The day starts at 5:30am. I’m dazed, slightly confused and still working through stress dreams about last night’s dinner rush. Anticipation ultimately pushes me out the door, into the truck, onto the Pike, and an hour later I’m preparing the 100-gallon tank to receive fresh, raw milk. The milk is from Koebke farm, located near my second job as assistant to the cheesemakers at Couët Farm and Fromagerie.
At the farm, the morning’s dew hasn’t yet burned off, the light is soft and the air tastes of fall. When we pull up to the holding tank, the Koebkes have already finished with their own morning routine. The milk of dozens of Holsteins from last night and that morning is quickly cooled, and mixed in a stainless steel tank, where we attach the hose.
As the raw milk runs through the clear line, I think of the cheeses I tasted while studying abroad in the Netherlands. The nutty, salty, aged Goudas that I sampled in the town of Gouda were otherworldly distillations of northern European pastures. I can still taste the fondue I ate in a castle on top of a mountain in Switzerland, paired with a wine that was grown specifically for that dish. Or was it a hostel in Bern, with a lager? Either way it was delicious.
Those memories, the cool air, the open pasture and the low moos and bellows of the calves at the farm bring a sense of peace I don’t get as often as I’d like. As a professional cook I regularly work with “farm to table” concepts, and chefs who proudly advertise the best available seasonal products, but I don’t often get close to a primary producer until I come to Couët to make cheese. I speak with the folks who raise the cows, I pasteurize the milk if we’re doing a fresh cheese, and I relish in the rawness of the moment when we’re making our version of an aged tomme-style cheese.
With the quality of American farmstead cheeses reaching new heights every year, it can be safely said that we no longer need to rely solely on imports from Europe for the best experience in cheese. The widespread availability of high-quality milk, both pasteurized and raw, as well as the availability of cultures for purchase, means culturing dairy products at home has probably never been easier, or safer. I find that it is at home, where I cook for myself, my friends and family, that I’m able to create food that tastes of a place, a terroir, that ties us to our land and tells a story.
While making cheese in your own kitchen is becoming as accessible as home-brewing beer, it is the simpler things—like yogurt, fresh curd cheeses, cultured butter and crème fraîche made from the resulting buttermilk—that are most approachable and involve no special equipment. Overnight, the results are such an improvement on the bland, dead, store-bought brands that it’s easy to get excited about topping your next taco with real, whole-milk yogurt, spreading your crusty loaf with your own homemade butter or topping your pie with thick, rich homemade crème fraîche. In just the same way that baking your own bread can give you a loaf that is all your own—whether it’s a 30-minute biscuit or three-day sourdough epic—culturing dairy is about getting down to the basics of eating better food at home.
Learn to see recipes differently by seeing the milk that’s already in the fridge as your future cream cheese frost-ing, instead of buying more at the store. If you’re the kind of person who likes routine, set aside a weekend day and make some fresh lactic cheeses that can be portioned and frozen for weeks until needed. The “one milk, many options” train of thought opens you up to anything from preparing an herbed compound butter for the spring party in a few weeks, to rarely needing store-bought yogurt or crème fraîche again, even if you’re not the plan-ahead type. Learning to use byproducts from cheesemaking raises the bar even further with whey-brined pork chops, or fresh buttermilk dressings and biscuits.
When not making your own, support local companies with a newfound appreciation for what they do, and how. The Massachusetts Cheese Guild supports a growing crop of cheesemakers that rival any Old World cheese. New England Cheesemaking Supply, another Massachusetts company, offers plenty of necessary ingredients like freeze-dried cultures and moulds, as well as recipe indexes and more. Appleton Farms at the Boston Public Market is a one-stop-shop for many Massachusetts cheeses. New England also has a number of dairy farms offering high-quality milk. High Lawn Farms in Lee is my favorite, with Shaw Farm and Mapleline Farm’s milk also widely available. Raw milk and cream can also be purchased direct from certain farms, and is a wonderful way to get closer to your source.
Simplicity is elusive. A reader of recipes who insists on sticking to the letter of the law as dictated by the author with little understanding of the nuance, or reasoning behind the steps, might still produce a masterpiece fit for the finest of French affineurs, or not. Your approach to the essence of the recipe itself is more important than following the rules. The rules in cooking—and cheesemaking—are less law and more of an accumulated well of experience and are certainly open to interpretation. Try a touch more rennet next time, or a little less. Ladle larger curds into the mould, or let it dry a bit longer. You’ll still get cheese—it may be a bit different, but over time you’ll understand why.
For the novice:
Yogurt is a deceptively simple project. On the surface it’s simply a matter of heating milk up to a certain temperature, adding culture and waiting until it thickens. The hard part is holding the correct temperature. For the desired consistency you’ll need to base it on fat content. Fat is what helps contribute to thick delicious yogurt; using regular whole milk will make yogurt that is some-what thinner than commercial varieties, half-and-half a bit thicker, and cream thicker still. To make your own yogurt you’ll need:
2 pints good-quality milk, half-and-half or cream (I typically do one of milk, and another with half-and-half)
1 packet yogurt culture (from New England Cheesemaking Supply)
2 pint-sized Mason jars with lids
First, heat a big pot of water up to 130°F and place the 2 lidded empty jars inside the cooler. Pour the water into the cooler, covering the jars by several inches, and cover. Bring the milk up to 120°F, add culture and hold for 20 minutes. Do this slowly to avoid going too far over 120°—it’s better to be a little below than above. Check the temperature of the water in the cooler—it should have cooled a bit to around 115°, which is where you want it.
Remove the preheated jars from the water and fill with the cultured milk, cover, and place back into the cooler. The goal is to ferment the milk between 110°F and 115°F for 12 hours. I start in the evening, check after a couple hours and adjust if necessary. In the morning the yogurt will have thickened a bit, and after sitting several hours in the fridge it will set further.
There are many other ways to achieve the correct incubation temperature, from yogotherms to the oven—if it goes low enough. If you’re lucky enough to have an immersion circulator, that might be the best, especially since you can claim to have made sous-vide yogurt. For most of us, though, the cooler method is a good one.
For the more advanced:
Cultured butter is made from cream that has been allowed to ferment for some time, either through purchased cultures or through another source of live microflora. Beginning with good pasteurized cream, I use cheese rinds from Couët’s Farm and Fromagerie, but other rinds will work as well as long they are naturally formed rinds like those typically found on French-style tommes. For 1 pint of cream, I add about a handful of rinds. The cultures that make up the rind are still active, and will continue to grow in the cream. Allowing it to ferment at room temperature encourages a lot of growth and with the big head start that you’re giving the good microflora, they will quickly outcompete any spoilage.
Allow the cream to culture for at least 4 days, or up to a week. At this point, it is ready to be strained through a fine sieve to retrieve the rinds. Rinds can either be used to inoculate another batch of cream, or discarded. To make the cultured butter, whip the cream in a blender, food processor or with a manual mixer until the fat separates from the buttermilk, about 5 minutes. Set a sieve over a bowl and pour the contents into the sieve. Most of the buttermilk will be caught in the bowl, and the resulting butter in the sieve. At this point you have fresh cultured butter that can be used right away or washed to remove even more buttermilk. To wash, place the butter in a bowl with ice water and knead the butter as you would bread dough. As the water becomes cloudy, drain and add fresh ice water. After a few minutes of kneading, you can leave the butter on a plate to dry.
For crème fraîche, add half a cup of the reserved cultured butter-milk to a pint of cream. Cover and allow the cream to thicken at room temperature, about 2 days. Alternatively, you can use crème fraîche culture from New England Cheesemaking Supply or organic commercial buttermilk to make your own without first making butter.
For the expert:
FRESH LACTIC CURD CHEESES
These are cheeses that involve the use of lactic acid–producing bacteria. The lactic acid, with a small dose of rennet, sets the curd over a long period of time. Wonderful spread over dark rye bread with lox and capers, whipped with honey or stuffed into ravioli, this type of cheese is most commonly associated with goat cheese like chèvre, but can be equally successful when made with cow or sheep milk. You’ll need:
¼ gallon good local whole milk (not ultra pasteurized)
¼ teaspoon Flora Danica (available by mail order from New England Cheesemaking Supply)
3 drops single-strength animal rennet
Bring the milk, and cream if using, to 75°F. If you do not have a thermometer, it’s just below body temperature, so it will feel comfortable with your pinky inserted. Add the culture and whisk to dis-solve. Cover, and allow the culture to work for 30 minutes. Add the rennet to ¼ cup water and stir into the milk to incorporate. Before putting the cover back on, stop the milk from moving by inserting a wide spatula vertically into milk at several points. Once the milk is still, cover and allow to set overnight or for 12–15 hours.
The milk should now be set with some whey floating on top. Arrange several layers of cheesecloth into a strainer, over a bowl. Using a ladle, transfer the curd in large chunks into the cheese-cloth 1 scoop at a time. To hang the curd, tie opposite corners of the cheesecloth together and suspend over the bowl or a sink for several hours. The whey will drain from the curd better at warmer temperatures.
The longer it drains, the dryer your cheese will be. For a whipped cream cheese texture, hang for about 8 hours. For a dry ricotta type texture (say, for ravioli), place some weights on the cheese instead of hanging. After it has drained to the desired consistency, remove it from the cheesecloth and season to taste with salt, about 1% of the weight. This is a good time to incorporate any flavors as well, like citrus zest, herbs, chives or black pepper. Do not omit the salt, even if using for sweet applications like frosting.
Reserve the drained whey and use it to brine pork chops or chicken—with added salt—or incorporate it into your morning smoothie, use it in place of water when baking bread or even to cook oatmeal. It’s full of protein and probiotics.
BEN RIGBY is a professional cook, freelance writer and anthropologist. Amateur gardening and banjos round out the days. Follow him on instagram at @rigbybenjamin