How to Make Kefir: The Ultimate Guide
Learn how to easily make and flavor milk kefir and water kefir with our ultimate guide. Everything you need to know! We give you two full tutorials on how to make milk kefir and how to make water kefir!
An Introduction to Kefir
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, home-made yogurt was popular all across the country, and most people had – or knew someone who had – an electric yogurt maker. Like fondue pots, most of these ended up collecting dust in basements or attics, but yogurt was here to stay. Most people buy their yogurt in the store today, and it enjoys a huge international market.
Another cultured dairy product that first appeared in the US at about the same time is kefir. Like yogurt, it can easily be made at home. Unlike yogurt, it didn’t catch on in popularity nearly as quickly, and although you could find it in health food stores and natural foods shops, commercial brands of kefir are only now appearing on mainstream supermarket shelves. Kefir is full of nutrients and probiotics, and is being marketed as a good-for-you dairy drink that’s easier to digest than milk alone. And it’s true.
If you’ve been buying your kefir in the store, but aren’t sure if you’ll be able to make it at home, don’t worry! It’s even easier than making yogurt. You don’t need any specialized electrical equipment, but you do need one specialized ingredient: kefir grains.
In this article we are going to walk you though how to make MILK kefir and how to make WATER Kefir. Note that milk kefir and water kefir are completely different types of drinks, each coming from an different species of Kefir grain.
What Are Kefir Grains?
Kefir grains are colonies of bacteria and yeast bound together with carbohydrates. If you’ve ever made kombucha at home then you’ll recognize this as a description of a SCOBY, the symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeasts that ferment and transform sweetened black tea into a tart and fizzy drink. The specific yeasts and bacteria in kefir grains are different, but they do essentially the same work in turning milk into kefir.
When people talk about “kefir” they’re usually referring to milk kefir. This fermented and cultured dairy drink has a long history in northern and eastern Europe, and most people trace its origin to the Caucasus Mountains, on the borders of what are today the countries of Russia, Georgia, Turkey, and Armenia. This area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea contains archaeological evidence of human habitation stretching back tens of thousands of years, and was home to several early civilizations based on herding goats, sheep, and cattle. It’s not surprising, then, that this region is also believed to be the birthplace of milk kefir.
One of the legends of the origin of the first milk kefir grains is tied to the Islamic peoples who moved into this mountainous area. They said that the Prophet Mohammed gave the grains to them, and kefir production was kept as a closely-guarded secret for centuries.
Unlike yogurt, which will culture naturally from the “free-range” bacteria and yeasts in the environment, milk kefir can only be made with kefir grains. The only way that people outside the Caucasus region could get kefir is if they were gifted some of these grains, either with the freshly-made kefir or by themselves. Today, this is still the only way that you can make kefir at home.
Milk Kefir Grains
Milk kefir grains are soft and spongy; that spongy texture is the cellulose that the colony makes and lives in. They’re a creamy white in color, though sometimes they can be more transparent or a darker color. Like a kombucha SCOBY, each colony has a slightly different population of bacteria and yeasts, although scientists have identified several classes of microorganisms that are found in every milk kefir colony.
What’s inside Your Milk Kefir?
- Lactobacillus bacteria make up most of the colony. These bacteria are the ones that do most of the work of breaking down and culturing the milk. Lactobacillus are the bacteria that are also responsible for culturing yoghurt.
- Streptococcus bacteria are also present in milk kefir grains, and are the other main bacteria type that culture both kefir and yoghurt by breaking down the milk sugar called lactose.
- Yeasts (primarily Candida and Saccaromyces) also use lactose to grow and reproduce. They break down the milk sugars and produce ethanol, a type of alcohol. A byproduct of this process is carbon dioxide, which gives milk kefir its slight effervescence.
- Acetobacter bacteria add to the tangy flavor of kefir because they take the alcohol from the yeasts and turn it into acetic acid.
Water Kefir Grains
A similar group of microorganisms organized into symbiotic colonies is known as water kefir. Rather than using milk sugars to grow and reproduce, these bacteria and yeasts use plant sugars. The water kefir grains are made up of Saccaromyces yeasts, as well as Lactobacillus and Streptococcus bacteria. The yeasts break down the sugars into ethanol and CO2, and the bacteria convert the sugars into organic acids and other nutrients. Again, the only way to make water kefir is by starting with water kefir grains.
The true origins of water kefir are also a bit hazy. Many people think that they first started being used in Mexico or Central America, but other people believe that their origins are in the mountainous regions of India or Tibet. Like milk kefir grains, they’re easy to use and easy to grow. Many people turn to water kefir as a probiotic drink if they are avoiding kombucha tea due to the caffeine (though you can make caffeine-free kombucha too).
Because the colonies of bacteria and yeasts evolved differently for water kefir grains and milk kefir grains, you’ll get the best results if you use each type of grain to culture and ferment the liquid it’s used to. However, you can use milk kefir grains to make dairy-free kefir using soy milk, coconut milk, and other nondairy milks.
How to Make Basic Milk Kefir
Here’s our full guide — video and written — to making milk kefir.
Making Milk Kefir: The Ingredients & Equipment
It’s easy, really. You only need a handful of everyday ingredients and your kefir grains. This is your basic dairy kefir, but you can make other types of kefir such as water kefir and non-dairy kefirs.
Note that in the next section, we’ll walk you through how to make Water Kefir as well as this is a general how to make ALL kefir types article.
Equipment For Making Kefir
If you’re already making kombucha at home, you’ve got a set of the standard basic kombucha brewing tools in your kitchen, and that means you have everything you need to make kefir:
- glass jars or stoneware crocks (read our best containtainers for making kefir article)
- tightly-woven cloth for covering the jars during fermentation
- plastic lids for covering the jars after fermentation
- plastic or wooden utensils like spoons and measuring cups
- a plastic or stainless steel mesh strainer
For more info about the exact equipment, read our best equipment for making kefir which covers everything you need to know.
If you’re going to experiment with second ferment kefir then you’ll probably want to get a supply of glass bottles that have flip-top lids, for easier storage. Of course, if you’ve been making bubbly flavorful second ferment kombucha then you already have those as well!
Recommended Kefir Making Equipment
You don’t ‘need’ any of these products below if you have a basic cloth, glass jar, and some containers. But if you want to regularly make kefir, getting some of these recommended products can facilitate a much quicker and faster brewing process. Basically, they simplify things quite a bit. If you want a full list of recommended kefir equipment, read our best equipment for making kefir article.
Ingredients For Making Milk Kefir
- Milk kefir grains
Of course, it is a little more complicated than that, but not much. You need to decide on the type of milk you’re going to use, and you need to decide where you’re going to get your milk kefir grains.
Types of Milk
The symbiotic colony of microorganisms evolved on and in whole raw milk. Whether you’re using goat’s milk, cow’s milk, sheep’s milk, or milk from any other mammal, the milk kefir grains will be happy and healthy in this type of milk, and you’ll find that you have the most active culture.
You can also make milk kefir using skim milk, reduced-fat milk, 1% or 2% milk, and pasteurized milk. Since these are easier to find in stores and supermarkets, most people use pasteurized whole or 2% milk to make their kefir. Because the creamy texture of kefir comes from the fats in the milk, using skim milk or 1% milk will give you a thinner kefir in the end.
NOTE: If you are going to use your milk kefir grains to make nondairy kefir, you will still need some “real” milk to store your grains, or they will not survive.
If you want to know what the best milk for kefir is (or you just want to know the effect different milks have on kefir brewing and taste), then read our ultimate guide to the best milk for kefir post.
How to Choose Milk Kefir Grains / Starter
If you want to make milk kefir regularly, then you need to have some active milk kefir grains. These are the fully activated colonies that will start culturing and fermenting the milk immediately. You can generally buy milk kefir grains from your local health food store and there are many online retailers who sell active grains.
When you start with dehydrated milk kefir grains you will need to plan on extra time to re-hydrate the kefir grains to activate them. This will take up to a week. Once the grains are active, you can make your first batch of kefir.
You can also buy powdered kefir starter culture to make a single batch of kefir, but this will not give you a viable colony that you can keep alive and use for more batches in the future. If you’re not sure whether you want to make kefir regularly yet, it’s a good idea to compare kefir grains and kefir starter culture to see which is best for you.
Best Kefir Grains to Buy
Making Milk Kefir: The Process
You can watch our video about how to make Milk Kefir if you want a video tutorial on the process below. We also have a full written tutorial you should read for even more information.
Follow our Kefir Making Video Tutorial
Also make sure you read our full written tutorial for even more information about how to make kefir!
How to Make Milk Kefir (The Written Guide)
Here’s our written tutorial that you can follow along. We give extra information here!
Step 1: Add Milk to Vessel
Pour your FRESH milk into a clean glass container. We recommend using the highest quality milk you can for better kefir flavor.
Recommended milk to use:
- FRESH Organic milk
- No antibiotics
- Full Fat milk (homogeneous milk)
- Cow milk, but you can use goat milk which gives a nice alternative taste
You can use regular, cheaper milk if you wish, but higher quality milk does make a tastier (and healthier) Kefir. So don’t go cheap on the milk if you can help it!
Step 2: Add the Active milk kefir grains
If you have sourced dehydrated grains, keep in mind that the first couple brew cycles will not give a good ferment. Expect 2 to 3 brew cycles before the Kefir starts to taste proper. It may even take longer.
Step 3: Cover Kefir Jar with Breathable Cloth
Cover the container with a tightly-woven cotton cloth or use a cheesecloth folded back and forth two or thee times
Step 4: Ferment the Kefir
Let the container sit out at room temperature overnight and one more day. The more kefir grains you have, the faster the kefir will ferment. Typically, 1 cup of kefir grains = 1 full day of fermentation. If you have less kefir, it may take a couple days.
When Is Kefir Done?
Use a container that is bigger than the amount of milk you’re using. There should be at least a few inches between the surface of the liquid and the top of the container. In general, you will use 1/2 teaspoon powdered culture or 3 to 5 tablespoons active grains for 1 quart milk.
The finished kefir will look something like this, especially if you’ve left it for a couple days for maximum separation of the whey and kefir curds:
Step 5: Shaken, Not Stirred
Once (or twice) a day, shake the kefir a bit. This keep the kefir creamy and prevents a hardening yeast crust from forming on the top of the liquid. If the weather is warmer, I recommend this.
Step 6: Strain the Grains When Kefir is Finished
Strain Kefir grains with a plastic strainer to remove the grains. If possible, seal the kefir container and shake vigorously first to soften the kefir and make straining out the grains easier. Strain the kefir into another container (the container you will be putting in the fridge). When straining out the kefir grains, you may want to move the strainer around in a circular motion to help ad in the straining process, especially if the kefir is clumped together like cottage cheese. You will have to be quite forceful with the straining in order to break apart the kefir curds and filter out the grains.
Step 7: Second Ferment Kefir (optional)
You can choose to second ferment your finished kefir (after you have removed the grains). See our second ferment section for more info on this.
Step 8: Make a New Batch with Kefir Grains
Place the filtered kefir (without the grains) into another container. You can at this point choose to do a second ferment of the kefir (more info below) or put the kefir in the fridge which will slow down the fermentation. If you put the kefir in the fridge, let it sit for 1 to 2 days to give it a creamier, less sour note.
Note that you can make another batch of Kefir with grains in the same container you brewed the kefir in. You don’t need to wash the container — simply throw the grains back into it and add new milk. Give it a bit of a shake and let sit, repeating the steps.
How Long to Ferment Milk Kefir
You can take out your kefir depending on how you want the taste.
12-18 hours: You get a sweet, non-sour tasting frothy milky kefir
24 hours: You get a kefir that’s effervescent with a slightly tart taste
26-48 hours: You get a thicker kefir that’s more yogurty in consistency and tart (good if you like thick kefir or tart yogurt. Also good if you want to make kefir cheese)
Here’s a picture of kefir in different stages of ferment
If you use powdered culture:
The powdered culture should culture the milk easily within a day.
If you use live kefir grains:
Active cultures may take more time, especially if the container is at cool room temperature (65F) rather than warm (75F to 80F). You’ll notice that the whey (a clear or slightly opaque liquid) will start separating out from the thickened milk. If not all of the milk looks thick, continue fermenting.
If you’re using powdered culture, you can drink your kefir as soon as it has fermented and is thickened and sour. You can save some of the finished kefir to re-culture more milk to make one or two more batches. Store your finished kefir in a covered jar in the refrigerator.
Note that you can, at this point, choose to make a second ferment of your kefir rather than just putting your kefir into the fridge.
Second Ferment Kefir
You can further improve your kefir flavor by doing a second ferment on the kefir (also called double ferment kefir). The process is quite easy and basically involves removing the kefir grains as usual, then bottling up the kefir in a sealed container and optionally adding flavoring such as fruit, tea, spices, and letting the container sit for 1-5 days.
The result is an improved flavor, a more creamy texture, and more effervescence.
Read our complete guide ‘how to second ferment kefir‘.
How to Pause Kefir Making
If you want to ‘pause’ your kefir production, you can put your kefir container with the grains and some new milk, cover it with a lid, and let sit. This will slow down the kefir making process and you can do this for a 1 to 4 weeks without any issues at all. When you are ready to make kefir again, start the process over with NEW fresh milk
Storing Milk Kefir Grains
Although your milk kefir grains are edible, if you’re just starting out you’ll probably want to get a good supply before you start eating them. Strain your kefir before drinking it to remove the milk kefir grains, and then put the grains in a small clean jar and pour fresh milk over them.
If you don’t use the grains within a week to make another batch of kefir, strain them again and cover with more fresh milk.
If you don’t use the grains within a week to make another batch of kefir, strain them again and cover with more fresh milk.
Put a lid on the container and store in the refrigerator.
You can keep Kefir grains in milk for weeks in the fridge (I’ve left mine for a couple months even). Keep in mind you should put kefir grains in FRESH whole milk if you plain on storing them for more than a week in the fridge. If you store your grains for a few weeks or longer in the fridge, it may take a batch or two before they produce their normal amount of kefir.
Milk Kefir Variations
We’ve given you the basic kefir recipe. But you can dramatically change the flavor & texture by using different types of milks — both from different animals and less processed milks.
Raw Milk Kefir: make kefir from raw milk for some of the best tasting kefir you’ll every try.
Different Animal Milks: make different flavored kefir by using different animal milks
- Goat Milk Kefir: a delicious, different tasting kefir.
- Sheep Milk Kefir: a sweeter kefir that’s milk and perhaps the best tasting milk for kefir making — if you can get your hands on it
- Mare Milk Kefir
- Camel Milk Kefir
Non-Dairy Kefirs: It’s also possible to make lactose-free or diary-free kefirs by substituting the milk for something else. You can read our how to make dairy free kefir guide here.
Example if dairy free kefirs:
- coconut milk kefir
- soy milk kefir
- almond milk kefir
- rice milk kefir
How to Make Water Kefir
The process for making water kefir, is almost the same with only the ingredients changed up. The flavor and texture is completely different, however. Water Kefir is a bit like a fermented lemonade or light soda pop. It can also taste a bit like Kombucha. Milk Kefir is thick and creamy, more like a liquid yogurt.
You can buy water kefir grains in natural foods stores and on line, generally from the same retailers that sell milk kefir grains. You can buy them fresh and fully activated, or dehydrated. If you buy the dehydrated grains, you’ll need to plan on an extra week or so before you can make your first batch of water kefir.
We do recommend getting your hands on LIVE water kefir grains over dehydrated. The reason is that you don’t need to wait a week through multiple brew cycles just to reactivate the water kefir grains. Live cultures also tend to have LESS issues (i.e. the grains don’t just suddenly die on you as they might do after being traumatized by the dehydrator)
You can also convert milk kefir grains to function as water kefir grains through a special process. Keep in mind milk kefir grains and water kefir grains are not the same type of grains and the milk kefir grains won’t be as efficient or effective as water kefir grains. Once you convert milk kefir grains to use water, you can’t convert them back to use milk again.
Basic Water Kefir Ingredients
- sugary liquid (water, coconut water, juice, etc)
- water kefir grains
There’s not a lot required when it comes to making water kefir. If anything, it’s even easier than making milk kefir, though you need a different sort of kefir grain (kefir water grains).
Here’s what water kefir grains look like:
The water kefir grains need some type of sugary liquid to grow. You can use regular water, coconut water, or even grape or carrot juice, but using anything other than water may reduce the long-term health of the colony. However, once you have built up a good supply of water kefir grains, you can certainly experiment!
Water Kefir Equipment & Ingredients
The equipment is pretty minimal. All you need is:
- Glass Jar for ferment
- Cloth Covering
- Latch-Style bottles for second ferment or for easy storing of finished kefir
- Funnel (to pour your kefir into smaller bottles for second fermentation or storage)
- Water Kefir Grains
However, if you want to go absolutely minimal, you just need a glass jar and a cloth covering.
You can use the same equipment as you use for milk kefir. The only difference is that since water kefir is much ‘lighter’ and more water-like in substance than dairy kefir, you might want to store the finished water kefir with the latch style bottles. These are also great to have if you want to make a second ferment of the water kefir as well and they are much easier to pour and store your finished kefir with.
Recommended Water Kefir Making Equipment
How to Make Basic Water Kefir: The Process
Here is the basic process for making Water Kefir. You can read our full how to make water kefir article for even more information.
Step 1: Create the Sugar Water
Bring 3 cups of water to a boil, remove from heat, and stir in 3 tablespoons sugar until completely dissolved. Let the water cool to room temperature (about 75F) and pour into a clean glass quart jar. MAKE SURE THE WATER IS NOT HOT. You don’t want to kill the kefir grains when you add them.
Step 2: Add in Kefir Grains
Stir in 3 tablespoons active water kefir grains
Step 3: Straight Flavoring (optional)
If you want to do a straight flavoring during your first ferment, you can easily do so by mixing in flavor into your container.
- Fruit Juice: mix in 1/4 to 1/2 cup of fresh juice or canned juice
- Spices: You can add dried or fresh spices to your water kefir for a unique flavor. Try shredded ginger, dried up lavender, freshly picked lemon verbena, cinnamon powder or sticks, etc.
- Fresh Fruit/Berries: you can add in 1/4 to 1/2 cup of fresh fruit or crushed berries for a nice fruity flavor
- Extract: you can use extracts for additional flavors. For example, 1/2 teaspon of vanilla extract.
Note that after the fermentation is completed (step 4), you can end things here. However, you can, if you have already flavored during this step, also choose to do a second ferment with those flavors to add deeper flavor profile and carbonation.
Step 4: Cover and Ferment
Cover the container with a tightly-woven cloth. Leave at warm room temperature (70F to 80F) but out of direct sunlight two days (on average). As the microorganisms process the sugar in the water, the liquid will start changing from sweet to sour, and some carbonation will build up. Taste the water kefir after the first 24 hours to see if it has started getting sour, and continue fermenting until the flavor is the way you like it.
You won’t get carbonation during the first ferment. If you want carbonation / fizz and or stronger flavors, go to the next step.
Step 5: Second Ferment (optional)
If you want stronger flavors and / or carbonation, then you’ll need to do the second ferment. You can flavor during the first ferment, then seal the results for a couple days to do a second ferment (adds additional depth to the existing flavors AND carbonation) or you can add in the flavoring DURING the second ferment.
Water Kefir, like Kombucha, makes a fantastic second ferment. This means you can drastically improve the overall flavor by second fermenting it with fruit.
Store your finished water kefir in sealed containers in the refrigerator.
Storing Water Kefir Grains
Like milk kefir grains, water kefir grains are edible. However, most people strain their finished fermented water kefir and save the grains to make more batches. If you’re not making another batch of water kefir right away, put the grains in a clean glass jar, cover them with room-temperature sugar water (use the same ratio of 1 tablespoon to 1 cup of water), and cover the container with a lid before storing it in the refrigerator. Strain the grains and add fresh sugar water every week.
Note, if you want our dedicated article about water kefir making, please go hear to read our Ultimate Guide to Making Water Kefir.
Kefir Tips and Tricks
Once you get the basic kefir brewing down, there are some pretty good awesome things you can do with kefir that we’ll talk about.
- Make Kefir Cheese (from milk kefir)
- Second Ferment Kefir (milk or water kefir) for deeper flavor profiles, more effervescence, and extra flavorings (such as strawberry kefir, blueberry kefir, and so on). If you make water kefir, you absolutely should do a second ferment. You get something very similar to Kombucha, but a bit lighter in taste!
- Use different dairy milks for milk kefir to give unique flavors (goat milk, for instance)
- Use non-dairy to make a non-dairy milk kefir (coconut milk kefir, almond milk kefir, etc)
- Convert Milk Kefir Grains to Water Kefir (you can force an irreversible change and make milk kefir work like water kefir grains)
- Eat your kefir grains for a nutritious and gummy-bear like snack!
- Combine Kombucha and Water Kefir during secondary ferment for a delicous hybrid drink!
The Final Word
We’ve walked you through the making of kefir in this article. But don’t stop with just plain old Kefir. You can do a lot of awesome, tasty things with Kefir (Kefir Cheese for example is to die for!). Kefir is a perfect complement to Kombucha, adding another dose of different yet highly beneficial probiotics to your system. For even more probiotics, also consider making fermented vegetables.