Photo by Getty Images/tashka2000
Though I relish any opportunity to patronize nonsanctioned markets, I have not had to resort to civil disobedience for access to raw milk. I’ve had the privilege of living with a small herd of goats for thirteen years now. For me the connection to these goats — at present Sylvia, Lovegoat, Lynnie, Lentil, Luna, Lydia, and the reigning queen of the herd, Persephone — has been a great and unanticipated beneﬁt of community living. On my own I would never have the wherewithal to sustain the twice-daily ritual of milking. I like to do other things too much, and I love travel and spontaneous adventure. However, since I share the milking with other people in our collective, it’s rare that I milk more than one or two days a week, and when I go away there are others to keep things going. Food production and community building go hand in hand. Sharing the awesome responsibility of milking goats has enabled me to participate in their care without being in any way burdened.
I love these goats. I talk to them, and I wrestle with them, too. Their individual personalities and their capricious collectivity have given my life an additional dimension that it did not have without them. They are our symbiotic partners here on this land. They “browse” the mountainside munching on leaves, lichens, ﬂowers, and seedpods, incorporating that rich phytochemical diversity — which we humans are unable to access directly — into their delicious milk. We try to take good care of them, and they provide us with milk that couldn’t be fresher or more local.
The milk ﬂow is seasonal. In the late winter it can taper off to almost nothing as pregnant goats are “dried up” and milk production is reduced by more limited grazing opportunities and the hard work of staying warm. Spring brings new kids and a renewed milk ﬂow, which increases into the summer — at which point we get up to ﬁve gallons a day — just as the summer’s relentless heat and bugs send people off on travels and reduce our human population to its annual minimum. Inevitably we run out of refrigerator space to store the milk, and as milk accumulates we turn it into keﬁr, cheese, yogurt, and sour cream.
One advantage of raw milk over pasteurized milk is that rather than “spoiling” into something putrid or rotten, it sours in a fairly predictable way that generates most of the dairy products we know and love. Milk that has not undergone pasteurization is host to Lactobacillus and other types of lactic-acid-generating bacteria. As it ages, the milk becomes more acidic. This acidity both protects the milk from potentially disease-causing bacteria and curdles the milk, coagulating fats and separating them from the watery but still protein-rich whey. The familiar dairy products all occur along this spectrum of milk acidifying itself.
Milk can also be cultured. Culturing milk involves adding to it speciﬁc live microorganisms. Yogurt is the product of culturing, made by introducing to milk, via a spoonful of a previous batch, various lacto-bacilli and a speciﬁc coagulating bacteria, Streptococcus thermophilus, that is active only at temperatures around 110 degrees F (43 degrees C). Keﬁr is another cultured milk, a tart and often effervescent drink that is some-times described as “the champagne of milks.” The culture for keﬁr comes not from a previous batch of keﬁr but from symbiotic colonies of bacteria and yeast; these small, rubbery white “grains” look like some-thing between curds of cottage cheese and cauliﬂower ﬂorettes.
In different culinary traditions around the world, milk (from many different animals) is cultured with a variety of starters that evolved in those different regions. These cultures are not incidental culinary novelties; they are manifestations of complex coevolutionary processes of coexistence and integration. We, the plants and animals we eat, the cultural practices of obtaining and utilizing them, and the bacterial and fungal cultures that we use to ﬂavor and preserve foods, are all interdependent elements of this ongoing evolutionary process. These cultured milks can then be transformed into cheeses, endlessly manipulated with temperature, salt, humidity, molds, and ﬂavors. Every cultured milk and every cheese started as a spontaneous wild fermentation, which people selected and perpetuated. Like the phytochemical micronutrients that reﬂect the land and its plant growth in the milk, the unique microbial culture of the land is embodied in the ferment. Though ﬂavors will vary with temperatures and local microbial populations, often the product of a spontaneous wild fermentation is delicious.
Sour cream and cottage cheese are the products I most often ferment from milk. This recipe is simply raw milk that is no longer fresh — day two or three or four without refrigeration — without doing a thing. I call the resulting product sour cream, though classic sour cream would start with cream rather than milk and would introduce a speciﬁc Lactobacillus culture. My fellow communard and cheesemaker Laurel has found that leaving the souring milk a day or two longer results in the formation of ﬁrmer curds, which we call cottage cheese. These fermented forms of milk, also known as clabber, are truly the path of least resistance.
As rich condiments, raw milk sour cream and cottage cheese can excite the plainest of foods, such as a baked potato. I grew up eating sour cream (with salt and pepper) on French toast, and I love it in chili, soups and stews, and cold summer soups like and gazpacho. So here’s how I make sour cream: I pour raw goat’s milk into a pot or widemouthed glass jar. The advantage of glass is that you can see what’s happening beneath the surface. A wide mouth is important because you need to be able to get into it later with a spoon to gently scoop out the coagulated milk. Leave the milk out on the kitchen counter at room temperature and covered so that ﬂies can’t get in.
After one to four days (depending on the temperature) the milk will visibly separate, such that the milk fats ﬂoat above the whey. Scoop out the milk fats gently — rough handling can cause them to dissipate — and enjoy them as sour cream. If you wait instead and leave the milk to ferment a day or two longer, the fats solidify further into curds of cottage cheese. Often by this point the milk will develop a ﬁlm of mold on the surface. Mold is a common surface phenomenon on ferments — including not only dairy but sauerkraut, miso, and others—unless they are protected from exposure to air. Foods that have had surface molds scraped from them are perfectly safe. Simply scrape off and discard any mold. Gently scoop curds into a colander and/or cheesecloth, drain liquid off, salt to taste, and enjoy the cottage cheese.
From 1 quart of goat’s milk you’ll get about 2 cups of sour cream or cottage cheese. Cow’s milk is different than goat’s milk in that unless it is homogenized — which it won’t be if it’s raw — its cream rises to the top in its fresh state. The cream will rise right away, before it sours, which takes a day or two. The soured cream of cow’s milk, too, is absolutely delicious.
Sour is not a static state. As days and even weeks pass (at ambient temperatures), the sour cream turned cottage cheese gets more sour, and quite extreme ﬂavors can be achieved if that is what you desire. When your ferment reaches a pleasing level of sourness, move it to the refrigerator. If the ﬂavors that develop spontaneously are not to your liking, try clabbering your milk in a warmer spot. Or culture the milk with a starter culture, which brings greater predictability.
Please note that if you try clabbering pasteurized milk, you are unlikely to have successful or appetizing results. The lactobacilli present in raw milk come into dominance easily and inhibit competitors. Pasteurized milk, on the other hand, is a microbial vacuum, a blank slate open to whatever bacteria should come along. To ferment pasteurized milk with good results, it is important to use starter cultures such as yogurt, keﬁr, or their many more obscure cousins from different parts of the earth.
More from The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved:
Cover Courtesy of Chelsea Green
From The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements by Sandor Ellix Katz, © 2006 by Sandor Ellix Katz. Reprinted by arrangement with Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT.