Experiments in Milk Kefir.

A few years ago, I became overzealous with cultured foods.  I tried culturing everything from leftovers to condiments, and had buttermilk, yogurt, kombucha, and several types of experimental vinegars (not to mention the sourdough) all vying for attention around the kitchen.  Slowly, a few of the cultures lost their "oomph", victims I'm guessing of cross-contamination.  I began to streamline my cultured life, focusing on the things that I loved most and were most practical for me to continue with, and by default reducing the amount of stress of caring for all of the little “children” with varying needs and schedules.

First to go was buttermilk.  I loved making homemade buttermilk, but with yogurt also being made, I couldn’t justify keeping both – especially when the best quality milk I can find runs me $4.50 per half gallon.  I never drank plain buttermilk either, so I was keeping it solely for baking purposes.  Yogurt filled in this gap nicely, especially when I found a no-heat, Scandinavian culture at Cultures for Health called viili.  I loved it completely, and used it exclusively for about a year and a half until it died out on me.  I tried to restart it from some extra dehydrated, and didn’t have any luck.  I took to buying some local yogurt that was made from non-organic but also non-homogenized milk, and it was so good that for the last year I just called it good enough.  I was nice to have the break from weekly worry, even though it only took seconds to perpetuate the culture.  With a new baby on the way it just seemed refreshing not to do every little thing myself and to take it “easy” while I still could.

soaked soda bread
Kefir soaked soda bread: click the photo for recipe... 

Maybe because this winter got so long, I started feeling lonely for additional culture in my life.  I tried again to reactivate some powdered viili yogurt culture without luck.  Is there too much sourdough in my atmosphere around here?  After the arrival of Tartine #3 and the many recipes in it using milk kefir, I decided this was my new solution to a probiotic, milk-like baking and drinking medium.  Holly L. sent me a loving start from Minneapolis back in February, and every 24 hours since I’ve been harvesting a cupful of milk kefir.

The milk kefir grains are healthy and multiplying, and from what I’ve read the symbiotic relationship between the bacteria and yeasts (similar to kombucha) create more priobiotic punch in the finished product than a standard yogurt or buttermilk containing bacteria strains alone.  Mostly I culture whole milk, but culturing heavy cream is superior, and it’s good in absolutely everything – particularly as an ingredient in baked goods and stirred last minute into soups.  It seems to bake up heavier than yogurt or buttermilk however; there is a learning curve for me as I go about converting.

whole wheat kefir banana bread.
Whole Wheat Kefir Banana Bread - another recipe link if you click the photo!

Last week, I decided it’s been too long since I’d made ice cream and I was itching to try one made with milk kefir as a main part of the base.  On internet perusal, most people either heated the kefir or omitted the eggs – but I wanted no heat to come to my kefir and I wanted an egg yolk base to my frozen concoction.  I compromised my technique, heating 4 egg yolks with a small amount of whole milk to the 170 degree mark, then combining it with cold heavy cream and whole milk kefir.  The result was a mildly tangy, probiotic rich ice cream that I loved.  It was creamier and more like soft serve after about 2 hours in the freezer, and then slowly morphed into a more icy, crystalline structure that was still soft enough to scoop.  A week later, it’s still delicious!

milk kefir ice cream

This milk kefir ice cream seems to have a naturally lemony taste, which could be enhanced by including some zest if you like that sort of thing… I actually added a tiny bit of almond extract which lends a pleasant bitter note in the aftertaste.  I would omit that if playing up the citrus zest.

Milk Kefir Ice Cream (inspired by recipes from David Lebovitz and the Bojon Gourmet)
yields about 1 quart
  • 1 1/4 c. whole milk kefir
  • 1 c. heavy cream
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 3/4 c. whole milk
  • 1/2 c. granulated sugar
  • 2 T. brown sugar (light or dark)
  • 1 t. vanilla extract
  • 1/4 t. almond extract (optional)
Combine kefir and heavy cream in a large bowl or quart jar.  Beat the egg yolks briefly in a small bowl and set aside. To a small sauce pan, combine whole milk and the granulated and brown sugars and heat over medium heat stirring with a spatula until the sugars melt. Temper the egg yolks with the warm milk, then add them to the saucepan.  Increase the heat a bit, and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture just thickens (or until the temperature reaches 170 degrees).  Pour into the large bowl or jar with the kefir and heavy cream, add the vanilla and optional almond extract and stir well.  Chill thoroughly, preferably for 24-48 hours, before churning in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer instructions.

milk kefir scones
That's a good amount of the new local flour I just discovered from Lonesome Stone Milling.  I can't be more excited to begin baking with Wisconsin grown and milled organic flour...

Last Friday, I used milk kefir cream in the Tartine #3 recipe for whole grain scones, the recipe I'd had my eye on since first cracking that book open, and probably the one that made me anxious to start my own milk kefir culturing in the first place. I made my version with Cara Cara orange zest and some of the blackberries I had hoarded in my freezer since last summer.  Without a doubt, they were the messiest endeavor I'd ever encountered, but the result was thankfully more than worth it.

milk kefir scones

I cut 16 scones instead of 12 (which would have been massive in my opinion), and froze them all.  The point of scones to me is baking them from the freezer, and these passed this test.  They might not have been quite as flaky as baked fresh after forming, but they were perfect.  Not too sweet, flaky and crisp on the outside - I was so pleased that I had kept the blackberries for such a worthy pastry.  (When baking scones from frozen, I give them about 40 minutes at room temperature before they go into the hot oven.  I look for just being able to indent them with my fingertip - signaling that they aren't frozen completely solid.  With high butter content, this time frame usually is about right.)

milk kefir scones

I'm far from finished working out new projects with milk kefir.  On my short list: pancakes (subbing for buttermilk in my basic recipe made for flapjacks a little on the dense side), non-banana quick breads, and another ice cream built entirely on kefir cream.  All in all, the new culture on my block seems easily at home after just a few short weeks - and it seems to inspire me to get back to a few other long lost ferments.