The cultured dairy product known as milk kefir is becoming more and more known in the West. Even though organic kefir milk's health benefits are widely touted, some mystery still remains around this probiotic powerhouse.
The good news?
Whether you are just getting started with culturing or have been fermenting for years, we hope this glossary of milk kefir terminology will help you on your home fermentation adventures.
If you receive milk kefir grains that are in a dormant, dehydrated state, they must be activated before you can start using them to make milk kefir regularly. During activation, milk kefir grains are placed in increasing amounts of milk to rehydrate - think of it as them "waking up" by feeding on the microorganisms in milk. This process usually takes 3 to 7 days and is called the activation period.
A minor constituent in milk kefir, generally present in very, very small amounts. In cases when milk kefir is left to culture far too long, the presence of alcohol may increase. If the aroma of alcohol is present, simply remove the grains, discard the milk kefir, and place the grains in fresh milk for a shorter culturing period - this should give better results!
TIPS & TRICKS: Timing Milk Kefir to Manipulate Flavor
Almond Milk Kefir
Milk kefir made from almond milk using either a direct-set kefir starter culture or milk kefir grains. Because the makeup of almond milk is so different from the makeup of dairy milk (dairy milk contains lactose - the "food" that kefir cultures need to thrive), making almond milk kefir is a bit trickier. Make sure you have extra kefir grains that are fully active and thriving before attempting to make almond milk kefir.
SEE FULL TUTORIAL: How to Make Almond Milk Kefir
One of the primary microorganisms found in milk kefir. These microorganisms are the ones responsible for the production of organic acids and, therefore, the tangy flavor of kefir. Lactobacilli are the primary bacterial variety but other types of bacteria are also present, it just depends on the batch. In fact, the exact microorganisms present tend to vary from batch to batch. This list of constituents gives a full breakdown of the potential bacteria you might find in milk kefir.
KEEP READING: Composition of Milk Kefir Grains: Bacteria & Yeast
Culturing Period / Fermentation Period
This phrase often refers to the time in which the milk kefir grains are working to culture the milk and turn it into kefir. This generally takes 12-48 hours but ultimately depends on the temperature of the culturing area and how tangy you want your milk kefir. (In most cases, the longer it cultures the tangier it will taste, and the thicker it will become.)
LEARN MORE: Timing Milk Kefir to Manipulate Flavor
Dairy-Free Milk Kefir
Milk kefir is typically made with dairy milk as the kefir grains have evolved to feast on the lactose in the milk and thereby exist in symbiosis with dairy milk.
Dairy-free milk kefirs are often made from nut and seed milks. While it is possible to make non-dairy kefir using milk kefir grains, it is a more involved process than making it with dairy milk. The grains must be "fed" with dairy milk before and after each non-dairy batch and we always recommend only using extra grains for these attempts.
Dehydrated / Dried Kefir Grains
Milk kefir grains that have been put into a dormant state by removing all of the moisture. Dried grains have a longer shelf life and can, therefore, be shipped more readily. After activating dried kefir grains, they should behave much the same as fresh kefir grains. They are re-usable and, if taken care of, can be used to make batch after batch of kefir - indefinitely!
GET GRAINS: Milk Kefir Grains
Direct-Set Kefir Starter Culture
Using a direct-set kefir starter culture is another way of making milk kefir. This starter culture is in a powdered form and derived from specific microorganisms designed to mimic those in milk kefir grains. This powder is mixed with fresh milk and allowed to culture for 12-48 hours, depending on the temperature.
A small amount of this first batch of cultured milk kefir can then be used to culture several more subsequent batches, however, it is not re-usable indefinitely like milk kefir grains. Eventually, you will need to purchase more starter to make more kefir.
SHOP: Kefir Starter Cultures
Fresh Kefir Grains
In contrast to dried milk kefir grains, fresh kefir grains that are fully activated and hydrated and/or are ready to culture a new batch of milk, having finished culturing a previous batch of milk. They do not require activation and are ready to make milk kefir immediately. These grains are more sensitive to temperature changes and should be handled with care.
Also known as sweet milk, this is milk that milk kefir grains go into at the beginning of a culturing period. This milk may be raw or pasteurized.
Goat Milk Kefir
Milk kefir made from goat milk rather than cow’s milk. Goat milk kefir is made in exactly the same way as cow’s milk kefir and the flavor is nearly identical as well.
KEEP READING: Goat Milk Kefir
A thin layer of white fuzz that sometimes forms on the surface of culturing milk kefir. This yeast is thought to be innocuous and simply part of a natural culturing process, especially when temperatures and yeast microbes are high. So long as the thin layer of yeast does not become black or contain other colors, this yeast can either be scraped off or stirred in without worry.
A fresh cheese made by straining the whey from milk kefir. This cheese has a creamy consistency and can be refrigerated for up to several weeks.
GET THE RECIPE: Kefir Cheese
Kefir yogurt is milk kefir that has been strained of a bit of its whey in order to create the viscosity and texture of commercial yogurt.
The sticky, viscous milky liquid surrounding the milk kefir grains. This polysaccharide has been touted as containing many health benefits and has been found to impart those benefits to the milk being cultured.
A cultured, probiotic-rich dairy beverage made using kefir grains or a kefir starter culture. Milk kefir is tangy and slightly effervescent with a slight viscosity similar to cultured buttermilk. The genesis of milk kefir is said to have taken place in the Caucuses Mountains.
HOW-TO VIDEO: How to Make Authentic Homemade Milk Kefir
Milk Kefir Grains
The mother culture, rich in enzymes, probiotics, and yeasts, used to ferment milk kefir. Milk kefir grains are not a cereal grain, in the sense that wheat and oats are grains. They are instead made up of simple sugars forming a cauliflower-like appearance and gelatinous texture.
LEARN MORE: How to Find Milk Kefir Grains
Kefir that has cultured so long with the milk kefir grains that thick curds have formed and possibly curds and whey. This kefir will have a strong yeast aroma and is often difficult to separate from the milk kefir grains.
TIPS & TRICKS: Straining Over-Cultured Milk Kefir
The process of removing kefir grains and allowing finished milk kefir to sit at room temperature for 12-24 hours to continue to culture. This directly follows the initial culturing period and is often done to flavor milk kefir with fruits, extracts, or sweeteners. It also tends to mellow the flavor of the milk kefir in the process.
HOW-TO VIDEO: Milk Kefir Second Fermentation
Whole Milk Kefir
Milk kefir made from dairy milk that has not been skimmed or stripped of any of its fat or cream. Using whole milk usually produces a thicker kefir than kefir made with low-fat or skim milk.
Besides bacteria, there are several strains of beneficial yeasts in milk kefir. In the milk kefir grains themselves, both bacteria and yeasts exist in symbiosis with other elements such as organic acids and polysaccharides. While milk kefir's exact microorganism makeup tends to vary from batch to batch, this list of constituents gives a full breakdown of the yeast found in milk kefir.
Now that you know a little more about milk kefir get started culturing milk kefir the easy way, with our DIY Milk Kefir Kit! We include everything you need to get started, just add milk and you'll be culturing deliciously, tangy kefir in no time!