The One-cow Revolution

a grass-fed homestead


milk-strainer   Milk is the jet fuel of the independent farmstead, yesterday’s sunlight in today’s food calories.  It is the most immediately harvestable food source on the farm; tether out your cow or goat this morning, and this evening you’ll be drinking her milk.  Not even radishes repay the homesteader so quickly!  Nutrient dense, packed with high-quality animal fats and proteins, easily digested, milk is not only unsurpassed people food:  historically it is also the most highly regarded animal food supplement on the farm.  Pigs are fattened with it, chickens receive their animal proteins and calcium in milk, pest and predator control animals  — dogs and cats — get their share, not to mention the obvious:  baby ruminants.  And milk is the source of some most valuable and necessary probiotics, a source of gut health across the spectrum.

And with grass-derived milk from intensively managed grazing of ruminants, every food calorie is matched and surpassed by increasing health, fertility and drought-resistance in the land itself, and in the teeming life of the soil.

Milk management

The farmer who suddenly finds herself with gallons of milk coming into the kitchen every week, even every day, may be understandably overwhelmed.

what do you do with all that milk? 

Simply to say that the milk starts eight to twelve steers each year, or that it provides the humans at the Sow’s Ear with about two gallons of drinking milk each day, about a pound of butter a day, and several pounds of cheese each week, or to say that the whey and buttermilk resultant from our butter- and cheese-making go a long way to feed three pigs — these statements are inadequate to relate how Isabel powers the whole farm by converting sunlight on grass into protein and fat.  We plan to answer this question in detail, but it will take some time!


We begin with:  Making Raw-milk Mozzarella in Real Time


We usually make mozzarella with from two to five gallons of milk.  We use skim milk only, for two reasons:  we like the mozz we make with skim milk; and when we have used whole milk for mozzarella, we have felt that all the cream was lost in the stretching process.  This is not to suggest that someone else might not make superior mozz with whole milk; in fact, no part of this is intended as instructions for other cheese makers.  Here is the rough and-ready, “good enough is perfect” way that we make mozzarella.


Skimming with a dipper is something that anyone can do.  One tries to let the cream flow into the dipper without dipping deeply enough to get milk with it.  You get some anyway.  It doesn’t matter; a little milk won’t prevent your cream from churning.  In fact, the Foxfire cookbook says you could churn whole milk into butter; it just takes a long time.  We’ll take their word for it; churning in the winter takes a long time anyway.


General proportions for mozzarella making are as follows:  two ounces of thermophilic starter (yogurt) and one quarter teaspoon rennet per gallon of milk.  Ideally, one gallon of milk will give you one pound of cheese.  That’s the ideal, but we hasten to add that we seldom achieve the ideal, considering the savings of time in our method more valuable to us than would be the slight increase of yield we might experience were we to adopt more time-consuming, finnicking methods.  Let us say that one gallon of milk should yield somewhere between three quarters to one pound of cheese.


In a vessel of adequate size, we warm the milk on the stove to ninety degrees farenheit (that’s the last time we’ll try spelling that word; take it as given), and add two ounces – that’s one-quarter cup – yogurt for each gallon of milk we are working with.  We are aware of the quick and easy citric acid methods, and have no gripe about them, but we prefer to culture our cheese, partly because when you culture milk it increases in food value, and partly because we like to work as much as possible without off-farm inputs, and we don’t grow citric acid powder.  The yogurt added, we mix it in, pretty vigorously, since we know what we ought really to have done is to have mixed the yogurt with a little milk in a bowl, before adding it to the milk in the pot.  This would assure even and complete assimilation of the starter culture.  But we need shortcuts.  So does everybody; not everyone uses the same ones, that’s all.

Once the starter is mixed in, we put one-quarter teaspoon liquid rennet for each gallon of milk, into about one-quarter cup cool water.  We don’t measure the water; we just use a small cup and guess.  Doesn’t make any difference.  The rennet, on the other hand, we measure, because it matters, but not so much you have to get uptight about it.  Dilute the rennet in the cool water and stir it into the milk, too.  Stir for a while; ancient recipes used to time this process by the saying of Paters and Aves.  you might stir for about as long as it takes to think about what else you have to do today, and wonder how you are going to fit this cheese into it.  Stir too long and your curd, when it sets, will have swirling cracks in it, but then this doesn’t seem to hurt anything.  We stir about twenty strokes.  Then we set the lid on the pot, the pot to the back of the stove (or anywhere else you can put it where it will stay warm and won’t be disturbed), and go away for half an hour or so.

What you are waiting for when you go do something else for half or three-quarters of an hour, is for the milk to clabber into a big, shiny cake or slab, floating in a very thin layer of whey.  The whey will be clear and light yellow, and the clabber, or curd, white.  To see if it has set a firm enough curd, you stick your clean finger into the curd at a forty-five degree angle, and lift it straight up.  If the curd is of the desirable firmness it will make a clean break over your finger, not leaving blobby bits of soft mush.  Well, maybe  just a few little ones.  This is not an absolute condition.  If you test your curd and it seems to be mushy, just give it another fifteen minutes or so and try again.  You might also test the temperature, and if it has dropped significantly from ninety degrees, you can set the whole shootin’ match in a sink of warm water to help it along a bit.  The rennet enzyme doesn’t work efficiently if the temperature is much below ninety.  Depending on a number of factors, like season and weather and how acidic your yogurt was, this could take as long as an hour and a half or so.  Maybe longer.  Sometime after thirty minutes after you add your rennet, you should get a more or less clean break.  This initiates the next step, cutting the curd.

That great big, white, slightly revolting curd you have made has to be cut into smaller curds, which will shrink and allow the whey to escape, preserving most of the protein from your milk in the curd, and releasing most of the water.  Cheese curds are cut different sizes depending on the type of cheese you are making; for mozzarella, one inch squares is the recommended size.  There are fancy and expensive cheese knives you can buy for this job, if you have as much money as Croesus and an enormous kitchen in which to store one-use gadgets.  As we have neither of these things, we use the longest of our sharp kitchen knives, and make cuts about an inch apart, first going across the cheese pan, then perpendicular to our original cuts, then at a slant downward, trying to visualize angles and spaces that will produce at least some inch-square curds, but knowing as anyone would that what we’ll end up with will be a wide variety of shapes and sizes.  Not to worry, we’ll remedy that in ten minutes, which is how long we’re going to let the curds sit undisturbed to shrink.

Ten minutes passes.  Now it’s time to cook the curd.  The books say to use a hot water jacket and slowly raise the temperature of the curds and whey from ninety to one hundred degrees, taking five minutes for each two-degree rise.  Stirring, we add, constantly, and preferably with your bare hand.  Let’s do the math: that’s ten degrees, at two per five minutes, twenty-five minutes they want us to spend with our bare arms in a vat of curds and whey, stirring constantly.  Well, there is nothing we’d like better, but the morning is passing, and we’re just getting started with the chores.

Forget the water jacket; forget timing the temperature rise with too slavish care.  We have found that we get completely satisfactory results by warming the curds and whey directly on the stove, smallest burner, lowest setting, using what we have always known as a “flame tamer” between the pot and the burner.  A flame tamer is an invaluable gadget like a sort of metal baffle, meant to be placed between the bottom of the pot and the burner flame.  It is used to keep things from scorching if they have to be on the stove unattended for a long time.  We remember one back in the seventies and eighties that was made of asbestos, and wish we could find another; the rusty one we have is just fine to be getting on with, though.

We use a nicely worn wooden spoon – the rounded edges are gentler on the curd — and stir very slowly and gently, pulling the curds up from the bottom to distribute the heat, and, incidentally, to give us a chance to further cut the giant curds inevitable when you cut them on the diagonal.  We stir not constantly, but about every three minutes, and the first two or three times we stir, we have a knife in the other hand for cutting the oversize curds.  You could break them smaller with your fingers and no harm done, but curd cut cleanly gives a higher yield.  On the other hand, the whey is going to the pigs anyway, who love it and fatten on it beautifully, so there’s no real waste however we do it.  When the curds and whey reach one  hundred degrees, we shut off the  heat, shove a lid on the pot, put it in a warm place, and go do something else for forty-five minutes or so.

While you are drinking a cup of coffee, staring out the window, or whatever, your curds will be settling to the bottom of the pot.  If they don’t, but instead float to the top, you have yeast in your curd.  This is not punishment for your sins, but in our experience has something to do with making cheese with utensils and a kitchen not yet saturated by long usage with beneficial lactobaccilli.  See Theory of Raw-milk Cheesemaking 101 for our further thoughts on this.   Probably, however, your curds will have settled to the bottom of the pot and matted into something resembling a thick, white, rubbery impact mat like the black ones you sometimes see on playgrounds.  The individual curds will be distinct, but all stuck together, which is fine, whatever you may read to the contrary.  After forty-five minutes of this, you should begin testing your curds for stretch.

What we are waiting for now is for the thermophilic culture – the yogurt – which we have added to the milk, to reproduce sufficiently to lower the pH of the milk just so much.  How much, I could go look up and give you in round numbers, and I would, only we don’t use them.  They are for people who make cheese with litmus paper, and we are practicing the intuitive, experience led, seat-of-the-pants, good enough is perfect variety of dairying.  When the pH is just acidic enough, the cheese will aquire that stretch which we are accustomed to associate with mozzarella.  Not acidic enough, and the cheese will just be lumpy; too acidic, and it will turn into white liquid when it’s heated.

So we check the acidity often.  This is done by scooping out a small amount of curd – maybe half a walnut-size bit – and heating it very hot to see if it melts together and gets stretchy and stringy, or if it just makes rubbery lumps.  This heating can be done in a number of ways.  The traditional old wood cookstove method was to touch a lump of curd to the hot stove top for a second or two, then pull it away.  If it stuck and formed strings, the cheese was acidic enough.  Very easy and convenient, if you happen to have a hot wood cookstove handy.  If, however, you have not, other options are open to you:  you may pour a little boiling water over your curd, if you have a little boiling water handy, or, if you have not, you may use the method I am avoiding admitting to using myself, since this method is about as far from off-grid slow-cooking homestead as you can get.  I shove it in a pyrex one-cup measure, nuke it ten seconds, and mash it with a fork.

This is not arcane; there is no secret knowledge required here; if the curd gets soft and shiny and stretchy, you have successfully reached the stretching stage of your mozzarella.   If instead you have rubbery or gelatinous lumps, check to make sure your curds haven’t cooled much below one hundred degrees.  If they have, shove the pot in a sink of warm water again and recheck after fifteen minutes.  On the other hand, if you heat your curds and end up with thin white runny stuff, you have overacidified your cheese, and you need to give this batch to pigs, chickens, dogs, or cats – you probably have too much for the dogs and cats, unless you keep a large kennel – and start over with new milk.  But if your curd is about right, the white lumps of curd will mash together and take on a consistency somewhere between that of taffy, and that of silly putty.  It will stretch nicely, and should be shiny and smooth.

When you have heated your curd and found it will form a soft, stretchable lump, you are ready for the last step in mozz making:  stretching the cheese.  Simple.  Only, if I say that, you’ll probably find it impossible, and then get discouraged.  Okay, not too simple, because of course there are fine shades of readiness for curd, and you won’t always hit it just spot on.  Sometimes – these are the perfect times – you will heat your curds and the result will be something smooth and shiny and abolutely yielding in your hands; and sometimes you will instead find yourself working with something rather tough and rubbery, or else with a tendency to be grainy, as though someone slipped a little tapioca into the cheese pot when you weren’t looking.  There are many variations on this, but the essential thing is all that matters:  if the curds can be heated and gathered into a cohesive lump which you can knead or stretch, you are a successful mozzarella maker.  All you have left to do is stretch the curds.

Here is where I prove I really have the microwave dependency under control.  Get this:  I don’t use the microwave to stretch my mozzarella.  Many respectable recipes call for heating your mozz in the microwave preparatory to stretching it.  I kid you not.  Go look up some if you don’t believe me.  Hobby cheesemakers all over the U.S. are busy at this moment nuking mozzarella curd in order to stretch it; and once it is made they will wow the neighborhood with their old-time skills and ultra-natural homemade cheese.  And yet, please note, I don’t use the microwave for stretching my cheese.  I could, and then cite all those cheese-making websites out there, but I can use my microwave or leave it alone.  I don’t need any twelve-step program to keep my little addiction under control.

What I do is to dump most of the whey in the pigs’ bucket at the foot of the basement stairs, leaving just a little bit more whey in the pot than than it will take to immerse the curd.  The curds I then take out of the pot and place in a colander or steamer rack, which is in turn set in a bowl to catch the whey draining out of it; the pot of whey I put over heat on the stove.  Then I try to remember to come back before the whey gets too hot – here’s where a kitchen timer comes in again.  You want your whey hot, but nowhere near boiling.  Opinions on temperature here vary; I find that at about one hundred-fifty degrees, my whey is just about right for heating curds.

After the curds are in the hot whey, I lower the heat as far as it will go; or if I’ve overheated the whey, I shut it off completely, and add to it the whey from the bowl where the curds have been draining, just to cool it a bit.  Then I set my timer for five minutes or so, and at the end of that time, I pull out my lump of curd and see how soft it has gotten.  Usually the outside is beginning to be soft and stretchy, and it may be that I can now fold the mat of curds over and mash it together, to begin to distribute the heat through the whole mass; but if it is still so firm it won’t fold without cracking, I turn it over and put it back in the pot to warm some more.  It will probably go back into the pot several times, heating, kneading, folding, heating some more, kneading again.  The goal is to heat the curds thoroughly, developing stretch by pulling or kneading the curd until the whole mass looks kind of like taffy, if you’ve ever stretched taffy, or kind of like silly putty, and hasn’t everybody stretched silly putty at some time in his life?

The silly putty state reached, you are morally done.  Mozzarella has been achieved.  If you want it to eat fresh, you can pinch it into little balls, smooth these by sort of stretching the skin back and tucking it under (if you’ve ever made clover leaf rolls, you already know what I mean), and set them to cool in a bowl of chilled water, salted if you want your cheese salty.   If you plan to use this cheese for pizza, just smooth the whole thing into a lump, chill it as above, and then set it out for a few hours on a rack to dry before you try to grate it.  Sandra Callens of Silofence Farm in MN puts her mozz back in the colander and sets a small thick china plate on it, to express any whey that might not have been expelled in the kneading process.  This is often a good idea, because, speaking for those of us for whom “good enough is perfect”, our mozz often may need a little help this way.  When we go to grate it, it might be a little soft, the texture a little loose and stringy, and a little whey may gather in our bowl of grated cheese.  On the other hand, if we stretched our cheese too much, it may be rather firmer than we were hoping.  These eventualities, unless you are hopelessly uptight, are no problem at all; you just make your pizza, shove on the grated cheese, and when it cooks, it will be just as good as it should be.  And, leaving aside those periodic failures which are so good for our characters, every time you make it it will be better and better.

Thus we make cheese in real time.

Future entries will treat of making raw-milk butterand making winter butter

Theory of Raw-milk Cheesemaking 101

I have a working theory about home cheese making.  It is my own, and I have never seen it advanced anywhere else, but for what it’s worth, it is my theory.  I offer it as an explanation for the gradual improvement of our cheese that has occurred without any corresponding adjustment in our methods.

I believe that any kitchen, any space where water is used and food is processed, is inhabited by its own populations of micro-flora and -fauna, particular to the foods, cooking methods, cleaning agents, and other incidentals of that kitchen.  These are the little airborne and surface-borne bugs that sooner or later spoil any foods kept in that kitchen too long; and they are by simple logic the ones that best flourish on those foods.  In the average kitchen, they are not usually going to be lactobaccilli of the kind that we like in our dairy products, like buttermilk, yogurt, and various cheeses.  How could these microbes get the advantage over, say, yeasts, bread molds, and fruit molds, all of which have plenty of food and housing in a normal kitchen?  In the normal kitchen, the bugs that live in raw milk are not introduced, let alone cultured. Where there is no raw milk, there will be only small populations of the bugs that live best in raw milk.

Into such a kitchen, introduce raw milk.  Keep it warm.  What will grow there?  The milk has, it is true, come in with its own cargo of lactobaccilli, straight from the cow; but these are being placed in competition with a whole kitchen full of other bacteria; and milk is a perfect petri dish.  Not only the native lactobaccilli will reproduce in our raw milk, but with them all the airborne gremlins and gnomes already in your kitchen.  Our milk cultures will be fatally outnumbered. Little wonder if we produce a cheese curd riddled with bubbles, that floats in its whey bath instead of sinking; these bubbles are probably carbon dioxide, which we welcome when yeast produces it in our bread doughs, but which are pretty much doom to a nice cheese curd.

To broaden the field even more, take a look into the milking stall.  If you have only recently begun milking in this space, reflect for a moment on its denizens, the bacteria presently thriving there.  It is these which every eddying breeze carries over your bucket and deposits in your milk.  Molds from dirt, molds from decaying animal manure, molds from musty hay.  These have the ascendency over your milk bugs, until long use of the space as a dairy infuses it with ambient benevolent lactobaccilli.  When the milk bugs have competed with and to some extent replaced the bacteria previously ascendent in your milking stall, they, and not the other sort, fill the living air in the space and inocculate your raw milk.  In the early stages of our dairy project, though, the cultures we use in our cheese making are in hot competition with legions of unfriendly bugs, and small wonder if they often lose the battle.

This, I admit, is only the theory of one kitchen dairywoman, but as a theory it offers an explanation for a lot of early dairy failures:  yeasty curds; cheesey butter; unpleasant molds on hard cheeses, rather than the tasty blue and white ones we now get, the ones associated with Roquefort and Brie; and mozzarellas very quick to spoil.  When these things happened, we looked to our hygeine in kitchen and dairy, and began using teat dips, foaming rinses, and other nasty chemicals; and we began pasteurizing our milk for cheese making.  These changes in our methods, surprisingly, did not appreciably reduce the number of bacteriological failures we experienced, nor even change the nature of them.  It was discouraging how often our curds would fail us, and what we had hoped would be a nice cheddar or parmesan would end up being chicken or pig food.  It was enough to make a sensible person give up the project and go back to buying her cheese.

But we are not sensible people; if we were, we would not be milking our own cow.  Sensible people prefer the liberty of going where they want, when they want  – within the limits of their wallets and obligations – to the restriction of having always, and no matter what, to be home every twelve hours, to relieve a cow of her lactose burden.  Sensible people must be having a lot of fun with that liberty, but we wanted something else, and we settled down to milk our cow.  And, consequently, to do something with all that milk.  We were not going to give up on cheese making just because we failed miserably, about fifty percent of the time, to produce anything desirable for human consumption.  If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again – and again – and again – and again.

If you have ever taken up a musical instrument, you know how it is.  At first, you sound terrible.  The noises you make aren’t melodious; often they aren’t even musical:  more like the snorts, gasps, and wheezes of a dying javelina.  You try again, adjusting fingers, breathing, strumming, and still there are these ungodly sounds.  Nothing you do seems to give you more control over the noises coming out of your instrument, and you might just give up hope of ever learning to play music, except that experience, your own or other people’s, gives you reason to believe that with perseverence, the product of your efforts will improve.  So, probably with irresistible encouragement from some parent, you persevere, and sooner or later, and most likely when you are not noticing, the sounds coming from your instrument take on the recognizable characteristics of music.  Not, we admit, very good music at first, but music of some caliber or other.

Just so did it happen with our cheese-making.  Onerous, and odious, it was to us at first.  Messy, time-consuming, and all-absorbing; a labor-sink with no reward.  It took up ridiculous amounts of time, and the result was often uneatable.  Just to continue trying to become a cheese-maker was an effort of the will.  Perhaps it was this effort which distracted us at the moment when things got better; I don’t know.  But when we turned the corner, we must have been looking the other way; because just when we do not know, but some time in the second year of our Big Dairy Adventure, we realized suddenly that we hadn’t had to throw curds to the pigs for a long time.  There were still mistakes, yes, and mistakes in plenty; things which, although they might not be disasters fit only for the pig pen, were definitely mystery cheeses not recognizable as belonging to any class of cheese we were accustomed to using.  Yet even these were consumable, even tasty, if sliced and fried in butter and garlic:  “fried curds”, the Queen of Minnesota farmwives told us, a delicacy when purchased at the county fair.  Of floating curds, we had not seen any in we couldn’t remember how long.

What had changed?  Our methods were, if anything, less exacting, since we had given up pasteurizing when it was clear that doing so hadn’t eliminated our contamination problems.  We couldn’t honestly chalk the improvement up to experience, since the results of our cheese-making were still so random we could draw no logical conclusions from them, make no logical adjustment to our processes.  We were using the same tools, in the same spaces, with the same materials, and the same methods, that we had been using from the first:  the same cow, the same hands, the same farm wife.  But our results, like the tootling from a school-child’s first recorder, were unmistakeably recognizeable.  What we were now making was cheese.  Obviously, something had changed.

That something, according to my theory, would be the ambient air- and surface-borne bacteria in our kitchen and in our dairy.  Time was on our side.  The extended period of exposure to raw milk in our milk-handling spaces will, logically, have changed the ambient bacterial populations in those spaces, and the passive innocculation of our milk will now introduce more desirable bacteria than previously.  That is, of course, according to my intuitive and unscientific theory.

Yet not so unscientific, either.  Why do so many cheeses bear the name of a place, rather than a name descriptive of the qualities of the cheese?  Centuries of milk-handling in the same place, generation after untold generation of lactobaccilli in that place, responsive to the ambient temperature – remember, cheese is traditionally aged in caves, where the temperature fluctuates only a little from summer to winter – ambient humidity, and naturally-occurring molds, result in flourishing populations of bacteria genetically adapted to that dairy, that kitchen, and that cave.  Manipulated by the cheese-maker through variations in introduced culture, culturing temperature, duration of heating the curds, etc., these lactobaccilli are the bacteria which produce the cheese particular to that dairy or that region.  The place itself produces the cheese.  If this is so, why should it be surprising that one’s first efforts at cheese making should produce such unpredictable results?  And who will wonder if, over time, the process should yield itself to more control?  As the menagerie in the dairy and kitchen becomes a cooperative, beneficial menagerie, there will be fewer casualties, and more happy generations.

making raw-cream butter

This is more complicated than the lady at the dairy council table at the county fair, who uses centifugally separated, pasturized, homogenized, whatnot-ed cream, makes it look.  On the other hand, it is not difficult; it is just more a complex operation when you are using living cream.

You can make butter in a mixer or a blender.  You can make it in a mason jar, if you have lots of people with nothing better to do than stand around shaking the jar.  We use an old Sears Roebuck butterchurn purchased years ago for the astronomical sum of twenty-five dollars, and put away in hopes that one day we would have a cow, and, consequently, a use for a butter churn.  It wouldn’t go at first, but Shawn dismantled it and fiddled with it, and after that it was fine.  This often happens with our second-hand electrical gadgets.  It was a good purchase, and we hope it will last the rest of our natural lives, because butter churns are expensive.  Really.

Our churn is for a gallon jar, which means it can only churn a half-gallon of cream at a go.  This is fine, but we get a lot of cream, and use a lot of butter, and would like now to be able to process butter in one- to two-gallon lots.  Pursuant of this goal, we will be watching this summer at garage sales and auctions for an old, all-metal, heavy-duty stand mixer.  We feel sure we could use the motor and housing, remounted on a taller base, to power a two-gallon churn; a food-grade four or five gallon bucket, and a single propeller-style dasher on a long stem, should convert your ordinary mixer into a large butter churn.  Watch for updates.

We skim every morning.  We use a dipper to lift the cream off the top of each gallon of milk, previously cooled overnight in gallon pickle jars in our basement refrigerator.  Skimming is not difficult, and practice makes proficient.  The top of the cream tends to clot into a thick skin, which will stick to the bottom of your dipper and make it hard to gather the cream; this can be avoided for the most part by wetting your dipper at the sink before you start.  You can also use the bottom of the dipper to sort of edge the clotted top cream to one side so that it can be scooped up first.  In glass jars you can see the cream line, so you will know how far down the jar to go; after a while you won’t need this clue, because you will see the cream flowing in over the rim of your dipper, and when it runs in streaky blue you are getting milk.  There is no need to take every last bit of cream, anyway; it makes better drinking milk if you don’t, and even if you feed the skim milk to the pigs and chickens, they will convert it into bacon and eggs, and who would consider that a waste?

We ususally collect cream for a couple of days before churning, so that we can make several half-gallon batches at once, thus saving ourselves cleaning the utensils after every pound of butter.  One-half gallon of cream makes about a pound of butter, and leaves something more than a quart of buttermilk.  This is not the cultured product you buy in the store, which usually isn’t buttermilk at all, but just milk cultured with mesophilic lactobacili and thickened with carageenan or something like that.  Real buttermilk is the byproduct of churning cream into butter, and made with sweet cream it is sweet and lowfat and delicious.  Made with more cultured cream, it is acidic and may also be delicious, but this will depend upon how clean your culture was.  The butter, we hasten to assure you, will be good regardless; but the taste of the buttermilk will vary the way that of yogurt does when you have kept a culture going for a long time.  It will still be good for cooking with, or for feeding to the hogs over bakery waste scraps.  In any case, the quality of your buttermilk is not something to get uptight about, as the keeper of a family cow will have lots of buttermilk.

So we wait until we have collected a gallon or two of cream before we churn.  On the day we intend to churn, we set the cream out on the counter for a couple of hours to warm and culture.  This is sufficient for summer cream and summer butter; of winter butter we will treat at another time.  An hour or so on the counter for summer cream, and you are usually ready to churn.  How will you know?  You won’t know, you just try.  If you churn for half an hour and your butter doesn’t come, give it an hour’s rest and try again.

What you are waiting for is the cream to warm and acidify enough that the globules of milk fat present in the cream will gather together in clumps when they are bashed about.  If this has happened, you will churn your butter for something between five and twenty-five minutes, while the cream passes through several stages; first liquid cream, then to whipped cream, then over-whipped cream (rather runny).  After this is a stage in which the milkfat globules are gathering into small grains of butter; these should, as you continue churning, gather into big lumps, which will be yellow in the summer, and almost white in the winter.  Sometimes, however, the butter stalls between the last and next-to-last stages, and you have to wait a while and try again when (we speculate) the cream has further acidified.

Summer butter is usually easy to make, having naturally present in it plenty of lactobacilli for making it acid quickly.  Just be sure not to leave it on the counter long enough to reach room temperature; in the summer, when indoor temperatures might be anywhere from seventy-five to ninety-five degrees, room temperature cream will churn into slick butter, warm and shiny, and if you overchurn it, into fluffy butter.  Both conditions make the butter difficult to wash, and difficult to handle.

My churn does not have an automatic shutoff when the butter clogs the dasher.  It just slows down, sticks, and starts burning up the motor.  Bad idea.  So far we haven’t ruined the churn, but we try to stay in the near vicinity when we churn, to catch the butter as soon as it comes.  You know it is butter when it makes big lumps, yellow or white, which float in the residual buttermilk.

To drain our butter we wedge a slotted spoon, a ravioli turner, really, in the opening of our jar, and pour out the buttermilk, holding the butter back with the spoon.  We pour out as much as we can, saving it for cooking or for the animals, and then add cold water to halfway up the side of the jar, reinsert the dasher, and churn the water and butter for a few seconds.  We drain this milky water off, refill the jar with cold water to the halfway mark, and churn again.  In all, we wash in at least three waters.  Four is almost always enough to ensure that the water runs mostly clear, indicating that the pockets of buttermilk in the butter have been replaced by pockets of cold water. This serves the dual purpose of washing the (very degradable) buttermilk out of the (only slightly degradable at cool temperatures) finished product, the butter, and of cooling the made butter so that it may be packed firmly and the water pressed out of it.  If what we have made is the slick butter that comes from over-warmed cream, this cold-water washing will sometimes firm the butter up, remedying the situation.  Sometimes not.  Of which, more anon.

We have not always washed our butter this way.  In the Pleisiostene age, about three years ago, we were still washing our butter in a wooden bowl and pressing it with a wooden spoon to work the buttermilk and cold water out of it.  We used many changes of water, and about ten minutes of our precious time, and got a kink in our shoulder doing it this way, and it is a very good way to do it, and I recommend it highly.  Only, if you get in a bind for time, you have an option.  It’s nice to know how to do things the hard way before you start making a habit of doing it some other way.  We used to cut and rake and lift all our hay, loose, and by hand, too.

Once the butter is washed, you must drain off what water you can, and then press out whatever remains in pockets in the butter.  This isn’t something to get uptight about, since it won’t spoil your butter if there is still a little water in it; you just work the butter by pressing it with a wooden spoon, or your hand, only your hand will warm the butter, or the paddle attatchment on your stand mixer, until you can no longer pour off any water.  Then you add salt, work the butter to mix the salt in, and there you are.  Butter.  We make ours into one pound rolls by working it with a wooden spoon, and refrigerate them if they are not to be used immediately; if we have more than two pounds made, we wrap the butter in waxed paper after we chill it and put it away in the freezer.


Sometimes, despite all your efforts, which, if they are like mine, may be stronger on initiation than follow-through, you will end up with a product that can’t be washed, can’t be shaped, maybe can’t even be gathered into a lump.  Sometimes your butter won’t “come”, which means that no matter how long you churn it, you don’t get a lump of butter you can fish out of the churn and process.  You may end up with a churn full of over-whipped cream with small, soft grains of butterfat, or ditto, with small, firm grains of real butter that for some reason won’t adhere to one another and make a manageable lump.  Sometimes when your butter comes, it is a slick, shiny, fluffy mess impossible to wash or shape.  Sometimes, I’ll be frank with you, you’ll end up with a churn full of something you will be glad to give to the pigs and forget.  Sometimes, but not too often.  Mostly, you can convert the variations you encounter in home kitchen butter making into real, firm butter, with just a little extra manipulation.

Take the instance of the churn full of tiny firm grains of butter over a shallow layer of thin, sweet buttermilk.  You have let the churn run for some time after this stage was reached, and still the butter won’t gather.  The contents of the churn, when you shut it off, resemble something like runny cream-of-wheat.  There are two possibilities here that we know of.  One is to give the churn another hour on the counter, while the culture continues to grow, and then try again.  Maybe by that time the cream will be acidic enough to gather itself into a ball when you churn it.  Maybe not.  But in case this doesn’t do the trick, if your grains are firm enough it will sometimes work to drain the grainy stuff through a piece of cheesecloth for several hours, chill it, and then put it through the mixer to express the buttermilk.  This means you will have skipped the stage of washing the buttermilk out, so you want to keep this butter in the refrigerator and use it soon, but otherwise it is butter, and no harm done.

Regarding summer butter, the commonest problem we have met with is one we call Fluffy Butter.  This means you let the cream get too warm during ripening, and the churn, instead of gathering the firm granules of butter as they form, has whipped the soft lump of butter into a fluffy mass.  It is difficult to drain this butter, since it tends to adhere to the slotted spoon we drain with, clogging the holes.  The remedy we use in this case is to shove the whole kit ‘n’ caboodle into the refrigerator for a while, until the butter is firm enough that we can move on to the next step.  Often by thus chilling the butter you can right the whole situation; you will be able to drain your butter, wash as you would normally, work the water droplets out, salt and shape.  If you chill it a long time, it may grow too firm for the churn to work it, and you may have to wash the butter by hand.  No matter; butter it still is, and no one meeting it on the street would ever know it had a checkered past.

At other times, especially in winter, your problem will be that the butter doesn’t come at all; your cream will pass through the first stages, of whipped cream and runny, overwhipped cream, but at the stage where it should form small grains which will rapidly gather into large lumps, the process just stops.  Beat the cream as you might, the butterfat in your cream simply will not gather.  We have no degrees in lacto-chemistry, but we speculate that in these cases the cream has not yet cultured enough to achieve the pH necessary for the tiny globules of butterfat to adhere to one another.  Our speculation is supported by experience, which tells us that we can usually remedy the situation either by giving the cream another hour or so on the counter and then trying again, or, better still, adding a few ounces of mesophyllic starter, otherwise known as cultured buttermilk, waiting an hour or so, and churning again.  Most of the time, the process will then go on as intended, and you’ll have your butter.  Continue as indicated.

On the other hand, there are times when – again we speculate – unfavorable bacteria have gotten the lead on you, and before your mesophyllic culture can acidify the cream adequately, your cream has spoiled.  It will smell cheesey or ugly, look foamy, and is fit only to be fed to the pigs.  So what.  Tomorrow there will be as much cream again, and the pigs will be a little bit fatter.

We just love pigs.

3 thoughts on “dairy

  1. Shawn & Beth,

    Do you still have a cow share? Is it possible to join? I remember seeing it at one point on your web site but can’t find it now. We have health issues here and are looking to join one. If not, perhaps you could point me to possible leads. Thank you for your help. Sorry to contact you with a comment but I have a new email address and lost yours. Mike in E Liverpool.

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