white stuff. Doesn't matter unless you end up with a whole lot of whey (which is still rich in protein, but not so much in probiotic).

6. Add a few tablespoons to your smoothie or granola or cereal or whatever. It's a bit sour, so go slow at first and see if you notice it. Or add some extra sugar at first or whatever. I usually use about 2-4 Tbsp in my smoothie and can't even tell it's there.

7. You can also cook with it as a milk, buttermilk, or yogurt substitute. This is a great thing to do if you're starting to get a little too much. However, the bacterial goodness will cook out, so you'll be cooking to use up something you don't want to waste, rather than cooking to get all the probiotic goodness out of it.

8. If you get a lot, you can make a cheese. Easiest cheese ever, but sour. We'll have a tutorial on that later. But when I made it I forgot to take pictures.

What should I warn you about kefir?

1. It's sour. So is plain yogurt, but kefir is a little more so. Especially if it's left to sit for long periods of time. And really especially if it's left to sit for long periods of time in a warm house.

2. The longer you let it sit, the stronger the sourness becomes. Also, the more grains it grows. (You don't need many grains to keep it going. If you get lots of grains, you may want to discard some or give them away or just throw them in your smoothies because the more grains you have the more milk this will eat and the faster it will ferment and soon you'll have your own factory. This is great if you want to make cheese out of it or just drink a lot of smoothies. But if you want to go at it a bit slowly at first, keep your grain population down).

3. When left to just sit, it will separate into whey and the creamy stuff with the grains mixed in. If you want to keep it mixed and more yogurt-y looking, give it a swirl a time or two a day. If you want to make cheese, let it sit and separate and that will be easier to do. If you could care less, that's fine too. You'll end up with part whey, part white stuff straining into your smoothie.

4. Refrigeration is okay and might become necessary (see below). Just don't forget about it and discover it two years later (though by then perhaps it will contain the cure to Parkinson's disease, but you'll never know because you won't dare eat it, much less feed it to a sufferer of Parkinson's disease).

5. If it's hot the grains will grow faster and the kefir will become more sour, more quickly. If you don't want this, throw it in the fridge. Just don't forget about it for, like, 17 months or anything.

6. If you look up "Why is kefir good for you" or something like that online, you may meet some wonky people (and I mean that in the kindest possible way)--people who drink sometimes quarts a day and maybe claim that it cured their cancer/diabetes/acne/the national debt. That may well even be true (except for the national debt; pretty sure it's still there) and it doesn't bother me if you want to drink it all the live long day, but it's not my approach to kefir. I see it as a healthy, cheap probiotic that can be consumed in small portions daily by me (and by mine without their even noticing). P is for probiotic and that's good enough for me. C is for cheapy and that's good enough for me, um, too.

7. If you're not used to eating gut-healthy foods (aka whole grains, fruits and vegetables and yogurt-y stuff), use only a bit at first as it might really get your gut moving. You know what that means, right? Just making sure. So start slowly and as you get used to it, you can up the ante.

Seriously, it's fun. You can pretend you're a pioneer. Or a goat farmer. Or just a crunchy person. And then you might decide you like it. You might even end up taking pictures for your very own blog about kefir. You might be thinking about all those wonky crunchy people whose blogs you were reading online. And then you might have to move the wilting roses intended for the compost bin out of the way. And then you might have this weird kind of moment where you wonder if you have actually become a real live crunchy person. Only time will tell. In the meantime, you can eat a really healthy, really easy to digest, really cheap food.

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