Water Kefir Vs. Milk Kefir: What’s The Difference?

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People are rediscovering that fermented foods go beyond pickles, yogurt, and alcohol. Even mainstream Western stores are now stocking kimchi, kombucha, miso, tempeh, and kefir. But now kefir has split into two varieties: water kefir and milk kefir. However, the differences between the two go beyond one being vegan friendly. 

Kefir is made from starter cultures known as grains or crystals. Water kefir has its own grain, separate from milk kefir. Both are full of probiotics. However, milk has more vitamins due to its base being made from cow, goat, or coconut milk. Water kefir has fewer calories. 

The word “kefir” is derived from “keyif,” a Turkish word that translates to “pleasure” or “good feeling.” This fermented food has been used both as nourishment and as a medical supplement throughout history. Kefir became part of the human diet over 1,000 years ago. Milk Kefir began in the northern region of the Caucasus mountains. However, water kefir’s history is cloudier. 

What Is Water Kefir?

Water Kefir is a drinkable fermented product that is often compared to kombucha. At its simplest, the drink is made from water, sugar, and cultures. These cultures, known as grains, are made up of bacteria and yeast. They come from a cactus and are soft and gelatinous. They look similar to crystalized ginger, rather than kombucha’s SCOBY.

This light, slightly fizzy beverage is easily flavored to suit personal taste. Juice can be added after preparation. You can also make it with juice, provided it is free of chemicals that can harm the kefir grains. Water kefir can also be made with coconut water. 

Various forms of sugar can be used in making water kefir, including molasses. However, raw honey must be avoided as its healthy bacteria can kill kefir. 

The exact history of water kefir is unknown. However, there is evidence of it being used both in Japan and Mexico under different names, such as “tibicos,” which comes from the prickly pear. 

What Is Milk Kefir?

Milk kefir is a thin, drinkable fermented milk product often compared to yogurt or sour cream. At its essence, it is milk and cultures made of bacteria and yeast. However, this cauliflower-looking grain can grow in long coral-like formations. 

Milk kefir is generally viewed as non-vegan due to commonly being made in cow milk or goat milk. However, it can also be made in coconut milk. 

Milk kefir can also be made in non-fat and low-fat milk. However, this will produce an even thinner product unless you add additives and stabilizers, which commercial brands often do. 

Flavor Differences: Water Kefir Vs. Milk Kefir

Kefir, like many fermented foods and drinks, has a slight fizz and tang to it. The fizz and tang increase with the length of fermentation. However, while both water and milk kefir share this fizz and tang, the overall flavors are dramatically different due to their bases. 

What Does Water Kefir Taste Like?

Water has a less complex flavor palate to fermented beverages such as kombucha. Its taste is light and sweet. Some describe it as similar to a sweetened and diluted apple cider vinegar. Due to its plain nature, many people use flavorings, some turning water kefir into lemonade. Others add squash, cordials, fruit, or crystallized ginger. 

You can do many of these flavoring options from the start, such as organic juice or ginger. But if you are using fresh or frozen fruit at the beginning, remove it after 24-hours of fermentation, or it risks becoming slimy.

However, it is best to leave any non-natural flavorings or cordials that contain chemicals until after water kefir has been prepared. You don’t want to kill your kefir grains accidentally. 

What Does Milk Kefir Taste Like?

Milk kefir is often compared to the taste of sour cream, Greek yogurt, or buttermilk. Some people drink it straight others use it as they would yogurt, mixing it into smoothies or creating breakfast parfaits with granola and fruit. Then there are people who enjoy drizzling it over food, such as tacos, omelets, or oatmeal. 

There are people who bake with kefir, as it is virtually lactose-free. It produces a result similar to buttermilk, but not quite. However, heat kills probiotics, so some of the benefits of kefir will be lost in the baking process. This is also a risk if you add it to coffee. 

Drizzling kefir into crepes with fruit or topping pancakes, however, should be fine, as the finished product is much cooler than your oven. This is similar to how crème fraîche is used. Milk kefir is generally not as sweet as crème fraîche, but adding honey and berries will make up for it. 

Milk kefir made from goat milk or coconut milk is as different from standard cow milk kefir just as their yogurts. However, like cow milk kefir, the consistency will be runnier than typical goat or coconut yogurt. 

Coconut milk is the sweetest of the three milk kefirs, making it wonderful on pancakes and waffles. However, many will find it too sweet to top savory dishes such as tacos. But it is a vegan-friendly alternative. 

Do Kids Prefer Water Kefir Or Milk Kefir

Overall, parents have an easier time getting their kids to drink water kefir than milk kefir. Water kefir is sweeter and is easily disguised as lemonade or their favorite juice. It is also easily turned into popsicles as a refreshing summer treat. (Freezing won’t kill most of the probiotics, as the majority will simply become dormant.)

However, all children are different, and some do enjoy the sour tang to milk kefir. It is popular in Russia and the Ukraine, where children begin drinking it as babies. There are also many flavored milk kefir products in these countries, similar to Western yogurt drinks.

Western guidelines generally advise introducing kefir after 12 months unless discussed with a pedestrian first. Thus, parents who are introducing milk kefir to their kids later in life will probably find it easiest to serve it in berry smoothies. You simply replace yogurt with kefir and can add a touch of sweetener. If you miss the thickness of yogurt, add frozen banana. 

Another trick is serving milk kefir as chocolate milk. If you want to make it thicker, again, a frozen banana does wonders and gives it extra nutrition. 

Lastly, some people have had success turning kefir into ice cream. Some recipes are not vegan friendly, involving eggs, milk kefir, and cream kefir. Others can be vegan if you use coconut milk kefir. The former will produce a product closer to standard dairy ice cream than the latter, which has a consistency that sits between frozen yogurt and sorbet. 

Preparation Differences: Water Kefir Vs. Milk Kefir

Water kefir and milk kefir are made in a similar fashion. Water kefir has a third additional ingredient, but that’s because milk inherently possesses sugar in the form of lactose. But it is important to remember that water kefir and milk kefir use difficult cultures. However, both come in a live form or a powder. 

Preparation For Water Kefir

Water kefir is pretty easy. You mix the ingredients, then pour it into a container, waiting 24-48 hours. Thus, it is a much faster process than kombucha. 

Some people heat the water first to help the sugar dissolve. However, you need to wait for it to cool before adding your kefir grains; otherwise, you can damage or even kill them. 

While there are many different recipes for water kefir, but in its basic form, it is only three ingredients: water, sugar, and cultures. However, all three ingredients have alternatives.  

Water Substitutes For Water Kefir

Water kefir will be fizzier if your water has a higher mineral content. Fruit juice kefir or adding ginger will also give it more fizz. 

The following can be used in place of water in your water kefir:

  • Fruit juice
  • Coconut water
  • Mineral water

Mineral Supplements For Water Kefir

Some types of water will produce poor kefir. These include distilled and reverse osmosis. Also, if you have very soft water, you might find it doesn’t produce the quality of kefir you desire. 

To give less-than-ideal water a pep, you need to add minerals. You can do this with the following: 

Types of Sugar For Water Kefir

When you make water kefir, you need sugar for your grains to feed on, creating the fermentation. The type of sugar you use will impact the sweetness of your kefir and its overall taste. Types of sugars for water kefir include:

  • Refined white sugar
  • Brown sugar
  • Rapadura or Sucant
  • Cane Juice Crystals
  • Raw Sugar
  • Molasses

Molasses tends to produce the most fizz. However, some find it can damage the kefir grains. Rapadura or Sucanat produces the strongest tasting kefir. 

Types of Sugar That Are Bad For Water Kefir

The following sugars either harm your kefir grains or do not produce enough food for them to create a finished product.

  • Agave
  • Stevia
  • Monk Fruit
  • Splenda
  • Honey
  • Maple Sugar or Syrup
  • Coconut Palm Sugar

Water Kefir Culture Forms

Water kefir is made with two forms of cultures. These both play a role similar to sourdough starters. 

The first is the traditional culture, which looks like a pile of crystallized ginger. These, like sourdough starters, need to be looked after. If neglected, they can die. However, there are ways to make them dormant for a period before reuse. Which is handy if you need to go away for a while. 

Traditional cultures are the perfect choice if you are going to make water kefir on a regular basis. If well cared for, you’ll not only be spared having to rebuy them but will have enough to give away as they grow. 

Traditional water kefir cultures also have a greater diversity in probiotics than the powdered form.

Powdered kefir cultures are easier and can be used a few times. Some of them, such as this one, even work for both water and milk kefir. Many find this far easier. Powdered kefir cultures are also perfect for people who don’t want to make it all the time and constantly be responsible for a “kitchen pet.” 

Preparation For Milk Kefir

Making milk kefir is simple; add kefir cultures to a jar of milk. Cover the milk and leave for 12-48 hours. Once you are ready, remove the culture. 

Types of Milk For Milk Kefir

You can use three types of milk for milk kefir:

  • Cow milk (cream, full fat, 2%, non-fat)
  • Goat milk
  • Coconut milk

Milk Kefir Culture Forms

Milk kefir cultures come in the same forms as water kefir: live or powder. However, the cultures are different. Thus, your live milk kefir culture looks like small cauliflower blobs that can eventually form a long coral-like chain. Like water kefir cultures, you have to take care of it like a small kitchen pet. 

Health Benefits: Water Kefir Vs. Milk Kefir

Kefir comes with many health benefits. However, its exact nutritional content heavily depends on what ingredients were used. For example, milk kefir has vitamins and minerals found in dairy, whereas water kefir will not. 

In general, water kefir has the least calories, and milk kefir has the highest probiotics. Live cultures that you have to nurture produce a greater variety of probiotics than powder. All forms are said to have more probiotic benefits than yogurt. Both have B vitamins. 

Neither water nor milk kefir has gluten. Both are extremely low in sugar. That’s because the kefir cultures digested it. Thus, kefir is virtually sugar and lactose-free. However, water kefir might have had sugars added to it after it was brewed. 

People consume kefir for reasons other than nutrition. Additional benefits of kefir include:

  • Improve gut health
  • May aid weight loss
  • Aids bone health (milk kefir)
  • Reduces inflation
  • May improve allergy symptoms

What’s The Difference Between Water Kefir & Milk Kefir?

Water kefir and milk kefir are a healthy addition to a person’s diet. While they share similar benefits, they have very different tastes and are made from different cultures. However, both can be made in different ways and have versatile uses. Have fun experimenting.

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