Basic Milk Kefir

Kefir (pronounced KEE-fur or Kay-FEAR, depending on your preference) is a drinking yogurt that is bursting with probiotics.  In the past few years, it has become a grocery store staple here in the US, but it is ridiculously easy to make yourself.  Besides the obvious cost benefits, there are the added benefits of DIYing, such as choosing the quality of milk you want, knowing your bacteria are the real, live deal and making whatever “flavors” suit your palette.

There are a couple of tiny hurdles to overcome before you make kefir.  First, you need kefir grains.  If you don’t know a hippie or a fermenter, you can order them online.  I got some from Cultures for Health to test them, and after rehydrating, they worked just like the grains I got from a fellow fermenter.  GEM Cultures sells fresh grains that also work like a charm, without the pesky need to rehydrate them.  I like the idea of getting them from a person, because it creates community and as any kefir maker knows, you will eventually have way too many grains to know what to do with, even after you make a batch dedicated to kefir sour cream and try some in non-dairy milks and unpasteurized juices. So getting them from a friend prevents waste, too!  If you live in Philly, I am HAPPY to provide you with extra grains.  Just shoot me an e-mail or post it in the comments.

Second, kefir grains and metal don’t mix!  Just like with your kombucha SCOBY, you can actually harm your grains by putting them into contact with metal.  This means you need a non-metallic fine mesh strainer (mine cost $1.99 at my local kitchen supply store) and something to stir your grains with.  I usually use the rounded end of a chopstick.  If you kefir or store your kefir in a canning jar, it might be a good idea to get plastic caps to minimize the risk that your grains will touch metal, and the risk of corrosion.  You certainly do not need to use a canning jar to make your kefir.  I’ve used everything from half-gallon glass milk jugs to pyrex bowls.  The only important thing is that you are able to easily secure a cover to your container.

Third, the most important variable here is temperature.  Your grains will kefir best at room temperature.  Below say, 68 degrees Fahrenheit, fermentation will get very slow which isn’t super for milk kefir.  Above 78ish, it will kefir too fast which can throw the balance of your bacteria and yeast out of whack.  Do not leave your grains in for longer than 24 hours.  If your milk hasn’t kefired by then, strain out the grains and discard the milk.  Try again.  I have literally never once had this happen, but in colder months, I’ve had to wait a full 24 hours for a batch to complete.

Milk kefir grains

A grain against the grain

“Recipe” (quotes intentional):

1 Tablespoon of kefir grains

1 pint to 1/2 gallon of your preferred milk

  1. Put kefir grains in container
  2. Attach covering
  3. Move container to a room temperature spot out of direct sunlight
  4. Gently agitate when you remember to
  5. When milk is thickened (anywhere from 12-24 hours later) and smells a bit yeasty, strain the grains out of the kefir, put them into fresh milk, and stick the grain-free kefir into the fridge
  6. Begin process again*

*If you have made enough kefir, you can keep your grains stored in milk in the fridge for up to a week before starting your next batch.  Even at the low fridge temperature, the milk will kefir, albeit very slowly, so be sure to start your post fridge batch at a time when you will be able to watch closely.

Kefir grains separating

Pouring liquid and grains into a fine mesh (non-metallic) strainer is a great way to separate the grains

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25 comments

  1. Jessica says:

    Hi Amanda – I’m going to embarrass myself with some super basic questions… First – am I drinking the strained milk (ie: I’m straining out the grains, THEN I’m drinking the milk?) and in the meantime, I’m adding the grains to another batch of milk to make my next drink? I know I can use cow and/or goat’s milk – will soy or almond milk also work or is there a dairy component required to the process? Can I change my mind and use grains that were in cow’s milk to goat’s milk and back again?

    Okay, second (or maybe that’s fifth by now)- will the grains be increasing each time? So by, say, the 4th batch I’m going to want to divide them/give some away? Is there a rule of thumb for how much grains to how much milk? Can I overdo it?

    Thanks so much for the grains – can’t wait to get it going!

    • Amanda says:

      Totally great questions!
      Your first part: totally right! You strain the grains, then drink (or refrigerate (it’s better cold!)) the strained milk which is actually now kefir.
      Second, yes, grains then should be added immediately to another batch of milk. I tend to make small batches every day, just to keep my grains vital, but you can also just cover your grains with milk and stick them in the fridge for up to a week, so you don’t have to deal with them every day. (ALWAYS MAKE SURE YOUR GRAINS DO NOT TOUCH METAL)

      As for the type of milk, if you use store bought soy or almond, it will probably not work because of the degree of pasteurization. Go ahead and give it a try, though! If it doesn’t work within 24 hours, give your grains a rinse, put them back into cows milk until they kefir, and keep experimenting with other kinds of milks! Even with cow’s milk, you definitely do not want to use ultra-pasteurized (regular pasteurized is fine!!). You can totally switch milk types. I would recommend switching back to cow’s milk every so often, because these are cow’s milk grains, so they will always be happier there. You can even do it with sweetened water or unpasteurized juices, for a better-than-soda product! Just make sure that your grains go back in milk after that so they’re getting their favorite food and can thrive.

      As for the growing grains: they don’t multiply that quickly, especially in colder weather. If you’re making batches every day, maybe 2-3 weeks? I gave decent quantities, so just eyeball it. For me, once it gets to be more than a tablespoon, things move too quickly. Definitely pay attention to how long your process takes. Although I’ve read that temperature is the only thing that impacts the kefiring speed, I’ve found that when there are too many grains, it also kefirs too quickly. So if things start moving quickly and the temperature is the same as it has been, you’ll know it’s time to separate your grains.

      Sorry for the long-winded response, and don’t hesitate to contact me with any more questions. I’m happy to help! Also check out my posts on flavoring kefir and Kefir FAQs if you’re in the mood!

      It was so nice to meet you and good luck with your grains!

  2. Jessica says:

    Thanks Amanda – I appreciate the info – things have been going (growing?!) great – I have been using the kefir in my breakfast shakes and in bread baking (although I imagine I’m losing the benefit there but the sourdough taste is GREAT!) – I def have to put in the fridge tho – too much too fast!

    Two more “newbie” questions – rinse the grains? So it’s okay to “wash” them off? And how about chocolate milk – that would be delish! I’m assuming it’s okay since you mention using even juice, etc. but there may be a reason not to.

  3. Amanda says:

    Rinsing the grains is fine! If your tap water smells like chlorine, definitely use filtered, since chlorine could damage the grains. You do not need to rinse the grains. I only do it when I’m changing them from one medium to another (like if I’m taking milk grains and throwing them in to juice). I would actually not recommend rinsing them too frequently.

    As for chocolate milk, I am not sure. I would recommend doing one of two things: either wait until your grains have doubled and try it with your extras, or do secondary fermentation with cocoa in normal milk (see post on flavoring kefir). The one caveat I would give you there is that I used to work in the food industry and a chemist I worked with alway wanted to avoid using cocoa in yogurt due to unspecified microbial issues. Probably not a problem, since you are culturing in order to get microbes in your milk, and commercial production doesn’t have the same intent, but I would still be a bit on the cautious side when you try this.

    So happy to hear that everything is working well! Please let me know how your experiments go!

  4. Amanda says:

    Yes, it is wonderful to give your grains away! I think I’ve given away 20+ sets of grains just this year. Now that home fermentation is getting more popular, I’m thinking this trend will grow!
    Happy fermenting!

  5. Chela says:

    My kefir grains are not “coalescing” into the tiny cauliflower shapes; they’re still kind of grainy and not clumping. I only started a week ago. Do they take longer to clump. My mother used to make kefir in Chile and I remember that she used to take the clumps and put them in muslin and then squeeze the kefir milk. Then she’d rinse the grains and add the milk. Is that ok?

    • Amanda says:

      Hi Chela,

      Hmmm, they don’t generally change shape in my experience. First question: do they make kefir every day? If so, they’re fine. After a couple weeks, they should have doubled in quantity. If your grains are just small cottage cheese curd-looking things, you just didn’t get a big guy. That doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with them, just that they are smaller bits.

      To answer your other questions: The grains will break/fall apart under pressure, so I wouldn’t necessarily squeeze them too hard (although I’m not going to argue with your mother :-). I find a fine-mesh strainer works a bit better for my dad to day (no metal), but if you have a bit more time, I’m sure cheesecloth will do the trick just fine! I’ve used the same plastic, fine-mesh strainer for years. It cost me $2 and I think I’ll have it forever.

      Many people do rinse their grains, but it isn’t necessary, and it does add a bit of risk to the health of your little bacteria and yeast community. That said, I think I rinsed my grains for the first few months I had them and they were totally fine.

      I hope this is helpful. There is a FANTASTIC site devoted to kefir that you might want to check out for further info (although I’m happy to answer any further questions if I can). It’s Dom’s Kefir in-site, and here’s the URL: http://users.sa.chariot.net.au/~dna/kefirpage.html

  6. verna says:

    Amanda
    I got a batch of new kefir and somehow it doesn’t produce the same kefir I made before. I haven’t changed my method, but somehow the kefir separates into curds and whey and is not smooth milky liquid. I leave it sit inside the cupboard and it starts to separate within 16 hrs. When I test it within 12hrs. it doesn’t taste stronge enough. Also it doesn’t have the stretchy texture as my other kefir had after sitting for 24 hrs. I have had this new batch for about 2 months. Please help

    • Amanda says:

      Hi Verna,

      I’m guessing that the issue is time and temperature. My kefir starts to ferment very quickly when the temperature outside heats up. I go from a 15-24 hour cycle to a 12-14 hour cycle pretty much overnight when the weather changes. You may want to split your grains, too. I find that when I’m getting close to 4 tablespoons or so that my quart jar of kefir starts to separate too quickly for my taste. Note that the separated kefir is totally safe to consume, and is also a great place to start for kefir cheese!

      Try moving your kefir to a cooler spot in your home and see if that does the trick. If not, start culturing with half of your total amount of grains (you can store the spares in milk in your fridge and give them to a friend, if you find the smaller amount of grains is culturing to your preference).
      Also, did you examine your new grains? Do they look healthy/like what you experienced before?

      It may just be that you have to keep a closer eye on them in the warmer weather until you get used to the warm weather rhythm.

      Let me know if any of this helps!

      Best,

      Amanda

  7. Kristin says:

    I was just given some kefir grains and I’m so frustrated! All I seem to make is sour tasting and smelling milk. I know I definitely let it over ferment (48 hours) the first 2 days, but since then I can never seem to figure out how to get it to taste as magical as it did when I first brought it home.

    Additionally, it doesn’t seem to be thickening up, though there are a lot of thicker particles separate from the kefir grains that are being caught in my strainer – should I be stirring that into the milk after straining? Should I get a strainer with less of a mesh? Any tips would be appreciated! Thank you!

    • Irene s. says:

      I recently got back to milk kefir after a hiatus during which I lost my original grains. I ordered some new grains from eBay and experienced the exact thing you describe. Since I received the grains in a zip lock bag in a regular letter envelope sent with regular mail during a heat wave from New Mexico to New Jersey(!) I am sure the grains got damaged from the high heat.

      I got some new dried grains which I’ve been acclimating and so far they are acting normally.

      Don’t give up with kefir. Just get new grains. The ones you have are the problem!

  8. Denyse says:

    Hi
    I have just started making my own Kefir from rehydrated grains and it is wonderful. My question…is it okay for my Kefir sit on the counter near an electrical outlet while fermenting? Will the electrical current stop my grains from growing. I read an article saying that it is not good to have the Kefir near an outlet. But there so many outlets all around my kitchen counters.

    • Amanda says:

      Hi Denyse,

      I have never heard that before and I’m not sure what the logic behind that statement is, so I can’t respond to that part of it. I can tell you that in summer, my kefir ferments very near an electrical outlet and the grains haven’t stopped growing, so at least anecdotally, I can tell you that what you read hasn’t been true for me.

      So glad you love your kefir!

      Amanda

  9. Denyse says:

    Hi Amanda
    Thank you so much for your timely answer. Thank you also for your lovely site and for being there for us who are just learning about fermenting. You are much appreciated.

  10. Lorie says:

    What are ways to flavor your kefir? I don’t particularly like it plain, though I probably need to refrigerate it and try it cold. I’m currently doing a sugar detox so no fruit for me right now. And what are other ways to use the kefir? I really want to learn to like it since it’s so good for me. Oh! One more question. Do you ever bottle it for a second ferment? Seems like a fizzy kefir would be strange. Thanks!

    • Amanda says:

      Hi Lorie,

      I wrote a mini post on flavoring milk kefir that you can check out.

      I enjoy putting herbs and spices in my kefir. Warm baking spices (cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg and maybe even cocoa nibs) are always wonderful, but my favorite is blending in fresh herbs like parsley, basil or cilantro. You can really flavor it with anything that you enjoy eating or that would sound appealing to you in a yogurt, for instance.

      I posted a kefir overview today and at the bottom I link to several kefir recipes.

      I do not generally bottle my kefir during secondary. I’m not crazy about fizzy milk kefir, so I find covering it with a cloth and stirring it every 12 hours or so to avoid surface mold and separation does the trick just fine for me. Some people love it fizzy, though, so if that sounds at all appealing, it’s worth giving it a try!

      Good luck!

      Amanda

  11. Bree says:

    Thank you so much for all the info on your site! I am about to give up on my kefir making. I am so frustrated!! I have read every website out there for troubleshooting and it’s just not helping. I am paying $10/gallon for organic, raw milk, and I’ve had ZERO cups of smooth creamy kefir in THREE weeks!! I have changed the amount of milk, the amount of grains, the amount of time, and the temp. I don’t know what else to do. The amount of grain to milk ratio doesn’t seem to matter except when I did 1 tsp to 3 cups (just stayed watery). Otherwise, it looks the same regardless, which is a layer of curd/fat/grains at the top, followed by a thin layer of whey, and then milk underneath. As time progresses, the top layer gets thicker/taller (not consistency) and the thin layer of whey moves down the glass so that eventually the entire jar would look like cheese/curd vomit. I am stirring it frequently and checking it SOOO frequently to make sure I’m not missing a creamy stage. It smells yeasty and does get a slight sour taste, but too chunky and blech. I’ve even tried blending it to get rid of the chunks, but the taste just isn’t right. Many of the grains are ribbon like, but they are reproducing. I really don’t know what I’m doing wrong. Years ago I made kefir with raw goat milk with about a ratio of 2tsp to 3+ cups milk in my cabinet and within 24hrs, I had creamy kefir without fail. Now I have tried the same cabinet (70-72 degrees with the thermometer in there) with that same ratio, less milk, more grains, warming the cabinet with a rice sock, etc etc and haven’t come even close to remotely getting anything resembling kefir. HELP!!

    • Amanda says:

      Hi Bree,

      I can’t tell you exactly what the issue is, but I do have a couple questions. When you say you’ve played around with temperature, how much? Did you get the grains three weeks ago? Were they dried when you got them or fresh? Where did you get them.

      The smoothed out shape (is it kind of like a misshapen ‘Z’?) of the grains can be a product of over-acidification (it took me a few years to figure that one out). I believe the strange shape comes from the lack of a key bacteria or yeast that builds the kefir grain structure, probably one that isn’t very acid tolerant. This is NOT based in science, just my own experience and a basic understanding of how grains form. Your grains may need a little time to readjust, or they may lack the proper bacterial/yeast make-up to make smooth, creamy kefir.

      Some grains also do not cotton to raw milk. This is not a popular opinion on the internets, but it’s a thing I have experienced. Not only has it happened to me, but it has happened to others I know who make kefir. The bacterial load in raw milk can be too heavy for some sets of grains, and sometimes it either takes them a while to adapt, or they just eventually shrink and die.

      I would personally give them a bit more time. I’m not sure where you live, but if it’s in an area where temperatures are currently fluctuating a lot, that could definitely be the issue. I always cut my cultures a lot of slack in the shoulder seasons. In the Fall, I just accept that my kefir will be nicely flavored but very liquid for at least a couple of weeks. If you started with dried grains or grains that had to adjust to shipping, it could be even longer.

      I’m not sure if any of that helps you, but I hope it does!

  12. Irene says:

    Hi Amanda,
    Can I ask you for some free kefir grains. I brought grains all the way from Asia and they somehow didn’t turn out right after I used organic milk bought from Target. The kefir texture was way to watery. I do not have any new grains to make kefir for my younger son who had eczema and benefited so much from eating kefir. Also, would you know if using raw milk would it be better for making kefir here in PA. Thanks!
    Irene

    • Amanda says:

      Hi Irene,

      I’m so sorry but I had to stop shipping grains about a year ago. Requests got a bit overwhelming! I can tell you where to get great ones though! There’s a forum on the Facebook group Fermenter’s Kitchen for swapping/sharing cultures. They’re very nice people and many will send grains for the cost of shipping.
      If you’re interested in buying them, Yemoos.com, Cultures for Health and GEM cultures are all great options.

      As for raw milk, I’ve had grains die from raw milk, but others have had success. I’m sure it depends on the particular strains in your particular kefir grains, so my advice would be to culture it in pasteurized milk, but then to do several generations (as a test) in raw milk. If they continue to grow (this is key) in the raw milk over a couple of weeks, you’re fine to use raw. If they don’t, I would do side-by-side batches of raw milk and pasteurized to keep the culture alive and growing.
      I hope that helps!

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