Not to be confused with Kafir. For the beverage also known as water kefir, see Tibicos.
Alternative names milk kefir, búlgaros
Main ingredients milk, kefir grains (bacteria, salt, yeasts, proteins, lipids, sugar)
Cookbook: Kefir  Media: Kefir

Kefir or kephir (/kəˈfir/ kə-FEER),[1][2] alternatively milk kefir, or búlgaros, is a fermented milk drink made with kefir "grains" (a yeast/bacterial fermentation starter) and has its origins in the north Caucasus Mountains.[3] It is prepared by inoculating cow, goat, or sheep milk with kefir grains.[4] Traditional kefir was made in skin bags that were hung near a doorway; the bag would be knocked by anyone passing through the doorway to help keep the milk and kefir grains well mixed.[5]


The word kefir, known in Russian since at least 1884,[6] is probably of North Caucasian origin,[7] although some sources see a connection to Turkic köpür (foam).[7] Kefir has become the most commonly used term, but other names are found in different geographic regions.


Kefir grains, a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts

Traditional kefir is fermented at ambient temperatures, generally overnight. Fermentation of the lactose yields a sour, carbonated, slightly alcoholic beverage, with a consistency and taste similar to thin yogurt.[8]

The kefir grains initiating the fermentation are a combination of lactic acid bacteria and yeasts in a matrix of proteins, lipids, and sugars, and this symbiotic matrix, (or SCOBY) forms "grains" that resemble cauliflower. For this reason, a complex and highly variable community of lactic acid bacteria and yeasts can be found in these grains although some predominate; Lactobacillus species are always present.[3] Even successive batches of kefir may differ due to factors such as the kefir grains rising out of the milk while fermenting, or curds forming around the grains, as well as room temperature.[9]

Kefir grains contain a water-soluble polysaccharide known as kefiran, which imparts a creamy texture and feeling in the mouth. The grains range in color from white (the acceptable color of healthy grains), to yellow; the latter is the outcome of leaving the grains in the same milk during fermentation for longer than the optimal 24-hour period, and continually doing so over many batches. Grains may grow to the size of walnuts, and in some cases larger.

The composition of kefir depends greatly on the type of milk that was fermented, including the concentration of vitamin B12.

During fermentation, changes in composition of nutrients and other ingredients occur. Lactose, the sugar present in milk, is broken down mostly to lactic acid (25%) by the lactic acid bacteria, which results in acidification of the product.[3] Propionibacteria further break down some of the lactic acid into propionic acid (these bacteria also carry out the same fermentation in Swiss cheese). A portion of lactose is converted to Kefiran, which is indigestible by gastric digestion. Other substances that contribute to the flavor of kefir are pyruvic acid, acetic acid, diacetyl and acetoin (both of which contribute a "buttery" flavor), citric acid, acetaldehyde and amino acids resulting from protein breakdown.[10]

Kefir preparation

The slow-acting yeasts, late in the fermentation process, break lactose down into ethanol and carbon dioxide. Depending on the process, ethanol concentration can be as high as 1–2% (achieved by small-scale dairies early in the 20th century), with the kefir having a bubbly appearance and carbonated taste. This makes kefir different from yogurt and most other sour milk products where only bacteria ferment the lactose into acids. Most modern processes, which use shorter fermentation times, result in much lower ethanol concentrations of 0.2–0.3%.

As a result of the fermentation, very little lactose remains in kefir. People with lactose intolerance are able to tolerate kefir, provided the number of live bacteria present in this beverage consumed is high enough (i.e., fermentation has proceeded for adequate time). It has also been shown that fermented milk products have a slower transit time than milk, which may further improve lactose digestion.[11]

For the preparation of the present factory-produced kefir, the so-called kefir mild, kefir grains are no longer used, but a precise composed mixture of different bacteria and yeast, allowing the flavor to be kept constant.

Variations that thrive in various other liquids exist, and they vary markedly from kefir in both appearance and microbial composition. Water kefir (or tibicos) is grown in water with sugar (sometimes with added dry fruit such as figs, and lemon juice) for a day or more at room temperature.


Nutritional composition

Kefir products contain nutrients in varying amounts from negligible to significant content, including dietary minerals, vitamins, essential amino acids, and conjugated linoleic acid,[12] in amounts similar to unfermented cow, goat or sheep milk.[13] Kefir is composed mainly of water and by-products of the fermentation process, including carbon dioxide and ethanol.[14]

Typical of milk, several dietary minerals are found in kefir, such as calcium, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, sodium, copper, molybdenum, manganese, and zinc in amounts that have not been standardized to a reputable nutrient database.[14] Also similar to milk,[13] kefir contains vitamins in variable amounts, including vitamin A, vitamin B1 (thiamine), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B3 (niacin), vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), vitamin B9 (folic acid), vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin), vitamin C, vitamin D, and vitamin E.[14] Essential amino acids found in kefir include methionine, cysteine, tryptophan, phenylalanine, tyrosine, leucine, isoleucine, threonine, lysine, and valine,[14] as for any milk product.[13]


Several varieties of probiotic bacteria are found in kefir products such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium bifidum, Streptococcus thermophilus, Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus, Lactobacillus helveticus, Lactobacillus kefiranofaciens, Lactococcus lactis, and Leuconostoc species.[3][12][15] The significance of probiotic content to nutrition or health remains unproven.[16][17] Lactobacilli in kefir may exist in concentrations varying from approximately 1 million-1 billion colony-forming units per milliliter and are the bacteria responsible for the synthesis of the polysaccharide kefiran.[4]

In addition to bacteria, kefir often contains strains of yeast that can metabolize lactose, such as Kluyveromyces marxianus, Kluyveromyces lactis and Saccharomyces fragilis[18] as well as strains of yeast that do not metabolize lactose, including Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Torulaspora delbrueckii, and Kazachstania unispora;[3] however, the nutritional significance of these strains is unknown.


A 2003 study found that consumption of the polysaccharide kefiran by human adults with lactose intolerance led to a significant decrease in flatulence.[12]


90 grams of kefir grains

Production of traditional kefir requires a starter community of kefir grains which are added to the liquid one wishes to ferment.

The traditional, or artisanal method of making kefir is achieved by directly adding kefir grains (2–10%) to milk in a sealed goatskin leather bag, which is traditionally agitated one or more times a day. Today the leather bag is replaced with a suitable non corrosive container such as a glass jar. It is not filled to capacity, allowing room for some expansion as the carbon dioxide gas produced causes the liquid level to rise. If the container is not light proof it should be stored in the dark to prevent degradation of light sensitive vitamins. After a period of fermentation lasting around 24 hours, ideally at 20–25 °C (68–77 °F), the grains are removed from the liquid by straining using a non-corrosive straining utensil, which can be stainless steel or food grade plastic and reserved as the natural-starter to once again ferment a fresh amount of liquid.

The fermented liquid-kefir which contains live micro-organisms from the grains, may now be consumed as a beverage, used in recipes, or kept aside in a sealed container for many days to undergo a slower secondary fermentation. This process further sours the liquid and through bio-synthesis by certain micro-organisms the content of folic acid and some other B vitamins is increased. Without refrigeration, the shelf life is up to thirty days.[19] The grains will enlarge in the process of kefir production, and eventually split.

The Russian method permits production of kefir on a larger scale, and uses two fermentations. The first step is to prepare the cultures by incubating milk with grains (2–3%), as just described. The grains are then removed by filtration and the resulting liquid mother culture is added to milk (1–3%) which is fermented for 12 to 18 hours.[20]

Kefir can be produced using freeze-dried cultures commonly available as a powder from health food shops. A portion of the resulting kefir can be saved to be used a number of times to propagate further fermentations but ultimately does not form grains, and a fresh culture must be obtained.

Milk types

Kefir grains will ferment the milk from most mammals, and will continue to grow in such milk. Typical milks used include cow, goat, and sheep, each with varying organoleptic and nutritional qualities. Raw milk has been traditionally used.

Kefir grains will also ferment milk substitutes such as soy milk, rice milk, and coconut milk, as well as other sugary liquids including fruit juice, coconut water, beer wort and ginger beer. However, the kefir grains may cease growing if the medium used does not contain all the growth factors required by the bacteria.

Milk sugar is not essential for the synthesis of the polysaccharide that makes up the grains (kefiran), and studies have shown that rice hydrolysate is a suitable alternative medium.[21] Additionally, it has been shown that kefir grains will reproduce when fermenting soy milk, although they will change in appearance and size due to the differing proteins available to them.[22]


Kefir is a popular drink across Eastern and Northern Europe. It was consumed in Russia and Central Asian countries for centuries, but is now becoming popular in Japan, the United States and Europe.[23]

In Chile, where it is known as "yogur de pajaritos" (little birds' yogurt), kefir has been regularly consumed for over a century; it might have been introduced by one of the various waves of migrants from the former Ottoman Empire and migrants from Eastern Europe.

Culinary uses

Lithuanian kefir-based cold borscht (šaltibarščiai)

As it contains lactobacilli bacteria, kefir can be used to make a sourdough bread. It is also useful as a buttermilk substitute in baking. Kefir is one of the main ingredients in cold borscht in Lithuania and Poland. Other variations of kefir soups, such as kefir-based okroshka, and other foods prepared with kefir are popular across the former Soviet Union and Poland. Kefir may be used in place of milk on cereal, granola or milkshakes.

Possible origin of kefir grains

Kefir grains may be produced by using pasteurized milk inoculated with sheep intestinal flora, followed by culture on the surface of milk.[24][25]

Other studies indicate small kefir granules may form initially from aggregations of lactobacilli and yeast, followed by a biofilm created by the adherence of additional bacteria and yeasts to the granule exterior.[26]

See also

Other fermented dairy products

Other fermented beverages


    1. "kefir". Oxford Dictionaries.
    2. kefir.
    3. 1 2 3 4 5 de Oliveira Leite AM, Miguel MA, Peixoto RS, Rosado AS, Silva JT, Paschoalin VM (October 2013). "Microbiological, technological and therapeutic properties of kefir: a natural probiotic beverage". Braz J Microbiol. 44 (2): 341–9. doi:10.1590/S1517-83822013000200001. PMC 3833126Freely accessible. PMID 24294220.
    4. 1 2 Altay F, Karbancıoglu-Güler F, Daskaya-Dikmen C, Heperkan D (October 2013). "A review on traditional Turkish fermented non-alcoholic beverages: microbiota, fermentation process and quality characteristics". Int J Food Microbiol. 167 (1): 44–56. doi:10.1016/j.ijfoodmicro.2013.06.016. PMID 23859403.
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    9. Veronique Ninane; Gilbert Berben; Jean-Michel Romne; Robert Oger (2005). "Variability of the microbial abundance of kefir grain starter cultivated in partially controlled conditions" (PDF). Biotechnologie, Agronomie, Société et Environnement. 5 (3): 191–194.
    10. Handbook of Fermented Functional foods. 2nd Ed. Edward R. Farnsworth, Editor. CRC Press, 2008.
    11. Farnworth, Edward R. (2005). "Kefir – a complex probiotic" (PDF). Food Science & Technology Bulletin: Functional Foods. 2 (1): 1–17. doi:10.1616/1476-2137.13938.
    12. 1 2 3 Guzel-Seydim ZB, Kok-Tas T, Greene AK, Seydim AC (March 2011). "Review: functional properties of kefir". Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 51 (3): 261–8. doi:10.1080/10408390903579029. PMID 21390946.
    13. 1 2 3 "Nutrition facts for fluid sheep milk, one US cup, 245 ml". Conde Nast,, USDA Nutrient Database, Standard Reference, version 21. 2014. Retrieved 19 November 2014.
    14. 1 2 3 4 Ahmed Z, Wang Y, Ahmad A, Khan ST, Nisa M, Ahmad H, Afreen A (2013). "Kefir and health: a contemporary perspective". Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 53 (5): 422–34. doi:10.1080/10408398.2010.540360. PMID 23391011.
    15. Farnworth, Edward R (4 April 2005). "Kefir-a complex probiotic" (PDF). Food Science and Technology Bulletin: Functional Foods. 2 (1): 1–17. doi:10.1616/1476-2137.13938. Retrieved 20 December 2014.
    16. "Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of a health claim related to a combination of Bifidobacterium longum LA 101, Lactobacillus helveticus LA 102, Lactococcus lactis LA 103 and Streptococcus thermophillus LA 104 and reducing intestinal discomfort pursuant to Article 13(5) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006 (example, search EFSA for other opinion reports on probiotics" (PDF). European Food Safety Authority, EFSA Journal 2013;11(2):3085. Retrieved 2012-11-08.
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    18. The kefir starter culture of Cultures for Health contains Saccharomyces fragilis
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    Further reading

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