Milk Kefir: breaker of chains, un-pasteurizer of milk

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For anyone wanting to start natural cheesemaking at home, sourcing raw milk can be tricky, if not impossible. So to the rescue comes Milk Kefir – breaker of chains, un-pasteurizer of milk, restorer of worlds and all-round kitchen hero.

No really, I mean it.

Milk kefir grains are a Symbiotic Community of Bacteria and Yeasts (SCOBY) – a culture that originated from Central Asia – and are added to fresh milk to produce a tangy, yogurt-like probiotic beverage.

 Milk kefir is not to be confused with Tibicos, a completely different SCOBY that is sometimes called water kefir, which probably originated in Mexico. Also delicious, tibicos is a different probiotic kettle of fish entirely – here’s how to make that one.

But back to milk kefir. The culture in kefir grains is so similar to the native cultures in raw milk that it’s thought that kefir grains probably evolved from raw milk itself. Milk kefir can take a couple of different forms, most often a kind of brain/cauliflower shape, and sometimes a flatter, lozenge-like shape.

Kefir grains are most commonly used to make milk kefir – a tangy, zingy probiotic drink that’s a bit like drinking yogurt.

The process of making milk kefir is very simple – you just add kefir grains to a jar of fresh milk, place on the kitchen bench, cover lightly, and wait. The length of time it takes for the kefir grains to culture the milk will depend on your amount of milk, and kefir grains – generally 1 tablespoon of grains will culture 1 litre of milk in 12-24 hours, depending on your room temperature.

Then once the milk is thickened,  fish out the grains, and there – you’re done. Super gut-support biome-enhancing and downright delicious milk kefir smoothies all round.

The grains themselves are robust and forgiving – while they love to be coddled, they need little care to stay healthy. In-between batches of milk kefir we simply put them in a jar of milk in our fridge, where they chill out until needed, slowly converting the milk to kefir.

For us though, where things get really interesting with kefir grains is once it comes to cheesemaking.

David Asher, author of The Art of Natural Cheesemaking (and who’s join us for a range of workshops next March!), uses kefir grains to provide all the culture his raw milk cheeses need to transform into camembert, tommes and washed-rind blues.

Which is quite a departure from the freeze-dried and GMO cultures approach of conventional cheesemaking.

Raw milk is what you want to start with, if you’re making cheese with natural methods. The ecology in the raw milk is largely what provides the living cultures to turn that milk into different kinds of delicious cheeses.

But I can’t get raw milk, I hear you cry. Yep, fair enough. And this is where milk kefir’s culture is so helpful. Because kefir’s ecology is so close to that of raw milk, it can be used in concert with store-bought, pasteurized milk, to replicate traditional cheesemaking methods that rely on the ecology of fresh raw milk alone.

As David explains, you can use kefir grains to effectively ‘un-pasteurize’ store bought milk.

Which is a great relief for all of us who can’t access raw milk fresh from the cow, but who want to make awesome natural cheeses at home.

First of all, you need to get your hands on the best quality milk you can. While for most of us that means getting milk from a shop, there’s still things we can do to make the best choices from what’s available.

Good cheesemaking milk is…

Pastured – the more natural the cow’s diet and living conditions, the better the milk, and the healthier the cow – both big considerations for ethical cheesemaking. Avoid feedlot milk – milk coming from cows that are predominantly grain fed – at all costs… it’s terrible for the cow’s health and also results in milk that’s far less suited to cheesemaking.

Minimally Pasteurized – in Australia, the legal minimum for pasteurization is 65ºc, and is used by some smaller milk labels. Minimal pasteurization kills most of the native flora in the milk (along with potential pathogens, if present), but preserves the milk’s beneficial enzymes, so it’s worth seeking out the good stuff.  A note that all large Australian milk labels pasteurize at 75ºc or above, which doesn’t preserve these beneficial enzymes. And UHT milk is heated to 135ºc, so obviously don’t use that.

Non-homogenised – the homogenization process is designed to stop the cream separating from milk which apparently looks ‘un-sightly’ to consumers, and reminds them that there’s fat in milk. Unfortunately this process affects the milk’s calcium content (making it far less bio-available) and also weakens the milk’s ability to set curds. So it’s far less nourishing, and also doesn’t work well for cheesemaking. Don’t buy homogenised milk at all, if you can.

Fresh – fresh is best! Get your milk as fresh as you possibly can. Used-by dates vary hugely according to the milk processor and the product, so the best rule of thumb is to get your milk the day its delivered to the store. So hit your best grocer who sources good stuff, ask which days milk gets delivered, and show up that same day and get what you need.

If you can’t get the above… get the best you can. Even UHT milk, as non-ideal as it is, will still respond to kefir grains and create a kefir, of sorts. It just won’t be nearly as life-filled as kefir made on fresh milk. But you’ll still be improving the nutrition of the food you’ve got to work with, so go to it.

Un-pasteurizing your pasteurized milk

David Asher calls this process unpasteurizing because, while you can’t undo the damage that’s been done to all the native microbiology of milk that has been pasteurized, you can add back a community of beneficial cultures that are nearly identical to those of raw milk, in the form of milk kefir grains.

If you’re planning on drinking the milk, you don’t need to make milk kefir, necessarily, though you can do that if you like. You can however just add milk kefir grains to your fresh store-bought milk for a shorter time of 4-6 hours, to re-charge your milk with an amount of its natural and beneficial ecologies.

If planning to make natural cheese with your milk, the kefir grains are used to re-culture the milk in different ways, and according to the recipe that you’re following.

With David Asher’s Mason Jar Marcellin recipe, for example, an amount of milk kefir (not the grains) are added to milk to culture it until the surface blooms with crinkly Geotrichum fungus, which is naturally present in raw milk, but also in milk kefir. From there on, a natural cheesemaking process is followed to achieve the final, pot-ripened cheese.

All sound a bit tricky? It’s not at all, as the recipe below can show you. Milk kefir is a robust, convivial and powerful probiotic friend to have in your kitchen toolbox. And by making cheese using natural methods at home you can save money, eat MUCH more nutritious food and save the world, at least a little.

By engaging in making our own kitchen staples, like cheese from scratch, we enhance our household’s resilience, our skillbase and our relationships with our suppliers and farmers. We reduce waste, lower the footprint of our cheeses drastically, lower our reliance on the supermarket, and re-enable the tradition of natural cheesemaking to be an everyday part of our family’s life.

Here’s a staple recipe we make at home, that uses kefir grains to transform whatever milk we’ve got into a brilliant chévre / vaché -ish cream cheese.

Wild Fermented Cream Cheese

You will need:

  • 1 tablespoon kefir grains and a little kefir
  • 1 medium non-reactive pot, with lid
  • large clean spoon
  • colander or cheeseform
  • cheesecloth
  • large bowl
  • 2 litres of good milk – either raw or minimally pastuerised
  • salt (non-iodized)
  • fresh herbs (optional)

A note that this is more a method than a recipe. If you have more/less milk or kefir, that’s fine, it will just alter how long the milk takes to culture.

Take your 2 litres of milk and place them in your clean, non-reactive pot. Add your milk kefir grains and a little milk kefir if you have it. Stir gently with a clean spoon, then put the lid on (this is more to keep out critters than to seal – use a secured tea towel or similar if you prefer).

Place your pot somewhere at a warmish room temperature, and wait. How long this next stage takes depends on your volume of milk and kefir grains, so check it twice a day until it’s done.

After 1-2 days, you should see the surface of the milk start to become colonised with a crinkly white fungus – this is Geotrichum Candidum, a fungus native to raw milk, and to milk kefir also. A good sign!

After about 2-3 days, the kefir should have both fully colonised and also curdled the milk. The milk should be crinkly with geotrichum on top, and seperated into soft curds and whey (tricky to see, as the curds are usually up the top). Check by pressing down with a clean spoon at an edge of the milk – you should be able to see yellow, clear whey underneath the kefir curd. If it’s still very soft, leave it another 12 hours or so until its firmer.

Because this recipe doesn’t use rennet, you won’t get a ‘clean break’ in the same way you do with a rennet curd. But it’s similar – just be gentle and you’ll get a good result.

Before you proceed to the next step, don’t forget to fish out your kefir grains with clean fingers! They’ll be on the surface, in the extra-crinkly patches (see image above). Put them in some fresh milk for whatever you’re doing with them next.

After 3 days we take the pot and pour it into a large cheese form lined with cheesecloth – but a colander will do the same job. If you want to use the kefir whey for drinking, cooking or your garden, do this stage over a large bowl to collect it.

From here, you want to drain the curds for 24 hours. You can do that by leaving the curds in the container they’re in and place that on a rack over a bowl, or you can tie up the cheesecloth and hang it froma  spoon over a deep pot. Up to you. We just leave it in the cheese form, over a bowl.

After 24 hours, dump your curds out into a clean bowl. Add salt (we use about 1/2 a tablespoon per 2 litres of milk) and mix it in well. Add herbs at this stage, if you like (we often use finely chopped chives and thyme) – about 1 heaped teaspoon of chopped herbs per litre of milk.

Then, return your curds to the cheesecloth and drain for another 12 hours. The salt will cause some more (but not much more) whey to be expelled from the curds.

Once this second draining stage is done, place your cheese in a clean jar, store in the fridge, and try not to eat it all at once. It’s tangy and herb-y and probiotic creamy goodness. Yum. Fabulous on bread, in soups, in pastas, in place of sour cream on burritos, or any which-way you fancy.

And all this deliciousness with not one single freeze-dried, synthesised ingredient from a cheesemaking supplier – just wild cultures, salt, time and care. It’s the sort of cheese you can really get excited about making, eating and sharing.

(this recipe is loosely based on David Asher’s chèvre recipe from The Art of Natural Cheesemaking)

Of course, this is just the tip of the cheesy ash-covered chèvre-like iceberg when it comes to what milk kefir culture can be used for in natural cheesemaking.

Gorgonzola, camembert, washed rind, mozzarella and more can all be made with the help of the wild cultures in milk kefir.

Like other forms of wild fermentation, the possibilities are only limited by your creativity. So get the knowledge, practice much, and enjoy.

In March, we’re welcoming David Asher to NSW for two weekend courses in The Art of Natural Cheesemaking – please join us if you’re able! 


Further reading on Milk Kefir culture:

Where to source Kefir Grains

In Australia, the best online community we know of is on Pinkfarm’s facebook page – there’s a big list of folks who have scoby’s of all types the share, including milk kefir.

What do you use your milk kefir for? There’s so much to play with – fizzy fruit juice sodas, milk sodas, best-ever pancakes and more… we’d love to hear what you make at your place…

See the comments

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6 responses to “Milk Kefir: breaker of chains, un-pasteurizer of milk

  1. I was blessed to taste some kefir fermented raw milk cheese the other day. It’s a totally different experience to supermarket cheese and I ordered a copy of David Asher’s book the same afternoon.
    As for the method you’ve shared, my milk is set between 2 mason jars (so I can see the curd separation) and I can’t wait to see it wrinkle up and separate.

  2. This gives me hope! I’ve been wanting to make cheese for so long, but put off by many of the ingredients. This! This I can do!

  3. I am going to give this a go today. I bought David Asher’s book and have made a few cheeses from it. Two tips – don’t oversalt the curds and use salt that doesn’t have iodine in it.

  4. Thanks so much- I’ve been putting a small kefir start in my gallon of refrigerated milk. It makes the milk taste incredible! Richer, and creamier, without a hint of sourness!

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