Let me start by disclaiming any deep knowledge about Kefir. I had heard of it. It’s one of those fermented foods that are supposed to be good for you. But that’s about it. Now I’m learning, and I’ll share my experiences with you.
Started out with an infected tooth for which I got antibiotics. Bless antibiotics. Did you know that Hatshepsut the great female Pharaoh died of an abscessed tooth? Just another bit of historical trivia I learned about a dozen years ago. Also as an historian, I take infections pretty seriously. I know that herbs can help, and use them when they work, but occasionally, they don’t, and, boy, is it great to have antibiotics as a back-up. Not unexpectedly, after a run of Clindamycin, I got a yeast infection, and another round of another antibiotic. Again, unexpectedly, I felt wiped out. We know this happens. And it sure wiped out my gut biome.
Trust me, I was taking pro-biotics. I had the alarm set on my e-reader, every 3 hours it went off and prompted “Take Antibiotic” and “Take Probiotic”. I ate yogurt: Greek yogurt, french yogurt, skyr, Kombucha, ate Saurkraut (which, luckily, I love). Still, I ended up calling the doctor. The insert says one of the symptoms to refer to the physician is ‘persistent diarrhea’. They didn’t define persistent. After about a week I called and asked; they told me “two or three days”. Well,now I know (and you do too). It was awful, but if it’s going to happen, better when we’re all staying at home, not getting far from the “Necessary”. My reading also informed me that the gut biome is also wiped out when you have the total, clean as a whistle, cleansing for a colonoscopy, which I did at the beginning of the month as well.
I will point out that no-one in the entire process mentioned that potential effect, and the need to use probiotics to get your gut working properly again. The one-two punch of emptying the digestive system and following that up with antibiotics left me unable to process food. The less you know about the results the better, other than I looked stuff up, and did everything I was supposed to. The best I got was the usual “eat yogurt” between antibiotic advice. A month after the colonoscopy I saw Dr. Q, and complained bitterly about lack of useful warning or advice. He recommended Kefir, which they use in the Ukraine, where he’d adopted his daughter. I hadn’t tried that because all the grocery store Kefir was full of sugar, and, in case you didn’t know, sugar encourages the sort of gut bacteria you don’t want.
Fine, straight from the office, I headed to the health food store. Got 2 bottles of goats-milk kefir, and next time I went to Market Basket found one non-sugared variety. All these bottles are opaque. I don’t think it’s because they need to keep the light out. I think it’s so you can’t see it until after you’ve shaken it. They all say “shake well”. I also got some starter to start growing my own. At a pint a day, the home grown kefir was ready by the time I finished the 3 store-bought quarts. It started slowly.
The instructions said “it’s happy place is 70-80º”. For goodness sakes! That’s Willow’s happy place! You don’t find that in our house in the dark half of the year! I sent for a ‘fermentation mat’. What I found was one for Kombucha (same problem there), and that seems to do the trick. Actually, it took off so well that I have now started leaving it out of the warmer. The couple of tablespoons of “grains” sort of took over the quart jar. Given the texture I’ve switched to a half gallon jar because it has a wider mouth. But if I leave it in the fermentation collar, the whole batch separates into grains (sort of looks like cottage cheese) and whey. Overnight.
Shake well, but it’s still got the little lumps. It IS little lumps. In whey. It takes me back to when we made goats’ milk cheese. When I poured out the commercial stuff it was white and smooth, not lumpy. I figured they just strained out their grains to keep using them. That makes sense economically. What am I doing wrong? Or am I?
Off to the internet. I discover you can use kefir as sour dough bread starter. Having gotten ahead of myself (despite drinking a pint every day, and BTW, I’m feeling better than I have in months if not years), I put a quart in a jar with a couple of scoops of flour, and set that on the counter to see what it would do. Then I took some back out and made a soft dough and put that in the warming oven to rise. Having experimented (unsuccessfully) this Spring with sour-dough I put a piece of tape on the Ball jar to remind me where it started. By afternoon I could see that it was growing. The next morning it had grown from 3 cups to 5 and a half cups! Meanwhile the loaf of bread I’d started with the same batch was sullenly sitting in the warming oven looking dormant. All I’d put in it was organic whole wheat flour and a bit of salt. I wonder if the salt slowed it down. Or the flour- I’d just refilled my canister from the 50 gallon bag I keep in the unheated back hall. That flour was probably at 40º. Until the damned loaf grows enough to bake, I am not sure what it’s going to taste like, and I’m not generally a fan of sour-dough bread. I like my normal yeast raised bread and buns, so I’m not eager to have a sour dough mother that rises so much that I need to make a loaf every day. Perhaps it’s not growing because it feels that I don’t like it. Some people LOVE sour dough, but I’m not one of them.
As I wait for the sour dough to rise, I have to deal with the general maintenance. When I come down in the morning, I have to scoop a bunch of grains off the top of the Kefir, and put them into a new jar with new milk. Then I rinse my sprouts, and check them. (I’ve switched them over to the Kombucha fermenting collar). The kombucha is just starting, so I don’t need to do anything with that yet. If I’m going to make bread, I start proofing the yeast. When I put the new grains in milk, I put the kefir I took them out of into the `fridge, and take out the chilled kefir from the day before to drink.
Thinking about the commercial kefir, today I put the kefir through the blender, and yes, it came out creamy and smooth, so that’s probably what the commercial folks do. The flavor of the fresh stuff is better, but I don’t care for drinking lumps. I am thinking of maybe simply pouring off the whey (bet I could use it in baking), and using the curds like soft cheese. While they call the lumps ‘grains’, they are totally simply little bits of thickened milk formed around whatever the bacteria is. They suggested using a plastic strainer to get the grains out, but it just filled and let the whey through. I tried all three sizes of strainers that I use on the sprouting jars, and they quickly clog too. Now I just spoon off the solids on the top as next day’s starter, and call it good.
As you can tell, this is a SHARING blog, not an instructional one. I am still learning. But I think there’s value in hearing how other people are screwing up. I hope it keeps someone from feeling that everyone else but her is able to do this easily. I’m sure it would be a lot easier if you lived with it from childhood and saw how your mother (or father) did it, (went through the times that I’m sure something odd happened), and at very lease had someone other than the internet to turn to when you got confused.