Friday, October 02, 2015

Extreme Kitchen DIY: Kephir.

In a post a number of years ago, I explored one of the health-food fads of the late nineteenth century – koumiss, or fermented mares’ milk. I recently saw mention of another fermented milk product called kephir, but unfortunately the article did not clarify for me how it differed from koumiss.

My starting point in this sort of situation is the Oxford English Dictionary. About koumiss it says:

Koumiss: A fermented liquor prepared from mare's milk, commonly used as a beverage by the Tartars and other Asiatic nomadic peoples; also applied to a spirituous liquor distilled from this.
The fermented beverage is used dietetically and medicinally in various diseases, as phthisis, catarrhal affections, anæmia, chlorosis, etc., and for these purposes imitations are also prepared from asses' milk and cow's milk.

The first couple of references given in the OED support an early awareness of the koumiss in Europe:

1598   R. Hakluyt tr. W. de Rubruquis in Princ. Navigations (new ed.) I. 97   Their drinke called Cosmos, which is mares milke.

1607   E. Topsell Hist. Fovre-footed Beastes 332   The Tartarians drinke Mares milke, which they dresse like white wine, and call it Chumis.

And now we move to the OED on kephir:

Kephir: An effervescent liquor resembling koumiss, prepared from milk which has been fermented; employed as a medicine or food for invalids.

Interestingly, the first references given in the OED suggest that kephir is a relatively new beverage even in Russia.

1884   Nature 3 July 216/2   Kephir has only been generally known even in Russia for about two years.
1894   Lancet 3 Nov. 1072   Koumiss and kefyr and examples of sour fermented milk containing an excess of carbonic acid gas.

I was still unclear about the difference, but an English doctor by the name of Willliam Tibbles came to my rescue with his comprehensive reference on Foods, their origin, composition and manufacture (London, 1912.)  One of the topics covered was that of fermented milk products – including both koumiss and kephir. He goes into some detail about the production of the latter:

Kephir is made by means of kephir grains, which contain a special ferment. The mode of its preparation is as follows: Goat's milk is put into a sheepskin bottle, and coagulated with a piece of calf's or sheep's stomach. The bottle is agitated from time to time, more milk being added as the former coagulates. In the process of time yellowish bodies of a seed-like character, and about the size
of a pea, are formed in the mass. These are the kephir grains or nuts, whose formation is essential for the production of the beverage. When about to make kephir, one of these grains is soaked in a small quantity of milk until it swells or is "ripe." The ripened "grain" is then put into the milk, previously warmed, which is to be fermented. Lactic and alcoholic fermentation begins in a few hours,
and is allowed to proceed from one to three days.

Commercial Kephir, according to Zuber, is made as follows: A teaspoonful of the ferment is added to a bottle of milk, which is maintained at the temperature of 15° R. (65° F.) for twenty-four hours, being frequently agitated. It is then filtered, the casein being broken down, transferred to another bottle, securely corked,
and agitated for another twenty-four hours. It is then filtered and transferred to another bottle, and at the end of the third day forms a strong kephir. It should be free from coagula of casein, foam abundantly on removing the cork, and have a creamy consistence."

In Europe and America a similar beverage is made by the fermentation of cow's milk with yeast, and is indifferently called "kephir " or "koumiss." But cow's milk does not contain sufficient sugar to permit of fermentation in this manner without reducing the saccharine content below the point esteemed desirable for
palatability. It has therefore become the custom to add some milk-sugar, cane-sugar, honey, extract of malt, or about 2 per cent, of wheat flour, to the milk. When these substances are added, koumiss can be prepared from cow's milk in the manner indicated above, or by fermentation with ordinary yeast. The following recipes are suitable:

1 pint
Brown sugar
10 grains
Extract of malt
1 ½ ounces
Compressed yeast
20 grains
16 ounces
4 ounces
Brown sugar
2 ½ drachms
Milk sugar
4 drachms
Compressed yeast
30 grains

The yeast and sugar are rubbed together with a little milk until a solution is formed ; then the extract of malt is rubbed into it (when that substance is used). The milk is warmed, the foregoing mixture strained and added to it, and the whole put into a strong glass bottle, corked and wired. The bottle is inverted, and kept at a temperature of 55° to 60° F. for two or three days. It should be agitated daily to prevent the precipitate from forming a dense coagulum, and to enable the ferment to permeate the mass. The milk becomes sour after a few days, and forms a pleasantly acid, thick, creamy, foaming liquid. It should be agitated before being poured out, to insure a mixture of all the ingredients. 


Anonymous said...

A man in Adelaide has kefir grains available commercially. He has quite a write-up on
Jennifer Ekers

Walter Jacobson said...

For more details see -

Apparently the original home of kefir grains was North Ossetia.

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Jennifer and Walter – thanks for your comments and information. My apologies for not responding sooner. I have been beset with problems on my new computer and am only just emerging from a full re-set.
I would love to try kefir, so I must look for a source here in Australia. I think it will be next to impossible for me to find out any authentic points of history about kefir - I dont have the language skills! Here's hoping someone who does can tell us