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Culturing Kefir: Day One

Last week, I started a deep dive into studying about the gut biome and probiotics. I’d long known the value of keeping yogurt in my diet – I have IBS and as long as I eat yogurt several times a week, the flares are less frequent and less severe – but the research shows that our gut biome has influence on way more than just our gut.

The gut has more than 100 million nerve cells, effectively functioning as a “second brain.”

Not only that, the microorganisms that make up the gut biome aid in digesting food, making nutrients more available for the body to use, as well as produce hormones and neurotransmitters that regulate body and brain functioning.

Who you are, your mood, and even your personality, seem to be fundamentally affected by the 2-6 pounds of microorganisms that inhabit your body. We are not just one being – we are a symbiosis of millions of beings.

After spending hours reading articles, scientific journals, and blog posts about the gut biome and probiotics, food fermentation, and the many ways fermented foods have held status in the diets of virtually every world culture, I came across kefir, a European cultured milk, originating in North Ossetia, a region in the Caucasus Mountains.

The origins of kefir aren’t mysterious, but they are intriguing. Called “the grains of the Prophet,” they were said to have been given to the Orthodox peoples of Ossetia by the Prophet Mohammed and they were closely guarded by the families who held them. There were religious prohibitions against giving the grains to outsiders, and those prohibitions held firm for centuries, until Russian doctors wanted to be able to mass produce kefir after studying its beneficial effects in treating tuberculosis and intestinal disorders.

There’s a whole story about spies and princes and how a prince was forced by the Tsar to give ten pounds of kefir grains to a woman who was kidnapped by his enemies, and that’s how Russia was able to start producing kefir commercial in the early 1900s, and I absolutely recommend you do some Googling to see the fascinating history of this weird little colony of microbes.

All modern kefir is a descendent of that ten pounds of kefir grains that were forced from an Ossetian Prince after centuries of the grains being religiously protected.

There’s a whole lot to contemplate there, if you’re willing to sit with it.

Currently, I have a jar of milk sitting in my cupboard with about 1/2 cup worth of kefir grains in it.

They came in the mail yesterday, and I started a pint of milk with them yesterday, but as expected – I did a lot of research – they are a little bit slow culturing because of the shock of transportation and being introduced to a new environment.

They did start to culture the milk – there’s a distinct sour-yeasty smell to the milk, not spoiled, but cultured. However, they aren’t thickening it up the way a fully active colony will do, so I changed their milk today, gave them a fresh pint, and gave the culture from yesterday to the cats who loved the pre-digested goodness.

And that’s part of what culturing does – it pre-digests foods that can be hard to digest. I’m lucky – I have the gene that allows adult digestion of lactose. I can drink all the milk I want, eat all the cheese I want, and never have any issues with upset tummy from it. My husband on the other hand? Half a glass of milk and his guts are gurgling. Cultured milks, however, he has no problem with.

Kefir is different from yogurt, both in how it’s produced, and the final output, but they are similar as both the yogurt microbes and the kefir microbes digest the lactose and produce acids that change the taste of the milk, curdle it, and preserve it.

It was both the difference in making it – kefir is easier and takes less steps than yogurt, and less equipment – as well as the extra microbes – yogurt is cultured with bacterial colonies that you can’t see, kefir is cultured with colonies of yeast and bacteria that create structures you can actually see and hold – that turned me onto kefir.

With yogurt, I have to heat the milk to 175 degrees, cool the milk to 110 degrees, add the yogurt culture, and keep it warm between 100-110 degrees for 24 hours.

With kefir, I fill a mason jar with milk, add the grains, put a lid on it, stick it in the cupboard for a day or two, strain the grains out, put them in new milk, and use the kefir for whatever I want to use it for – and recipes abound because once you start a kefir culture, you’re going to keep having new kefir every day or so since you have to keep the culture active or it will die.

Getting yogurt culture is, admittedly, easier than getting kefir grains was, but not by much. To get yogurt cultures, I just buy a container of plain organic yogurt with active live cultures. Use a tablespoon or two of that in the heated and cooled milk and you’re good to go. You only have to buy one container of yogurt, and then just reserve some from every batch for the next batch. You can keep it in the fridge until the next time you want to make yogurt and the cultures will stay active.

For the kefir grains, I had to order them online. I got my from Poseymom.com, they came in less than a week, and so far, so good. I let a jar of milk with a lid sit out for a couple of hours to come to room temperature, but that’s actually an unnecessary step. You can put the kefir grains right into cold milk and then let it set on the counter and the culture will work just fine, which is what I did today when I changed the milk.

Kefir is a living colony of beneficial bacteria and yeasts that when consumed helps to repopulate the gut biome with the sorts of beneficial microbes that support immune function, neurotransmitter production, and digestion.

Because it’s a living colony, it has to be cared for, fed daily, in order to continue living. When you start working with kefir, you’re taking millions of tiny beings into your care and building a symbiotic relationship with them.

Get mystical about it.

There is something absolutely breathtaking to me about caring for these microscopic creatures who will then become a part of me, joining my gut biome, and caring for me.

This mutual care isn’t often extended to the tiniest of creatures – it’s often reserved for fellow humans, and more and more, not even then.

We find ourselves in the midst of an ongoing humanitarian crisis with the President of the United States presiding over active genocide.

If we can’t even care for the least among us – the microbes that join our bodies to care for us – then is it any wonder we struggle to care for those whose lives we only see through the media?

We humans have become so disconnected from the world that sustains us, and all the ways She does that, and I suspect that disconnect is closely tied to non-animist spiritual practices. When we de-souled the world around us, declaring only humans – and then later, begrudgingly, higher order animals, had souls, we stopped seeing the deep interconnection that we have with the world. And not just interconnection, but interdependence.

These weird little bugs, contained in polysaccharide grains, are now dependent on me to provide them food in the form of milk every day. And in exchange for providing them food, they provide me food – pre-digested, nutrient enriched, cultured milk. And many of them will literally join my body, colonizing my gut, and producing serotonin, vitamins, and enzymes to aid not just in my digestion, but my whole body and brain functioning.

They’re special, and they need to be treated as such.

The Ossetians knew that when they protected them with religious laws.

We need to remember that, not just with my kefir grains, but with everything in this world. It’s all connected, and when we defile one part of the web, we defile the whole.

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