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Plain milk kefir being poured
Alternative namesMilk kefir, gıpı ayran, qundəps, búlgaros
Place of originNorth Caucasia
Region or stateKabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia
Main ingredientsMilk and kefir grains
Slavic homemade foods kolach and korovai served alongside kvass and kefir

Kefir (/kəˈfɪər/ kə-FEER;[1][2] also spelled as kephir or kefier; Russian: кефир; Polish: kefir; Karachay-Balkar: гыпы) is a fermented milk drink similar to a thin yogurt or ayran that is made from kefir grains, a specific type of mesophilic symbiotic culture. It is prepared by inoculating the milk of cows, goats, or sheep with kefir grains.[3]

Karachays and Balkars are the creators of kefir and kefir yeast.[4][5] The drink originated in the North Caucasus, in particular the Elbrus region along the upper mountainous sections of Karachay and Balkaria, from where it came to Russia,[6][7] and from there it spread worldwide. Kefir is a common breakfast, lunch or dinner drink consumed in countries of western Eurasia. Kefir is consumed at any time of the day, such as with zelnik (zeljanica), burek and banitsa/gibanica, as well as in cold soups.

Origin and etymology


The word kefir, known in Russia and Eastern-European countries since at least 1884,[8] is of North Caucasian origin.[9][10] A Russian borrowing in English, its ultimate origin is unknown, though one theory is that the word comes from köpür in Old Turkic.[10] More likely is another Caucasian origin; compare Georgian კეფირი (k’epiri), Mingrelian ქიფური (kipuri), Ossetian къӕпы (k’æpy), and Karachay-Balkar гыпы (gıpı). The p to f transformation may indicate possible transmission to Russian through Arabic كِفِير (kifīr), which would have served as a lingua franca in the Muslim parts of the Caucasus.

Traditional kefir was made in goatskin bags that were hung near a doorway; the bags would be knocked by anyone passing through to keep the milk and kefir grains well mixed.[11] In Karachay-Balkar, gıpı has a connection with gıpıt (wineskin). It was under the name wineskin that Karachay kefir was distributed in the second half of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century.[12][13] Kefir spread from the former Soviet Union to the rest of Europe, Canada, Japan, and the United States by the early 21st century.[9][14][15] It has become known in parts of Latin America as búlgaros, or "Bulgarians".

Bekmyrza Baychorov and Irina Sakharova—the first distributors of kefir to Russia

The homeland of kefir is considered to be "the vicinity of Elbrus, along the upper reaches of the Kuban".[6]


Kefir grains, a symbiotic matrix 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 drinkable yogurt.[16]

The kefir grains initiating the fermentation are initially created by auto-aggregations of Lactobacillus kefiranofaciens and Kazachstania turicensis, where multiple biofilm producers cause the surfaces to adhere which form a three dimensional microcolony.[17][18][19] The biofilm is a matrix of heteropolysaccharides called kefiran, which is composed of equal proportions of glucose and galactose.[9] It resembles small cauliflower grains, with color ranging from white to creamy yellow. A complex and highly variable symbiotic community can be found in these grains, which can include acetic acid bacteria (such as Acetobacter aceti and A. rasens), yeasts (such as Candida kefyr and Saccharomyces cerevisiae) and a number of Lactobacillus species, such as L. parakefiri, L. kefiranofaciens (and subsp. kefirgranum[20]), L. kefiri,[21] etc.[9] While some microbes predominate, Lactobacillus species are always present.[22] The microbe flora can vary between batches of kefir due to factors such as the kefir grains rising out of the milk while fermenting or curds forming around the grains, as well as temperature.[23] Additionally, Tibetan kefir composition differs from that of the Russian kefir, Irish kefir, Taiwan kefir and Turkey fermented beverage with kefir.[9] In recent years, the use of freeze-dried starter culture has become common due to stability of the fermentation result, because the species of microbes are selected in laboratory conditions, as well as easy transportation.[24][25][26]

During fermentation, changes in the composition of 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.[22] Propionibacteria further break down some of the lactic acid into propionic acid (these bacteria also carry out the same fermentation in Swiss cheese). 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.[27]

Decreased lactose content


During the fermentation process, bacteria and yeast break lactose down into glucose and galactose.[28] As a result of the fermentation, lactose levels are decreased by 20–30% with respect to the initial lactose levels present in the milk.[29] One study found that when people with lactose intolerance consumed the same amount of lactose in milk, kefir or yoghurt products, the latter two showed significantly reduced symptoms of lactose intolerance during the first 8 hours after consumption.[30] This result suggests that yoghurt and kefir might be suitable for people with lactose intolerance. However, the long-term impact of kefir consumption on lactose intolerance has not been studied. It has also been shown that fermented milk products have a slower transit time than milk, which may further improve lactose digestion.[31]

Alcohol content


Kefir contains ethanol,[32] which is detectable in the blood of human consumers.[33][dubiousdiscuss] The level of ethanol in kefir can vary by production method. A 2016 study of kefir sold in Germany showed an ethanol level of only 0.02 g per litre, which was attributed to fermentation under controlled conditions allowing the growth of Lactobacteria only, but excluding the growth of other microorganisms that form much higher amounts of ethanol.[34] A 2008 study of German commercial kefir found levels of 0.002–0.005% of ethanol.[35] Kefir produced by small-scale dairies in Russia in the early 20th century had 1–2% ethanol.[35]





Kefir products contain nutrients in varying amounts from negligible to significant, including dietary minerals, vitamins, essential amino acids, and conjugated linoleic acid,[36][37] At a pH of 4.2 – 4.6,[38] kefir is composed mainly of water and by-products of the fermentation process, including carbon dioxide and ethanol.[39]

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.[39][37] 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.[39] Essential amino acids found in kefir include methionine, cysteine, tryptophan, phenylalanine, tyrosine, leucine, isoleucine, threonine, lysine, and valine.[39][37]



Probiotic bacteria found in kefir products include: Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium bifidum, Streptococcus thermophilus, Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus, Lactobacillus helveticus, Lactobacillus kefiranofaciens, Lactococcus lactis, and Leuconostoc species.[22][36][40] Lactobacilli in kefir may exist in concentrations varying from approximately 1 million to 1 billion colony-forming units per milliliter, and are the bacteria responsible for the synthesis of the polysaccharide kefiran.[3]

In addition to bacteria, kefir often contains strains of yeast that can metabolize lactose, such as Kluyveromyces marxianus, Kluyveromyces lactis, and Saccharomyces fragilis, as well as strains of yeast that do not metabolize lactose, including Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Torulaspora delbrueckii, and Kazachstania unispora.[22] The nutritional significance of these strains is unknown.


90 grams of kefir grains
Kefir production

Modern kefir is made by adding kefir grains to milk typically at a proportion of 2–5% grains-to-milk. The mixture is then placed in a corrosion-resistant container, such as a glass jar, and stored preferably in the dark to prevent degradation of light-sensitive vitamins. After a period between 12 and 24 hours of fermentation at mild temperature, ideally 20–25 °C (68–77 °F),[27] the grains are strained from the milk using a corrosion-resistant (stainless steel or plastic) utensil and kept to produce another batch. During the fermentation process the grains enlarge and eventually split forming new units.

The resulting fermented liquid may be drunk, used in recipes, or kept aside in a sealed container for additional time to undergo a secondary fermentation. Because of its acidity the beverage should not be stored in reactive metal containers such as aluminium, copper, or zinc, as these may leach into it over time. The shelf life, unrefrigerated, is up to thirty days.[41]

The Russian method permits production of kefir on a larger scale and uses two fermentations. The first step is to prepare the cultures by inoculating milk with 2–3% grains as described. The grains are then removed by filtration and 1–3% of the resulting liquid mother culture is added to milk and fermented for 12 to 18 hours.[42]

Kefir can be made using freeze-dried cultures commonly available in powder form from health food stores. 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.

In Taiwan, researchers were able to produce kefir in a laboratory using microorganisms isolated from kefir grains. They report that the resulting kefir drink had chemical properties similar to homemade kefir.[43]

Milk types


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

Milk sugar is not essential for the synthesis of the polysaccharide that makes up the grains (kefiran), and rice hydrolysate is a suitable alternative medium.[44] Additionally, kefir grains will reproduce when fermenting soy milk, although they will change in appearance and size due to the differing proteins available to them.[45]

A variation of kefir grains that thrive in sugary water also exists, see water kefir (or tibicos), and can vary markedly from milk kefir in both appearance and microbial composition.


The Lithuanian soup šaltibarščiai, also known as "cold borscht", popular in Eastern European countries

As it contains Lactobacillus bacteria, kefir can be used to make a sourdough starter.[46] It is also useful as a buttermilk substitute in baking. Kefir is one of the main ingredients in cold borscht soup in Lithuania, also known in Poland as Lithuanian cold soup (chłodnik litewski), and other countries. The kefir-based soup okroshka is common across the former Soviet Union. Kefir may be used in place of milk on cereal, granola, milkshakes, salad dressing, ice cream, smoothies and soup.

In Estonia, kefir is also often mixed with kama and eaten as a snack or a quick breakfast.[47]

See also



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  4. ^ Peoples of the Caucasus: Material culture Food and Housing (in Russian). Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. 1995. p. 100.
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  6. ^ a b Мусаевич, Мизиев, Исмаил (7 March 2010). История Балкарии и Карачая в трудах Исмаила Мизиева: В 3 т. (in Russian). Нальчик: Издательство М. и В. Котляровых. ISBN 978-5-93680-337-6.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  7. ^ А., ТАРАСОВ (1925). "Нельзя забывать, что в Карачае издревле вырабатывается замечательная "лактобацил-линовая" простокваша "айран", нельзя забывать, что родиной кефира, кефирного молока считается Карачай. Только здесь можно купить в засушенном виде похожие на крупную дробь кефирные грибки ("гыпы", по-карачаевски). Германские ученые также считают Карачай родиной этого грибка…". Северо-Кавказский край. (in Russian). 9: 84.
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  18. ^ Wyder MT, Meile L, Teuber M (September 1999). "Description of Saccharomyces turicensis sp. nov., a new species from kefyr". Systematic and Applied Microbiology. 22 (3): 420–5. doi:10.1016/S0723-2020(99)80051-4. PMID 10553294.
  19. ^ Jong-Hwa Kim; Kiyoung Kim; Rungravee Kanjanasuntree; Wonyong Kim (2019). "Kazachstania turicensis CAU Y1706 ameliorates atopic dermatitis by regulation of the gut–skin axis". Journal of Dairy Science. 102 (4): 2854–2862. doi:10.3168/jds.2018-15849. PMID 30738679. S2CID 73448395.
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  24. ^ Kourkoutas Y, Kandylis P, Panas P, Dooley JS, Nigam P, Koutinas AA (September 2006). "Evaluation of freeze-dried kefir coculture as starter in feta-type cheese production". Applied and Environmental Microbiology. 72 (9): 6124–35. Bibcode:2006ApEnM..72.6124K. doi:10.1128/AEM.03078-05. PMC 1563647. PMID 16957238.
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  29. ^ Irigoyen, A.; Arana, I.; Castiella, M.; Torre, P.; Ibáñez, F. C. (1 May 2005). "Microbiological, physicochemical, and sensory characteristics of kefir during storage". Food Chemistry. 90 (4): 613–620. doi:10.1016/j.foodchem.2004.04.021. ISSN 0308-8146. Lactose was consumed during the 24 h fermentation period, and lactose levels decreased by 20–25% with respect to the initial lactose levels present in the milk. Levels then held practically constant over the storage period. [28 days of storage at 5 ± 1 °C]
  30. ^ Hertzler, Steven R.; Clancy, Shannon M. (1 May 2003). "Kefir improves lactose digestion and tolerance in adults with lactose maldigestion". Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 103 (5): 582–587. doi:10.1053/jada.2003.50111. ISSN 0002-8223. PMID 12728216. The breath hydrogen area under the curve (AUC) for milk (224±39 ppm · h) was significantly greater than for the plain yogurt (76±14 ppm · h, P<.001), the plain kefir (87±37 ppm · h, P<.001), and the flavored yogurt (76±14 ppm · h, P=.005). [...] The yogurts and kefirs all similarly reduced the perceived severity of flatulence by 54% to 71% relative to milk.
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  46. ^ Zak, Zuza (2021). Amber & Rye: A Baltic Food Journey. Interlink Books. p. 64. ISBN 978-1-62-371900-5. To make this quintessential Baltic loaf, you'll need to get your sourdough starter under way three days beforehand (unless you already have one on the go, of course). I used to make mine from just rye flour and water, but in the Baltics I learnt to use something that has living cultures in it, like kefir or buttermilk.
  47. ^ Zak, Zuza (2021). Amber & Rye: A Baltic Food Journey. Interlink Books. p. 232. ISBN 978-1-62-371900-5. Estonians will often stir kama – usually a mixture of ground wheat, rye, barley and peas – into a glass of kefir, then either sweeten it or add salt to taste. It makes a quick, nutritious snack or speedy breakfast.