Including fermented foods in your diet is an excellent way to up your healthy bacteria count. Milk kefir, water kefir, kombucha, yogurt, sauerkraut, and no-heat pickled vegetables are all packed with a variety of probiotics and are actually quite easy and inexpensive to make at home.
Since my family started growing and consciously including probiotics in our diet about five years ago, I have noticed increased energy levels, healthier immune systems, and less junk food cravings, among other smaller benefits.
Our kids are extremely picky, so I can only get a little bit in them at a time, but it seems like that's enough. I mix kefir into their smoothies every morning for breakfast, give them small amounts of kombucha, and also use a high-quality probiotic supplement.
If you're new to probiotics, milk kefir is an excellent source to start with because it tastes pretty good and it provides both beneficial bacteria and yeast, as well as vitamins, minerals, and complete proteins.
What exactly are probiotics?
Probiotics are live microorganisms that promote a healthy digestive tract and healthy immune system. If you're into word roots, the Greek root pro- means “promoting" and biotic means "life."
Our body naturally has “helpful bacteria” and “harmful bacteria,” and maintaining the correct balance between these is necessary for optimal health.
Antibiotics and antibacterial products (hand wash, lotion, etc.) as well as poor food choices, lack of sleep, and emotional and physical stress can upset this balance and threaten our bodies’ population of good bacteria.
A bit of interesting history...
Elie Metchnikoff, a Russian zoologist, is known as the “father of probiotics.” In the early 1900s, he observed that Bulgarian peasants lived to extremely old ages despite harsh climate and poor living conditions. In his book, The Prolongation of Life: Optimistic Studies, he attributed these Bulgarian's good health to sour milk and yogurt consumption and theorized that manipulating the intestinal microbiome with the healthy bacteria Lactobacillus could significantly prolong life.
Research continued to investigate this idea, but only within the last 30 years have we really begun to distinguish between types of probiotics and perform studies about their usefulness in our health.
A few common probiotics
There are several different kinds of probiotics that can be identified by genus, species, and strain level, and each has a different job in the gut. I'm noting a few below for readers who are interested in researching probiotic supplements.
*Lactobacillus- there are over 50 species of lactobacilli, which grow in the digestive, urinary, and genital systems, and also in fermented foods (example: kefir). Lactobacilli has been linked to helping with a huge variety of ailments, including yeast infections, UTIs, irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, skin disorders, and respiratory infections.
*Bifidobacteria – The approximate 30 species of bifidobacteria make up most of the healthy bacteria in the colon and intestinal tract, and have been linked with improving the symptoms of IBS.
*Saccharomyces boulardii, also known as S. boulardi, is the only yeast probiotic. It is believed to be useful in treating diarrhea and acne.
*Other probiotics include Streptococcus thermophiles, Enterococcus faecium, and Leuconostoc, among others!
Making Milk Kefir
Making and drinking milk kefir is an easy and tasty way to get loads of good probiotics.
Milk kefir is like a very thin, tangy, drinkable yogurt – about the consistency of a smoothie, and perfect for making them! All you need is milk, kefir grains, glass jar, cheesecloth or other cloth covering, and a non-metal strainer.
Kefir grains are a live yeast/bacteria culture that transforms the milk into kefir. They're gluten free - don't worry! The easiest source for kefir grains is a local friend. If you know someone in your area who already grows kefir, offer to trade him or her for a half gallon of milk (kefir growers can always use milk!). If not, you can order them online for anywhere fro $10-$20. Etsy has many options.
What kind of milk is best and is there a non-dairy option?
As far as milk is concerned, whole fat organic animal milk is preferred to keep the grains growing optimally, but 1%, 2%, or even coconut are okay. If you regularly use something other than whole milk and you notice your grains becoming unproductive or sluggish, put them into a cup of whole milk for a cycle or two to refresh them and they should be good to go again.
1 cup milk
1 t kefir grains
Cheesecloth or other cloth covering
Storage container with lid
Like the ingredients and supplies, the process for making kefir is extremely simple. First, place the grains at the bottom of the jar, add the milk, and cover with the cloth. Do not screw a tight lid on as the carbon dioxide buildup from the fermenting process needs to escape.
Allow the jar to sit and ferment at room temperature for about 24 hours (12-48 hours depending on temperature). During this time, the live kefir grains will transform the milk into kefir, all the while keeping it from spoiling.
After 24 hours, strain the grains out of the kefir. You can use a nylon strainer, cheesecloth, a sprout jar lid, or even a wooden spoon to scoop out the grains. Avoid using a metal strainer or spoon when possible as exposure to metal can weaken the grains over time (although brief exposure should be just fine).
Place the grains back in an empty jar, cover with fresh milk and a loose lid or cloth, and leave this on your counter to ferment for another 24-hour period.
The resulting liquid is milk kefir. You can drink this as-is, make a smoothie with it, or use it in recipes (baking, marinating, salad dressings) in place of yogurt, milk, or buttermilk.
You can also do a second fermentation on the kefir to reduce the tanginess of the flavor or to add other flavors. To do a second ferment, add a flavoring to the milk kefir and leave on your counter with a loose lid for an additional 24-hours.
Chai or black orange teabag
Pumpkin pie spice
Garlic and onion (savory dip)
Taking a Break from Your Kefir
If you are going on a trip or need a break for your kefir, simply put your whole jar (grains and fresh milk) into the refrigerator to hibernate. When you are ready to begin again, place it on your counter and wait 24-48 hours for the grains to create a fresh batch of kefir. It may take a cycle or two for the grains to completely "wake up."
If the Kefir has Separated
If you go to strain your kefir and find it has separated, simply stir it back up before you strain it. The grains may have multiplied and began producing kefir at a faster rate, so check it earlier tomorrow, or divide your grains and compost part of them or share them with a friend.
Stay tuned for future posts on making water kefir, kombucha, yogurt, and other fermented treats!