kefir

Upon the recommendation of my cheesemaking group, I ordered a new book: The Art of Natural Cheesemaking by David Asher. The group warned me that the author was a bit rabid about the right way to make cheese. No freeze-dried cultures, they warned me. No plastic. Only fresh raw milk.

I hesitated — purists irritate me — but finally I ordered the book. And then I read every single page, some of them out loud to my (uninterested) husband, until, just this week, I finished the book. I even read the appendices. Every few pages, I’d shout Now I get it! Or, Listen to this! Or, Can you believe…? The other afternoon when I yelled I’M LEARNING SO MUCH, my younger son who was up in his room teaching himself about binary numbers called back, ME, TOO. Our house was positively glowing from all the lightbulbs going off. Or turning on. You know what I mean. 

Here’s a brief summary of the book:

*Our food system is fear-based and highly industrialized, which means our food is being mass-produced in the most simplified, streamlined way for minimal variety and ease of production. The need for pasteurization comes about, not because raw milk is dangerous to consume, but because our milk is mass-produced from many cows, collected from farms and transported to the plant, processed into a uniform product, then packaged and shipped to stores. It’s how we handle the milk, not the milk itself, that is dangerous. 

*The addition of yellow dye began in the industrialized revolution when they needed a way to mask inferior cheese. Some people have no emotional attachment to yellow cheese, but I do. I made a white Colby and just looking at it makes me feel sad.

*There is no need for added molds and freeze-dried cultures. Just as grain holds all the components necessary to ferment into sourdough — and grapes for wine, apples for cider, and cabbage for kraut — raw milk contains all the good bacteria needed to culture milk into cheeses.  

*Instead of relying on freeze-dried cultures which are expensive, single-strain, and less resilient and flavorful (think GMO vegetables versus heirloom), use natural cultures such as kefir, yogurt, and buttermilk to start a cheese. Another option is to let milk sit out at room temperature to sour naturally, or use whey from a previous batch of cheese.  

*The basic cheeses can be categorized as follows: stretched-curd (mozzarella), alpines (Parmesan and Tommes), washed-curd (Gouda), cheddar, white molds (Camemberts), and blue molds. Learn to make a simple rennet cheese and, depending on how you care for the pressed curd (reheating and stretching it for slow mozzarella, cutting and stacking it for cheddars, letting it sit out to grow white mold for the camemberts), you can make all sorts of cheeses. Each one will be different from the one before, depending on all the little variations that occur during the cheesemaking process. Natural cheesemaking is not focused on conformity. 

I am not ready to toss out my vacuum sealer or dig a cave in my room, but this week I did scrape a bit of blue mold from a piece of sourdough, dissolve it in water, and add the water to a quart of yogurt which I then hung and proceeded as with yogurt cheese. Now it’s aging in the cold room. In a couple weeks, once (if) it grows blue mold, I’ll pierce it all over so the mold can work its way into the cheese.

And I started making kefir. (According to Mr. au Naturel, kefir rhymes with “deer,” so it’s to be pronounced Kuh-FEAR, not KEE-fur. It’s a hard habit to break.)

I got the grains from my friend down the road and quickly fell into a rhythm.

In the morning, I put a small lump of kefir grains — about a teaspoon or so — in a pint jar, top off the jar with milk and give it a quick shake. The next morning, the milk is solid, like jello. I schlub-schlub-schlub the contents into a strainer set over a mixing bowl and stir gently until all the kefir has dripped through and only the grains are left. I pour the kefir into a jar, date it, and pop it in the fridge. The grains go into a fresh jar and I start the whole thing over. 

grains in a clean jar

top with milk, then shake

twenty-four hours later

stir through a strainer

grains for the next batch

The kefir grains keep multiplying, so every week or so I’ll dump half of them in the compost. I also keep a small jar of grains submerged in milk in the fridge. Like so, they should keep for weeks. If I ever need more grains, I just strain them out and start the process and, like a sourdough starter, after a day or two, they’ll be fully activated again. (Just this morning, I opened a small jar of milk-covered kefir grains from back in the beginning of December. The milk didn’t smell sour at all. Maybe a little sweet, if anything. How wild is that??)

The liquid kefir, I use either in smoothies, or in place of buttermilk in baking, or as a culture for cheese. Some people like to drink it, but not me. I don’t like how it tastes funky-yeasty and almost metallic. Purist Guy said you can’t detect the flavor of kefir in the final cheeses, but I’m not so sure. I think I taste something, like there’s a very slight “off” flavor. On the other hand, I might be detecting that because my cheeses are still fairly young. Maybe, after six months or a year, that flavor will disappear, or morph into something more complex. 

And that’s the other thing: it could be that this is just what real — excuse me: natural — cheeses taste like. Yesterday, after feasting on about 20 homemade cheeses (my cheesemaking group met at my house and we gorged), some of which packed a flavor funk-punch, I ate a piece of store-bought marbled Colby and was surprised to realize it tasted like absolutely nothing.

How many cheeses can you count? (And that’s not all of them.)

Because kefir is wildly good for you, and because it’s free, and because I love the concept of letting the milk do all the work — using the cheesemaking methods to tease out the different bacterias, yeasts, and molds that the milk already contains — I’m sticking with kefir for now. I have a hunch it’s the right way to go. And it does make good smoothies as long as I add a couple bananas, a generous scoop of jam, and a bunch of other fruit to mask the flavor. 

You might be asking, why use kefir as a culture and not yogurt? I use yogurt in Alpine cheese and that cheese is sweet and mild, with no weird funk whatsoever. The reason is this: Kefir is a mesophilic culture which means that, if you heat the milk to a higher temperature, above 106 degrees or so, it no longer works. So for my higher temp cheeses, like Alpine, I need to use a thermophilic culture, like yogurt, and for the lower temp cheeses, I need to stick with Kefir. (Or buttermilk! I haven’t tried buttermilk yet, but I plan to.) And some cheeses call for both meso- and thermophilic cultures — they kinda tag-team each other — so technically I can use both Kefir and yogurt for some cheeses, which I fully intend to soon do.

a fresh batch, ready to strain

P.S. I like to pick at Asher, but truth is, his is a fabulous book. I wish I had read it back when I first starting making cheese. In my stack of cheesemaking books (I have five) it’s moved to the top.

and so on…

Kefir

1-2 teaspoons kefir grains
1 pint milk

Combine and give a quick shake. Let the jar sit at room temperature. In the first twelve hours, give it a little shake once or twice, but then allow it to sit, undisturbed, over night. In the morning, it should be thick — it can be cut with a knife, but it feels more watery than yogurt. 

Dump the contents of the jar into a sieve and gently stir, forcing the kefir through into a bowl below and separating out the kefir grains. Refrigerate the kefir to drink, or use in cheesemaking or baking. The liquid kefir should stay good in the fridge for at least a week. (If using for cheesemaking, only store for several days.)

Put the grains in a clean pint jar, top with fresh milk, and repeat the process.

The grains will multiply. If you get too many, it throws off the balance and the kefir will get wonky, so every few days, throw out some of the grains (or give them away). (Or you can just increase the amount of milk, accordingly.) For a pint of milk, you’ll need anywhere from a teaspoon to a tablespoon of grains. More than that is too many. 

If you want to stop making kefir, place some grains in a small jar with fresh milk and refrigerate. Stored in this way, they should stay fresh for months. To use, simply strain out the grains and start the process (it may take a day or two for the kefir to reach full strength). 

This same time, years previous: this is who we are, the quotidian (1.14.19), through the kitchen window, quick fruit cobbler, starting today, inner voices.

9 Comments

  • Thrift at Home

    Totally fascinating about milk handling and wild vs. cultivated strains.

    I first came across kefir in Russia where it is pronounced to rhyme with deer! I keep mine in the fridge all the time and just top it off with milk when I use some, letting it sit out at room temp for a bit. My grains don’t grow, but they do ferment the milk, so ok, I guess?

    I actually love drinking kefir cut with seltzer in the summer – quenches my thirst when I am hot and parched like nothing else I have ever tried.

  • Becky R.

    I tried making and using kefir a few years ago. The lady who sold the grains to me warned me that they needed a lot of care, and I found mine did. It felt like a continual feed/dispose/use carousel that I got tired of pretty quickly. And I hated the taste of it. I hope your kefir experience is more positive, but then again, I did not have a cow to help me with the process – LOL. I love the idea of making cheese from yogurt and buttermilk, however. I like both yogurt and buttermilk. Your cheesemaking journey is fascinating, and I am envious of your enthusiasm. Getting immersed in something like this is so much fun, and it’s therapeutic as well. Go, Jennifer, go!

  • KC

    Oh dear. Not all of that is accurate, re: “natural” being better.

    The raw milk thing: you can get salmonella from backyard chickens, and you can get listeria from “cow share” raw milk. it’s *less* of a risk the fewer sources of contamination you have! But: less risk is not no risk, and there are a lot of food-contamination illnesses that were common with farmers making their own stuff and which are not common now. To be fair, we’ve also had some general sanitization increases that improve your odds of doing things with fewer illnesses at home/on a farm (like wiping udders down), which also lower the risk of unpasteurized milk and such. But anywhere you’ve got animals and effluent, you’ve got stuff that might cheerfully kill you. (which is where most of the big produce recalls come from: cows upstream of where fields of lettuce or spinach get their water)

    And there are so many types of mold and bacteria and yeast, as you’d be familiar with from sourdough and how a given-to-you starter gradually changes over time from its source to instead represent the stuff most common in your kitchen, and exactly what you’ll get colonizing your stuff is… well, we’ll say, highly variable. You can force conditions to be favorable to the things-that-won’t-kill-you and unfavorable to the baddies, *and* you can encourage certain things to be in the air in your kitchen, but it’s not going to work as well for some people as for others, just because of what’s in their environment and what’s going to end up outgrowing their starter cultures.

    Plus: most unsafe food practices are going to work out fine for some percentage of the population; see also canning practices and botulism and “I’ve never had a problem” – it’s when you go large that things that happen less than 1% of the time start showing up regularly. (okay, also, some people think they don’t have a problem when they do; my parents stretch leftover-food safety guidelines and are mystified as to why they get “stomach bugs” so frequently; a florist I met who put poisonous flowers on wedding cakes [that she had not made] had “never had a problem” and *duh* because how many wedding guests even tell the couple/their-parents if they had a weird/bad physical reaction after a wedding, let alone the word getting from them through to the florist who isn’t even mentally connected to any of the food?) Anyway. While you *definitely* get more contamination capability in large operations, and you also get more animal infection of various kinds when you have larger animal populations, I 100% do not trust anecdotal food safety assurances – the “I’ve never had a problem canning green beans without pressure” people and the “everything is microbially safe if it’s done at home” people – both because they may have unusually robust digestions and because they could easily have just hit it lucky so far.

    (experimenting with homegrown cultures: sure! But… caution, especially when giving things to people who are more fragile – whether pregnant or elderly or immunocompromised for some other reason.)

    Adding coloring to some cheeses is pre-industrial; it just used to be carrot juice rather than artificial food dye. Or are we talking about adding color to, say, cream cheese? (doctoring food to look more appealing and/or as customers think it should look is a very old practice, but some forms of doctoring are newer!)

    I have always thought that store-bought colby was an incredibly inert cheese, like monterey jack, and have never understood people liking it for things other than generic cheesiness fat&texture. But maybe that’s just me and my salt and flavor-loving “give me the extra-sharp cheddar”-ness… 🙂

    Thank you for all your cheese notes! This is really fascinating to someone who has only made mozzarella and ricotta and similarly super-easy cheeses…

      • KC

        The main point is that insofar as this book advises doing things “the natural way” contrary to food safety rules, it should be treated with significant caution, because you can kill someone that way.

        The “natural” way is not always healthy, and a lot of “the natural way is best!” materials are historically inaccurate, scientifically inaccurate, and relying on anecdote to assert their methods’ safety. In many cases, the natural way *is* best (and I have many negative things to say about many industrialized food products). However, most legal/official recommendations for food safety came out of occurrences that killed people or made them extremely sick, so anecdotal or “historical” evidence that a practice is safe should not automatically overrule food safety recommendations.

        And I also enjoyed the post and had random odds and ends of comments on other bits. 🙂 (which: also: the kefir grain photos are fascinating.)

        I hope that is helpful to you; I recognize many people hit a wall when they hit a wall of text! But I’ve got brain fog due to a decade+-long chronic illness (which was kicked off by an unusually bad outcome from campylobacter jejuni) and rambling is what most often comes out…

      • KC

        I’d melt it on top of things that already had plenty of flavor and just needed some fat, but otherwise: not my jam. I am so, so glad your life is full of good cheese now!

  • Janelle Myers-Benner

    I may be contacting you to get some kefir grains down the road… I’m imagining you deep into cheese making with your 25 or so gallons of milk today. 🙂 Enjoy!

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