I drink a lot of kefir that I buy in plastic bottles at the Co-op. I've read on the Internet that it's cheap and easy to make at home out of whole milk, not to mention it would lessen the impact of packaging on our environment. But to make it the traditional way, you have to obtain some kind of fungal "granules" to start the culture, and then it's usually incubated at room temperature. Is it safe to ferment milk like this, or am I just setting myself up to die from some horrible food poisoning?
Of course, a smartass like me only has to hear the word kefir to reflexively make a joke about Kiefer Sutherland. And, like his counter-terrorist TV character Jack Bauer, your willingness to sacrifice your life for your planet makes a good wisecrack even more compelling. Sadly, though, the topics of fermented milk and recycling don't easily lend themselves to associations with terrorist threats and global intrigue. Unless, that is, we're talking biological weapons—in which case you will definitely want to read on for the shocking truth about kefir!
The shocking truth is: kefir's not scary at all; actually, it is quite the health food. I was merely attempting a FOX Network-style teaser like they use to hook you into the next episode of 24. Kefir is white, often bitter and sometimes smells of alcohol (the drink, I mean, not the actor) and is a little-known dairy product that originated as a result of milk preservation in the Caucasus Mountain region near the Black Sea. About a day after adding a starter culture, milk transforms into a gloppy, sour liquid, somewhat thinner than yogurt. Unlike its cousin yogurt—which is made from only bacterial cultures—a kefir starter contains both bacteria and yeast (no fungus). The yeast not only helps protect the milk from unwanted microorganisms, but by continuing incubation longer than the typical 24 hours, it can also produce a bit of alcohol and carbonation. It's not exactly a fizzy White Russian, but the acquired taste falls somewhere between buttermilk and sour cream.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about kefir is the culture itself. Although you can begin a batch with a dry starter, true traditional kefir requires the granules you mention. Looking like a mass of tiny cauliflower florets made of even tinier grains of rice, these kefir granules are the slightly gooey townhouses of the active microbes. Technically called a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast), no one has yet been able to create these "grains" spontaneously from a dry starter culture—excess portions are simply given from person to person after they multiply in milk. This curious obstacle has given rise to a legend that the original grains were given to man by the prophet Mohammad and, therefore, kefir is heaven-sent to help us live healthier (and more neighborly) lives.
Which may be truer than it sounds: Cultured food products, like yogurt, miso and kimchi contain beneficial bacteria or other compounds that aid the human digestive process. These foods are often referred to as probiotic, as the friendly microorganisms discourage the growth of any antisocial bacteria in our intestines. Traditionally made kefir contains a huge range of beneficial microbes (more than 30 species, about three times that of yogurt), many of which break down lactose, giving the beverage a particularly good reputation among those who cannot tolerate the milk sugar. A 2003 Journal of the American Dietetic Association study showed that among a randomized group of lactose-intolerant volunteers, those who drank kefir products noted at least 50 percent less flatulence (bad news only at frat houses). The beverage has also been shown to significantly help irritable bowel syndrome, and kefir shows promise, too, in lowering cholesterol.
Leila, you aren't risking your health by culturing it at home; there are very few reported food-borne illnesses associated with kefir. Because of the huge head start given by the culture granules, the good microbes are nearly always victorious against our enemies. Certainly, though, you should always use clean, boiling-water-sterilized jars and fresh, pasteurized milk. But (in one more example of my obsessive caution), pregnant women, the immune-compromised or the weakened elderly should either check with their doctors before drinking the home brew or simply stick to commercially available kefir. That would, however, leave some plastic bottles to dispose of. I strongly suggest to them that they recycle, or else there may be trouble. I've seen what Jack Bauer does to those who threaten the country, and they definitely don't want a house call.