Many of you have been asking me about kefir lately. It appears often as an ingredient on this blog . I use it as a base for ice cream and smoothies, in desserts,  as a leavening agent in baking, and an acidic soaking medium for grains . I realized recently that I had never posted about my method for making it. Let’s make this the first post of my new series: Let’s Get Cultured! In my journey to go from food writer to food producer over the next couple of years, I am going to be experimenting a lot with dairy products.

As some of you know, we are going to be welcoming two Shetland sheep and two Alpine dairy goats to our menagerie in March. Although I won’t be getting milk from them for at least a year or so, I plan to get ready by trying my hand at many cultured dairy recipes, from kefir to cheese and everything in between!

(My Shetlands are part of this herd, but my Alpines have yet to be born!)

We are 100% addicted to kefir in this household. If we miss drinking it for some reason, the whole rest of the day feels “off”. When we travel, we make sure to bring kefir with us. It is that important to our health. Dairy or milk kefir is a delicious probiotic, a cultured milk drink that has over 2,000 years of history, taking us back to the Caucasus Mountains, located between Europe and Asia. Shepherds there noticed that milk carried for long periods of time in leather pouches or animal hides would sometimes ferment to create an effervescent beverage.

We have been making and drinking kefir every day for about a year. During that time we have noticed some remarkable changes since using it regularly – everything from clearing up chronic skin problems, to easier digestion and better immunity. We refer to it as an elixir because it is good for so many things.

The catalyst that creates kefir are the “kefir grains”, which are not actually grains but a colony of microorganisms which exist in a complex symbiotic relationship, in balance . The grains are formed during the process of making kefir and only from pre-existing kefir grains.

What sets kefir apart from other cultured dairy, is the number of various organisms, both bacteria and yeast, present as opposed to just one microorganism like most other cultured dairy products. Which is why in this house, we never go without.

Due to the variety of microorganisms, kefir is extremely beneficial to health. Even for those who are lactose intolerant! Kefir’s abundance of beneficial yeast and bacteria provide lactase, an enzyme which consumes most of the lactose left after the culturing process.

Kefir is an immune booster, and contains a high amount of calcium, amino acids, B-vitamins, Vitamin K and folic acid. Due to all of the chemical reactions that occur when it is cultured, it is easy to digest allowing the body to absorb all of the nutrients.As a probiotic it helps to regulate and balance intestinal flora, controlling the overgrowth of yeast. All of these friendly cultures also make kefir an excellent remedy for digestive issues of all kinds, and a great elixir for people overcoming serious illness, especially if they have been treated with antibiotics. Studies have even shown that kefir stimulates peristalsis and digestive juices in the intestinal tract. This was discovered by Elie Metchnikoff back in 1908!

The best news is that kefir is extremely easy to make at home. Here is what you need.

* Milk – any variety will do, but ultra-pasteurized milk is not recommended. I recommend raw milk (if available) or full fat un-homogenized milk aka “creamline”.

* Kefir grains

* Small unbleached muslin bag

* Clean glass jar (I use a pint size)

* Non-metal strainer

* Pourable glass jar

To Make Kefir:

Place kefir grains in the muslin bag and drop into the glass jar. Pour milk into jar until it fills the jar. Place a cloth over the mouth of the jar and allow to sit out on the counter for 24-48 hours. The first few times you use your grains, it may not culture properly. So I recommend only using a cup of milk at a time in the beginning, and changing the milk every 24 hours. Around the 3rd attempt, it should culture properly. I have noticed that in the spring and summer, my kefir cultures in about 24 hours. But in the winter it can take up to 48 hours.

Once the kefir has cultured, using a non-metal strainer, pour the kefir into a pourable glass jar. You can store the kefir in this container, or pour it into a different glass container for storage.

Then rinse the muslin bag and squeeze it to make sure that if any milk has cultured in the bag it comes out. Then you are ready to start the process all over again.

Kefir will keep in the refrigerator for about a week. But you need to make your kefir regularly. As soon as one batch has cultured, clean your tools and start a new batch. If you are going away and can’t make your kefir as soon as the next batch is finished culturing, you can store your grains, in the muslin bag in about a cup of milk in the fridge. When you want to make kefir again, just discard that milk and start again as you normally would.

I highly recommend getting your kefir grains from Cultures for Health. You can also get cheese and yogurt cultures there, as well as a variety of other products to make fermented foods like sourdough, sauerkraut, and kombucha. They are a fantastic small company with very good customer service. So if you have questions, they can help.

*Parts of this post will be appearing in the 2011 Spring/Summer issue of Hex Magazine including an additional kefir recipe! So be sure to check that out when it becomes available.

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