Kefir – further adventures of a fermenting novice!

I thought my first encounter with Kefir was on The Archers. In fact, having read more about it,  I must have drunk it in Sweden, in Russia, in Siberia, in Turkey, in Mongolia and not realised what it was.

Kefir is a cultured and fermented milk drink. It can be made with cow, sheep, goat (and probably yak, camel, mares although that is likely to be in short supply where you are).  It can also be made with soya milk and nut milks  including coconut, although I understand that you will need to start the culture with ‘proper’ milk.  It works best with full cream milk. Why? Because it is a live yeast/bacteria culture that feeds on the proteins in the liquid milk and animal proteins are more robust in that regard.

I started with a Kefir grains purchased via the internet.  You might have a friend who has some spare – the grains multiply quite quickly as you go through the process so advertising in local Facebook Marketplace or Freecycle might yield quick and local rewards.

I first became a fan of raw milk when I passed the dinky little Friesian painted hut at Fen Farm near Bungay where there is an automatic dispenser for the milk. £1 for 2litres of full cream milk. It is delicious.  However when I decided to make Kefir I looked for a source  closer to home so now I go to the delightful Coston Hall near Wymondham. Exactly the same set up.

The watchwords here are scrupulous and cleanliness.  Himself laughed at my ‘special’ cupboard.  You don’t need much equipment.  I have two new 1litre Kilner jars, one nylon sieve, one dedicated wooden spoon, two plastic jugs but I keep them separate from all my other kitchen stuff.

Wash your hands.  Remove the Kefir grains from the package – they look like plump little transparent pearls.  Drop them into a plastic jug.  Add 250ml of  milk and mix carefully with a wooden spoon (don’t use any metal utensils). Pour all this into a Kilner jar, close the lid and put somewhere warm (the airing cupboard in our house) and leave it. Don’t fiddle with it!!  In 24 to 48 hours take a look and you should see a) bubbles and b) a clear separating vein of  whey. If you don’t see it, be patient. Check again the next day.

Little whoops of excitement (mine) came from the airing cupboard when I looked and found that separating vein.

When this happens, pour the contents carefully into a clean plastic jug through a sieve and help the liquid through with the wooden spoon. Do this  gently.  You will find the grains in the bottom of the sieve.  Drop these grains into a clean jar and add 250ml milk. Repeat the process about 4 times.  The purpose of this is to give the grains a good ‘feed’  and to make them robust.  This is a living organism and needs to be cared for. The remaining liquid part will get thicker every time (I eat it on muesli).

When the liquid comes out really thick it is time to increase the amount of milk, first to 500ml, then 750ml  then 1litre. By the time you get to 1litre you will probably need to leave it to ferment for 4days – sufficient to use about 250ml a day for two people once you are ‘brewing’ 1litre quantities.  After a couple of weeks you will have a really robust ‘starter’ (just as you would for sourdough or ginger beer, for example).  Once you get going you will get into a lovely rhythm and you might find that your starter is so robust that the volume of Kefir you are making looks like it might get out of hand!  Now is the time to be generous – use half the grains and give the other half to someone else. they will need to start the process from scratch.

Bur what about when I go on holiday I hear you cry?  Well there are two options….. either you leave the grains in a cool place for no more than a couple of weeks with just a little milk but at low temperature to reduce its activity, or you lodge it with a trusted friend who feeds it and has free Kefir.  They might even be future recipients of a starter culture themselves.

I found it very helpful to look at YouTube clips such as this one from HappyKombucha to get the whole process embedded in my head, and I noticed a distinct difference when comparing the  commercial Kefir made with pasteurised  and unpasteurised milk which I bought from Asda, Tesco and a wholefood shop to begin with.  True Kefir should have a slight ‘fizz’ to it nd I have found that those made with pasteurised milk do not have this.  This is the main reason I use raw (unpasteurised) milk from TB-free registered herds.

Happy Kefir making. I am by no means an expert, but do contact me if you are making it and want to talk about it.

Fermenting in the airing cupboard.

All sorts of things happen in our airing cupboard.  Like proving dough, storing bicycle helmets, Culturing kefir grains (see subsequent post), hidden toys between the sheets and  it is wonderful hide-and-seek territory; and it has sufficient constant warmth for fermenting.

January is always open head and open heart territory.  Don’t get stale, try something new.  I’ve already started with fermenting on a small and very domestic scale. Sufficient for us.  Yet again I was inspired by Cornersmith, I’ve mentioned it before.  Anyway, here’s a few things I’ve learned along the way.

Fermented carrots

A jar of fermented carrot, with its friend pickled fennel, just lounging around in the fridge.

These seemed the easiest to start with and We’ve used fermented vegetables as side dishes and as part of dishes such as in salads, roasted vegetable taboulleh, Freekah with aubergine.

Fermenting is, in its simplest terms, a method of preserving. You either use a starter culture, whey or brine.  I use brine as it is the easiest way to start.  Fermenting might sound a bit of a fad – it is all about ‘good’ bacteria – but it is embedded in worldwide culinary culture; think sauerkraut, kimchi etc. Think East European. North European. Scandinavian. Think Middle East, Far East. Fermenting is ancient and universal – it isn’t new at all. So although ‘good bacteria’ might sound like a fad, finding such bacteria is normal and natural and is embedded in old cultures across the world.

Start with something easy and inexpensive like carrots or radishes.  Take 10g salt and add 500ml filtered water then bring to the boil and leave to cool.

Sterilise Mason or Kilmer jars making sure they are absolutely spotless.

Mix 1 thinly sliced onion with 40g grated fresh turmeric  and 40g freshly grated ginger.  You can substitute ground turmeric (1 heaped teaspoon) but fresh ginger is a must. Slice 500g carrots very thinly. Mix all these ingredients together then pack into the jars. be careful not to bruise the vegetables (I use a pestle to gently press them down).

Pour in the brine. Add one thick carrot or celery stick across the neck of the jar so all the ingredients are submerged. Seal the jars.

Let the jars sit at room temperature for 2-4 days when you should notice small bubbles inside the jar.  The longer you leave at room temperature the more lacto fermentation will progress but it does depend a lot on the ambient temperature.  Being too parsimonious to have the central heating on all day, the only place where we have consistent temperature in our house is the airing cupboard! Once fermentation is underway the environment within the jar is hostile to bacteria.  The ferment should smell slightly yeasty or sour.  It should have visible bubbles.  The kids might look slightly rounded if you are using metal tops. It should not smell foul! Put the jars in the fridge after a few days to slow the fermentation.  You might need to release a little ‘gas’ from the jars occasionally so keep an eye on them. Should keep up to 6 months in the fridge.

After you have experimented a bit, you might want to get more daring!

From Olia Hercules Kaukasis published by Mitchell Beazley and one of my cook books of the year.

Straight from Olia Hercules book Kaukasis comes fermented beetroot and cauliflower.

Make a brine with 1litre filtered water and 25g salt. Add aromatics such as allspice, coriander seed, pink peppercorns or sprigs of thyme.

Peel four beetroot and slice very thinly. Break one cauliflower into florets. Peel a few garlic cloves and one or two sticks of celery chopped into bite sized pieces.

Put all the vegetables into a 3litre sterilised jar and pour in the brine and aromatics and as before, wedge a piece of celery or carrot across the top. Now pour in the brine making sure everything is covered.

Cover the jar with a piece of muslin and leave the jar at room temperature for 5 days or so – it depends on how warm your kitchen is. Look for bubbles. Once there are bubbles, remove the muslin and out on the lid.  Keep in a cool place for a couple of months.

Good luck, and let me know how you get on!