I have bought and tried out many different milk cultures over the years – piima, viili, fil mjolk, heirloom buttermilk culture, Flora danica….there were more, but those were the ones I remember clearly. While all of these cultures made different and interesting forms of sour milk, there was one problem – they were incredibly high maintenance.
A long time ago, milk was milked from clean, healthy udders into wooden or skin containers. These were set aside for the cream to rise to the top and be skimmed. Some of the milk or cream was left unskimmed, and on its own developed into different forms of cheese, depending on the location, the plants the animals were grazing on, and the ambient temperature. This was the origin of all the interesting traditional cheeses, buttermilks, and sour milks.
These natural cultures were strong and hardy, and people could reproduce them by adding some of their good-tasting soured milk to fresh milk.The milk cultures you can buy now have been selected for top performance…..under certain (sterile) conditions. If you add them to raw milk, the beneficial bacteria present in the milk will eventually kill the culture after a few generations.
In order to maintain the culture as you bought it, you must sterilize a jar by boiling, then sterilize milk (or buy pasteurized milk that has had its natural flora wiped out by heat), and feed the culture at least once a week.
Once a week doesn’t sound like such a big commitment, but it just never worked out for me. I would get busy, as we always do, in the height of the milk season, the culture would get pushed to the back of the fridge, and I would find it months later, covered in slimy blue mold and feel so guilty for killing it with neglect once again!
This is why I now maintain only ONE culture – kefir. I chose it because it has a strong and diverse group of yeasts and bacteria that include both thermophilic (heat-loving) and mesophilic (likes a moderate temperature) cultures. That means that you can tweak the outcome of the culture based on what temperature you keep it at. If it cultures at a higher temperature, you favor the thermophiles (like the ones that make yogurt). If it cultures at a cooler temperature, you get a more mild flavor, like viili or fil mjolk. And the best thing about kefir is that it is really hard to kill!
Kefir thrives on being fed fresh, still-warm-from-the-udder milk, and does not mind the competition from the small amounts of pre-existing bacteria in the raw milk. When the milk season is over, I fill a jar with fresh cold milk, add my grains, and keep them in the fridge for the 3-4 months we don’t have milk until the calving and kidding season again. Unlike so many other organisms, kefir does not have programmed cell death – meaning it is one of the immortals that will keep going forever if properly fed.
There are two ways to culture from kefir – you can use a small amount of kefir from a batch, or you can add the kefir grains, which look like little blobs:
Culturing from kefir will only get you a few generations, but culturing with the grains gives you…microbial immortality (literally – the organisms that make up kefir don’t have programmed cell death). It is easy to add them, let the sit until the milk thickens into a soft curd, strain them out, and put them into fresh milk again. The kefir can then be made into smoothies, used for baking, drinking, making cheese and yogurt.
It also makes one of the best lotions, and is a powerful and effective sunburn remedy. For dry, wrinkling, aging skin, try rubbing on some kefir. It immediately moisturises and smooths your skin. For sunburns, apply several times a day, and the sunburn quickly fades. It makes any mild sunburn go away overnight. For more severe sun exposures, it immediately cools the skin, soothes the discomfort, and speeds healing.
One of the things that first stumped me about keeping kefir was a myth that kefir should never touch metal. This was finally disproved by someone who kept two kefir cultures going, one that never touched metal, and one that was strained with a stainless steel strainer. After a year, there was no discernible difference between the two cultures. Certainly you don’t want to culture milk in a metal container, but you don’t have to run out and buy a plastic strainer to strain it (like I did)!
Some Troubleshooting Tips:
1. Off-flavors: This could be from too long of culturing, or from the milk itself. Occasionally when it has been cold and it took forever for the milk to finally curdle, I have gotten off-flavors. If it has been awhile since you have cultured with them, they may need a few feedings to “wake up”. Feed them a couple of times, using fresh milk, preferably warm from the udder, and use the resulting kefir in baking or for quick breads like waffles and pancakes. Try tasting it again after a couple of feedings.
2. Clumps Up And Becomes Curds And Whey, Not Drinkable Kefir: Milk may not be fresh, or it could be culturing at too high of a temperature. Use fresh milk, cold from the fridge to start, and see what happens. It also could be from using too many grains. Using just one tablespoon of grains per quart of milk can keep it from tasting funky.
3. Won’t Set Into Curd: The ambient temperature is probably too cool. If you have just bought freeze-dried grains, it takes them a few feedings to get into the swing of things.
Favorite Kefir Pancake Recipe:
1 1/2 cup kefir
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cup einkorn flour, or unbleached wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon coconut sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup melted butter (plus more for frying the pancakes)
- Start the pan or griddle heating, and begin gently melting the butter
- Beat the egg and kefir together.
- In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, sugar, and salt.
- Beat the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients with a fork, and drizzle in the melted butter. Beat until smooth.
- Fry the pancakes on the hot griddle or pan, adding a small pat of butter between each batch.
Makes about 12-16 pancakes, depending on their size.