Dairy Alchemy

by Sarah West

milk jars

Where I grew up, cow’s milk is a cultural icon. Country roads oscillate between corn fields and cow pastures, the neighboring state fair displays busts of its royalty carved out of butter, folks drink 2% with supper, grocery stores rarely stock fewer than twenty varieties of cheddar. In the Midwest, milk is a birthright, and its venerated status seeps into the consciousness of all who live there. A pharmacist I met in eastern Oregon who had gone to school at UW-Madison confessed to me that he fell so in love with the cheese, he has a particular creamery’s cheddar shipped to him each December in such quantity he can freeze enough for almost the whole year.

Despite being surrounded by Holsteins throughout my youth, it wasn’t until earlier this year that I tasted fresh milk. I was on a tour of a small dairy learning about pasture rotation, when I had my first sip. I was hesitant. I’m not entirely sure how I expected it to taste, but the creamy freshness that greeted my lips took me by surprise. Milked that morning, it was light and sweet, scented delicately with the forage of the fields we had just wandered through.

I became a subscriber of their milk-buying club and now pick up a gallon of this impeccably produced milk every two weeks. The cows they raise are Jersey, a breed whose digestive system is capable of absorbing higher quantities of beta-carotene from their feed than the more common Holsteins, resulting in golden-hued milk. Not being the milk drinker I once was, I realized soon that I would need to learn how to manipulate and preserve this nectar or lose it to souring.

Transfixed by the 3-inch layer of orange-yellow cream that rests on the top of the milk, my first fascination was with butter. I slowly skimmed the thick, silky cream into a separate jar, which I let sit over night, a process called ripening (cold cream won’t separate into butter). In the morning, I simply beat it with my hand mixer, like making whipped cream. As the cream started to hold its shape, I kept mixing, the whipping of the beaters disrupting fat globules, eventually allowing them to stick together in visible chunks. What you get when you go past whipped cream is a nearly invisible transformation, when the puffy whipped cream suddenly becomes a slosh of butterfat and buttermilk. I drained the buttermilk off, folded in salt, and shaped my first pat of golden Jersey butter.

I’d expected to be pleased by the butter, and it is gorgeous stuff, smooth and flavorful. I examined the buttermilk and took one careful sip. Unlike the sour, thick buttermilk I use occasionally in baking, this was thin and sweet. Store bought buttermilk is cultured, somewhat like yogurt, to give it the sort of acidity that activates baking soda to leaven breads and biscuits.  Heated up and poured into coffee, my homemade buttermilk makes a delightful café au lait.

Recently, I made my first rennet cheese, one that uses the enzyme rennin to coagulate the casein in milk, leaving behind a high pH, sweet tasting whey.  Cheeses that use an acid (like lemon or vinegar) to coagulate the milk separate the proteins differently and expel a lower pH, tangy whey. Called sour whey, it is useable in bread baking, as a soup stock, even to soak oats overnight (makes the creamiest porridge I’ve tasted). Sweet whey is another creature entirely—cheesy, slightly syrupy, subtle but lingering sugar.

I had heard a rumor that ricotta, more commonly made by adding an acid to whole milk, was originally a bi-product of sweet whey. As I looked into the translucent liquid my cheese curds left behind, I didn’t see how it could produce much of anything. The instructions I found said simply to heat it. As the whey neared its desired temperature, the surface began bulging, and from its center emerged little white granules, a dust storm of ricotta curds, that multiplied as the heat increased. At 200° F, I turned off the flame and let the whole pot settle a few minutes before pouring its contents into a butter-muslin lined colander. After draining for ten minutes, the muslin cradled a sweet, pillowy ricotta, needing nothing more than a drizzle of honey to become a decadent dessert.

I’ve always known butter, yogurt and cheese. But before these spells were adapted to an assembly line, they were performed at home. Every day, milk was transformed by skillful hands that could reach beneath its satiny white curtain to draw out an eternity of flavors, a chain reaction of product and bi-product, because it had to be. Before cold storage and pasteurization, we were compelled by necessity to unlock milk’s secrets: liquid into solid, fragile to sturdy, something from nothing.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, November 29, 2012)

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