Wild Dairy Fermentation

Make friends with milk microbes to see a difference in your homemade cheeses.

Peter Dixon (pictured at top) and Rachel Fritz Schaal share the title of head cheesemaker at Parish Hill Creamery, where they’ve been propagating cultures from raw milk since 2013. Photo by @parishhillcreamery

Long before packets of freeze-dried cultures for milk existed, there were dairy ferments. Cheese, yogurt, and kefir are probably second only to beer in the pantheon of fermented foods. However, in the modern world, 100 percent wild fermentation in dairy products is rare. There are many cheeses made from raw milk, though, and the fermentation of these is a joint effort between wild microbes and cultivated bacteria. Cheesemakers who use this approach rely heavily on wild microbes to produce a superior, nuanced cheese, but hedge their bets for optimal acidification and flavor by adding a pinch of commercial cultures. For those who want to play on the wild side, a deeper understanding of the concerns and the process is necessary.

Understanding Milk

One of the most important truisms I teach about milk is that it isn’t meant to see the light of day. Quite literally, nature only intended milk for immediate consumption by baby mammals for immediate acidification and coagulation in their tummies. Therefore, anything we do that attempts to extend the life of fluid milk — from refrigeration to storage and transportation — will alter the quality of milk. In a perfect world, a cheesemaker would milk their animals and use that fresh, warm milk to make cheese immediately. Though some are able to do that, the reality for most cheesemakers includes several other steps. Most home cheesemakers start with milk that’s been refrigerated, and therefore already altered.

Photo by Gianaclis Caldwell

In the mammary gland, milk is usually sterile (except in conditions of infection, and possibly some natural transmission from the mother). When milk is collected using a milking machine or by hand, milking microbes are also collected from the teat skin and the air. In clean conditions, these are mostly harmless — even helpful — microbes. But not always. Picture the microbe-packed dust particles moving with every step the cow takes, every swish of the goat’s tail, and every stomp of the ewe’s hoof. These particles all enter the milk. Even when harmless from the standpoint of food safety, they might interfere with proper fermentation.

Photo by Gianaclis Caldwell



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