All About Kefir, Part 1: What Is It? What’s Its Story?

If you’re not familiar with kefir, boy, are you missing out!

All About Kefir, Part 1: What Is It? What's Its Story?

Okay, just to be straight, I don’t believe in magic potions. But if I did…kefir would hands-down be at the tippy top of my list of favorites. It can basically be summed up as a miracle in a bottle. (Or a jar, depending on what you make it in! 😉 ) I seriously wonder how I lived so much of my life (*ahem* … 19 years worth) without knowing about this awesome stuff. It’s like liquid gold, I tell you. A meadow of sunshine and rainbows all wrapped up in a crisp little package of white. So what is it? It’s…are you ready for it?

Brace yourself.

It’s a type of fermented milk.

But not just any fermented milk, mind you. No sirree…kefir is special.

And before I go any further, let me just clarify for those of you that are gagging behind your keyboard right about now—fermented milk is NOT rotten milk.

Did you catch that? Kefir is not. rotten. milk.

When most Americans today think of rotten milk, they (rightfully) think of the smelly, curdled, putrid mass that store-bought, pasteurized milk turns into when left out on the counter for too long.

Not cool. Believe me, I am not saying I’m in love with smelly, rotten milk. No way, José. That stuff nearly makes me lose my lunch too.

I’m talking about clean, pure milk which has simply been changed into a new form thanks to those good ol’ neighbors of yours called friendly bacteria. The disgusting habit of rotting and turning nasty is unique to pasteurized milk, and it is totally different from what happens when friendly bacteria are allowed to culture milk (remember, the word culture comes from the word cultivate, which just means “to prepare” or “break up”). For example, after raw milk leaves the udder of the animal from which it came, the good bacteria and living enzymes within it immediately start to work at breaking down the milk, which over the period of a few days/weeks, naturally leads to the separation of the curds (proteins) from the whey (liquid), essentially just creating “curd cheese”. I’ve had this very thing happen in my fridge before, and it’s really not as scary as it seems! (It’s also important to understand that, while the taste may be distinctly more sour than most people today would prefer, it is perfectly okay to consume the milk in this cultured state. In fact, it is exactly what our ancestors baked with; they referred to it as “clabber”.)

When you desire to culture pasteurized milk, the process is a little different. Since all of the bacteria (good and bad) and living enzymes have already been killed, the milk isn’t going to culture on its own—it needs some outside help.

This is where kefir grains come in.

Grains? I thought we were talking about milk!

To be technical, kefir is the finished milk product. But the kefir grains are the secret to GETTING the finished product. They’re what you add to the milk to produce the fermentation. (Just as a note—kefir and other fermented milk products like yogurt can totally be made with raw milk too. In fact, they’re far better that way—but more on that later.) Kefir grains aren’t actual grains in the sense of wheat or rye; they’re just called grains because they look like them. Stomach turning as it may sound, they’re essentially just clumps of bacteria and yeasts bound up in a gelatinous medium of proteins and sugars (not to be all technical or anything…hehe). Kefir grains are truly a unique miracle food—they are purely organic in nature and cannot be manufactured. They are the true definition of a REAL food. It is possible to buy what’s called a kefir starter, which are certain isolated, dehydrated bacterial strains from kefir in powdered form, but this isn’t the same thing as those precious grains our ancestors used for thousands of years to make their kefir, and its not as powerful health wise. If your grains are of true heirloom variety and in good health, they’ll look almost identical to cauliflower florets.

This is what healthy heirloom kefir grains should look like.

This is what healthy heirloom kefir grains should look like—quite similar to the look of cottage cheese.

Speaking of ancestors and kefir, what’s the history of this strange, little-known-today drink?

One of the things I find most intriguing about kefir is that, while it has been around for centuries upon centuries, it remains quite a mystery to this day. No one knows exactly how long it’s been around or how it was discovered. Were the grains present at creation or did they form naturally over time? (Both are a good hypotheses, but given the mind-blowing healing power of these resilient little creatures, my personal guess would be the former.) Truthfully, no one knows. Will they ever? Possibly…but probably not. Let’s just say that’ll be one of my first topics of inquiry for YHVH when I get to heaven! 😉

There are several legends and rumors surrounding the history of kefir, but two main stories prevail…and let me tell ya, one of them is downright novel worthy—involving princes and princesses, a secret plot, a kidnapping, an escape—a classic Medieval page turner.

I’ll get to that shortly but first, a few basics. It is a fairly agreed-upon fact that kefir (which, by the way, I pronounce KEE-fur…though the pronunciation varies by geographical region) has its origins in the Caucasian Mountains of Europe. It is said that the earliest and simplest forms of its fermentation took place when shepherds would store their milk and kefir grains in animal skins (some even presume that the trace enzymes remaining on the insides of the skins could be how the first grains were formed), adding more milk as necessary to replace that which was removed and drank. While I’m not for sure we’ll ever be able to pin down the specifics of their process, rumor has it that it was customary to leave the skins outside during the day to ferment in the warmth of the sun (friendly bacteria love warmth) and then bring them in to hang by the door at night. As an interesting side note, it is also said that it was customary for anyone passing through the doorway to nudge the skin with their hand or foot to keep the mixture stirred! Funny, huh? Whether or not we’ll ever know if that was true, I still find it pretty neat.

Okay, okay…so what about the princess story?

Ah, the princess story. As it goes, while the nomads of Europe were happily making their kefir “skin-style”, the wealthy inhabitants of Asia were careful to guard their prized kefir grains, which were considered a part of each family’s heritage. Passersby could taste of the famed beverage but these Asians would never share their method of making it for fear that it would lose its healing power. Eventually, some nearby Russian officials heard of this special health drink and, deciding that they wanted to be able to make it for themselves, proceeded to send their princess (claimed to have been called Irina Sakharova) to Asia to charm their prince and return with their secret. Even though this prince fell in love with the Russian princess, he refused to give her what she wanted, so she left. As it was Asian tradition to “steal away a bride”, the princess was soon kidnapped and brought back to the prince. When his officials found out what had taken place, they were appalled that the princess’ honor had been insulted and commanded that she be recompensed with exactly what she sought. She was then gifted with ten pounds of the glorious kefir grains (which is a LOT because those little guys don’t weigh very much)! After her return to her home country, kefir began to be produced more widely in Russia. To this day kefir continues to be prized in both Europe and Russia, and in the latter of which it’s now the most popular fermented milk drink available.

In addition to the two dramatic stories above, a few other intriguing facts which are said to be true about kefir are:

  • That Marco Polo wrote about kefir in the accounts of his travels.
  • That hospitals in the former Soviet Union would use kefir to treat all kinds of conditions in their patients such as allergies and digestive/gastrointestinal diseases, and even more severe conditions such as tuberculosis and cancer. (I have no trouble believing this one! Woot woot!)
  • That drinking kefir was mandatory for Russian workers in order to insure their good health and mood. (Oh, I forgot to mention that kefir is a great natural mood booster and nervous system relaxer? Whoopsy daisy!)
  • That the beginnings of large scale kefir production began in the 1930s, but the first studies on the benefits of kefir were published more that three decades earlier.
  • And that in Chile, kefir is known as yogurt de pajaritos—bird’s yogurt. (Not sure why on this one, but I thought it was creative! If anyone can find out, do share in the comments!)

All in all, kefir is an amazing superfood that fortunately is beginning to make a comeback in Western culture (*happy dance!*)—and that’s a good thing, because I believe EVERYONE should be drinking it regularly. It is an excellent source of so many, many different nutrients which Americans today especially need. And best of all, it’s super easy to make at home! Stay tuned in to the TWM kefir series to find out how. 🙂

For part 2, click here!

. . . . . . . .

All About Kefir, Part 1: What Is It? What's Its Story?

How much had you ever heard about kefir before reading this post? Does the whole concept intrigue you or just plain freak you out?


5 thoughts on “All About Kefir, Part 1: What Is It? What’s Its Story?

  1. Alison NC says:

    What an incredible post! Really love the History. Kefir is truly a miracle food.
    Thanks for your obvious knowledge and research. Great work!


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