Fermented foods have never been trendier. And while you’ve probably eaten your fair share of Greek yogurt and sipped on some kombucha, I’m willing to bet there’s one fermented food you’ve never tried (or were even able to pronounce): kefir.
For the record, it’s pronounced kuh-FEER.
Kefir is a milk drink cultured with yeast and bacteria. Like yogurt, kefir contains protein, calcium, B vitamins, potassium, and probiotics—you know, those good bacteria that support your gut health. But while you eat yogurt with a spoon, you can drink kefir—it’s just a little thicker than regular milk. It’s typically made with cow’s milk, but you can also find non-dairy alternatives made with almond milk, coconut milk, or rice milk. A cup of plain kefir is tart, and weighs in at around 110 calories, 11 grams of protein, 12 grams of carbohydrates, 12 grams of sugar, and two grams of fat per cup.
Stick to the plain stuff to avoid the added sugar in flavored varieties. (Some have 15 grams of added sugar per cup.) If your taste buds really can’t deal with the tartness, mix half a cup of plain kefir with half a cup of a flavored one—and choose the brand with the least sugar.
While a tall glass of kefir makes for a good breakfast or late-afternoon snack, it can do so much more! Here are six delicious, nutritionist-approved ways to use it:
1. Whip up homemade salad dressing.
We all love creamy dressings, but they’re often high in fat and devoid of protein—unless you use kefir as your base. I like to add mustard, horseradish sauce, a spoon of balsamic glaze, and spices to plain kefir for a dressing that bursts with flavor.
photo: Bonnie Taub-Dix
2. Bake sweet potato muffins.
Whether it’s fall or not, these muffins are a flavorful pick-me-up and a great after-school snack. Just bake up a few sweet potatoes—which are a great source of vitamin A and provide fiber—and you’ve got the makings of a delicious treat. Plus, the kefir adds some protein and a heavenly texture to this recipe. These muffins freeze well and pair perfectly with a dollop of cottage or ricotta cheese for an extra protein bump.
3. Add it to pancake or waffle batter.
Starting the morning with a warm stack of pancakes or waffles? Swap the buttermilk in the recipe out for kefir to nix some fat and gain some protein.
photo: Samina Qureshi
4. Blend up a smoothie.
According to Samina Qureshi R.D.N., L.D., of Wholesome Start, LLC, a solid smoothie needs five things: a liquid base, nutrients, protein, flavor, and a natural sweetener. And good ‘ole kefir covers three of the five, with its creamy texture and the protein and nutrients it provides. Qureshi’s berry kefir smoothie combines plain kefir, frozen berries, frozen banana, mixed greens, nut butter, and chia seeds for a balanced smoothie that makes a great snack, on-the-go meal, or post-workout fuel.
photo: Jessica Levinson
Or, keep things simple by blending plain kefir with frozen strawberries, lemon juice, and honey, for a sweet and easy snack. This smoothie, from Jessica Levinson, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., founder of Small Bites by Jessica provides vitamin C, fiber, and antioxidants. It’s a good starter smoothie for those a little intimidated by kefir’s tart flavor.
Related: Is That Smoothie Bowl As Healthy As It Seems?
photo: United Dairy Industry Association
If you’re feeling adventurous, mix up your flavors and add a little spice with a kefir-based pumpkin pie smoothie. All you need is plain kefir, ice, canned pumpkin puree, almond butter, pumpkin pie spice, and maple syrup or honey to whip up a drink that’s much more satisfying than the average pumpkin spice latte. In addition to a number of nutrients from the kefir, you’ll get fiber, potassium, and vitamin C from the pumpkin, according to Lanier Dabruzzi, M.S., R.D., L.D., of the Southeast United Dairy Industry Association.
photo: Liz Weiss
5. Soak some overnight oats.
Overnight oats starring kefir are a convenient make-ahead breakfast. Stash a simple combo of kefir, rolled oats, fruit, and chia seeds in the fridge overnight, and add toppings in the morning. These strawberry peanut overnight oats from Liz Weiss, M.S., R.D.N., taste like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and provide seven grams of fiber and 16 grams of protein.
6. Bake, well, anything.
You can swap kefir in for milk, cream, or yogurt in pretty much any baking recipe, whether it’s for bread or cupcakes. Why not treat yourself to some extra protein and probiotics?
Related: Check out a number of flours, sweeteners, and more for healthy baking.
Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., C.D.N., is an award-winning author, spokesperson, speaker, consultant, and owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC. She has been featured on TV, radio, and print, as well as in digital media, including Everyday Health, Better Homes & Gardens, Women’s Health, and U.S. News & World Report. She is a recipient of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Media Excellence Award.