Kefir or kephir is a fermented milk drink similar to a thin yogurt that is made from kefir grains, a specific type of mesophilic symbiotic culture. 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.
The kefir grains initiating the fermentation consist of a symbiotic culture of lactic acid bacteria and yeasts embedded in a matrix of proteins, lipids, and polysaccharides. The matrix is formed by microbial activity and resemble small cauliflower grains, with color ranging from white to creamy yellow. A complex and highly variable community can be found in these grains, which can include lactic acid bacteria, acetic acid bacteria, and yeasts. While some microbes predominate, Lactobacillus species are always present. 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.
During fermentation, changes in the composition of ingredients occur. Lactose, the sugar present in milk, is broken down mostly to lactic acid by the lactic acid bacteria, which results in acidification of the product. 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.
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