The drink we now call Kefir originated in the eastern Mediterranean region, in pre-Christian times, when nomadic shepherds discovered that fresh milk carried in leather pouches would occasionally curdle into a deliciously fermented beverage. Once the secret of repeating that ‘accident’ was discovered, the bubbly refresher became popular with the wealthy classes and drinking it was regarded as a status symbol.
Kefir is made by adding a live culture – called kefir “grains” – from either a previous batch of homemade kefir, or from a culture you buy to begin the kefir process from scratch. Ideally, organic raw cow, goat, sheep or fresh coconut milk is used at room-temperature to culture the milk. The cultures are a combination of bacteria and yeasts, usually lactobacillus acidophilus and Saccharomyces kefir. Kefir contains high levels of probiotics, which means it contains “friendly” bacteria that can help stabilize the digestive tract, and when kefir is well made, it is delicious. Kefir is a good source of calcium and protein, and may have some additional benefits for the immune system. In addition, kefir microorganisms may be able to colonize the intestines and protect against disease-causing bacteria. It differs from other similarly processed dairy foods in that it also contains yeast cells, which naturally carbonate the liquid and produce a high concentration of B vitamins. Since the fermenting yeast gives it an average alcohol content of 0.5 to 1.5%, the beverage has a delightful effervescence that distinguishes it from both yogurt and buttermilk.
The beneficial lactic bacteria that are present in kefir make it particularly easy to digest, so it is a perfect food for expectant mothers, colicky babies, invalids, and anyone else who might not be able to tolerate regular milk. Kefir is often prescribed for people who are recovering from a serious illness or being treated with antibiotics (since such medications can deplete the body’s population of normal gastric microorganisms). It might be a better option than yogurt for some lactose-intolerant people because it contains a wider array of microorganisms believed to break down lactose in the digestive tract. Because kefir has always played an important role in the diets of the famous centenarians of the Caucasus Mountains, some nutritionists speculate that the cultured dairy product may help to promote a long, healthy life.
One caution given is that commercial kefir often is overly sweetened and full of additives. Almost all commercial products use high fructose corn syrup (see Chapters 6 and 8 of the Natural Cures book). Read labels carefully. It is better to buy plain varieties and add your own sweetener and flavoring if you like. However, perhaps the best way to enjoy “the champagne of dairy foods” is to prepare it yourself. The process of fermenting milk with kefir culture is quick, and starter kits are widely available. Another plus when making it yourself, is that you can be sure of the ingredients you are using such as organic raw milk, and learning about its great versatility in cooking. It not only makes a healthful “smoothie,” but is a fine substitute for the dairy ingredients commonly used in many pancake and waffle recipes, salad dressings, pie fillings, and soups. Look to the up and coming Candida Cleanse found in the Cleansing and Detoxification section of the Natural Cures web site for more information, and recipes for both raw milk and young coconut kefir.