By Paylie Roberts
Many of us have moved out to our homesteads and found ways to become self sufficient. Many of us have also found renewable sources of food, such as locally produced milk. But most of us are still dependent on electricity (or some kind of power source) to keep our refrigerators cool. This might not be an option in the future for various reasons, and keeping your milk safe to consume will become more of a challenge. I imagine this is how certain forms of our food had developed over time, from the need to find a way to store it that continues to keep the food safe for human consumption. So we’ve made yogurt, cheeses, butters, etc.
Unfortunately, with a limitless supply of electricity and cold storage sources, our simple ways of culturing foods for long term storage has changed to culturing foods to obtain an ideal flavor. Rather than use cultures to create healthy foods, we use cultures to create flavorful food, and we often add vitamins and preservatives for storage convenience as well. While there is nothing wrong with that now, there will be a great learning curve in the future if we continue processing our foods in ideal conditions, which will not work in less than ideal conditions.
Yogurt is wonderful and the probiotics found in yogurt can be very health beneficial, especially when your diet may not be ideal in the future. But yogurt does require a certain amount of care, and let’s face it, in a SHTF scenario you might not be able to keep up with your yogurt culture because yogurt bacteria can be picky. At the same time, completed yogurt requires refrigeration, and some strains of yogurt mutate all too quickly rendering the milk inedible.
So I’m here to tell you about an alternative: kefir. I’m going to tell you two different ways to keep kefir: 1. Now, with electricity and all the wonderful spoiling amenities in life, and 2. When there is no power, for whatever reason, and you must maintain your culture by nurturing it daily.
The only reason I’m going to tell you about scenario 1, is because Kefir can take some practice, and it’s best to practice in ideal conditions and then to move on to less ideal conditions once you know what you’re doing.
What is Kefir?
Kefir is the byproduct of milk fermented by kefir grains, which is a combination of bacteria and yeast living in a symbiotic matrix. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kefir. Kefir, which goes by many names, can also be made by fermenting sugar water, the same concept applies, the only difference is the medium being used for the fermentation (milk or sugar water), and what grains you start with. This article will concentrate on milk kefir, since our goal here is to extend the life of our fresh milk in a situation where there is no electricity.
The health benefits of kefir
I’m not going to make fake claims that kefir is a cure-all, because it’s not. But kefir does have many health benefits that shouldn’t be ignored. And because of it’s ability to aid in digestion, it may just be a crucial food source in our coming future of questionable food quality.
Kefir is full of vitamins such as A and B; vitamins that may be difficult to find in many other foods. Because Vitamin A and some B vitamins are degraded by light, it’s a good idea to protect your kefir from light if possible.
Kefir is a probiotic. Like yogurt, it has a lot of health benefits that not only aid in digestion, but can lower cholesterol levels, and prevent blood pressure from rising.
For those who are lactose intolerant, the kefir grains actually break down the lactose, so the resulting kefir drink should be fine to consume. See: http://www.kefir.net/
Studies show that kefir offers potential treatments for a number of pathologies including:
Some of the strains are able to reduce cadmium toxicity in cells.
According to this study, kefir can aid in fighting recurrent clostridium difficile infection, specifically the strain found in communities that live close together and don’t have the benefit of sanitary conditions.
For those concerned about safety from eating something that has been incubated in both bacteria and yeast strains, this study shows that they couldn’t find any harmful results.
You can’t really have too much kefir, this study showed that a larger dose of kefir was administered to rats, and they did not show any negative side effects, this is good news if you decide you like the taste of kefir and want to drink more of it.
All these research studies above are only specific to kefir, there are many additional health benefits from eating probiotics such as kefir.
Also, I found this study that I thought was interesting, apparently using kefir with sourdough bread making can double the shelf life of the bread.
Allergic to Milk?
Just because you can’t have milk products, doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t enjoy the health benefits of kefir. You can make kefir using other milks such as almond, soy, coconut milk, or even rice milk. Or alternately, you can make water kefir (you have to add sugar), or even fruit juice kefir. When using water/fruit kefir grains, these grains are referred to as Tibicos. You can even make carbonated drinks for a refreshing summer treat, with all the same health benefits that you would get from milk kefir. I won’t delve too much into making tibicos here, but you can read more about it at the links below if you’re interested.
Getting the Kefir grains
Generally it’s a good idea to start with milk kefir grains if you plan on fermenting milk, and water kefir grains if you plan on using water. Switching one to the other is not ideal, as the strains of the bacteria and yeast are different, and they might not take to the new environment very well.
There are different ways to get started with making kefir. The easiest with out much effort is to order your grains online. The advantage here is that it’s quick and easy, the disadvantage is that you usually get a very small amount of grains, and it can take a very long time to build up your grain colony; I’m talking about weeks or even months.
You can also check your local farmers market and local dairy ranchers and ask around to see if anyone has kefir grains for sale. Some people are so excited to hear you want kefir grains they gladly split theirs up and give you some grains for free.
You can also ask around your co-workers or neighbors, it can be quite surprising who has been making homemade kefir for years and never said anything, because let’s face it, sometimes it’s just too much to try to explain.
Finally, you can order dehydrated kefir starter online. There are many web sites that offer kefir starter. I haven’t tried any so can’t personally recommend any. But when choosing one, see how much information they offer on their starter, how they are shipped, and what the guarantee is. Currently, I do not know of any legal restrictions on selling or shipping kefir starter and/or grains.
I have read many complaints about using kefir starter, and not being able to continue the culture because the grains never grew. I imagine that some strains of the bacteria/yeast die in the process, so that perfect symbiotic relationship can’t be restored when some of the organisms are missing. Or maybe it just takes longer.
Your best bet is to find someone locally that has active grains, and purchase from them.
Do NOT wash your kefir grains! Everyone says to do so, but don’t. You’ll retard their growth by washing away some of the good bacteria/yeast that you need for a healthy balanced bacteria/yeast relationship, and you will only slow down their progress.
Research actually shows that kefir restricts the growth of bad bacteria such as E-coli. So there is no need to wash the grains unless you are prepping to store them for long term via freezing or drying.
Making kefir while keeping the culture healthy
Let’s face it, this isn’t something you can buy as a prepper and store away in a box never to have to deal with again until TSHTF. Like a good bread starter, kefir requires some work, but it pays for itself in the end. Because once you’ve mastered the art of kefir, the grain colonies might just live indefinitely with good care.
You will need to decide if you’re making milk kefir or water kefir. If you have a constant supply of milk, start with milk kefir. If you have stocked up on way too much sugar and need to use that up, get some tibicos grains. Do note that fermentation takes longer with water kefir/tibicos than it does with milk kefir, and also note what kind of water you are using. If you’re on city water, it is probably chlorinated, so you may want to use a non-chlorinated alternative source.
You will need some tools, specifically a way to strain your kefir from the kefir grains. Something like this should work fine.
As long as it is very fine mesh strainer. I do want to point out that if using metals, only use stainless steel, as it is a non-reactive metal. Otherwise use wood or plastic tools.
I also like to use coffee filters to cover the kefir while its fermenting as it releases carbon dioxide. If you do not provide a means for the carbon dioxide to escape, pressure can build up, which can result in the container bursting. A similar phenomenon to brewing wine or beer. Some people just loosely put on a jar lid and say that works fine for them. You will need some kind of jar as well. I like to use the darker jars as the fermentation process results in vitamins being produced that are degraded by light. The strainers come in different sizes, and you might have to decide which jars or bottles you’re using before you decide what size strainer to get.
Once you have all the tools, the only maintenance is keeping them clean and sterile for making fresh kefir.
So here is the one key thing you have to remember about kefir: kefir grains need food, so you just have to make sure you feed them regularly. That means you put the kefir in a jar, and add milk, milk is the food source for the kefir grains.
Hungry kefir grains
Kefir grains covered with milk
Cover with a lid that will still allow carbon dioxide to exit, and leave it alone for anywhere from 12 to 24 hours.
Kefir grains turning milk into kefir
You will see the milk separating, and that’s usually when it’s done.
This looks ready
At that point, separate the kefir from the grains using a strainer, and feed the grains again with fresh milk.
How long you incubate will depend on a few different factors. What your room temperature is. In the summer heat you won’t have to incubate as long, and in the winter cold, you may have to incubate longer. Note that the longer the kefir incubates, the more ethanol it produces from the break down of the lactose. Regardless, it won’t produce much, at most maybe 1 to 2%.
Like a fine wine, kefir is an acquired taste
Not everyone likes the tangy taste of kefir. It may be a little “yeasty” depending on how it is made. I’ve often wondered how the store bought kefir is made to taste much better than my homemade kefir. That was until I learned the secret to making kefir.
The good news is, studies show that the kefir grains are very stable. Meaning they don’t change over time. So once you develop your technique, it will be easy to continue creating the same byproduct.
First, how you treat the kefir grains and what you feed them will change the flavor of your resulting kefir. As soon as I switched to non-fat goat milk, the flavor improved (that’s a personal preference I’m sure). I also found that if I incubate at room temperature for shorter periods of time, my resulting kefir isn’t as tangy tasting. However, in the winter time when it’s cooler, I have to incubate longer for the full result. So it is one of those things that you will have to experiment with to determine what works best for you.
I have also discovered that the kefir flavor will change based on how quickly I strain my kefir grains. For example, if I incubate my grains for let’s say 16 hours, and then put the jar in the refrigerator without straining, then strain a few days later, then the flavor is going to be stronger. Versus if I immediately strain my kefir after incubation, the flavor is more mild. The flavor also changes over time based on how long I store my strained kefir before eating.
Strained kefir will actually store quite nicely at room temperature, so long as it is protected from contaminants. Back in the old days, strained kefir was stored much in the same way as beer was. Note the flavor will change the longer it stores, but that means you don’t have to eat it everyday. There is conflicting data on how long you can store it. Some say no more than five days at warm room temperature, some say it is fine for up to two weeks. Wikipedia documents that it is good for 30 days (citation checks out). You might consider storing your kefir using an airlock (like what is used for making wine), as there will be a secondary fermentation, and carbon dioxide will form.
You can always cover up the taste as well by adding other ingredients. Many commercial yogurts and kefirs contain sugar, fruits, or flavorings. Similarly you can improve the flavor by adding sugar, or some stevia, or even just some fresh berries from your garden. You can substitute kefir in any recipe that calls for milk or buttermilk, or just make a protein shake with kefir instead of milk or protein powder. There are a multitude of creative recipes you can use to cover up that taste, assuming you don’t care for it plain. Consider what you will have available after TSHTF, and practice with that.
Keeping the culture healthy after TSHTF
Okay, the power is out, you have no way to cool/refrigerate your kefir, so you have to feed your kefir daily, which means you’ll have a lot of kefir to eat (is that so bad?).
The good news? Kefir grains are very forgiving so long as they have food to eat. That means temperature fluctuations (due to lack of AC/heater) won’t harm the grains (up to a point). You just have to remember, the cooler it is, the slower the bacteria/yeast colony feeds on the milk, and the warmer it is, the faster it eats. Do note that if the ambient temperature gets over 104 degrees Fahrenheit, it kills the yeast/bacteria kefir colonies. This also means you’ll need more milk in the warm summer when they eat more, and less in the winter when they eat more slowly. In the summer, you can also find cooler spots in your home to store your kefir grains in, like a basement, root cellar, or in a shady corner in your home. As long as you’re feeding the grains every 24 hours or so, they should be fine. Feeding your kefir grains regularly is the key.
But what if you need to store them long term? What if you’ll be away for a week?
Simply put, you give your kefir food (milk), and don’t incubate.
In warmer temperatures, it’s a little tough. You just have to give your kefir grains extra food while you are away, so you’ll have to get a big jar, put your kefir grains in, and fill it up with milk. That way they will have plenty to eat while you are gone. You might end up having more grains then you need when you return, but then you can barter the extra.
In the colder temperatures, you won’t need to feed as much, so when you’re going to be gone for a short while, add extra milk, about double the normal amount for each week you want to store long term. keep the kefir outside in the cold, and it will store that way for up to a month or two. The grains will still feed, just much more slowly, making the milk you added to the grains adequate to let them survive until you get back to them.
What if you’re going to be low on milk for a while?
If you will be low or without milk for a period of time you have some options on how to maintain the kefir grains. One is, you can freeze your grains, if that is an option (for example if it is the middle of winter, or you have a working freezer and PV solar power). It’s best to clean them with sterile water and dry them off before freezing. And know that it will take them longer to come out of hibernation when you’re ready to make kefir regularly again. The grains may need some time to recover before they start to grow again, so you may notice a temporary change in flavor and aroma.
You can also dry your kefir. First, you will have to rinse your kefir with sterile water. Next, place the grains on a towel, cover, and let them dry completely. Then place in a jar or plastic container, and store for at least a year. I read that you can increase the longevity by adding powdered milk, but haven’t tried that myself.
When reconstituting frozen or dried grains, you won’t have kefir immediately. You will have to change the milk daily for up to three months (depending on how long they were stored – though usually not that long) before they look like healthy colonies again. By that point you should have the byproduct kefir drink that you’re used to having.
Why practice now?
Unless you’re one of those with a bread thumb that can make perfect sourdough bread every time, I highly suggest you practice working with kefir before TSHTF. While kefir is probably easier and more forgiving than yogurt, there is a learning curve involved. You are working with bacteria and yeast. Practicing now will help you get familiar with what its supposed to taste like, smell like, and even look like.
Let’s also not forget that it is difficult to find good kefir culture as it is, and if transportation is interrupted in any way you will have an even harder time getting the cultures. Kefir cultures are also temperature sensitive, and can get both too hot and contaminated during shipping . So it would be better for preppers to already have a good kefir culture on hand ready to go, and know how to use it to your and your family’s benefit; before it is too late to try to do so.
Paylie Roberts is the author of Bugging Out To Nowhere, Life After Bugging Out, and the forthcoming Memories of Poland, Lessons From Growing Up Under Communism. She has a Bachelor’s degree in biology, and lives with her husband, two German shepherds, and various livestock, somewhere between the Cascade Range and the Rocky Mountains.