38% Wholemeal Kefir Levain Bread

Sesame Crust Date Kefir Bread

Sesame Crust Date Kefir Bread – this one gets better every time!

For those of you looking for kefir bread formulae, here is what I have been up to. I mostly make the loaf you see above as we both just love it!

I hesitate to call what follows an experiment because home baking is really not very scientific or rigorous as my friend Sally at the Bewitching Kitchen would probably be the first to tell you!

I have no microscope or lab to tell me what is really going on in there, just a basic idea that the kefir is a mixture of yeast and lactobacteria and probably a whole bunch of other things that I don’t know are in there !

I do know from using it and from observation that it is different in many respects from a traditional water and flour fed sourdough culture. The kefir cultures milk primarily, though it can be adapted to use other foodsources,  and is generally slower to do so than an active sourdough unless it is really quite warm. Why use it? Because:

  • I like its tangy taste which is rich and satisfying without being overly sour.
  • It gives me a softer crumb than regular sourdough
  • and it gives me extra calcium for my bones and possibly other nutrients, I like fermented products generally and I don’t like drinking milk very much
  • it is also fairly easy to maintain, tolerant of a wide range of temperatures and suits my baking schedules such as they are

If you culture the milk at a warmer temperature than my ambient temperature which varies from around 14 – 22 C for most of the year then it does go faster, gets very active and produces quite a lot of alcohol smells. I don’t particularly want the alcohol part so I keep the kefir cool and slow.

Most of the recipes for kefir bread that I have seen use some sort of sugar  product to give the kefir easy food.  No recipe for bread really needs sugar for yeast or levain to work, it is a choice you make because you want sweetness in the final product. Sugar in the dough promotes a deep rich colour in the crust and adds a caramel-toned sweetness to it. A sweetness that we don’t maybe register consciously but it is there. Really great bakers can get all that taste by careful selection of flours, manipulating the dough and the bake without adding sugar.

I came to kefir baking via Cecilia  @  thekitchensgarden.com who uses home raised honey in hers, I have been using date syrup in the preferment and this provides the kefir with a reliable and easy form of sugar food and this (as the loaf in the first picture above) produces my favourite of all the kefir breads I have made to date.

I have several friends though who don’t want any sugar in their breads over and above what is in the flour already for dietary and health reasons and so I thought I would work on making the dough without any added sugars.

My first attempts using my usual white stoneground flour just didn’t work well. I made a complete pig’s ear of one dough when I mixed it with all milk, thinking erroneously that this would give the preferment extra sugar.

Bad bread made with too much milk

It didn’t make a nice bread, it had a dense close crumb, and the bottom crust split all round and it had that texture of cooked but spongy heaviness that I dislike in a sourdough.

Just to show you what I mean by a poor crumb...

Just to show you what I mean by a poor crumb…

I have met this problem before making milk sourdough breads, so tend only to use milk as the main liquid in breads leavened with commercial yeast.  If you leave a sourdough mixed with fresh milk for long enough to develop properly you get this really unpleasant sour taste,  I have done that before and that is why I was pleased to find that the milk kefir can be used where fresh milk is not very suitable. It might be different with raw milk that hasn’t been pasteurized but I don’t have easy access to that here.

There is such a wide range of taste when it comes to bread, I am sure some of you happily make sourdough with loads of fresh milk, but I find it unpalatable.

A surprise flower in the stormy weather !

A surprise flower in the stormy weather !

I then tried three variations of preparing a preferment and kept some basic notes as to what I saw and thought.  Each of the three was made with the same quantity of active fermented kefir, and with different flour or treatment.  I hypothesised that as hot water releases sugar in flour, maybe if I mixed some flour with very hot water first and then introduced the kefir to it it would find the sugar more easily and work faster.  I am not sure that it made a significant difference in the end. After 24 hours it did look as if it had more bubbles, but I wasn’t really convinced.

For some reason when I mix kefir with water and straight white flour the resultant preferment always ends up with that acetone/paint stripper smell that I don’t like and this proved the case this time too, so I didn’t make bread from those two as I had tried before with the acetone scented sort and didn’t like the bread it made then. This was more of a check to see if it happened again which it did.

Neat trick to keep track of what is in a bowl seen on the internet

Neat way to keep track of what is going on in what bowl and a memory jogger!

However, the kefir mixed with stoneground wholemeal and water produced a beery/fruity smell which Brian thought was acceptable so I built a test dough with it and baked it off.

It was acceptable to us, tangy but not sour, lean and clean, without any of the butter or syrup that I usually add to our soft kefir loaves. Brian claims that he couldn’t taste much difference, but I thought the crumb was slightly less sweet and the crust was definitely not as gorgeous as when made with the date syrup.

I think the kefir organisms consume most of the date syrup used in the preferment leaving very little sugar in the final dough, but one would have to have a lab to test the bread to know the truth of that, and we are all so inured to hidden sugar tastes in our food that maybe my palate just doesn’t register it as sugar.

So here is a little formula to be going on with… Misky @ The Chalk Hills Kitchen pointed me towards this shortcode for recipes that WordPress now offers. Fiddly or what? What do you reckon to my first attempt at coding? Does it make it easier to read and print? It took me ages and many edits to bodge my way through this. Practice, practice….

38% Wholemeal Milk Kefir Levain Bread

  • Servings: finished loaf weight 400g approx
  • Print

38% Wholemeal Kefir Levain

38% Wholemeal Kefir Levain

To make the preferment:-

Day 1

7.30 pm

  • 25g fermented and lively fizzing/bubbling milk kefir
  • 35g room temp water
  • 60g stoneground wholemeal flour with reasonable protein levels i.e. not pastry flour

Mix and leave  in a covered bowl at room temperature for  36- 48 hours   (15°- 19 C)

Check for fermentation during this period (if the preferment is full of good bubbles then use earlier!)

Day 3

3.30 pm

Mix dough with

  • 50g of  above ferment
  • 172g room temp water
  • 80g stoneground wholemeal bread flour (Stanway Mill)
  • 80g white organic bread flour (Stanway Mill)
  • 90g very strong (manitoba type) bread flour (Waitrose/Marriages)
  • Short autolyse ( of about half an hour)  before adding salt
  • 4g salt

Once mixed leave in a covered bowl while the dough is proving, the time this takes will vary according to temperature.

Two short folds at intervals of approx 1 hr rather than intensive kneading are adequate to give the dough shape and structure. Susan Tenney demonstrates dough folding here for anyone who doesn’t know what this means.

7.30 pm

Shape dough and place in banetton, covered on a tray, whatever you prefer.

Leave to prove for another 3 hours. Think about preheating your oven at some point.  Do not expect the dough to puff up like a yeasted dough does when proving. Do a finger test to see if it is ready to bake. If your gentle prod leaves a dent that doesn’t come back after five/ten minutes then bake the bread in your preheated oven.

Prepare dough for oven, slash top etc

Bake at 10 30 pm on a pre-heated tray at 210° C for 38 minutes with steam.

Crumb of 'sugar free' Kefir Levain

Leave to cool on a rack. Cut when the sun shines in the early morning!

Recipe Credit : zebbakes.com 


For kefir grains there are sources on the internet or if you live near someone who has some just ask them nicely if they would mind sharing when they have some spare or trade something you have made or grown. It seems to be getting more popular again so they shouldn’t be that hard to source. If you have serious difficulty let me know by contacting me on Twitter, (Zeb underline Bakes) comments on posts close after a while as old posts collect spam so badly.

21 thoughts on “38% Wholemeal Kefir Levain Bread

  1. lindaswildlifegarden

    lovely post I wonder if that link would work for a grid I am trying to put into my draft blog ? lovely post as always I must get bake to trying to make bread it is not that I do not have the time I just get down when it does not go right

    1. Joanna Post author

      The link is to WordPress.com help page for writing ‘code’ for this one thing as far as I can tell. I am a beginner. If by a grid you mean a table I have seen them but not done ever, sorry !

      We all have bad bread days and I can understand it gets you down but it is also interesting when it goes awry and one learns a lot trying to puzzle out why.

  2. sallybr

    Scientific all the way, enough precision to make you shine in comparison to some students we have and that last week made my blood pressure rise to unprecedented levels… enough said :-)

    Great post all around, as you know I am intrigued by keffir and one day gotta face that challenge. Challenge is good. You are a pro on challenges

    1. Joanna Post author

      I know my limitations and try hard not to jump to conclusions ;) I am hoping you are getting curious enough to try one day .. And hoping you will carry some kefir into a lab to investigate. Xx

  3. narf77

    Another lovely post and an excellent share for the wider community. Once I get my starter active and going (and the weather cools down enough for me to be bothered baking bread) I am going to dive headfirst into the sourdough pool of life and hopefully when I emerge out the other side I am a beautiful sourdough princess and not just an old little black duck covered in hooch! ;)

    1. Joanna Post author

      You shall go to the sourdough ball Cindernarferella – you and Brunhilda will hi ho silver away, I just know it :) x

      1. narf77

        I think it might be my “bread” year. Nature has conspired to fell some deliciously dead trees on our property so Brunhilda will be able to crank out some serious heat when required and together we will learn the intricacies of the alchemy of sourdough (with some sterling help from my resident expert ;) )

  4. The Editors of Garden Variety

    Wow….your bread looks scrumptious. Thanks so much for sharing your recipe.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Hi Karin, yes I do, I have grains from Carl Legge which keep on growing, they are pretty easy to look after to be honest, all you need is a sieve and a clean jar or two and milk. I have never seen store kefir so I don’t know the answer. If it contains live yeasts as well as bacteria then I don’t see why it shouldn’t, but maybe it is processed in some way ?

      1. Karin Anderson

        Since I already have 4 starters (whole wheat – my default, rye, white and Forkish), plus some old dough. I’ll probably rather add kefir instead of some of the liquid to the bread, not scare my husband with yet another bubbling jar in the fridge :)

  5. Ann

    That bread does look lovely. However I have enough trouble remembering to feed George the sourdough starter without adding kefir to the mix so perhaps that would be a step too far for me!

    1. Joanna Post author

      I thought that at the beginning, oh no! not another fermenty thing to feed but I have got into the habit of baking with it, so I guess I am motivated, it is now the other way round that I have to remember to feed my sourdough cultures once a week or ten days. The kefir grains are quite tolerant, the milk once fermented goes through various stages, of thick and creamy, to curds and whey and can be left in that state in the fridge quite content for a fortnight. Then I sieve the grains out and put them back in a clean jar in about 200 ml of new milk.

  6. cityhippyfarmgirl

    Joanna I finally baked with water kefir last week and the bread results were really interesting- a slightly more golden colour, and a VERY fast prove. Not sure if it was the weather so I need to play again. I finally got hold of water kefir grains and am getting into a rhythm with them. Not sure if they are producing yet though…come on little things!! The amount of bubbling fermenting things on my bench top is quite ridiculous considering my bench space and kitchen size but…it’s not changing any time soon :-)

    1. Joanna Post author

      If it still has lots of sugar in it then that, together with the hot weather, will speed everything up. I think it took the milk kefir a couple of weeks at room temperature to really start growing in size. I haven’t tried the water kefir, maybe I will see if someone locally has grains one day. I am very excited to hear you made bread with yours!!!

      1. cityhippyfarmgirl

        I hope you can get hold of some Joanna. I think they are as fascinating as the milk ones, but maybe a little more versatile in that they don’t need the lactose to produce, just raw sugar. I can’t stop watching them to see if they have grown, (so much more interesting then those Sea Monkeys :-)

        1. Joanna Post author

          One day, another jar – I will keep my ear to the ground and see if anyone has some to swap or spare…love to experiment

          My reasons for dairy kefir are mostly health as well as interest in fermentation – I like the dairy because I want the calcium, I am in that twilight zone pre-osteoporosis, I had a scan, and I hate drinking fresh milk and hot chocolate and that stuff and popping calcium pills so I try to up my yoghurt and kefir intake as a way of improving my calcium intake from a nutritional point of view. Plus B, who can’t eat unfermented milk products as there is a protein in unfermented milk which triggers his asthma, but he is happy with milk kefir.

  7. michaelawah

    Hi joanna,
    Thank you for this experiment and results. I’m quite lax with the flour in the leaven. I use my mostly ww flour leaven even in recipes that call for a normal flour one, making the necessary adjustments, but good to know you’ve used ww flour deliberately for the kefir. Interesting it takes to ww flour better than normal flour. Did you use white or ww for your previous kefir bakes? I think, if I recall correctly, that I used white.
    And good to know that it takes days for the kefir leaven to act up. Has it always taken so long? I think i would be tempted to go shake the bottle each time I pass by the kitchen!
    So is the conclusion that the kefir prefers ww flour but takes longer to ferment with it?

    I agree the date syrup one looks and smells (yes, i can smell it from here:)) ) better but i’m sure this one is delicious too. So this means yet another kefir bread gets added to the list. Unlike you, I tend to use my sourdough one. I don’t know why but my milk kefir grains just won’t produce the curds, well at least to the extent that I can make something out of it. I had such hopes of producing a labneh-type of ‘cheese’ from it. Recently I was away for weeks and left the kefir in their puddle of milk. They’ve turned a faint shade of pink! But are otherwise functioning. The kefir police would persecute me.
    oh yes, regarding the milk, I’ve read somewhere that milk contains some enzymes that can interfere with gluten, that’s why some recipes calls for scalding the milk. Don’t know if that’s the issue with milk in sourdough.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Hi Michael! Yes, that is my basic conclusion, but it isn’t very warm here at the moment so maybe that has a bigger influence than anything? I revisited Dom’s Kefir site after writing this, to read about how he makes kefir cheese and noted that he just uses one cup of kefir to one cup flour to make his starter.

      Pink is a bit worrying isn’t it? Are you using full fat milk to feed the kefir? Maybe try offering it some cream even if you are going for cheese? I found some interesting fullfat milk powder the other day in the lovely Middle Eastern shop and was going to try it in some yoghurt making to see what difference, if any it made.

      The milk scalding thing, I think it is a protein that gets denatured when you heat it, I can’t remember now exactly. I think Dan Lepard used to recommend scalding milk for white milky yeast breads to get a more tender crumb or something. I don’t know what it is with milk and sourdough, but then I am not that keen on sourdough made with straight white flour only anyway, it is all personal tastes. If I email you using the email you log in with here will you see it?

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