Tag Archives: raw milk

Homemade Chevre (Fresh Goat Cheese)

Commercially produced chevre tastes like a wet goat.  Which, honestly, is okay by me.  But there's a better way...

Commercially produced chevre tastes like a wet goat. Which, honestly, is okay by me. But there’s a better way…

The pungent, goat-y chevre you get in the grocery store is an acquired taste.  I’ve definitely acquired it.  But many people haven’t.  Part of the reason it’s so pungent is that it’s old.  The longer goat cheese sits, the more pronounced its flavor becomes.

This flavor is caused by an enzyme called “lipase” that exists in ALL milk, regardless of the animal it comes from, but is present in much higher quantities in goat’s milk and sheep’s milk than it is in cow’s milk.  Thus, the cheeses made from goat and sheep milk tend to be correspondingly more sharp and pungent than cow’s milk cheeses.

You can actually make ANY cheese from ANY milk.  (Including human milk!)  Goat cheddar is divine, and takes fewer months to reach the sharpness that takes a year or longer with cow’s milk.  But making hard cheeses for ageing is much more complex and requires more specialized equipment.  To make divine fresh chevre, all you need is a thermometer, some cheesecloth, a pot, and some goat milk.  Oh, and a bacterial culture called “mesophilic cheese culture” which you can get easily on Amazon, plus rennet which you can also get on Amazon, or get both from most local home-brew shops.

Finding the goat milk will undoubtedly be your hardest task.  Use Craigslist or LocalHarvest.org to start, and you’ll probably find a local goat dairy that sells their milk.  So many kids are allergic to cow’s milk that it’s generally pretty easy to find goat’s milk.  Many grocery stores carry it, also, if only in the canned form.  (Which WILL make chevre, but not a superior one.)  Raw milk will render the best cheese (and also require less bacterial culture), but pasteurized milk will work just fine for this particular cheese.  (The ultra-high temp pasteurization and aggressive homogenization processes used in industrial milks render them un-usable for making hard aged cheeses, but they’ll do okay for fresh cheeses like chevre and ricotta and paneer.)

The following recipe is for 1 gallon of milk.  You can scale up or down depending on how much milk you have.

In a large non-reactive pot (meaning NOT aluminum or cast iron…stainless steel or enameled pots only!), add:

1 gallon goat milk (raw or pasteurized)

Over medium heat, bring the temperature to 75F.  You should stir the milk often in a circular motion from the bottom up to evenly distribute the heat.  If your pot is very thin and light, you will want to stir more frequently, scraping the bottom of the pot with a spatula, so you don’t scorch your milk.  But since you’re only heating to 75F, that’s not a real danger as long as you keep the heat moderate.

Remove the milk from the heat and sprinkle on:

1 pinch mesophilic starter (if using raw milk)


1/8 teaspoon mesophilic starter (if using pasteurized milk)

(Mesophilic starter is a combination of several strains of lactobacillus bacteria that “digest” milk sugars…ie “lactose”…and produce lactic acid as a byproduct.  This lactic acid is what makes chevre taste tart, and is part of the process that causes the milk to curdle, or separate into solid curds and liquid whey, which happens any time a milk product is acidified.  Ever accidentally added buttermilk or old spoiled milk, both of which are acidic, to your coffee…also acidic…and seen the grossness that ensued?  Same principle here:)

The separation of curds and whey...a part of the cheesemaking process for every cheese from Asiago to Zamorano.

The separation of curds and whey…a part of the cheesemaking process for every cheese from Asiago to Zamorano.

Let the culture sit on the surface of the milk for 5 minutes.  The GENTLY stir using the same slow bottom-to-top motion for 2 minutes using a VERY CLEAN spoon.  You don’t want to introduce bad bacteria to your warm milk, only the correct bacteria!

Use the instructions on your rennet to prepare enough rennet for 1 gallon of milk.  Generally, 2 drops of animal rennet dissolved in 1/4 cup of cool water is sufficient for 1 gallon of milk for chevre, but some rennets are stronger or weaker.  Add the diluted rennet to the milk and stir again, VERY gently, up and down, for 2 minutes.  Then cover the pot and forget about it for 12-16 hours at room temperature, or as close to 72 degrees as you can get.  If your room is warmer, the cheese will curdle and culture more quickly, and you’ll have a stronger flavor.

By the way…what the heck is rennet?  Rennet is a combination of complex enzymes that are usually derived from partially-digested milk inside the stomach of a calf.  You also have these enzymes in your stomach when YOU were a calf, but most of us lose the ability to produce them as we get older.  This is called “lactose intolerance” and is the reason you toot a lot when you drink a glass of milk.  (Drinking raw milk will not result in the same gastric disasters, because raw milk contains many lactobacillus bacteria that will naturally digest much of the milk’s sugars for you.)  Cheese was invented…or, rather, discovered…millenia ago when shepherds would save milk inside a sheep or goat’s stomach (a convenient waterproof sack that didn’t leak) but after a few days, the milk had turned to cheese.  Enzymes similar to rennet can be extracted from some vegetables, like mallow, thistles and nettles, for the production of fully vegetarian cheeses.  Mass-produced cheeses you get in the cheese section at the grocery store use a type of rennet not available to the public that’s a result of a genetically-modified bacteria that secretes the same enzymes found in rennet.  Because these aren’t made by a small cheesemaker who keeps a careful eye on his milk during the process, the inconsistencies that result from animal and vegetable rennet leave a massive cheese factory at risk of a bad bad, ruining tens of thousands of dollars of product.  So they need this synthetically-created rennet because of its precise composition.  (Folks who avoid GMOs should only buy artisan cheeses, as a result.)

Fresh chevre, hanging to drain.

Fresh chevre, hanging to drain.

Get your draining station ready before proceeding to the next step.  You’re going to need clean surfaces, cheesecloth or butter muslin, scissors to cut it with, and a place to hang the cheese to drain.  When I’m making a lot of cheese, I use my big cooler, and a long broom handle to hang the cheesecloth from.  If I’m just making a single 1-gallon recipe, I can hang the cheesecloth on my kitchen faucet and let it drain into the sink overnight.

Prepare your squares of cheesecloth or butter muslin.  Butter muslin will only need 1 layer, but cheesecloth will need at least 3 layers.  The size of your squares will depend on how much cheese you’re making.  For a 1 gallon recipe, an 18″ square should be sufficient.  For larger recipes, use larger squares, or multiple smaller squares.  Dampen the cheesecloth, wring it out, and spread it out into a colander.  Then set the colander into a larger bowl to catch the whey.

Remove the lid from the cheese.  You’ll see that the milk has now separated into a solid white mass (the “curd”) and a greenish liquid (the “whey.”)  Using a CLEAN slotted spoon (or better yet, a kitchen spider), GENTLY scoop the solid white curd out of the pot and set the curd into the cheesecloth-lined colander.  As you scoop, the curd in the pot will start to break up, so be as gentle as you can.  As you get most of the curd out of the whey, you can switch to a strainer to get as much curd as possible.  Pour the final whey through the strainer to get all the last few bits.

While you can discard the whey, that’s a huge waste.  (Especially with expensive goat milk!)  That whey is delicious and full of protein and probiotic cultures.  At the VERY least, feed it to your plants or pets.  But it makes a fabulous base for smoothies, or substitute it for water in any bread recipe for an outstanding loaf!

Bring the corners of the cheesecloth together and tie them in a solid knot.  (You can tie 2 opposite corners first, then the 2 remaining corners.)  Then hang the cheese to drain in a cool place (as close to 72 as possible!)

How long you drain the cheese will dictate its final texture.  For a very soft cheese, you only need to drain about 6 hours.  I drain mine for 12 hours, which results in a firm but moist cheese that crumbles easily.  If you want that chalky-dry texture you get in chevres at the grocery store, you’ll need to hang for upwards of 24 hours, or get a chevre mold and rig up a cheese press.  But that’s not the best texture for chevre.  The commercial creameries do it that way because they’re shipping their cheeses and they may be on the shelf for a few weeks, which means they need to press out as much whey as possible.  (The higher the moisture content, the more perishable the cheese is.)

12 hours is the sweet spot for a creamy, rich chevre that’s milder than commercial chevre, but with a pleasant bite to it.  Don’t bother collecting the whey that has drained and been sitting for hours, it’s too fermented for most people to enjoy.  But your dog or cat might love it!


All About Buttermilk

While I tell people that my favorite ingredient is pumpkin, that’s certainly true in the fall when pumpkins are in season.  Pumpkin inspires me, and it’s what I’m known for…it’s my “signature ingredient.”

But there’s another ingredient that I’m obsessed with, that I use every single day, and that I couldn’t live without.  Buttermilk.  Yet I get so many comments from fans asking me if they REALLY need to use buttermilk in my recipes…and what is an appropriate substitute for buttermilk…and the answer is simple.  Nothing.  Buttermilk is an absolutely essential, irreplaceable ingredient in baking, and a wonderful ingredient in cooking, and if you don’t have it in your fridge, you need to.

It’s easy to keep buttermilk around, it lasts FAR longer than its expiration date, and you only have to buy it once in your lifetime…all you have to do to make more is refill the container with milk and leave it on your countertop for 12 hours.  Buy it once, and you’ll never have to buy it again.  But more on that later…first, what the heck IS buttermilk?

An old-fashioned butter churn. These days you can make butter easily and quickly in your stand mixer.

Back in the “olden days,” people churned butter at home using raw milk from their cows.  That raw milk contained a variety of naturally-occurring bacteria, mostly from the lactobacillus family, which feed on sugars in the milk and, in turn, produce lactic acid.  Lactobacillus bacteria live everywhere…there are billions of them on your skin, in your digestive tract, and scientists say that bacteria on and inside our body outnumber our actual cells by 4 to 1.  We NEED these bacteria to be healthy, to properly digest our food, and to support our immune system.  Just as these bacteria live inside us, they also live inside the cow, and they come out in the cow’s milk, just as they come out in mother’s milk to establish her baby’s immune system.  At room temperature, these bacteria flourish and multiply, and they “sour” the milk fairly quickly, turning it into something that tastes like yogurt and is thicker than fresh milk, through the process of natural fermentation.  (This fermented milk substance is much closer to our modern buttermilk than true old-fashioned buttermilk.)  In the days before electricity, this was a way of preserving the milk so that it could be kept at room temperature for long periods of time, and while it was tart and tangy due to the lactobacillus fermentation, it was still VERY drinkable.    Once refrigeration became common, as people milked their cows, they skimmed the cream off the top of the milk and put this skim milk in their icebox to slow down this natural fermentation process, keeping the milk “sweet” for longer, but the cream was just poured into the churn and left at room temperature.  After several days of milkings, enough cream would have been amassed to churn into butter.  Over this time, though, the cream in the churn had naturally fermented into something very similar to modern sour cream or creme fraiche.  Then it was churned into butter, meaning that the fat particles in the cream got stuck together into larger and larger clumps, and the remaining liquid settled in the bottom of the churn.  That butter was tart and tangy because it was churned from cultured cream, and this “cultured butter” is still the most popular butter in Europe, though it can be tricky to find here in the US.  The butter was removed, and that liquid left over was a bit like our modern skim milk, with very low fat content, but it was cultured with lactobacillus, so it was much thicker in texture even than regular whole milk.  It was pleasantly tart, kept for a long time, and had the decidedly wonderful benefit of its acids reacting with baking soda, the primitive alkaline leavener that we still used today, to produce carbon dioxide bubbles, which made biscuits rise, pancakes fluffy, and quickbreads rise just like yeast breads.

Butter and Skim Milk, the products of churning butter from pasteurized cream

So buttermilk has been around as long as butter, and for thousands of years longer than humans have been drinking pasteurized milk, they’ve been drinking and baking with buttermilk.

In the 1940s, commercial milk producers began pasteurizing their milk.  That’s a fancy word for heating the milk to a temperature that destroys all the living bacteria inside it.  This means that milk will not naturally ferment, because all the lactobacillus that exist naturally in the milk are dead.  Pasteurization is important for many reasons…if a cow is sick and it transmits those bad bacteria, viruses, or parasites into its milk, anyone who drinks that milk is at risk for contracting an illness as well.  Also, back when refrigeration wasn’t precise or commonplace, milk from cows was frequently exposed to higher temperatures on its journey from cow to your refrigerator, and warmer temperatures encourage bacterial growth, so if there were a few bad bacteria in the milk, they might multiply, increasing your chance for contracting an illness.  With today’s modern industrial milking and transport practices, milk remains chilled to a point that discourages bacterial growth from a few seconds after it comes out of the cow until it lands in the grocery store…so from one perspective, pasteurization isn’t as important.  However, because virtually all commercial milk is produced on massive industrial farms run largely by machines, the dairy farmer doesn’t know each one of his animals intimately, and has no idea if they are sick and should be held off the milk line.  Moreover, industrial farms crowd their cattle into small lots, concentrating their waste and increasing exposure to pathogens, and they feed their cattle a scientifically formulated diet to maximize their milk production (at the cow’s expense), and many farms over-milk their cows.  So, it’s actually INCREDIBLY important, if you buy milk at the grocery store, that it be pasteurized.

Click here to be taken to the Real Milk Finder

The negative side of pasteurization is that it destroys those lactobacillus bacteria that also naturally exist in our bodies, which gets replenished when we consume natural sources of that bacteria. antibioticstore (Antibiotics can virtually wipe out the natural colonies of bacteria in our gut that keep us healthy, and we’ve all taken antibiotics.)  Additionally, pasteurization deactivates the natural enzymes that exist in the milk that digest the milk’s complex sugars for us when we drink it.  If you’re not lactose intolerant, you know many people who are, and get horrible gastrointestinal repercussions from drinking milk.  (Or, if you’re like me, you just get really gassy when you drink milk!)  Most adult humans do not retain the digestive enzymes necessary to properly break down milk, but luckily, milk naturally contains those enzymes!  So if ANY adult, even a lactose intolerant one, drinks raw milk, they’ll have ZERO problems digesting it.  (Unless, of course, they have an actual milk allergy.)  Pasteurization destroys these enzymes, unfortunately, so all the milk in your grocery store does NOT contain the enzymes that take care of digestion for us.

Wait a minute…how on earth did this blog on buttermilk turn into a diatribe on pasteurization?!?  I guess because it’s part of the story of buttermilk, because the butter churned from pasteurized cream resulted in “sweet cream butter” which is far and away the most popular kind of butter sold today in the US, and the “butter milk” left over after that churning process was not the tart, thick, creamy cultured product that remained in the old-fashioned process.  It was simply skim milk.

But, because buttermilk had become firmly integrated into our recipe traditions over the centuries, dairies had to continue providing us with an acidified milk product, so our recipes would continue to work.  So they reverse-engineered a “buttermilk” by simply adding lactobacillus cultures to regular pasteurized milk with various fat contents, and allowed the milk to ferment into something very similar to old fashioned buttermilk.

Today when you go to the grocery store, you’re likely to find 2 types of buttermilk…low fat or fat free, and standard, which is often referred to as “old fashioned.”  (Strangely enough, the low fat should be called “old fashioned” because the real old fashioned buttermilk had almost no fat in it, other than flakes of butter that didn’t get strained out.)  They both work just fine in recipes, though I prefer the richness of full-fat buttermilk.  There’s a new type of buttermilk that has appeared on most grocery store shelves recently called “Bulgarian-style buttermilk.”  It is fermented with yogurt cultures and at a higher temperature, so it tends to be thicker and tarter than conventional buttermilks.  I love it.

Lowfat buttermilk on the left, "Country Store" or full fat buttermilk on the right

At some fancier gourmet markets, you may find “REAL old fashioned buttermilk” which is either churned from factory-cultured cream that was originally pasteurized and then recultured, or it is churned from pasteurized cream, and then flecks of cultured butter are added in.  You’ll pay a pretty penny for this fancy buttermilk, and I don’t find it’s any more impressive in my recipes, only for straight drinking.

Kate's, one of the few commercial buttermilks made after churning butter (though definitely not the "old fashioned" way with naturally fermented cream)

It’s incredibly hard to find organic buttermilk, and when you do find it, it’s breathtakingly expensive…but I’m going to teach you a trick in a bit on how to make your own organic buttermilk.

You’ll even find buttermilk “powder” in most grocery stores.  You add water to this stuff and it “becomes” buttermilk in the same way that dry milk becomes “milk” when you add water.  (Hardly…ever tried to drink reconstituted dry milk?)  Still, this product IS made from buttermilk, so it may have similar impacts on recipes.  My Mom uses it religiously, but I’m still not convinced enough to use it in any recipe other than one that calls for dry milk, like my granola recipe.

As I mentioned before, buttermilk is an integral part of baking.  The old fashioned leavener we still use today is baking soda, which is an alkaline substance.  Ever mix baking soda with vinegar in a soda bottle and wait for it to pop out a cork from the pressure built up as carbon dioxide is released from the interaction of alkaline and acid?  The same thing happens in your biscuit dough…the baking soda meets the acidic buttermilk, and gas is released that causes the biscuits to rise.  We have a more modern leavener called baking powder that is a combination of alkaline baking soda and powdered cream of tartar, a dry acid powder that results from the wine making process.  Once the mixture is moistened, the two products react and produce carbon dioxide.  Newer “double acting” baking powders also contain an acid that doesn’t react with baking soda until it is heated to baking temperatures, most commonly sodium aluminum sulfate…though recent research may indicate that ingesting aluminum might cause a variety of serious health problems, including Alzheimer’s.  So, for health reasons, it’s probably better to stick to aluminum-free baking powders, or stick to recipes that call for baking soda plus an acid like buttermilk.

The arduous process of making buttermilk at home.

I’ve been teasing you in this blog that you only need to buy buttermilk once in your life, and that’s somewhat true.  While I have obviously bought buttermilk far more often than once, I typically only buy it for my home 2-3 times a year, yet I ALWAYS have buttermilk around.  This is because buttermilk is simply milk that has been inoculated with live lactobacillus bacteria and left at a temperature warm enough for the bacteria to ferment the milk.  In simple terms…when you’re almost out of buttermilk, refill the container with fresh milk, shake it well, leave it on your countertop for 12 hours, and you have fresh buttermilk.  You’ll know its ready by its texture…if it has thickened up nicely, it’s cultured and ready to go back in the fridge.  If it’s still thin, leave it out at room temp until it’s thick.  If it’s as thick as yogurt, it over-cultured…simply add a little milk, shake it to mix.

Do you like buying organic milk products like I do?  A gallon of organic milk is now affordable for most of us…around $5-6 at many places.  Refill your buttermilk container with organic milk, and you’ve got half a gallon of organic buttermilk for about what non-organic buttermilk costs.

But what about the expiration date, especially if you’ve made your own buttermilk?  Don’t sweat it.  Once the milk is fermented, it contains a VERY healthy, prolific colony of lactobacillus bacteria, which are notoriously aggressive against infection by bad bacteria.  Your buttermilk is not likely to EVER get moldy or spoil.  It’s already spoiled!  With GOOD bacteria.  If your buttermilk starts to get a little “chunky” when you pour it, simply give it a good shake.  If it starts to separate and gets a layer of “whey” at the bottom, simply give it a food shake.  However, if it fully curdles, you should probably throw it out (or feed it to your chickens, or compost it, or water your plants with it) and buy a fresh container.

Because of this lovely self-preserving feature, buttermilk keeps FAR beyond its expiration date.  NEVER throw out buttermilk until it has completely curdled.  I’ve found buttermilk MONTHS past its expiration date in friends’ fridges, and it’s perfectly fine, even for drinking.

Buttermilk is indispensable in baking.  I use it in biscuits, pancakes, and waffles.  I use it instead of milk or cream in French toast.  I use it as the base for yeast breads like my overnight cinnamon rolls, my 1 hour English muffins, and my 1 hour Monkey bread.  I use it in my 3-minute microwave oatmeal breakfast cake and my 5-minute molten chocolate lava cake.  It’s essential in my 5-minute oil-based pie crust recipe that many people tell me is more flaky and delicious than the laborious butter pastry that requires chilling and is chock full of saturated fat.  It is indispensable in cornbread.

Buttermilk also crosses over into cooking.  It’s a healthier and more flavorful substitute for heavy cream in soups and sauces.  However, because buttermilk is acidic, it curdles at much lower temperatures than non-cultured milk products…meaning, you can’t heat a pot of buttermilk without it separating into curds and whey (which is the first step of the cheesemaking process, and you can make a lovely fresh cheese simply by heating buttermilk until it fully curdles, then strain the curds in cheesecloth for an hour and stir in some salt…and any other ingredients you’d like, lemon zest, black pepper, fresh thyme, olive oil, etc. etc. etc.).  However, you can whisk buttermilk into hot (but not simmering or boiling) soups and sauces the same way you would add cream.  I finish my potato leek soup this way, I use it in every cream soup I make, and turn regular white gravy into buttermilk gravy by making it with half the amount of milk the recipe specifies, and then whisking in buttermilk at the end.  I finish mashed potatoes with buttermilk, rather than tons of butter and sour cream…same rich texture, BETTER taste, and far less (or no) saturated fat.  Marinate or brine meats in salted buttermilk with any other flavors you want.  I make what most people say is the best fried chicken they’ve ever tasted by brining chicken in rosemary buttermilk, then using that buttermilk to sprinkle into a seasoned flour and cornstarch mixture with a little baking soda added to form crumbs that expand into a light, flaky crust when fried in a cast iron skillet.  Use buttermilk in frozen desserts like ice cream and you can virtually eliminate the fat content, but still have thick, rich, full-flavored ice cream with a pleasant tang reminiscent of frozen yogurt.  Check out my buttermilk sweet potato ice cream recipe, it’ll blow your mouth away!

Have I convinced you yet that you need to have buttermilk in your fridge?

So what do you do if you don’t have buttermilk handy?  Well, first of all…shame on you.  But it does happen to the best of us.  We reach for the buttermilk, and there’s only half a cup left, when we need 2 cups.  Because it takes about 12 hours to culture a fresh batch, and because not all of us have a corner store a few minutes away, sometimes we have to make substitutes for buttermilk.  The BEST substitute is a mixture of half plain yogurt, and half milk.  And for my friends who live in other countries where buttermilk isn’t sold, this is your best way to replicate buttermilk, as yogurt is widely available in almost every country.  Use unsweetened yogurt, or even sour cream, creme fraiche, clotted cream, or any fermented milk product.  Even a Tablespoon of this stuff is enough to culture a few liters or quarts of milk overnight, but for immediate use, you’ll need to use half and half.

Keep the vinegar AWAY from the milk! Except as a last resort.

If you don’t have a cultured milk product in your fridge, you’ll have to resort to the popularly-referenced milk and vinegar combination.  This DOES NOT resemble buttermilk, either in texture or flavor.  All it does is make the milk acidic so it will react with baking soda and baking powder.  Whisk in a Tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice per cup of milk.  I actually HATE this substitution, because it encourages people to think that they never need to keep buttermilk around.  Don’t do it except in a last-resort case.  I will actually drive 10 minutes to the grocery store to buy buttermilk rather than use this substitute, unless I’m in the middle of cooking and suddenly discover I’m low on buttermilk.

2700 words on my favorite ingredient!  I could easily write 10,000.  Buttermilk is miraculous.  It’s incredibly healthy for you.  It turns milk into a virtually unspoilable, magical product that completely transforms the texture and flavor of baked goods.  I could not cook without it.  And now that you know all this…I’m guessing YOU can’t cook without it, either?  Go get some.  NOW!

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