Milena’s Cooking Adventures
Five years ago, at an appointed time and place, I met a stranger to collect something I knew nothing about. In his hands he carried a beat-up milk carton. “You’ll need this too,” he said casually, slipping an index card into my hands. And then he and his sports coat left.
I took the bus home with my old milk carton. I examined the neat notes on the index card. I got a metal mesh fry screen and cut out wonky circles, then fit them onto jam jars to create a screened top. I poured the contents of the old milk carton into a jar, poured in some fresh milk, and wondered what I was doing with my life, and when exactly I had agreed to become a parent.
My adopted children were called kefir grains, according to this stranger. He had posted to a facebook group mentioning that he had a colony that had multiplied far beyond his ability to care for them and had extras to give away. Since I had never heard even the name “kefir,” I immediately wrote and said I’d pick them up. I do the same with plants that I don’t know how to care for, and projects for which I don’t have the proper equipment. Once my roommate and I decided to adopt a kitten– four days later we had one (the best decision of my life). I like taking care of small beings and small projects. They tend to spread across the house, into corners, inconveniencing those who don’t appreciate jars of fermenting milk on countertops, blackened bananas in the freezer, 15 cardboard boxes left out permanently on the floor expressly for the kitten, or long strings awkwardly tying windowsill tomato plants to curtain rods.
Because, you know, making kefir does mean leaving jars of milk out at room temperature for a day– a daunting endeavour for anyone who is squeamish about food safety. Trust is the main ingredient in caring for kefir grains. You have to have complete trust in their competence and their methods. You are only there to help them grow and support them. They will do the rest.
My kefir colony has never let me down. They have moved with me 3 times, once internationally. Each time I had to remove them from their milky home, dry them for days, then refrigerate the ensuing tiny yellow kefir pebbles in a consoling bag of dried milk powder. They have been forgotten in the back of fridges, they have overeaten due to my absence, they have been fed strange milks and cajoled once into eating zero-percent milk (no one likes that stuff). But still, they love me and I love them.
For those who have never had the pleasure of meeting kefir grains, they are a lovely little conglomeration of bacteria that look a bit like tiny rice pudding. Their brethren are scobys (kombucha) and the mother (vinegar). They make fermentation user-friendly. I like to imagine that while the grains are individual, the colony has some kind of happy humming hive mind. This has no scientific basis that I know of, but it makes me smile each time I change out their milk. In my head, I imagine them mostly like this:
When kefir is happy, it will soon turn the milk it feeds on into a beautiful yoghurt-like consistency. The best, I find, is when it looks jiggly and solid, but then when you stir it, it melts beautifully into a thick yoghurty drink. Kefir tastes a lot like greek yoghurt, but slightly less strong and in liquid form.
Of course, kefir grains can get overenthusiastic and overeat. Then they turn your milk into a kind of bitter cheese stuff that I have always hated. The milk separates and curdles. I’ve tried to salvage this multiple times, but have never loved the result. To me it’s like my kefir grains are throwing a tantrum at me because I forgot to give them more dinner.
The set up is fairly simple: once per day, you change out the little dudes’ milk, saving the kefir for drinking or cooking purposes and putting the grains into the new milk to ferment. I use a tea strainer to separate the grains from the just-produced kefir, which works rather marvellously.
So, how do you start making kefir? It’s simple. Meet a stranger. Collect an old milk carton full of grains. Decide to trust your kefir dudes. Speak to them cheerily. Play nice music around them sometimes. And don’t forget to feed them or they will throw tantrums.
There are so many beautiful websites out there dedicated solely to kefir-making, so I prefer to direct you there for all your kefir dreams and questions. The best one I have ever found is Dom’s All About Kefir site, which has the added bonus of being utterly charming. That said, I do have a few tips I’ve discovered.
- Use whole, unpasteurised or low-pasteurised milk. UHT will make your kefir dudes very very unhappy. They will tolerate lower-fat milk for a bit, but they’ll grumble at you in the form of less tasty and less thick kefir. My grains are the happiest they’ve ever been now that I’m using French microfiltered whole milk.
- Establish a ritual where you change out your kefir at about the same time each day, and check on it regularly at other times. The best kefir is watched kefir; the second it goes jiggly solid (at least, that’s my preferred taste) is the second you need to change out that milk.
- Plan on taking breaks. Your kefir dudes will out-eat your desire for kefir, I promise you. Oh, did I mention they literally multiply? Yeah. So, learn how to dry grains (it’s easy, just ask Dom), and learn how to slow those guys down. I like to refrigerate them each week since about 2-3 days’ production of kefir is enough for my week.
- Get the right tools. Using the same jars and same straining system will save you a lot of time and thought. Soon you’ll be changing out their milk without even thinking about it.
- Talk obsessively about your kefir dudes to everyone you know. This will boost the little dudes’ confidence and has the added bonus of converting those you know to kefirdom so that later you can cook Kefir Mac ‘n’ Cheese for them, which will make them your best friends for life because it is so good (recipe to come in a later post).
- Enjoy the miracle that is kefir dudes. They are magic and bring bacterial wizardry into your humdrum life. Wonder at them, appreciate them.
Welcome to parenthood.