Using Milk Kefir Grains Day to Day

Kefir grains are both a blessing, and a burden. They provide you with healthy, microbe rich milk products every day, but they also take daily care, and daily “feeding”. You have to keep milk in supply, and be there to refresh it every day, as a general rule. Sure, you can skip a day now and then, but things go wrong if you make a habit of it! You can also store them in several ways for longer periods of time, but again, things go wrong if you get sloppy about it.

If you’ve been considering getting Milk Kefir Grains, and aren’t sure what it will mean in a day to day routine, this post is meant to give you a picture.

I started with two tablespoons of fresh grains, mailed to me. So they had spent three days in a starved state by the time I got them, which means they may take a few days to re-balance. I promptly stuck them in about two cups of milk and left them on the top of the fridge to incubate.

By the next evening the milk was separated, and the jar spewed on me when I opened it – there was a lot of pressure built up in the jar (I had checked it earlier in the day and it was not set – it seemed to set and go explosive all of a sudden!). The grains were floating at the top of the jar (a good sign), so it looked like the grains were healthy and responsible for the culturing of the milk.

The milk did not smell quite right for kefir – it did not smell disgusting or anything, but it wasn’t right for kefir, so I discarded it and replaced it. I also rinsed the grains in milk – the only time I did that, normally I do not do that. I did it this time just to help them get back in balance, by removing some of the imbalanced bacteria and yeasts from the outside. I put another two cups of milk in with the grains, and set them back up on the fridge.

The next morning, I checked it and it was set, so I opened it and smelled. It smelled better, so I dumped it in the strainer, over a bowl, and tapped the strainer until nothing was left but the grains and some curds and milk slime (yes, it is slimy if the grains are healthy). This time I kept the kefir – I dumped it into a larger bottle, added about another two quarts of milk, and left that on the counter to culture overnight.

Meanwhile, I washed my original jar and lid, returned the grains to the jar, filled to two cups of milk, shook it, and left it to incubate again.

The next morning both jars were set nicely. I noticed that kefir made with pasteurized milk has more of a sour milk smell than kefir made with raw milk (which smells more buttermilk-yogurty than sour-yogurty). I drained the kefir for the day, washed the small jar, added the grains back, filled to two cups with milk, and set it back to incubate. This is now part of my daily routine. We also have kefir every morning, mixed with juice – about half a cup of kefir, and about 2/3 of a cup of juice, stirred together (it stirs weird, because of the stringiness of the kefir, but does eventually blend smooth just by stirring with a spoon in the cup).

The second larger jar of kefir was dumped into a strainer that was lined with a woven dishcloth (not a towel – a smoother, large dishcloth). I left it to set for several hours, then checked it. The solids were firming up, and the clear whey was collecting below. The edges and bottom of the solids were dry enough to separate easily from the cloth (they are sticky at first, but as the whey drains they get dryer and pull easily away from the cloth). I pulled the edges into the middle so the runnier stuff in the middle could go to the edges and drain better. I let it set for another few hours.

By evening, I had about a pint and a half of whey, and two cups of solids that tasted like a slightly sharp cream cheese. The consistency was the same as cream cheese at room temp. I rounded it up into a ball inside the cloth, squeezed it gently (not too hard, or the solids will get stuck in the cloth and it won’t release easily) to get the last bits of whey out that were easy to get out. I now had a partial ball of cheese – the bottom that was against the cloth was smooth and rounded, the top more rough and crumbly looking. So I took a small bowl and turned it upside-down on the ball, and then flipped it, and peeled off the cloth. This left me with a very nice looking rounded white cheese, neatly in the bowl.

The whey went into a separate container, and into the fridge, where we use it as a moistening liquid in various recipes.

That night, I added some seasoning to part of the cheese, and we had it on toasted homemade bread. I used the rest of it several days later, stirred into potato soup, and taco soup, where it added a delightful tang.

The next day I noticed that the kefir was starting to be mostly set by evening, and very hard set by morning. This means the grains are growing and are culturing the milk faster. The solution is to add more milk, until I have enough grains to separate off. Temperatures in our home are moderately warm, it is a warm spring in Oklahoma, which also makes them culture more quickly. I upped the milk to about two and a half cups. I could see we were growing out of our little not-quite-quart jar. I also got some quart containers to use with the kefir.

By this time I was getting a solid two cups of kefir (you lose just a little due to the volume of the grains in the container, and due to what sticks to the bowl and strainer). We are using between 1 and 2 cups per day, so overall, it is increasing slowly in the fridge. The new stuff goes in the back, the older stuff to the front.

After several more days, the kefir is needing more milk again. So we move up to a Ball half gallon canning jar – room to grow! We increase the milk to the four cup mark, and it cultures nicely in 24 hours – I can see that we are going to have to increase that soon as well. It looks like I’ll be able to separate the grains in about a week. I can’t really SEE that they are growing yet – it is hard to tell whether I am putting back 2 or 3 tablespoons. But I can see how they culture the milk, and I can tell by the amount of milk they are culturing that they are growing.

We are now getting just shy of 1 quart per day of cultured milk. I have had the grains for just two weeks.

When I get two quarts of surplus, in addition to the partial that we are using from in the front, I make cheese again. The second time I made cheese I let it sit overnight, and it ended up the same firmer consistency as cream cheese – I got about 1 lb of soft cheese from two quarts of kefir. The flavor still has a sour edge to it, because of the milk (when we did this using raw milk in Texas, it did not have that sour flavor, so I am sure it is the pasteurized milk that does it). But it is not nasty, and it takes various seasonings well.

The next round of cheese will be a cooked, pressed cheese. There are many types of cheese that can be made from kefir. I am already decreasing the amount of cheese that I buy.

So how will I keep this going? How will I keep enough milk to keep the grains happy? At this rate, they are doubling their culturing volume about once a week. That is a lot of milk potential!

The grains will be ready to split soon. At that time, I’ll preserve some for backup. I’ll also start making them available to other people. A quart a day seems to be a good amount right now, to make sufficient kefir and cheese.

One of the issues with kefir that people worry about is the daily maintenance. It takes literally 5 minutes a day to drain the grains, wash the jar, return the grains to the jar and refill with milk, shake, and place them to culture, and then pour the kefir into a container and pop it into the fridge.

Making soft drained cheese is also easy – 2 minutes to set it up to drain. 2 minutes in the middle to adjust it to drain better. 2 minutes at the end to package the cheese. 3-4 minutes to wash the cloth (I do it by hand in the sink with a little dishwashing detergent, and remove any sticky cheese by rubbing the cloth against itself).

I made ranch dressing a few days ago from mayonnaise and kefir – but I can also make it just from kefir, by using some of the thicker cream cheese style kefir, blended with some fresh. The ranch dressing was really good. It is usable in place of milk, yogurt, sour cream, cream cheese, soft cheese, cottage cheese, and many other dairy ingredients. It takes about 1 minute to toss the ingredients for Ranch into kefir or cheese and stir it up. It stores well, so you can make up a cup or so at a time and use it slowly if you want.

The hardest thing is keeping a steady supply of milk. But once that problem is solved, I am loving having the kefir every day, and loving having a steady supply of cheese starter just right there. It just builds up naturally, takes no special effort on my part, and I just drain it out when I have enough.

I’m all about easy. I’ll do the hard work when that is the only way to get things done, but if I can work out a simpler way, I always will. Kefir has ended up being easy. And convenient in ways I had not thought it would.

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