Kefir has become more popular in recent years, but the origin of it is a bit clouded in mystery.
Unlike most fermented foods and drinks, to make kefir you have to start with kefir grains. Powdered cultures only produce for a short time before dissipating and using a culture from a previous batch does not always produce another good batch. This may leave one thinking, where did it start?
One common consensus about the origin of kefir grains is that they may have come into discovery in a like manner as cheese. Cheese was first discovered back when it was customary to store and carry milk in pouches made from the stomach of animals, such as a goat or a cow. When the milk came in contact with the rennet within the stomach, a chemical reaction took place causing the milk to separate into curds and whey. Milk kefir grains are actually a cluster of coagulated microorganisms held together by kefiran, a polysaccharide matrix (molecular glue). So, this would be a reasonable assumption since this way of storing milk was common among outlying nomadic tribes.
But how did these invaluable little treasures first get distributed throughout the world?
Dr. Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov, along with Paul Ehrlich, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1908. This achievement stemmed from his research in 1882, involving the study of starfish larvae. He discovered that white blood cells perform an important immune function known as phagocytosis. This is the process of engulfing and destroying harmful microorganism and bacteria.
In Mechnikov’s Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1908, he started, “Whenever the organism enjoys immunity, the introduction of infectious microbes is followed by the accumulation of mobile cells, of white corpuscles of the blood in particular which absorb the microbes and destroy them. The white corpuscles and the other cells capable of doing this have been designated “phagocytes”, i.e. devouring cells, and the whole function that ensures immunity has been given the name of “phagocytosis … First of all, we found that these cells, taken from the organism, are indeed capable of absorbing and destroying many microbes.”
While documenting the life of Mechnikov, also spelled Metchnikoff, NobelPrize.org wrote, “Later he took up the study of the flora of the human intestine and developed a theory that senility is due to poisoning of the body by the products of certain of these bacteria. To prevent the multiplication of these organisms he proposed a diet containing milk fermented by bacilli”
Around this time, rumors about the longevity of life in a small region of Russia, known as North Caucasus, or Ciscaucasia, had trickled across the land. This area, located between the Sea of Azov and Black Sea to the west and the Caspian Sea to the east, had a high percentage of their population living to more than 100 years old. The residents of this region regarded the kefir grains they possessed as “Grains of the Prophet,” based on the belief that these grains were gifted to the Monks and Orthodox Christians there. The legend states that Mohammed taught them about the grains and treasured them as a health food. These grains and the method of culturing with them were closely guarded as a priceless treasure that was not to be shared with outsiders.
After hearing about the tribe’s kefir grains resource, the Blandov brothers, from the Moscow Dairy, were commissioned by the All Russian Physician’s Society to obtain some. The tribe, however, was very protective about their special gift and refused to sell any to outsiders since their deeply ingrained belief said that the power of the grains would be lost if it was shared with others. To help obtain some of these grains, the Blandov brothers resorted to selecting a beautiful female employee, Irina Sakharova, to entice and woo the tribe’s leader, Prince Bek-Mirza, into giving up the precious bounty.
Even though she was successful at winning his heart, he, out of fear of his religious laws, would still not hand over any grains. She headed back home to Kislovodsk, empty handed. But according to the tribe’s local custom of stealing a bride to marry, the Prince sent men to capture her and bring her back. After the Blandov brothers heard about the capture, they executed a successful rescue plan which delivered her from the clutches of the Prince. Upon returning home, Irina filed a grievance with the Czar who forced the Prince to pay her retribution for the ordeal. She refused all of the jewels and gold he offered. In order to complete her mission, she demanded the fee to be paid with kefir grains, so, in defeat, the Prince had to hand over 10 pounds worth of the never before yielded treasure.
This successful mission led to the first commercially manufactured kefir becoming available in September 1908 at the Blandov brother’s dairy in Moscow.
Irina received a letter from the Ministry of Food and Industry of the Soviet Union in 1970, at the age of 85, thanking her for her part in obtaining the priceless grains for her people. Hospitals there used kefir to treat many aliments, from digestive issues to cancer. Today, the commercial selling of milk kefir is a billion-euro industry in the countries making up the old Soviet Block alone and is enjoyed in many other countries around the world.
Research studies have demonstrated the ability of kefir to inhibit fungi, pathogens and tumors, besides merely enhancing digestion and helping with bone density. A study conducted by the National Institute of Health in 2013 showed kefir having anti-inflammatory activity; antagonistic behavior against E. coli, L. monocytogenes, Salmonella Typhimurium, and others; and helps inhibit Candida albicans, Salmonella Typhi, Shigella sonnei, Staphylococcus aureus and E. coli. Other health benefits, according to studies, are lowering cholesterol, controlling blood sugar levels, and has the potential for preventing infections.
Most commercially produced kefir on the market now uses a culture powder. This culture powder contains far fewer probiotic strains than using the actual kefir grains.
Milk kefir is easy to make at home, once you have the grains to start with. Only nonmetallic containers, strainers, and utensils should be used when caring for kefir. A chemical reaction, causing grain illness, a metallic taste or death may occur when metal comes in contact with the grains. Stainless-steel is ok for brief contact such as straining, but glass should be used to store the kefir.
Basic care for milk kefir grains is to add about 1 tablespoon of the grains per cup of milk into a glass jar then cover the jar with a coffee filter or cloth and allow it to sit on a counter for 8-24 hours where the room temperature is around 72-76 degrees. Once the curds and whey begin to separate, strain the culture through a plastic or stainless-steel strainer into a glass jar, place a lid on the jar, and store in the refrigerator. Place the grains back into the jar and add more milk to repeat the process. There are variations to this basic care depending on environmental factors and taste preferences. Mammal milks such as cow, goat, etc., must be used to feed kefir because the grains feed on and convert the lactose, milk sugar, into lactic acid. Milk kefir grains would fall ill or die if plant based “milks,” such as almond, are used since they do not have the milk sugars the kefir grains need to feed on.
The flavor and texture of milk kefir varies based on how long it is left to ferment (the longer, the more tart or sour it becomes but also the higher the bacteria count), if a second ferment is done, the type of milk used, and if any fruits are added. Plain milk kefir, moved to the refrigerator shortly after the separation process has begun, is similar to an unflavored, unsweetened yogurt with the consistency of cultured buttermilk.
Some may be surprised to hear that many commercially sold yogurts only have a few of the beneficial bacterial and yeast strains they are eating the yogurt for, while some yogurts have none at all. On the other hand, a single tablespoon (15ml) of home cultured milk kefir contains up to 60 different strains of about five billion beneficial bacteria, has vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B6, B9 (Folate), B12, C, D, E, K2, and is loaded with minerals.
As the kefir develops, much of the lactose is used up but some will remain in the final product. For those who cannot tolerate dairy, water kefir is a good alternative and just as easy to care for. Water kefir is also a good soda alternative as it makes a nice fizzy drink which can be flavored by adding fruits. Water kefir grains are required to make water kefir. Milk kefir grains thrive on milk sugars and will not survive in plain sugar water.