What Is Kefir? A Probiotic Primer

I can honestly say that before writing this article I did not know what kefir was. I always saw it sandwiched between the kombucha and the sour cream in my local Trader Joe’s, but was neither brave enough to try it nor smart enough to think of just looking it up.

I found myself wondering, “What is kefir?” Is it yogurt? Is it a drink like Kombucha but different? Is it ALIVE? I now know that the answer to all of those questions is a solid “sort of?” Turns out kefir is a thin, drinkable, yogurt-like, slightly effervescent, probiotic-containing beverage. But let’s get into it more.

What is kefir? How do I use it? Am I pronouncing it right?

Well, seeing as kefir (pronounced keh-feer) is believed to have first come about in the North Caucasus region of Eastern Europe (the chunk of Russian land just above Georgia), it makes sense that the name is of Russian origin and that many people all over Russia (but especially in that specific part) drink kefir every day.

As for what kefir is, it is “a drink made from the fermented milk of a cow, goat, or sheep.” You may be thinking, “But isn’t fermented milk just cheese? Or yogurt? Or buttermilk?” And you’d be absolutely correct, you dairy queen you. What sets kefir apart from those other dairy icons is, a.) the drinkability, and b.) the fact that it contains around 30 unique species of probiotics (aka Good Bacteria that makes your gut happy and your poops stellar), including but not limited to “Lactobacillus kefyr thermophilic” and “Lactococcus lactis lactis,” which was, in fact, my nickname in high school.

According to the Raw Milk Institute, kefir used to be made by hanging milk and kefir grains (lil’ clumps of yeast and bacteria that look a bit like cauliflower) in goat skin bags in sunny doorways, and the bags would be “prodded or pushed by each person who went through the doorway” in order to ensure everything stayed well mixed until the kefir smelled sour, thickened up, and had that good good bacteria ready for consumption. Then the bag of kefir grains was refilled with fresh milk and the cycle continued. As for flavor, the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation says it tastes like “an ever so slightly malt flavor with an effervescent feel, not dissimilar to buttermilk.” Would I try this drink? You bet your dairy-ere I would. But something was still nagging me.

If kefir is like all-natural, unflavored, probiotic-packed Danimals—that is to say, drinkable yogurt—then what was that clear-ish stuff I saw in Trader Joe’s that was also labeled Kefir?

Turns out that was water kefir. More specifically, it was GT’s Aqua Kefir. As I understand it, water kefir is just like milk kefir but you ferment water with the kefir grains instead of milk. It is apparently a milder and less sour way to ease someone into heavier and more sour probiotic drinks, like milk kefir and kombucha. 

Well, I don’t know about you but I feel like I learned something new today. And if nothing else I’m significantly more cultured. Or at least my gut will be after I finally buy kefir on my weekly pilgrimage to Trader Joe’s.

About the Author

Jessica Block

Jessica Block is a freelance contributor to Sporked, a comedian, a baker, a food writer, and a firm believer that Trader Joe's may just be the happiest place on earth. She loves spicy snacks, Oreos, baking bread, teeny tiny avocados, and trying new foods whenever she can. Also, if you give her a bag of Takis she will be your best friend.

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