Kefir Grains: An Introduction
Kefir grains are the traditional substance used to make the fermented milk product, kefir. At first sight, they appear a little like something out of a science fiction movie, or maybe like something used in a high school science experiment.
It's slightly unsettling to know that you'll be putting this odd-looking structure into milk for a day or so, and then drinking the resulting beverage! Once you've tasted the result, though, it doesn't seem so odd, anymore.
The "grains" are a gelatin-like, white or cream-colored substance. To the touch, they are firm and rubbery, with a slightly slimy coating. As they multiply--which they do very rapidly--they form an irregularly shaped mass that very closely resembles cauliflower.
The pictures below show my grains (1) immediately after receiving them, and (2) three weeks later. You can see how the loose, granular structure has grown and changed into a more formed, gelatinous mass.
As the grains increase, the amount of milk they can ferment also increases. For example, the grains on the left above produced 2 cups of kefir, while the grains on the right produced 3 quarts!
Since this growth can get out of hand quickly ("The Kefir Grains that Ate Manhattan..."), most people divide the grains every 2-3 weeks and either give away or sell the excess. Some people also simply eat the extra grains for added health benefits.
Kefir grains have a complex structure and properties that simply can't be duplicated by powdered kefir cultures. Nor can kefir grains be produced from scratch: using "mother" grains is the only way to obtain kefir.
Mother grains are composed of many tiny "child" grains, each of which can be detached and grown into a new mother grain. All grains in existence today are believed to have descended from mother grains originating in the Caucasus region thousands of years ago.
The grains contain over a dozen beneficial types of bacteria, and nearly as many species of yeast; the exact composition varies somewhat among different mother grains. The yeast and bacteria have a symbiotic relationship, in which each contains properties that benefit the other.
During fermentation, these microorganisms produce lactic acid and antibiotic substances that inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria in the milk, and also later in the intestinal tract of the person who drinks the kefir.
In addition to these beneficial substances, however, the organisms also produce a unique polysaccharide known as kefiran. Kefiran acts as the agent that holds the amino acids, protein, fats and organisms together in a coherent structure.
Kefiran has also been shown to have properties with significant health implications, including the abilities to reduce cancerous tumors, and lower blood pressure and serum cholesterol levels.
You can read more about the benefits of kefir in the article, Health Benefits of Kefir.
If you're interested in the microscopic and scientific details of kefir grains, you may want to read Growth-Cycle of Milk Kefir Grains at Dom's In-Site, an extraordinary site that has a wealth of information on kefir.
Finding grains to begin your kefir odyssey to health is fairly simple, and very inexpensive. And, if you take care of them, this should be a once-in-a lifetime purchase &mdash for you, your children, your grandchildren, etc.!
The grains are identified by the type of liquid in which they have been cultured. Popular liquids include cow's milk, goat milk, soy milk, coconut milk and water. It's best to purchase grains that are advertised as being cultured in the same type of medium you plan to use.
Many kefir growers use organic and/or raw milk, so you should be able to find grains for just about any kind of kefir that suits your lifesyle or dietary needs.
One particular issue that I've experienced personally, is that some grains cultured in cow's milk tend to produce a somewhat watery kefir when placed in goat milk. It still tastes fine &mdash it's just thinner. For better results, locate grains that indicate they have been kept in goat milk.
A good place to start searching for your own grains is the international kefir grains list. People on this list often give away, or only charge shipping costs, for a set of starter grains.
An alternative to fresh grains is kefir starter cultures. These are sold in packets like other direct-set starters, and can be re-cultured several times.
Our affiliate, Cultures for Health, offers several kinds of milk and water kefir grains, as well as starter cultures. Just click on the image below to see them all!
Articles are updated frequently, so check back here for any new information on kefir grains!
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