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How to make kefir

avocado kefir shake

Kefir is a fermented milk beverage similar to yogurt that’s easy to make and has unique health benefits. It’s thinner than yogurt and I like to use it to make smoothies, like this one flavored with avocado and dates. Unlike yogurt, kefir is the product of a colony of bacteria and yeast called “kefir grains” that is squishy to the touch and looks a little like a cauliflower floret. In this post I’ll tell you how to use it to make kefir.

kefir grains

Here are the grains, rinsed clean. As long as it’s fed some kind of milk (or even sweetened water) regularly, the culture will grow and live indefinitely.

kefir grains

Feeding the grains, and making drinkable kefir in the process, is simple. Add about a tablespoon of grains to a jar with 2 cups of milk—you can use cow, goat, or sheep milk. Put a lid on the jar and leave it out at room temperature for about a day. The culture will consume the lactose in the milk and create lactic acid, which gives the milk a sour taste. The yeast will release carbon dioxide (so don’t be startled if the kefir comes out a little fizzy) and a trace amount of alcohol. (About 1%, or so I’m told. I’ve never noticed.)

The culture will also produce kefiran, a substance that thickens the milk somewhat. The bacteria and yeast use it to build the grains, and it has been shown to have beneficial antimicrobial and healing effects.

jar of kefir

The longer you let the culture sit in the same milk, the sourer it will become. I like to leave it for two days, and sometimes forget it for three or more. If it becomes too sour, you can add a sweeter or you can mix it with fresh milk before eating. As the culture grows larger it will put out more kefiran. When you have more than 1 tablespoon of grains per cup of milk, the kefir yogurt can become slimy and unappetizing. At that point you can either start feeding your culture more milk at a time, or you can split the grains and give them away, compost them, or eat them, which is perfectly safe.

straining kefir

Once the kefir is the flavor and consistency you like, pour it through a plastic strainer to separate it from the grains.

straining kefir

I find it helps to gently stir with a wooden spoon to break it up and help it fall away from the grains. Pour the kefir into a new jar and store it in the fridge until you’re ready to eat it.

Put the grains back in the empty jar and feed them fresh milk to start the fermentation process over again. Don’t worry about the kefir that sticks to the sides and the bottom of the jar—it will help inoculate the new milk. If you’re not ready to eat 2 cups of kefir a day, you can let the grains get accustomed to the milk for half or even a full day and then put the jar into the fridge. The cold will slow the fermentation down and the grains will keep for as long as a month or two. Any longer than that and I like to take out the grains and feed them fresh milk.

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pouring sourdough starter

My step-by-step article on making sourdough bread, Get a Rise Out of Sourdough, is up on the blog for all the internet to see. I haven’t made any in a while and just looking at this picture of bubbly starter brings that yeasty, tangy smell to my nose. Mmmmmmmmm.

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When most people hear “pickle” they probably think of the classic sour dill cucumber, but you can get delicious results from almost any vegetable. I use one very simple salt brine recipe all year long to pickle whatever veggies happen to be in season and in my fridge.

Today, for instance my friend Jesse stopped by my office in San Francisco with a crate full of radishes, turnips, spring onions, and baby bok choi that he’d scored working at the farmer’s market at the Ferry Building. (“You have to take some, I have way too much!”)

When I got home, I started two jars of them pickling with ginger slices, garlic, and Thai chili peppers.

Here’s the basic recipe:

salt + water + vegetables.

That’s all there is to it! I like my pickles fairly salty, sour, and crunchy, so I use a 5.4% brine, which is 3 tablespoons of salt per quart of water. If you want half-sours, then you can use 2 tablespoons. For more info on salt brines and a recipe for traditional cucumber sours, see Sandor Ellix Katz’s page on making sour pickles. The more salt you use, the slower your vegetables ferment and the crisper they will remain. Note: sauerkraut often doesn’t need any water added. To find out more about making kraut go here.

Here’s what I started with for my winter variation:
Radish pickle makings

I filled two quart-sized jars, adding four cloves of garlic, five chili peppers, and half the ginger (in slices) to each. I like to spread the spices out, so I put them in now and then as I went along. I left the bok choi as whole leaves and the spring onions as full stalks with the tops and bottoms trimmed off. I also threw in the radish greens because what else would I do with them? I filled the space in between the greens with the quartered root vegetables. Radishes are beautiful:

Quartered radishes

When the jars were almost full I cut long, wide strips out of the largest radish and jammed them into the top in a cross pattern to form a kind of seal. This way the smaller veggies won’t float up to the surface where they might grow mold. Here’s the seal:

Radishes and greens ready for pickling brine

The veggies forming the seal may well mold, however, and you’ll want to toss them out when your pickles are done. If you want to avoid this, you can use a smaller jar full of water as a weight. To see how this works, read this post on sealing techniques.

Then I mixed up a quart of water with three tablespoons of sea salt. It was just enough to cover the veggies in both jars. I screwed on some lids, but only loosely since the fermentation process will produce carbon dioxide. If the lids are too tight the gas will build up and pickle juice will spray everywhere when I open them again in a few weeks. Just in case they leak a bit, I put them on a towel in the cabinet.

Here they are, ready to go:
Radish pickles with greens

They should take two to four weeks to get really flavorful, but how long you leave them depends on how soft the veggies are (cucumbers go faster than radishes and beets, for example), the temperature, your taste buds, and how long you can resist them!

You can use this technique with just about any veggies and all kinds of spice combinations, but here’s the recipe I used today, in short, for one quart-sized jar:

-Two heads of baby bok choi
-Two spring onion stalks (more if they’re thin)
-One bunch of small radishes
-Four or five larger radishes or other root vegetables
-Five small chili peppers, whole
-Four whole cloves of garlic
-Six healthy slices of ginger root

Note: This makes a spicy pickle! Use fewer chili peppers, garlic cloves, and ginger slices for a milder flavor.

Wash everything. Separate the leaves of bok choi. Trim the tops and bottoms of the onions. Quarter or halve the radishes, depending on their size. Save the largest radish to cut into stopper pieces to hold the rest under the brine. Pack in all the ingredients as tightly as you can. I like to stand the greens up around the edges and fill in the center with the roots. When the jar is almost full, cut slices from the large radish and jam them against the top curve of the jar to hold the vegetables in place. Mix 1.5 tablespoons of salt thoroughly into 2 cups of water and fill the jar until the vegetables are entirely covered. Top the jar with a loosely screwed lid or fix a towel to the opening with a rubber band to keep dust and flies out. Wait 2-4 weeks until they taste the way you like them, then toss the veggie seal at the top and you’ll have your pickles.

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