Forget kale and nut butters: fermented foods are the one big health trend we’ll all be spooning into our diet this year, and the one that’s causing a particular buzz is kefir – a cultured milk drink with a slightly sour taste and a whole host of potential health benefits. Understanding what kefir is and even if its worth making at home or opting for products such as Sainsbury’s or Waitrose kefir milk can help you get the best from this probiotic drink.
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What is kefir?
Hailing from northern Caucasus Mountains, kefir dates back many centuries to when shepherds in the mountainous region would carry milk stored in leather pouches, which would would ferment into fizzy sour yogurt.
These days, the trendy drink is made in a slightly more sanitary way – by adding kefir grains to cow’s milk in a jar and leaving it to ferment at room temperature for around 24 hours. The grains are not actually traditional grains, but are small jelly-like beads containing a variety of bacteria and yeasts.
After the fermentation process, the grains are strained and added to a fresh jar of milk to be reused for a new batch. The strained kefir, meanwhile, is ready to be bottled and drunk.
What are the health benefits?
The reason kefir has recently become so popular is down to the ‘good bacteria’ it contains. Much like yogurt, studies have found that the microorganisms in the fermented milk can help with gastrointestinal issues. Kefir grains contain around 30 strains of beneficial bacteria, a major strain being lactobacillales – or lactic acid bacteria (LAB).
One study found that Lactobacillus kefiri, a LAB unique to kefir, can stop the growth of harmful bacteria such as salmonella, h-pylori and e-coli. Some people also find that it improves their digestion, as the probiotic content can help to restore balance in the gut. However, those with IBS are advised to consult with a GP before trying it as it can make symptoms worse.
Traditional kefir made from cow’s milk is also a good source of dietary calcium and vitamin K too, which are both important for bone health.
Inflammation is involved in a number of issues ranging from the bowels to the joints. Some studies have found that probiotics can have an anti-inflammatory effect, although researchers have concluded that more research needs to be done into the specific effects of kefir itself.
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Where to buy?
So where can you try it? Kefir used to be the sort of thing you’d have to hunt down in a health food shop, but it’s going mainstream as people are waking up to the potential health benefits.
You can now pick it up in plenty of high street supermarkets such as Waitrose and Sainsbury’s in a variety of forms, including yoghut and milk drinks. In fact, Marks and Spencer are stocking a range of grab-and-go products in department stores nationwide, including a regular kefir drink, £2.50 for 500ml, and a cherry flavoured kefir drink, £2.50 for 500ml. For some, having additional flavouring is welcome as it can be an acquired taste.
As kefir is a fermented product, it can make you pretty ill if it isn’t made correctly. Although there are recipes floating about online, we advise buying kefir from a reputable source and taking care to follow the storage instructions, rather than attempting to whip it up in the kitchen.
For those who are not used to probiotics, it’s a wise to start with a small amount and see how it sits with your stomach, as some people find that it can cause bloating, constipation or diarrhoea. Medical professionals advise that if you have a compromised immune system, you should always speak to your doctor before taking any probiotics.
How to make kefir at home
However, if you do want to learn how to make kefir at home, we’ve included a recipe guide below that uses pasteurised milk. Remember to always follow the advice included with kefir milk grains to active them, and ideally stick to shop-bought kefir to lower the risk of any illness or unpleasant effects.
- Large glass jar
- Breathable cover for the jar, such as paper towels, butter muslin or coffee filter
- Rubber band to secure the cover to the opening of the jar
- Mesh plastic strainer - used to remove kefir grains
- Wooden or plastic stirring utensil
- 1-2 tsp Milk kefir grains
- 1 pint goat or cow milk pasteurised
- Place the active kefir grains into the milk, and no more than one pint of milk and pour into the jar
- Cover the glass jar containing the milk, and secure tightly with the rubber band
- You'll need to place to jar in a warm position to activate the culture. Ideally, place in a room with a temperature between 20-30 degrees centigrade.
- Leave in place for up to 24 hours, and until the milk has become slightly thickened and the aroma is pleasant to smell. Depending on ambient temperature, this can take less than 24 hours so keep an eye on the jar during this time.
- Using the mesh plastic strainer, remove the grains from the thickened milk culture. You can place these grains into a fresh jar of milk to continue the process of creating more homemade kefir. You can continue this process for around three to four weeks before resting the kefir grains by refrigerating them or drying them out.
- With the kefir culture complete, store the finished homemade kefir in the fridge and consume with 24-48 hours.
Removing grainsRemoving the milk kefir grains can be difficult, especially with over thickened kefir milk.
- Use a plastic mesh strainer, with a wooden spoon or plastic spatula to help work the kefir through the strainer.
- Use a shallow bowl that is made of non-reactive metal, such as a plastic bowl, and pour the thickened milk culture from the jar into the bowl. This can help make the grains more visible and easier to spot and remove.
- Clean hands before removing grains. Don't use any soap when cleaning hands – just warm water – to avoid any contamination of the culture.