When brewing kefir for the first time, it is sometimes hard to know if it is ready. It may take some trial and error before you really know. The "readiness" of kefir depends on several things. Personal taste is one of the factors that differs between people. There are other signs to look for however in judging whether your kefir is ready.
Signs that your water kefir is ready:
It has been fermenting 24-48 hours
It smells fermented. To me that is a slightly beery, slightly yeasty, fruity smell.
It looks fizzy- Water kefir is slightly carbonated when done and you will see small bubbles rising up from the bottom, especially when stirred or agitated.
Bubbles gather on top.
The dried fruit is fully hydrated.
If you used brown sugar or molasses, the liquid will be quite a bit lighter.
Taste of "ready to drink" water kefir is much less sweet, slightly tangy and acidic tasting and has a definite fermented taste.
The water kefir grains have grown.
The readiness of water kefir is subjective to some degree. Some people like it less sweet, some like it fermented longer… you have to try it different ways to discover what 'readiness' tastes like to you.
Milk kefir is a little different. It is not always as easy to see the readiness of milk kefir. It is also less forgiving, in that, over fermented milk kefir will separate into curds (a thick top layer) which float to the top, and whey (a watery, slightly yellow liquid) on the bottom.
If your milk kefir separates, you can still use it. Just shake and strain as usual. It will be more sour tasting.
Here are some ways to tell if your kefir milk is ready:
It has been fermenting 24 hours
It smells yeasty and slightly tangy
The grains are floating on the top
The kefir forms unique rivulet pattern when tipped against the glass.
Mostly your milk kefir readiness is determined by personal preference. This is what my kefir looks like when it s the perfect "readiness" for my tastes. Notice the pockets of clear whey throughout the jar. If I leave it another hour or two it will completely separate into curds on the top and whey on the bottom, but I like to pour it when it looks like this. It hasn't curdled yet and it still will pour freely, but it is nice and thick. If my milk has separated into curds and whey, like the 48 hour example above, then I find the resulting kefir is too sour for my liking.
I will strain it now, and then put the strained liquid in a tightly sealed jar in the fridge for a day or two. This gives me a mild, thick kefir that I really adore. It took me several months before I found the right amount of sourness and the consistency that is perfect for my tastes.
If your kefir does over ferment, there are still lots of things you can do with it, including drink it. I will outline what to do if your kefir separates in another post.
Sometimes kefir grains go bad. They can become slimy, or the water kefir becomes thick and syrupy, the grains develop a white film, or they start to smell bad. Don't throw out your grains just yet! You can often bring them back to health again with a little trouble shooting and some TLC.
First, no matter what the problem may be, you need to check all the ingredients you are using.
Is your water fresh with no added chemicals? (no added chlorine or flouride)- Solution– Use bottled water, or boil water for 10 minutes and then let cool before using to remove chlorine. Fluoride can not be removed this way. You need to use bottled water if your municipality adds fluoride. Even bottled water that is labeled "spring water" can have bad additives like chlorine, sulphites, and other unwanted ingredients. Read labels!
Are your ingredients free of preservatives?- Solution– The one that often seems to get by unnoticed is sulphur added to dried fruit. Ths is a preservative. Choose unsulphured dried fruit such as raisins or apricots. Honey can casue a problem too because it has anti-microbial properties.Preservatives in water kefir make for bad grains!
Are you using reactive metal utensils? –Solution– Make sure you are using a glass jar (not plastic) and plastic or wooden utensils. Stainless steel is ok, but I avoid metals just to be on the safe side.
Do you have cross contamination?– Solution– Don't culture different fermented foods or beverages in the same cupboard. Bacteria and yeast can become airborne and cross contaminate. This means if you have milk kefir and water kefir they should be placed in different cupboards.
If any of the above are present, and your kefir seems bad or off somehow, correct the issue, rinse your grains gently in fresh, cool water, and try making a fresh batch of water kefir. If after a few days the problem persists, then you need to take further action.
Drain the grains and rinse them gently in cool fresh water.
Add them to a clean glass jar
Mix a sugar solution of 3 or 4 tablespoons of sugar with 2 cups of cool fresh water and add to grains.
Place jar in refrigerator for 3-4 days to allow the grains to rest. Rinse the grains and change the sugar water solution daily and discard.
On day 4 or 5 use the water kefir recipe to make a fesh batch of kefir. It may take sevearl days, up to a week, to get a fresh balance batch of water kefir after rehabilitating the grains. When the grains are refrigerated, frozen or dehydrated, they go into a state of partial or full dormancy, so it may take a few batches to bring them back to health again.
Grains can be more sluggish in the winter. Try moving your culture to an inside cupboard. Cupboards along an outside wall may be quite cool and causing slower fermentation and growth of your water kefir grains.
If you see little air bubbles in your culture, and it smells lightly yeast or 'beery', be patient. These are good signs that your rehabilitation is working.