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Kefir Grains - The Ultimate Guide For Kefir Lovers

Researched and Written by:
Richelle Godwin, RDN Richelle Godwin, RDN

Kefir grains are a bit like the Mariah Carey of the fermented world...they can be absolutely magical, but gee they can also be a bit of work! And if you’ve found yourself struggling to understand them, you’re going to love this article where I answer the Top 16 questions most asked questions on kefir grains. Not only will I show you what they actually are and how they work, but I’ll also teach you how to use them the right way. And if you’ve been trying to get your hands on quality grains, stay tuned, as I reveal my favorite place to buy them. Let’s go!

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Table of Contents

    What are kefir grains?

    So here are some milk kefir grains.  And as you can see they are creamy and a bit gelatinous.  And I know to the naked eye they kinda just look like cottage cheese or tiny cauliflower florets, but guess what? 

    Inside each one of these little grains lives an Entire universe of live bacteria & yeast that are beneficial for our health and responsible for turning milk into probiotic-rich kefir. 

    And in case you’re wondering, they’re not really grains like wheat or rice - we just use this term to describe them, because they kinda look like grains.   

    What’s the difference between milk kefir grains and water kefir grains?

    Well, here are my milk kefir grains and here are my water kefir grains.  As you can see, the water kefir grains look much clearer, less gelatinous, kinda like crystals - which is because they don’t have the protein component of milk kefir grains.  Apart from looks, the big difference is what’s inside them. 

    So while water kefir grains also contain a diverse mix of beneficial bacteria and yeast, it is nowhere near as large as the milk kefir grains. 

    I think of them as Batman and Robin! 

    And obviously, the other big difference is in how they can be used. 

    So with milk kefir grains, you can use them to culture cows, goats, sheep or coconut milk.  And to a lesser extent you can use them for non-dairy milks like almond milk.  Meanwhile, with water kefir grains you can use them to culture sugary water, as well as coconut water or fruit juice. 

    Should I get fresh or dried kefir grains?

    Fresh kefir grains are kinda like fish.  Meaning they can’t be out of liquid for too long!  So if you’re going to buy them, just make sure you can get them shipped fast, and the minute they arrive, pop them in some fresh milk or sugary water, depending on which type of grain it is. 

    If you’re like me and don’t want to worry about this when buying your initial grains, then go with dried kefir grains.  You see, since they are in their dormant state, they’re shelf stable and able to travel pretty well. 

    Of course, when you do receive them, you’ll have to go about activating them, which I’ll talk about next.

    How do you activate kefir grains?

    So when you get your dried kefir grains, you basically have a baby on your hands!  And just like a newborn, it is going to need lots of nourishing food to grow into its fresh and active state. 

    For milk kefir grains, that food is going to be fresh whole milk and for water kefir grains it will be sugary water - being water mixed with cane sugar. 

    Now, I’m not going to lie.  They need a bit of nourishing!  For milk kefir grains, you’ll have to feed them increasing amounts of milk over the next 3-7 days.  And once they are able to easily turn fresh milk into thick kefir within 24 hours, they’re ready. 

    Meanwhile, for water kefir grains you simply need to feed them one big serve of sugary water and let them sit for 3-4 days.  And once they are able to turn flat sugary water into bubbly water kefir within 24 hours or so, they’re ready.

    How does temperature impact kefir grains?

    Well, if your home is cooler than normal, it may take a bit longer for your grains to make kefir, and on the flipside if it is warmer than usual, it can ferment much quicker.  Ideally you want to have your room temperature somewhere in the 68 - 86 Farenheit (or 20 - 30 Celsius) range. 

    Since I live in Seattle, our house is usually around 69 degrees, which means a new batch of milk kefir often takes around 30-40 hours and water kefir often takes around 3 days.  

    How much kefir grains do you need to start?

    Kefir grains are so powerful that you don’t need much at all to make a batch of kefir.  For example, usually just will be enough to culture 4 cups of milk.  Although, being the kefir lover I am, I sometimes go with 1 tablespoon.

    How do I handle kefir grains?

    Since they are packed with good bacteria and yeast, we basically want to make sure we handle them with care.  Meaning anything that could disrupt their balance should be limited.  That’s why it is best to avoid touching them with Avoid touching with metal utensils metal utensils, since metallic ions can react with the naturally acidic grains. 

    It is also wise to not touch the grains Avoid touching with your fingers with your own fingers, since the bacteria on your skin can transfer to them.  Although stainless steel is somewhat okay, plastic utensils are best for handling kefir grains.

    How do I reuse kefir grains to make more kefir?

    This is what I love about kefir grains...they are just so simple to keep using! 

    All you need to do is take them out of your finished milk or water kefir with a strainer or slotted spoon, and transfer them over to a new fresh jug of milk or sugary water, and repeat!  Best of all, if you take care of them, you can keep doing this indefinitely.     

    Do I need to rinse kefir grains?

    For milk kefir grains, there’s generally no need to rinse them between making batches.  The only time you would do this is if they stop making kefir properly.  In this case, a good rinse in filtered water can help to remove any excess yeast buildup on the grains, and get them back to their best. 

    Meanwhile for water kefir grains, it can be good practice to soak them in spring water for 15-20 minutes between batches.

    How long can you leave kefir grains in milk?

    If you want to drink the milk as kefir, then 48 hours is about the max. After this point the grains will likely over culture the milk and separate it into curds and whey. Plus the grains will probably start to run out of food to eat, since they will have already gobbled up most of the lactose sugar. 

    That’s why for me personally, I’m pretty vigilant and make sure to always take them out after 30 - 40 hours or so. 

    Now, if you simply want to store the grains in the milk and plan on discarding the milk later, then you can leave the kefir grains in milk for roughly 2 weeks. 

    But make sure to keep them in the fridge during this entire time.  

    How do I tell if kefir grains are dead?

    The easiest way to tell if they’ve died is to pop your kefir grains in some fresh milk, leave at room temperature and then check back in 24 hours. 

    If the thin milk has not fermented and taken on the thicker texture of kefir, then they may be dead.  But before you throw them away, try Reactivating them over 3 - 7 days using the activation process we talked about before. 

    After all, they may not be dead, just...really sleepy.  And feeding them may do the trick.  If you’re still getting nothing a week or two from now and find them discolored, then they’re likely dead.

    How do you take a break from kefir grains?

    If you want to take 1-2 weeks off making kefir, then you can simply put the grains into 3-4 cups of milk, and leave it in the fridge.  Then when you’re ready to go again, simply strain the kefir, discard the milk, and put the kefir grains in some fresh milk and you’ll have kefir ready to drink in 24 hours. 

    If you want to take a few months off, then your best bet is to dry the grains.  This is pretty simple.

    You rinse them in filtered water.  Then put them on a non-stick surface to dry at room temperature for 3-4 days.  Once done, mix them with some powdered milk, pop them in a container and refrigerate. 

    What do you do with excess kefir grains?

    Once you are a few months into your kefir journey, and making fresh batches of kefir regularly, you might find your kefir grains multiplying quickly leaving you with too much!  So what do you do with them? 

    Well, my favorite option is to simply give them away to friends and family, so they can start making their own kefir.  The beauty of this is that they’ll get to start with fresh grains and skip the tedious activation process.  How lucky is that! 

    The next best option is to actually eat the grains themselves.  This is super healthy, because the grains contain their own unique beneficial bacteria and yeast. Also due to the protective polysaccharide shell around them, they have an even greater chance of surviving stomach acid & populating your intestines. 

    From my experience, kefir grains can be quite slimy and chewy, so they’re best consumed by blending into a smoothie. 

    Can I make kefir without grains?

    I know kefir grains can be high maintenance.  So I’m not surprised when patients ask me if they can make kefir without grains.  And the answer I always give is ‘yes and no’. 

    You see, it is possible to buy a Kefir starter culture, which is a Proprietary blend of usually 5-10 Probiotic species that try to mimic the magic in kefir grains.  And this powder is super easy to store and use.  You can even reculture it a few times to create a couple of days worth of kefir.  But then it dies.

    Most importantly though, a kefir starter culture doesn’t produce nearly the same amount or diversity of probiotics as traditional milk kefir grains.  So I like to think of it as milk kefir lite!  Meaning, it is not bad if you only want to make kefir occasionally.  But not great either. 

    Finally, there is one other way to try making kefir without grains.  And that is by using some existing kefir milk.  But given the probiotics found in kefir milk differ to those in the actual grain itself, I don’t recommend it.  Plus from my own personal experience it can be really tricky and yield very inconsistent results. 

    Can I make my own kefir grains at home from scratch?

    So although you can grow kefir grains at home, you can’t actually make them from scratch.  And that’s because the Milk kefir grain culture = very unique blend of microorganisms & polysaccharides, which has existed for many many years. 

    But thankfully, it is easy enough to acquire these grains from companies or friends that already have the culture and are growing them, which I’ll talk about now. 

    Where can I buy kefir grains?

    You can find dried kefir grains in most health food stores these days, and of course online.  But not all kefir grains are equal.  Instead, you really need to make sure you buy them from a quality source that knows how to store and ship the precious grains without causing them too much distress. 

    For me, I’ve tried soooo many different companies on my kefir journey and there is one company in particular I love using, and I’ve put the link below.

    Not only do they have both high quality milk and water kefir grains, but they’ve also got starter kits with all the equipment you need to make kefir.  

    Our Conclusion

    So as we’ve seen, kefir grains are Magical probiotic machines!  But they’re also high maintenance, so whether you try milk or water kefir grains, you need to be prepared to take care of them. 

    From my experience, as long as you buy from a trusted source, and then Use them consistently, you shouldn’t have too many issues. 

    And most importantly, you’ll be sending your gut billions and billions of probiotic friends every single day.  Your body will thank you!

     

    Evidence Based

    An evidence hierarchy is followed to ensure conclusions are formed off of the most up-to-date and well-designed studies available. We aim to reference studies conducted within the past five years when possible.

    • Systematic review or meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials
    • Randomized controlled trials
    • Controlled trials without randomization
    • Case-control (retrospective) and cohort (prospective) studies
    • A systematic review of descriptive, qualitative, or mixed-method studies
    • A single descriptive, qualitative, or mixed-method study
    • Studies without controls, case reports, and case series
    • Animal research
    • In vitro research

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