I’m not ashamed to admit, I’m a fermenting junkie; though my conversion to fermented foods seven years ago was by necessity rather than choice. You see, my husband has an autoimmune disease that makes him sensitive to several foods, including lactose. My husband also believes that milk and cheese are alternate terms for ‘air’ and ‘water’, so getting him to ditch dairy was a war I didn’t have the emotional energy to wage. Instead, I looked for dairy alternatives that would make him feel like he wasn’t missing out, while keeping his immune system from taking up its tiny torches and pitchforks to stab him in the large intestine every time he took a sneaky swig.
What all my research into healthy lactose-free products pointed to was ‘kefir’, a creamy, slightly sour fermented milk drink that now underpins much of my family’s dairy-related diet. Full disclosure – kefir is made from milk. But the beneficial bacteria and yeasts in kefir turn the lactose in milk into lactic acid, making it easier for those who are lactose intolerant to digest. If you’re unfamiliar with the wonder that is kefir, this article from Healthline explains what it is, and why it’s so incredibly good for the gut microbiome. The article also has some simple instructions near the end for how to make kefir at home (pay attention, people, you’ll need these later). If you want the rundown without reading, watch this short video.
Let’s be clear. Fermenting isn’t rocket science. Most fermented foods are quick and easy to prepare, and most don’t require any specialised equipment (despite all the fancy-pants marketing designed to get you to buy more stuff). But kefir is about the easiest – let me repeat, the easiest – fermented food you can make. And though it wasn’t the case when I started, thanks to the escalating fermentation craze you can now grab a bottle of pre-made kefir from the fridge section of your local supermarket duopoly. But before you jump in the car and head to colesworths, check out these five reasons why you’d be as mad as a milliner not to make your own kefir at home.
7 reasons why you shouldn’t run to the shops to buy kefir when there are so many additional wellbeing benefits to making it at home
(note to self: needs catchier title)
As a dyed-in-the wool permaculturalist, I take a systems-thinking approach to – oh, everything. So when I started my journey with fermented foods I wanted to make sure my attempts to improve my family’s health didn’t come at a cost to other people, distant communities, the environment, or even another aspect of our wellbeing. I soon found there were a tonne of reasons why making my own kefir was better for physical, mental, social, environmental, and financial health than buying it from a shop.
Reason 1: Financial wellbeing
Most permaculturalists live a life of voluntary simplicity. That doesn’t mean we’re paupers, but we often choose challenge over monetary outlay. To buy a litre of kefir from the shop costs $5.65 not including the petrol to get there. To make it yourself costs $1.60, or the price of a litre of milk. I’ll let you do the math.
Reason 2: Nutritional wellbeing
To maintain shelf-life, commercial kefir undergoes processing, which means it has only a fraction of the beneficial cultures present in homemade kefir. Also, with commercial kefir you’re limited to whatever milks, flavours, and additives are in the bottle. Homemade kefir, on the other hand, can be prepared using milk from any type of animal (go milk that camel, if it floats your boat). It can be made using full-cream, light, or no-fat milk; with or without sweeteners and flavourings; and if you’re vegan or allergic to certain animal products, you can even make it from plant-based milks like almond or coconut. (Ever wondered where a nut’s udders are? This video will explain everything.)
Word of warning, though: don’t use lactose-free milk, or your kefir grains will have nothing to eat.
Reason 3: Environmental wellbeing
I feel like this is a no-brainer, but I’ll say it anyway. Making kefir at home uses way less packaging, energy, and fossil fuels than buying it from a shop. To transport a bottle of kefir from the producer to a retailer is a drain on resources. To drive to a shop and get kefir is a drain on resources. To manufacture and then throw away a plastic bottle every time you drink kefir is a drain on resources. This illustration of the industrial food supply chain by Brenna Quinlan gives an idea of the food miles involved in some foods. If I could draw like Brenna, I’d have included a pic of the food miles for homemade kefir. (Hint: it’s a picture of you standing at your kitchen bench.)
To be fair, unless you have a dairy cow (or camel) stashed in your backyard you’re going to have to buy milk regardless. But most people have milk in the fridge anyway, and you can definitely reduce your ecological footprint by buying as few single-use plastics as possible. Better yet, buy milk in refillable glass bottles from a local organic or biodynamic dairy (like I do).
Reason 4: Psychological wellbeing
Things like autonomy, meaning, engagement, and accomplishment are major factors in human happiness and wellbeing, and you can’t find them by shopping. Making your own fermented foods, instead of just buying them, offers more control over your consumption habits, teaches new skills that can be transferred to other undertakings, keeps you meaningfully occupied and engaged, and fosters a sense of pride and satisfaction for your efforts. I don’t know where you shop, but last time I went to a supermarket there wasn’t an aisle for this stuff.
Reason 5: Social wellbeing
Perhaps the best thing about kefir grains is that they multiply, like rabbits. I mean, you seriously can’t control these things given some good-quality milk and warm weather. That means that every few weeks I get to share my excess grains with others, and enjoy the well-documented benefits that increased social engagement has to offer. Posting about my spare grains on Facebook or in my permaculture groups usually brings a bevy of kefir-curious friends out of the woodwork, or gives me the opportunity to meet new folk with a shared love of fermenting.
The one way kefir’s not so special
Here’s the most important bit. There’s nothing special about kefir that doesn’t apply to other popular fermented foods like yoghurt, kombucha, sauerkraut etc. They’re all cheap and easy to make at home, require no special equipment, and offer a world of wellbeing benefits above and beyond their supermarket equivalents. But if you’re looking for somewhere simple to start your fermenting journey, get yourself some grains and give kefir a go. You can buy them online or bot them from a fermenting friend. Then follow the simple steps in the Healthline article to get fermenting.
Want more info?
Wild Fermentation, Sandor Katz
The Art of Fermentation, Sandor Katz
Cultures for Health website