By Joseph Robertia
There are few things in life where hearing, “The slimier it is, the better,” can be equated to good food, but that was the case at a workshop in Kasilof over the weekend.
Pepper Pond, a naturalist, gave a presentation on making and using kefir, a fermented milk drink, to a group of health-minded attendees.
“It seems disgusting but it has innumerable health benefits,” she said, while rolling in her fingers a dime-sized piece of the white, spongy kefir “grain.”
Pond explained that while the kefir grains look like a tiny piece of gooey cauliflower, they are actually a symbiotic culture of yeasts and bacteria that grow rather quickly when a kefir grain is added to milk. It works in almost any kind of milk, from cow to goat, raw to pasteurized, whole to skim. Even almond and coconut milk will eventually ferment.
“As long as it has lactose in it. It breaks down the lactose as food,” Pond said, and it does so at an exponential rate.
“From this dime-sized piece I grew all this in 24 hours,” Pond said while straining a quart-sized jar of fermented milk to reveal a softball-sized clump of kefir grains. She had fermented it in the jar with a loose-fitting plastic lid by letting it sit for a day at room temperature out of direct light.
She passed out small chunks to the workshop participants to begin their own kefir colonies by adding milk to their own jars at home, then went on to explain the uses and benefits of the fermented milk product, which is the palatable part of the process.
“Unlike the grains, the finished product is not slimy. It looks like curdled milk but is more like a yogurt. Although it puts people new to kefir off at first sight because it doesn’t look like the store-bought yogurt, which is smoother and creamier from all the sugar, guar gum and other things added to it,” Pond said.
Kefir milk can be used like buttermilk to make pancakes and other dishes, she said. It can also be made into cheese, salad dressing or smoothies, and is actually much healthier. While yogurt tends to have seven to 10 strains of “good” bacteria, kefir tends to have between 30 and 56. Variations can come from different kefir strains around Alaska, the U.S. and the world.
“It’s part of kefir culture, you share it and would never sell it, which is a good thing because not only can it start to get out of control when you’re growing it at home, but if something ever happened to your own you could call friends you’ve given it to to start your own again,” she said.
Sharing began long ago. While many attribute the origins of kefir to the Caucasus Mountain region of Asia, there are references to kefir in both the Bible and the Koran. In more modern times, kefir has been in demand with back-to-the-Earth types, but is growing more popular in the mainstream, Pond said.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, consumption of kefir started to spike in 2000, when sales jumped by 56 percent from the previous year and have remained steady or growing since.
“It’s really starting to take off with the health conscious, those wanting to move away from processed food, or those suffering from digestive problems,” Pond said, which is how she first got turned on to it two years ago.
Her 18-month-old daughter was having stomach pains and strange stools, which a doctor diagnosed as a gluten sensitivity.
“Within two to three days of being on the kefir, she was back to being my happy, healthy little girl,” Pond said.
The reason was the probiotics in the kefir. Different than yogurt, which aids the digestive system but passes through the body within 24 hours, kefir bacteria take up residence in the gut.
“It helps heal inflammations by creating a colony that remains in the gut,” she said.
While there are few medical studies to substantiate these health benefits, in holistic circles it is claimed that, in addition to improving digestion, kefir can also help with ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, constipation, yeast infections and controlling blood sugar.
It was these types of benefits that interested many of the workshop participants.
“I have a daughter with gluten issues, so this is a way of trying to help her,” said Judy Fischer, of Kasilof.
When Fischer’s daughter was a toddler, she would cry, break out in rashes and try to put snow on her belly, saying it was “burning.” After a trip to the doctor and a few blood tests, it was determined she had a food allergy.
“These days it takes more work to get the nutrition we need,” Fischer said. “So learning about kefir is interesting and it’s empowering to know I can create meals that are healthier for my children.”
Lanie Brown, of Kasilof, said she had wanted to learn about health benefits of kefir for her family.
“Our big thing is to try and avoid anything processed. We’re trying, as a family, to go back to eating natural things and I’m excited about trying it. I wouldn’t drink it plain, but I’m looking forward to using it in sour creams, salad dressings and smoothies,” she said.
Of course, with anything made at home, there are health cautions to kefir production, according to Jay Fuller, assistant state veterinarian with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
“The fermentation process isn’t the concern, it would be the introduction of contamination from something on your hands or a utensil in the kitchen, because something introduced and then kept at room temperature could create a breeding ground for bacteria, so anyone attempting this should keep hygiene at the forefront of their mind and keep everything as clean as possible,” he said.
If sterilizing jars and other utensils, as for home canning, Fuller said that the risks are only as dangerous as the product being fermented.
“If you were to use raw milk or any raw dairy product it creates a significant risk,” he said. “But if you were to make kefir from pasteurized milk, there would be no more risk than if you drank pasteurized milk out of the jug.”