Yogurt and Kefir
Ancient Cultured Products
by Sandra Brandt
Most changes in life start with something very miniscule, that gradually expands its influence until its environment is transformed. This is true of social and cultural changes, as well as physical and chemical changes. This principle is what yields foods like yogurt and kefir.
Yogurt and kefir are ancient forms of cultured dairy products that are said to have Turkish origins. Even today, we often think of these foods in association with Middle Eastern cuisine, although yogurt has become quite a commonplace food in Western culture as well. Both are very nutritious and beneficial to health.
Both yogurt and kefir can be produced from the milk of any mammal. They can be made from raw or pasteurized milk. Although raw milk is far superior nutritionally to processed milk, it is not easily accessible for most people, due to legal restrictions on its sale. If one cannot obtain raw milk, the next best option is to make yogurt or kefir from store-bought milk. The basic process is the same for both; bacterial/yeast organisms are introduced into fresh milk and given time to transform the milk into a cultured product. However, there are differences in the method and in the actual species of organisms used.
Yogurt making consists of combining a “starter”—which can be a packaged dehydrated product, or simply a small amount of actual yogurt containing active bacterial cultures—with milk that has been heated to a temperature of 108º Fahrenheit. An ordinary inexpensive candy thermometer can be used to achieve this. The mixture must be incubated (retained at that temperature) for a minimum of 4–6 hours, although it can be left longer. This can be done with an electric yogurt making device, or by purchasing or devising one’s own insulated container method. After incubating, open the container and you’ll find that creamy thickened slightly tart yogurt has taken the place of the liquid sweet milk.
Kefir on the other hand is based on “starter grains”—white rubbery colonies of bacteria AND yeast organisms that resemble small cauliflower chunks. When combined with milk and simply left at room temperature for a day or two, a thickened, slightly effervescent product with a mildly tangy flavour is created. The yeast organisms actually produce a small amount of alcoholic fermentation which tend to give the product a somewhat bubbly quality. The starter grains are then strained out of the resulting kefir and can be used again for the next batch. Traditional kefir making often also involves fermenting it further after straining in order to increase the bacteria count, tartness, and effervescence without souring the starter grains unduly. It has been shown that kefir can actually be kept for long periods of time at ambient temperatures without going bad.
Yogurt and kefir starters can be purchased in health food stores or online, where you can find many varieties of cultural strains, especially for yogurt making. If possible, obtain kefir grains from someone locally who is already making kefir, as the grains do expand with time, producing extra ones that can be given away. Once started, you can keep using your own product as starters for successive batches.
Like all fermented and cultured foods, yogurt and kefir have a highly beneficial effect on the milk itself and on the intestinal tract when consumed, especially if uncooked. Although milk is a highly nutritious food, commercial processing often renders it difficult to digest, making much of the nutritional value unavailable to us when we consume it. In addition, many people do not have the ability to digest the lactose component of milk, which is what makes it taste somewhat sweet. Culturing milk is a way to “pre-digest” the lactose, so our bodies don’t have to handle that task. The longer it is cultured, the lower the amount of lactose left in it. The culturing process also introduces valuable digestive enzymes and “good bacteria,” also known as probiotics (meaning “life-giving”) to the gut which facilitate the assimilation of nutrients such as protein, calcium, magnesium, and vitamins from the milk itself. Herbalist and author Susun Weed aptly states that eating yogurt “eases the nerves like a cool soothing touch on an overheated brow,” probably due at least partially to the abundance of the calcium and magnesium.
Our digestive systems are often prone to an imbalance in the various bacterial organisms, due to poor diet, stress, use of prescription drugs, or hereditary weakness in the gut. One difference between kefir and yogurt is that while yogurt is believed to have mostly transitory effects, so that it must be consumed regularly in order to maintain the digestive benefits, kefir seems to have the ability to colonize the gut with a permanent population of healthy organisms, thus keeping this environment clean and healthy for the long term. Kefir also contains more and different beneficial strains of bacteria than yogurt. Another difference is that the curd size of kefir is smaller than in yogurt, which gives it some additional advantage in ease of digestibility, which may be especially valuable for babies, the elderly, and the ill.
Making your own kefir or yogurt is highly preferable to purchasing it. One advantage is the cost. Homemade products involve little more than the cost of the actual milk, while purchasing these products from the store means paying for the milk ingredients plus the manufacturer’s added charges for processing it into a cultured form, which adds up to at least double the price of the milk. So if you use these foods regularly, you can save considerably in the long run by making your own at home, which is quite simple to do. Making your own also means you can control the quality as well as avoiding additives that may be present in the purchased products. Commercial yogurt can also be produced by a shortcut method that allows the manufacturer to culture the milk for a much shorter length of time (resulting in much less good bacteria) and compensate with added thickeners to imitate the texture of naturally produced yogurt.
If using store-bought products, it is advisable to stick to plain natural options with no additives and with live cultures listed as an ingredient. Beware of sweetened flavoured versions, which contain significant amounts of sugars, additives, flavourings, etc. All of these taste sensations can be provided much more nutritiously by buying or making plain yogurt and adding your own choice of natural sweeteners, fruit, and flavourings. There are countless combinations with which to experiment. Avoid yogurts labelled as low fat; the butterfat in dairy products is an important component of the whole food, as it contains vital nutrients and removing it also increases the difficulty of digestion. In addition, low fat milk and yogurt products are usually thickened with skim milk powder which is heavily processed and is known to contain oxidized cholesterol. An extra good version of homemade yogurt is to replace part of all of the milk with cream—this makes a delicious topping for fruits, cereals, desserts, baked potatoes, soups, etc.
The label Greek yogurt has become popular recently. This is yogurt that has some of the whey strained out in order to make a thicker product. Nutritionists again generally recommend a low fat version, as straining increases the proportion of fat, but as mentioned above, this is a misguided concept, as the dairy fat is actually very valuable in the diet.
Non-dairy yogurts, while not so easy to produce at home, are available on the market. Kefir grains on the other hand, can be used to produce many different bubbly drinks, using fruit juice, or water with sugar and/or dried fruit added for the bacteria to feed on, producing a delicious fizzy fruity beverage. Coconut water works well, too. It is important to note that milk kefir grains are different in composition than water kefir grains so make sure to have the right grains for the right result. Information on methods and starter grains is readily available on many internet sites.
Although differing somewhat in texture and taste, kefir and yogurt are interchangeable in most prepared recipes, and can also be substituted for buttermilk in recipes (commercial buttermilk is made by adding a simple culture to skim milk, whereas yogurt and kefir are complex cultures with many more benefits). Some of the many ways they can be used to add probiotic goodness include:
- Mixing or layering with fruit and/or nuts and any other healthy additions to create fruit salads, sundaes, and parfaits.
- Blended into healthy shakes and smoothies.
- As a base for ice cream, popsicles, and frozen desserts.
- As a liquid ingredient in muffins; mix the flour and yogurt or kefir together the day before and let sit at room temperature to make grain flour more digestible. Kefir can also be used as a yeast ingredient in bread-making.
- As a tenderizing marinade for meats. Marinating wild game, liver, or other organ meats in it before cooking also mellows the strong flavours.
- Make your own Greek yogurt by placing yogurt (or kefir) in a cloth-lined strainer and letting the liquid whey drip out into a container underneath for a few hours until the desired consistency is reached.
- Create a soft spreadable cream cheese by the same method as Greek yogurt but letting it drain longer (at least a few days) in order to thicken it further.
- Use as a creamy salad dressing base.
- Use as a skin cleanser and moisturizer.
The New Menopausal Years, Susun Weed
Sandra Brandt has had a lifelong interest in whole natural foods. She lives in Regina, where she gives cooking classes, presentations, and dietary consultations. She can be reached by email: email@example.com. Also see the colour display ad on page 13 of the 18.2 July/August issue of the WHOLifE Journal.