The Ultimate Guide to the Best Milk for Kefir Making
What’s the best milk for making kefir?
This is actually a pretty complicated question. Because the RIGHT milk is critical to the taste and texture of your kefir, it’s very important to choose the best milk. The wrong milk will ruin your kefir. The right milk will make it divine.
Using different milk fat percentages and using different animal milks will completely change the results. If you love kefir, you can do some real flavor experimentation by trying out different milks. We’ve devoted this entire 3000 word article to helping you decide what milk does what to your kefir.
Ultimately the best milk for kefir is the one that the grains thrive in and that you enjoy drinking the most.
However if you are new to kefir making there are some pointers to start you in a positive direction. Whatever the goodness is found in the original milk used is going to be found in the resulting kefir but more readily available to be utilized by your body as a probiotic and more easily digested.
The milk that you ultimately choose to use will affect the available nutrition, the consistency, the texture and the flavor of your kefir.
Kefir grains of good productive health in the right conditions will usually ferment and grow in the milk from most mammals. This includes cows, goats, sheep, camels, buffalos and horses to name a few. If you keep a yak at the bottom of your garden you can use yak milk; I am sure it would be delicious and nutritious.
Types of Milk Choices
Think it’s easy to choose a milk? We’ll it’s NOT. There’s a lot of different milk variations, even among the same animal milk.
Take regular old cow milk for example. You can buy it as:
- Non Organic
- Full Fat
- Reduced Fat
- *some combination of the above
Raw, that is, unpasteurized whole fat milk has traditionally been used with kefir way back before the modern milk industry was ever a thing. Kefir originated somewhere in Russia among the mountain peoples. These groups would not have been consuming pasteurized milk. Nor would they have consumed reduced fat milk or any such variation. Raw, unpasteurized cow or goat milk must have been used. THIS is what kefir was first brewed in.
Now, however, you have the choice of raw, pasteurized, organic and non organic, full fat, reduced fat, homogenized or a mixture of such milk treatments, when choosing milk to make kefir.
Our Recommendation: Pasteurized or Unpasteurized Cow Milk
Cow’s milk is usually the milk readily available in the western world and it is perfectly fine. It has however often undergone various treatments to ensure it is safe to consume or to improve longevity so some types are better for making kefir. Milk that is either unpasteurized or pasteurized will make good kefir.
Note – Using genuine kefir grains is always the best option as commercial starter powders cannot hope to emulate the symbiosis of original kefir grains.
Avoid Milk That’s Ultra High Temperature Treated
These have developed to destroy possible dangerous organisms in raw milk and to improve longevity for storage.
Raw milk has had no treatment and contains living bacteria some of which may beneficial to humans, some pathogenic. It should always be super fresh and milked from healthy animals eating good food.
Pasteurized milk has been heat treated to temperatures minimum 161oF for short periods which removes pathogens and improves shelf life. The milk still requires refrigeration and should be used within a few days.
However milk that is Ultra High Temperature treated (UHT) to temperatures over 275oF has had almost all natural living organisms destroyed and when in a sealed container can be stored for weeks, even months. Success with UHT milk is not consistent and the grains will always require a refreshing meal in full fat milk on a frequent basis.
Milk Fat Percentage and Kefir Making
Here’s a look at what to expect given the type of milk fat percentages you use to brew kefir with (full fat, homogenized, 2%, 1%, and skim).
Full Fat Milk
In natural milk, especially cow milk, the lighter fats will naturally rise to the surface where it can easily be separated to produce cream and reduced fat milk of various degrees. This is called full fat milk.
To prevent the fat from rising to the top, cows’ milk is often homogenized by a mechanical process to emulsify the fat molecules down to such a small size that they remain suspended throughout the liquid without any agitation.
Full Fat vs Homogenized Milk for Kefir Making
If you choose the former (full fat), the fat will rise as cream to the top of your kefir as per milk, whereas in the latter (homogenized) they will remain suspended throughout the milk. The overall fat percentage will be the same in the milk.
Keep in mind though there may be a difference in kefir taste as the kefir grains sit at the bottom of your container. A homogenized milk will provide more overall milk fat to feed the grains, while full fat milk may have less ‘food’ for the kefir grains that lie on the bottom. This may produce an uneven kefir. To balance this out, if you use full fat milk, we recommend you shake the kefir vessel once, twice, or three times during the day to help even out the fat distribution.
Reduced Fat Milks
Reduced fat milks are 2%, 1%, and skim milk.
You can use milk that is fat reduced to make kefir. However the kefir will be thinner and you may find the grains do not thrive, perhaps even begin to die (unlikely to die in truth, but the kefir grains won’t be doing as well).
In this case you should revive them by placing them in full fat milk for 24 hours or until they are healthy and multiplying again before going back to reduced fat milk.
You can even use cream to make kefir which will produce a product similar to sour cream however separating the grains may prove a little difficult. Rinsing them in milk before the next batch may help.
Types of Dairy Milks You Can Use (and the effect on the kefir)
It is always important to note that milk from different breeds and from each individual animal will always vary from day to day, from season to season according what their diet and health is.
Milk purchased from a commercial operation will attempt to even out any of these variations by blending milk from various animals. Small operations will not have this option however you can also have a more personal understanding of exactly where the milk for your kefir is coming from.
Cow Milk & Kefir Making
Milk from cows has the advantage that it is readily available in many variants according to your personal taste and kefir grains are quite happy fermenting and growing in it.
It does however contain lactose which a percentage of the population find difficult to digest. The good news is that kefir grains actually use this lactose milk sugar for food and break it down producing lactic acid which gives kefir most of its sourness and which most people can digest easily. So provided the fermentation process is complete enough, people who cannot tolerate cows’ milk can actually drink “cow kefir”!
Cows milk has many worthy nutrients including calcium, phosphorus, iron, potassium, and other trace elements as well as numerous vitamins, especially the some of the important B Group including folic acid and also Vitamin C. As with any milk it also has many essential amino acids which remain in the resulting kefir.
Goat Milk & Kefir Making
Goat milk appears to be better tolerated by humans than cows’ milk and elicits far fewer allergic responses. Lactose concentration is lower although the effects are less of a concern as kefir removes much of the lactose, converting it into easier to digest lactic acid.
Goat milk is also closer to human milk composition for key elements and is perhaps easier for humans to digest. It has smaller size fat globules with less of a tendency to produce cream on the surface so produces a thinner kefir.
If you have any problems with lactose intolerance, we recommend goat milk. Goat milk also takes on a wonderful, rather pungent kefir flavor. You may, or may not like it (I personally do).
Sheep Milk & Kefir Making
Sheep milk is sweeter and more nutritious than cows’ or goats’ containing more protein and fats as well as being rich in vitamins and minerals. It contains higher amounts of short chain fatty acids which help to make milk easier to digest as well as other health benefits.
Sheep milk kefir will be nutritious, creamier and thicker than both cow and goat. If you have to choose the ‘best’ animal milk for kefir that produces the richest flavor and creamiest texture, sheep milk is our pick.
Keep in mind that it was likely sheep or cow milk that the original kefir makers hundreds (or thousands) of years ago likely used.
Water Buffalo & Kefir Making
Water buffalo produce a milk that is highly nutritious, high in fat, sweet like sheep’s milk, plus is high in calcium and Vitamin C. If you can get it, it will make a delicious kefir. You’ll probably have to go to a specialty store for this as you won’t be finding buffalo milk at your regular grocery store.
Other Exotic Animal Milks
Other mammal’s milk that may be available are camel, water buffalo and mares’ milk. I have not tried these so leave a message below if you have any experience with these milks. These milks will certainly work for kefir making, however. Expect different flavored kefir.
Non-Dairy & Kefir
If you can’t handle any lactose at all (remember, kefir has less lactose than regular milk — if you are lactose intolerant, you can often drink kefir with minimal or no problems) and using something like goat milk is not an option, then you can make alternative non-dairy kefirs.
Some popular choices:
- Coconut Milk Kefir
- Rice Milk Kefir
- Soy Milk Kefir
- Almond Milk Kefir
You do get a fermented kefir like drink. However, the grains will not do well in multiple brewing cycles with these non-dairy kefirs. You’ll need to rotate your grains back into dairy milk eventually. You could also look at water kefir, which is a different sort of drink altogether and more similar to Kombucha or a fermented lemon juice type drink.
Please read our article How to Make Non-Dairy Kefir Milk article.
Raw Milk Kefir
Because kefir was originally a method of fermenting milk at room temperature without the use of any refrigeration at any stage is has certain properties that preserve the milk to be consumed over much longer periods that one could safely consume any milk, raw or pasteurized.
Fermenting milk with kefir grains to produce kefir actually inhibits unwanted organisms from developing including moulds during fermentation of milk. Research shows that fermentation at room temperature is actually more effective against growth of pathogens such as Listeria monocytogenes and E-Coli strains than fermenting under refrigeration.
However there is some risk using raw milk from other illnesses that are not destroyed by the kefir grain fermentation process. Ultimately the safety rests on the quality of the milk – it must always be as fresh as possible and should always come from healthy well fed animals that are kept in clean natural environments.
If you cannot be sure of where your milk originates, I would recommend that you always use pasteurized milk.
If you have access to farm fresh raw milk, you might consider making kefir. By far raw, organic milk produces the best flavor and texture kefir, but you have to weigh the risks. In our opinion, as long as you get fresh milk from a farm from a trusted source and you immediately make kefir with it (and don’t put it in the fridge for a few days THEN make kefir), you should have no issues. But again, we leave this up to you to decide.
Read our how to make raw milk kefir guide.
So What’s the Best Milk for Kefir
I’ve given a selection of what I have found to be the best milk for kefir. Note that for these best picks, also try to get antibiotic free milk. I choose organic milk where possible, but organic does not necessarily mean antibiotic free.
Best Milk Fat Types for Kefir
#1 Organic Raw Full Fat Milk (antibiotic free if possible)
Organic raw, full fat milk produces the best tasting kefir. This type of milk is what the original kefir makers used. Just drinking raw, organic full fat milk from the farm is an experience in itself and vastly better than any supermarket milk you’ll try. But again, unpasteurized (i.e. raw milk) comes with risks. Only use raw milk from a trusted source. And make kefir right away.
#2 Organic Pasteurized Full Fat Milk (antibiotic free if possible)
Organic pasteurized full fat cow milk is next recommendation. This is a milk you can likely get at your grocery store or an organic grocery store. Because the milk has been pasturized, the pathogen risks are eliminated. Thee full fat gives a better flavor than skim, 1%, 2%, or homogenized.
#3 Organic Pasteurized Homogenized Milk (antibiotic free if possible)
We prefer full fat over homogenized. Remember that full fat is the milk as it is, with the fat rising to the top of the milk. Homogenized has been processed so the fat is mixed in with the whole milk.
# 4 Organic Pasteurized 2% Milk
Always choose full fat or homogenized milk over the fat reduced milk. The reason is that kefir grains ‘eat’ the milk sugars (i.e. the lactose) and break it down into something else. More milk fat means better quality food for the kefir. This means a better tasting, creamier kefir.
Other Milk Qualities to Look For
Organic vs Non Organic
I’ve found organic just makes a better flavored Kefir. Better quality food for the cows mean better quality milk. Better quality milk means better tasting kefir.
Antibiotic vs Antibiotic Free
If you have a choice and can get yourself soem antibiotic free cow milk, even better. Just because you get organic cow milk, doesn’t mean the source cows are antibiotic free. Cows fed with antibiotics will have antibiotic traces and hormones passed on to the milk. The very milk you drink. So get antibiotic free milk if you can.
Free Range Cattle / Animals vs Caged Animals
Another ‘quality’ you can look for is milk sourced from free-range cattle (if dealing with cow milk. Sheep, Goats, or other animal milk tend to be free range). These are cows that roam free rather than caged up in pens. Free range cows make for much better tasting milk.
Do Not Use These Milks
- Skim Milk
- 1% Milk
These tend to give a thin, flat-tasting kefir that’s not creamy or thick. You can still use them in a pinch to make kefir. But the end result kefir does not taste very good.
Best Animal Milk for Kefir
I can’t give you a necessary best animal milk as tastes vary quite a bit on what sort of milk you like the best. But here’s my personal ranking.
#1 Sheep Milk
Sheep have less lactose than cow milk and produce a sweeter, creamier milk than goats. Sheep also tend to be free ranging and graze on natural grass. You can find antibiotic, free range, sheep milk if you look.
The end result is a creamy, sweet kefir that’s something to die for. It may be a challenge to get sheep milk, but if you can get some, GET IT.
#2 Goat Milk
Goat milk is rather strong. You either love it or hate it. I personally love it. It makes a unique tasting kefir that I find I personally prefer over cow milk.
#3 Cow Milk
This is the milk that 99% of you will probably choose. It’s the cheapest and the most convenient to buy. If you can, get raw, organic, free range, antibiotic free full fat cow milk. If you can’t, then get some organic pasteurized full fat milk.
Full fat milk makes a better tasting kefir than homogenized milk. But homogenized milk makes a better kefir than 2% milk.
And 1% and skim milk make a horrible kefir.
The Final Word
So there you an outline of milk available to make great kefir.
Full fat milk from any animal is probably going to produce the most successful ongoing kefir fermentation. However the choice really is yours! Let us know which you prefer.