Saturday, August 24, 2013

Kefir Cheese with Amanda Feifer

I don't always acknowledge this, but there are actually a lot of fermented foods in the world besides artisan cheeses!

Kefir grains, for example, are loaded with highly beneficial probiotic bacteria.  When combined with milk, they yield a form of cheese, as Amanda Feifer explains in her article (below).  They also yield a form of cheesecake (see our recipe using goat's milk).

Amanda is a fermentation specialist based in Philadelphia.  She teaches hands-on workshops on topics ranging from kraut and kefir to kombucha and kimchi.  (Follow her on Twitter @phicklefoods.)  Her website, has all kinds of great articles about different kinds of fermented foods.

The main thing I like about her website is that it's fun and easy to understand - you don't have to be a scientist to work with the healthy bacteria in her recipes.  I particularly like her fermented ketchup recipe and her cherry peach fruit cocktail.  Here are two of her fabulous kefir cheese posts:

Easy Cheese – Turning Your Kefir Into Spreadable Gold 
By Amanda Feifer at

So this is kefir in cheesecloth hanging from the fig tree in my “yard.” There are lots of ways to do this. Outside in the sun isn’t the best, but it was fun to look at.

The first time I remember straining my own cheese, it was yogurt cheese intended to mimic cream cheese and I made during one of the sadly numerous phases of my early adulthood when I let a crazy book or trend dictate my diet.  In that case it was Dean Ornish’s diet that was intended to cut out just about every ounce of dietary fat.  What can I say?  I’m American.  We aren’t known for our healthy relationship to food.  While that no-fat diet went the way of many other wacky diet plans, yogurt cheese stayed with me.  I actually liked it, and not because I could make it from the grossest of the store-bought, fat-free, gum-filled yogurts.

You can totally make the yogurt cheese described above using this very process, and if that is your bag, go forth and enjoy.  My favorite strained cheese, though, is kefir cheese.  I kind of gleek every time I write the words.  This is basically the easiest possible thing you can do that can be reasonably identified as cheese.

There are several really great things about kefir cheese.  You continue to get all of the health benefits provided by the good bacteria in liquid kefir.  It takes nearly no effort to make and it’s a great way to use that kefir you let sit just a touch too long.  You know when it’s a little too bubbly and the whey has massively separated from the kefir?  It is also a very versatile creature.  By adjusting only the amount of time you let it strain, you can end up with several very different products.

A little off topic, but I’d like you to meet Grainy Smith Apple. She will fill the palm of your hand.

A few hours straining time will yield a spoonable kefir that closely approximates thick yogurt.  A little longer, and you have something spreadable, like a cream cheese or boursin (more on that later this week), if you let it go for a 18-24 hours, you’ll end up with a crumbly texture, along the lines of a pre-crumbled, dry-packed feta.  I know that isn’t the most appetizing comparison, but it’s just a texture reference.  The flavor of this guy is tangy and complex and it is decidedly not processed in a huge, sterile factory.  I’ll share my favorite way to eat kefir cheese with you later this week.

The other benefit to making kefir cheese is the by-product.  If you start with a large amount of kefir, you may be surprised by the relatively small amount of cheese you end up with. I would say you’ll get a reduction of about 75% or more.   Don’t throw away that liquid, though!  That, my friends, is whey.  If you want a vigorous, or more vigorous, fermentation of just about anything, from pickles to carrot juice, throw a bit of that liquid into it and your ferment will be bursting with bubbles in no time!

Kefir Cheese

I’m sharing my process with you here, and an alternative below.  You can be creative and resourceful and use things you already have in your home for the straining stuff.  I guarantee you, you can find a way even if you don’t have cupboards or a handy tree branch.

Use what you got. I got a wrench, a chip clip and some cheese. Sorry about the black and white. I got too arty on Instagram and I can’t find the original.

Yields a scant 1/2 cup of kefir cheese

  •  A 2 foot squared piece of butter muslin or cheesecloth that has a narrow enough weave to hold liquid (I just fold to double or quadruple if necessary)
  • Twine or string or a rubberband or a clip
  • A bowl to catch your whey
  • Something to hang your kefir bundle from (shelf, cupboard handle, tree branch, etc.)
  • A fine mesh strainer
  • 1 quart finished kefir, grains removed (store-bought kefir will work but this can get pricey)
  • 1/4 t salt (optional)
  1. Lay out your cheesecloth square over a fine mesh strainer, so that the corners of the cheesecloth hang over the sides of the bowl or strainer.
  2. Slowly and gently pour your kefir into the center of your cheesecloth, being careful not to pull or knock the sides of the cloth into the liquid
  3. Once all of your kefir is in the cloth, gently gather the edges of the cloth together into a hobo bundle (as pictured above).  Secure the bundle close to the top of the liquid, using a rubberband, clip or twine.  I will often let my kefir sit in the cheesecloth and strainer, covered, for an hour or so to make the bundle-making a bit easier
  4. Suspend your bundle so that the liquid can drain out freely into the bowl below it
  5. Let it hang for at least 6 hours for spoonable yogurt texture, 12 hours for spreadable texture and 24 for a crumbly cheese texture, out of direct sunlight
  6. When a good amount of whey has accumulated in your bowl, you can pour it into a container, label it and stick it in the fridge
  7. My preference is for spreadable cheese, so I tend to let mine strain overnight, or up to 12 hours
  8. You can palpate your hobo bundle with clean hands to get a general idea of texture.  I usually move my clip or twine down after a decent amount of whey has been expelled to put a little pressure on the cheese rid itself of liquid
  9. When you have achieved the texture you want, remove the cheesecloth from your ball o’ cheese and mix in your salt
  10. Stick it in the fridge, tightly wrapped. It keeps for about a week.

Homogenized kefir poured into a strainer lined with cheesecloth will get things started.

Alternative: if you don’t have a cloth with the right kind of weave, you can do this another way.  For the above method, you can use kefir that is set properly, or over-kefired kefir.  For this alternative method, you must let the kefir over-kefir to the point that the whey has clearly separated.  You do this by leaving it longer than you normally would (like maybe 36 hours) or by keeping it in a warmer place than you normally would (still out of direct sunlight!).  You’ll see a lot of cloudy liquid at the bottom of your jar, and big ol’ hunk at the top.  From the hunk, you can skim out most of your kefir grains, using a non-metallic spoon.  Then, pour the whole jar into your fine mesh strainer set over a bowl, cover it and let it sit for your selected amount of time.  The separated whey will pour out into your bowl immediately.  The reason I am not completely crazy about this method, is that you really don’t get every bit of grain out.  This leads to a small amount of grain-loss and the little bits of grain can have a texture that some people don’t love.  Nonetheless, it uses less equipment and it’s definitely easier than rigging up your cheesecloth.

If you want to remove grains and strain just in a mesh strainer, you can do it. You just need to let your kefir ferment for too long and be prepared to lose some grains. If your grains are all huge, you’re fine. If not, some of those little bits will definitely be too difficult to remove this way.

Easy Cheese, Part Deux – Garlic and Fine Herbs Spread
By Amanda Feifer at
Herbed, garlicky kefir cheese spread makes for a lovely spring snack.

So I’m hoping your kefir fermented too quickly due to your slacker nature or the rising temperatures throwing you off your ferment game a bit.  Not because I’m a meany.  I just want you to make the kefir cheese I wrote about last week.  And then I want you to appreciate the beauty and the bounty of spring herbs, and make this garlic and fine herbs spread.  Your veggies and thin slices of sourdough toast will thank you.

There is about an inch of dirt left in this parsley container.  Even in the city, if you have so much as a patch of light, grow your own herbs! They are simple to grow, WAY cheaper than store-bought and provide tons of flavor variety to meals.

These chives have been resurrecting for several years now. Not sure how much longer they’ll live in that container, but they are slender and gorgeous.

I think I discovered Boursin in college.  In fact I’m pretty sure that’s true, because I remember being really mad at the ninja who somehow snuck in to my refrigerator and at half a container of it before I even got a cracker’s worth (even though it was clearly labeled with a magic marker A-M-A-N-D-A and all my roommates knew I wouldn’t be able to splurge on another one for weeks, at least).  Ahhh, college.  Or maybe argh, college.  I am so glad not to live in a house with tons of people and a matching amount of drama.  Had my drama-seeking, 20-year-old self been aware that I could make my own healthier, cheaper, tastier, tangier, preservative- and packaging-free version, I’m pretty sure I would have skipped a choir practice or two to track down some kefir grains.  But you need not be a poor college student to appreciate how good this tastes.   It is, as promised, my favorite way to use kefir cheese.

You can substitute any herbs you have on hand, but this is my favorite combination.

Start here. Finish satisfied.

Garlic and Herbes Fines Spreadable Kefir Cheese 

Makes a hearty afternoon snack for 2, spread on cucumber slices, radish slices or toasts.  Makes a great dip for carrot sticks, too.

3 T kefir cheese, strained to solid, but spreadable thickness

3 cloves garlic, roasted whole, peeled and mashed or chopped

1 t chives, finely chopped

1.5 T parsley, finely chopped

1 T fresh oregano, finely chopped

salt to taste (I use a small pinch)

small pinch pepper

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