Live-Culture Cuisine: Creamy kefir cooks and chillsGot your probiotics? U.S. food and beverage manufacturers are pushing all sorts of yogurt and other products that promise to restore our digestive woes. (How many bloated women have been cured by a cup of Dannon Activia, I’d like to know?) Yet people of the Balkans discovered the wonders of fermented milk centuries ago.
Kefir, pronounced “KEH-fir” or “keh-FEER,” is a fermented milk drink that most likely originated in the Caucasus Mountains. Kefir is made with “grains,” colonies of yeast and bacteria that look like curds, that are strained out of the milk after fermentation. The presence of yeast in addition to Lactobacilli (a type of bacteria present in fermented dairy products) gives kefir a bubbly effervescence and 1 percent alcohol content.
What’s so great about kefir? Some kefir enthusiasts tout its superiority to yogurt because kefir contains a greater variety of microorganisms, and these strong strains of living cultures will repopulate the digestive tract with good organisms. People with milk sensitivities can usually drink kefir because its microorganisms contain some of the lactase enzyme required to digest lactose. What’s more, kefir can be made from any milk – cow, goat, sheep, you name it – and (get ready for this, all you vegans) from any nondairy substance like coconut milk, fruit juice, vegetable juice, rice milk, soymilk and nut milk. Kefiring is an easy artisanal process because it requires no temperature control and little attention; it sits on a countertop to do its thing.
Kefir tastes pretty tart, so some kefir-makers sweeten the creamy fluid with honey or add chopped fruit before consuming it like yogurt. There are loads of other culinary uses: as a Greek-style salad dressing, a substitute for buttermilk or sour cream, or a base for soup.
Sharing the grains is a big part of kefir culture. My “heirloom” grains were gifted to me from Zemka Dogic of South County, a Bosnian friend who got hers from a friend in Florida who got hers from a Canadian pal. Once you begin wildly fermenting, your kefir grains are gonna grow, so you might as well give some away.
Kefir beverages are sold commercially; Whole Foods Market, Jay International Foods and Local Harvest Grocery are among area retailers that carry them. But it’s a lot more fun to make your own ’cause that’s where all the action is!
READY, SET, FERMENT!
Golden Grocer in the Central West End takes orders for Yogourmet brand freeze-dried kefir starter. ($7.59 for a box of three envelopes; each envelope makes about 2 quarts of kefir.) Go to www.saucemagazine.com for
step-by-step directions on how to activate starter grains.