Kefir: Coconut, Cashew, Almond
Kefir (fed on cashew or coconut) is another plant-based culture that I use frequently, including as a single culture, or as the second acidification culture for some cheeses.
A fermented beverage, traditionally understood to be made from cultured dairy (cow, sheep, goat), kefir originates from Eastern Europe. It is tangy, fizzy, and naturally carbonated via the culturing process, with the consistency of a thin yogurt. This probiotic beverage is well understood to have significant positive health impacts on the digestive system. While dairy kefir is now fairly broadly available, currently there is no commercially available plant-based kefir, with the exception of water kefir, which is found primarily in health-focused specialty shops and restaurants .
The exception is Cultures for Health, an online store and education source for fermenting and culturing aficionados, based in the United States, is now selling kefir and yogurt cultures trained on non-dairy medium.
As I'm allergic to dairy, in addition to having chosen to live a plant-based lifestyle, I wanted to make a plant-based version of kefir and I began experimenting with this process over two years ago.
My first experiment was in converting some dairy-fed kefir grains given to me by a friend. Kefir grains are somewhat gelatinous looking in appearance, almost clear. They are composed of bacteria and yeasts, just as kombucha mother and vinegar mothers are, though the strains of bacteria and yeasts may vary. In order to identify which kefir feed I would want to work with most I set up to test several kefir options: cashew, almond, coconut, coconut water, and water.
With the assistance of Katie, a stage in the Graze kitchen, we set out to see if we could (1) successfully train the dairy-fed kefir grains onto a plant-based medium, and (2) make a kefir/yogurt/pro biotic beverage that would work successfully as a starter for further cheese tests.
Dividing the grain into 5 different 1-liter jars, we added 2 cups of each test medium to each of the 5 jars (1 jar coconut milk, 1 jar cashew milk, etc .). We also added 1 tbsp of maple syrup, to help feed the kefir grains. We then kept the jars with lids in a container and set it on top of the convection oven where it was warm but not hot (maintaining 100 degrees F [38 degrees C]) , and left them to culture for 24 hours.
After 24 hours, the coconut milk had very quickly cultured, with the kefir grain having multiplied quickly. We were able to strain off the coconut milk and save the grain for making another jar of coconut milk kefir in which we used less maple syrup. We repeated the coconut milk process two more times until the kefir grain was trained onto just coconut milk, with no added sweetener.
With each subsequent batch we saved the grain and evaluated the results of the cultured coconut milk for texture, taste, and that bright, somewhat effervescent quality of kefir beverages. Also, because the goal was to produce kefir grain fed only plant-based mediums, we discarded the first two rounds of the kefir. After batches three and four we reserved grain by straining the coconut milk through very fine mesh sieves in order to retrieve some of the grain.
We added the reserved grain to a small amount of coconut milk with a small amount of maple syrup, in order to store the kefir culture for a longer period of time in the refrigerator.
Frequent culturing will still result in a kefir product, but the grain will become very small and integrated into the beverage.
Now, for the other kefir efforts. The cashew and almond milks we made ourselves, in order to avoid the extra stabilizers and to be able to control the amount and kind of sweetener that we wanted to use. The cashew milk was a success, but did take a little longer (36 hours) to culture to the same degree of tanginess or sharpness as the coconut milk. It produced a thicker substance than the coconut milk, more like a very soft yogurt. The kefir grain, however, was much smaller, and we were not able to culture subsequent batches of cashew kefir as quickly as the coconut milk.
For the purposes of being able to maintain a supply of cashew kefir, we decided to culture cashew milk using coconut milk kefir as a starter. This worked well, and is still the method I use when making larger batches of cheeses.
The almond milk was more challenging. Of the milks, it took the longest, and had the least pleasant taste. This could be a result of the culture struggling with the sulfur compounds in almonds. We found that adding 2 tbsp maple syrup to 1 liter almond milk gave the kefir grain more to feed on, and resulted in a better tasting product.
As with the cashew kefir, if I am making large batches of cheese that require almond kefir starter, I start my almond milk kefir with starter from one of my coconut milk kefir batches. The coconut milk kefir is a highly consistent performer and requires little prodding to become acidic; therefore it works well for acidifying other mediums. It also has the longest shelf life - more than 30 days, refrigerated in a glass jar, and fed a little coconut sugar or maple syrup approximately once a week.
Lastly, with respect to the coconut water and water kefir tests, these took longer than all of the milks. The weaning process started with higher amounts of maple syrup (our sweetener of choice, though some people use raw cane sugar), with less and less in subsequent batches until we found the minimum we could use and still get the results we were seeking. I will often use water kefir as a starter in cheeses if I am concerned about allergies to coconut.
Since the coconut milk kefir is one I find quite easy to produce and replicate, and use frequently, I am including two processes for making it.
Note: If you have not done a lot of culturing in your home such as making kefir, kombucha or sauerkraut, then don't be disappointed if the first couple of efforts don't go quite as well as you would like. Culturing compounds that use a starter grain, such as vinegar, kombucha, and even kefir, are aided by the presence in the air of naturally occurring bacteria such as acetobacter.
Frequent culturing activity will build up the presence of different types of bacteria and yeasts present in your home culturing environment. Think of it as your personal home micro-ecology.
More from The Art of Plant-Based Cheesemaking:
Cover courtesy of New Society Publishers
Recipes excerpted with permission from The Art of Plant-Based Cheesemaking written by Karen McAthy and published by New Society Publishers, 2017.