If you’re exploring the world of fermented foods and drinks, you’ll no doubt come across talk about milk kefir. Milk kefir culture is increasingly popular due to its probiotic and antioxidant properties, its yummy flavor, and because it is super easy to make at home.
This blog usually focuses on kombucha, but I came across a great research paper which talks about all sorts of different lacto-fermented drinks that are traditionally consumed in Europe (including kombucha, of course.)
I figured that people who are into kombucha are usually into all sorts of fermenty goodness, so it would be dreadful to keep the information to myself!
Read about some of the other drinks here: 16 European fermented milk drinks you’ve never heard of!
I made milk kefir myself for a few months, and it was great – but because I am the only person in my household who will drink it, and I don’t actually eat a lot of dairy, kefir wasn’t the best fit for our food patterns.
However, if you’re looking for a very low-sugar fermented drink, or you want to avoid the caffeine in kombucha, or you’re just wanting to try out those fun kefir smoothie recipes you’ve seen on pinterest, making milk kefir is for you!
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What is milk kefir?
Kefir is one of the oldest milk-based beverages in the world. Originally the only type of kefir was sheep milk kefir.
It is also known as kefyr in Central Asia and the Middle East, and kephir/kiaphur/kefer/knapon/kepi/kippi in the Balkan/Caucasus region.
Traditionally, shepherds in the Caucasus mountains made plain kefir from ewe’s milk in leather bags, oak barrels or in earthenware pots.
Modern kefir is made from any type of animal milk (goat, sheep, cow, camel, buffalo – you know, just whatever you have to hand). It can also be made using various substitute milks like soya, rice and coconut, although usually less successfully. I’ll really only talk about dairy milk kefir in this post.
All you need is your local type of milk and some kefir culture grains.
(Don’t worry, anti-grain people! Kefir grains aren’t grains – that’s just what we call the soft clumps of kefir culture)
Kefir grains are the kefir starter culture. They look like tiny cauliflower heads, about the size of a grape, and are made up mostly of a long-chain polysaccharide called kefiran. (If you’re familiar with kombucha, the kefir grain is the equivalent of the kombucha scoby).
As for what milk kefir tastes like, Baschali’s research paper describes it like this:
“self-carbonated, viscous, uniform creamy and elastic consistency, sour, acidic and slightly alcoholic, tart flavour, perceptible yeast aroma, slightly foamy body and white or yellowish colour”
Personally, I would describe milk kefir’s flavor as a bit like a drinkable yogurt, but kinda fizzy.
A probiotic drinkable yogurt with some sparkle.
Officially, milk kefir is typically classed as a “Low- Alcoholic Fermented Beverage”, although the regulations governing this classification differ throughout the world. The milk kefir alcohol content is usually below 2%.
Originating in the Balkans and Caucasus, milk kefir has also been drunk in Soviet countries for centuries and is now increasingly popular in Japan, the USA, the Middle East and Africa.
Why drink milk kefir?
Not only does it taste good, but milk kefir is good for you too.
Traditionally, milk kefir was made for three reasons:
Firstly, like most forms of fermentation, it was a food preservation technique. By fermenting milk deliberately with kefir grains, the shepherds were stopping the milk rotting with other microbes that might decide to grow in it. Milk kefir culture was part of ensuring food security and food quality in an age without refrigeration.
Secondly, kefir has long been viewed as a health food. People who regularly drink milk kefir report a positive impact on their gastrointestinal health. Again, this is incredibly important in an environment without ready access to good health care.
And thirdly, just like us, the early shepherds of the Caucasus liked good food. Eating the same boring thing day after day can get monotonous, and fizzy milk makes a nice change from plain milk!
Health benefits of milk kefir
Milk-kefir and kombucha are probably the two low-alcohol probiotic drinks that have had the most research performed on them.
Related: Health benefits of kombucha
If you think about the sorts of studies that we’ve looked at on this blog about kombucha, you’ll find that much of the same sort of research has been done on kefir culture health benefits as well, and with more or less similar results.
The particular research paper I’m looking at in this post is a summary paper, what’s usually called a “literature review”. This means that the authors didn’t perform any original research for this paper, but have rounded up as much of the published research as they could find and collated and interpreted it for us.
The summary that they provide lists these milk kefir benefits:
- Just like milk, fermented milk products are a good source of protein, lipids and carbohydrates, as well as other bioactive compounds.
- In addition, kefir milk contains other exopolysaccharides, such as kefiran (which makes up the solid part of the kefir grain), and is considered to have antioxidant, anti-tumour, antimicrobial and immunomodulating effects.
- Fermented milk is more digestible than plain milk, both because the amount of lactose is reduced by fermentation, and also because the kefir grains produce bacterial lactase – the enzyme which helps to break lactose down. So people who are intolerant to lactose may be able to drink milk kefir, depending on how sensitive they are.
- Kefir has been accredited with the ability to normalize the intestinal microbiota and reduce the symptoms of lactose intolerance (they referenced 6 other papers which showed this).
- With regard to gastrointestinal diseases, in Russia kefir milk has been routinely administered for the treatment of peptic ulcers, presumably for its probiotic ability to combat a Helicobacter pylori infection.
- Kefir has antimicrobial activity against a wide variety of bacteria and fungi, mostly due to its acidity, but also due to some specific anti-bacterial compounds.
- Studies have been done (like with kombucha), looking to see what impact kefir consumption has on heart disease and atherosclerosis. The results are mixed – perhaps because, like with kombucha, the exact microbe mix of kefir can be variable.
- In the treatment of osteoporosis, adults who consumed kefir had a better outcome in terms of bone density improvements and calcium metabolism than those who drank straight milk.
- Kefir has also been associated with reduced oxidative stress, and improved renal function in rats.
And even better than kombucha, you make milk kefir with no sugar added!
How to make milk kefir at home?
Like all of these traditional ferments, kefir can easily be made at home. You just need the right starter culture and the right food for it.
I go into the nitty gritty of milk kefir making in this post, but will give you the executive summary here in case you just can’t wait 🙂
Related: How to make Milk Kefir
Basically, you need kefir grains and milk. (Check here to price kefir grains)
Take your kefir grains, add them to the milk.
Let them sit at room temperature for 18 to 24 hours.
Filter the grains out of the freshly made kefir, and drink it up!
Pop your grains in some fresh milk to keep them happy and start again.
Easy as pie!