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Better Than a Silver Packet: DIY Cream Cheese

DIY Cream Cheese

The deeper I dig into DIYing basic household foods such as rice milk or nut butters, the weirder I sometimes feel about sharing those processes here. Sure, a recipe for homemade cereal bars might come in handy, but a lot of these typical grocery store items–from tahini to garlic powder–end up being pretty simple to produce from scratch in the average kitchen when all is said and done. So perhaps you might think of these posts as more of a Pinterest board of reminders or inspirations when it starts to feel like everything you buy has soy lecithin and whey derivatives added. Sure, you can toss readymade items into your shopping basket as needed, but if you have a few minutes and don’t like the ingredient list on a given product, you can probably whip up your own with a few pantry staples.

For as easy as culturing buttermilk or kefir turned out to be, cream cheese was not a project I was expecting to be so simple. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yogurt making is almost challenging in comparison.

Pasteurized vs. Ultra Pasteurized

Almost all the articles I’ve read on cheese making have stressed that you cannot use ultra pasteurized milk or cream (the structure of the milk proteins have been damaged). However, I find it increasingly difficult to acquire dairy that is not ultra pasteurized when shopping at a standard grocery store. The organic milk is especially bad in this regard. Apparently people paying big money for these products do not want them to spoil quickly, a concern that supersedes other considerations. And while I love using the rich fresh-from-the-cow, non-homogenized, lightly pasteurized milk I can get from the local dairy at the farmers market, that’s not always practical logistically (only obtainable on Saturday) or financially ($4 per half gallon). Many people will violently advocate for raw milk, whatever it takes to get your hands on it. I haven’t tried it, but I have made other substitutions–the cheap (probably just?) pasteurized whole milk and ultra pasteurized cream available–and still produced a tasty cream cheese.

DIY Cream Cheese: Strained

This Is Not Your KRAFT Philadelphia Cream Cheese

Philly cream cheese is surely the standard most people (Americans, at least) will be judging any cream cheese against, and in my experience this is not that–and that’s a good thing. No matter how long I let my cheese drain, there is a shiny, spackle-like consistency to commercial cream cheese that I have not produced here. This cheese is richer and more buttery, slightly softer but not in any way runny. When adding in flavorings such as maple syrup or dill and salt and whipping briskly with a fork to incorporate, I am able to produce a lovely spread that contains no Xanthan Gum, and/or Carob Bean Gum, and/or Guar Gum, no preservatives, and no “natural flavor”. Seven days later, it still tastes fantastic.

The Verdict

I seriously doubt I will ever buy commercial cream cheese again. There is definitely a cost consideration here in terms of both the dairy and the special ingredients, but I think the taste and quality make it worth the investment (and might even encourage me to eat less and savor more). This cream cheese made me want to bake a dozen everything bagels and invite the neighbors over for brunch….At least until I remembered that my bagel baking, unlike my cream cheese making, is still a work in progress.

DIY Cream Cheese: Thick and Rich

DIY Cream Cheese

Makes: 13 ounces of cream cheese and two cups of whey

DIY Cream Cheese

for tips and supplies, see Cultures for Health

Cream cheese starter cultures containing both the starter culture and rennet are available.

While culturing the cheese with buttermilk rather than a mesophilic starter is riskier due to variations in the active cultures present, I found that the taste of the resulting cream cheese was just slightly more tangy and very attractive.

2 cups heavy cream
2 cups whole milk
1 drop liquid vegetable rennet dissolved in 2 tablespoons water
1/8 tsp. (one packet) mesophilic starter culture OR 1 ounce buttermilk
1/4 teaspoon salt or other flavorings (optional)

In a pot (with a fitted lid for later steps), heat milk and cream to 75°F, stirring regularly.

Remove pot from stove and add the buttermilk OR sprinkle the mesophilic starter culture over the surface of the milk and allow to dissolve for two minutes. Stir gently. Add diluted rennet mixture and combine using an up and down motion with your spoon under the surface of the milk just until evenly incorporated. Cover pot with lid, wrap in a few kitchen towels, and place in a warm location (70°F-75°F) to incubate, about 14 hours.

When cheese is ready to be drained, it will resemble yogurt. Spoon into a strainer lined with a piece of butter muslin. Clip the corners of the muslin together and allow to drain over a bowl (cupboard handles and safety pins can come in handy here) until desired firmness is reached, 7-10 hours.

Mix in a 1/4 teaspoon salt or other flavorings as desired. Transfer to a container with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate.

http://wonderlandkitchen.com/2013/04/better-than-a-silver-packet-diy-cream-cheese/

NOTE: Produces 13 ounces of cream cheese and two cups of whey.

Cream cheese starter cultures containing both the starter culture and rennet are available.

While culturing the cheese with buttermilk rather than a mesophilic starter is riskier due to variations in the active cultures present, I found that the taste of the resulting cream cheese was just slightly more tangy and very attractive.

2 cups heavy cream
2 cups whole milk
1 drop liquid vegetable rennet dissolved in 2 tablespoons water
1/8 tsp. (one packet) mesophilic starter culture OR 1 ounce buttermilk
1/4 teaspoon salt or other flavorings (optional)

In a pot (with a fitted lid for later steps), heat milk to 75°F, stirring regularly.

Remove pot from stove and add the buttermilk OR sprinkle the mesophilic starter culture over the surface of the milk and allow to dissolve for two minutes. Stir gently. Add diluted rennet mixture and combine using an up and down motion with your spoon under the surface of the milk just until evenly incorporated. Cover pot with lid, wrap in a few kitchen towels, and place in a warm location (70°F-75°F) to incubate, about 14 hours.

When cheese is ready to be drained, it will resemble yogurt. Spoon into a strainer lined with a piece of butter muslin. Clip the corners of the muslin together and allow to drain over a bowl (cupboard handles and safety pins can come in handy here) until desired firmness is reached, 7-10 hours.

Mix in a 1/4 teaspoon salt or other flavorings as desired. Transfer to a container with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate.DIY Cream Cheese: Savor It!

DIY Kefir: The Champagne of Milk

DIY Kefir

If you’re looking for a probiotic-loaded DIY dairy project that’s a little less involved than yogurt making, the cultured milk drink known as kefir (keh-FEER) just might be for you. For as wildly as yogurt has overtaken our supermarket shelves, not to mention how often Jamie Lee Curtis has regaled us with its health benefits through our televisions, I’m surprised in a way that kefir hasn’t staked more of claim alongside. Admittedly, this “slightly thinner than yogurt” beverage does have a tangy, somewhat sour and yeasty flavor that may not appeal to all palates, and it is sometimes called “the champagne of milk” due to its slight effervescence. Yet even with the sweeteners and other additives found in many of the commercial varieties sold here in the States, its availability is still relatively narrow (and often somewhat pricey). All the more reason to try your hand at making it yourself, controlling both the process and the ingredients.

If you have milk, a glass jar, a plastic or wooden spoon, and a strainer, you’re almost ready to make your first batch. You’ll also need a way to culture the milk into kefir, which can be done in a limited way using a previous batch of kefir containing active cultures or a freeze-dried powdered starter. But for endless culturing and a more extensive list of involved bacteria and yeasts, you’re going to need to acquire dairy kefir grains. While I have seen some people refer to this method as the “hard way,” I think that is more a reference to the need to keep actively feeding the grains and to the possible variabilities in the outcome. The active time required each day will actually only take a couple of minutes.

When I was first offered a share of grains by a woman in my neighborhood, the DIY-er in me jumped at the chance even before I knew much of anything about the fascinating fermentation process I was about to get immersed in. The grains—which can often be described as resembling gummy cauliflower florets, but which can also be much smaller—aren’t actually a grain of any type, but rather a mass of live bacteria and yeasts which, if well cared for, will continue to culture future kefir batches indefinitely.

And if the idea isn’t weird enough for you yet, it seems that no one really knows how the kefir grains came to be. While they will grow and multiply as they eat the lactose in the milk, no one has been able to generate a kefir grain independently, and some even consider them a gift from God. Their origin has been traced to the Caucasus Mountains, where the culturing process likely aided in the preservation of milk before the advent of refrigeration.

Kefir Grains

Sourcing Kefir Grains

Much like a sourdough starter or kombucha SCOBY, you can look for a local maker willing to share with you or purchase grains online. Grains that have been shipped may need to be reconstituted, but even active grains from a nearby source will likely need time to acclimate to a new environment and milk type. Being patient and embracing a period of experimentation at the beginning and any time there is a change in the process (i.e., milk type) will help you avoid frustration and disappointment. I fully confess to learning this lesson the hard way.

The Basics

Culturing kefir requires nothing more than placing the grains and milk in a glass container (leave plenty of headspace), covering it with a paper towel or coffee filter secured with a rubber band, and placing it somewhere out of drafts and sunlight, ideally between 68°F and 78°F. I find that a spot in a kitchen cupboard works well for this, as long as I don’t forget it’s in there.

Once the grains are active (follow package directions if reviving dehydrated grains), a basic formula of about one tablespoon worth of grains to two cups of milk fermented for about 24 hours is the standard process. Once the milk has cultured, the grains are strained out using a plastic (preferred) or stainless steel sieve (other metals can damage the grains or leech into the kefir, and should not be used at any point in the process) and the kefir can then be consumed or refrigerated. The grains are then fed fresh milk, and the process begins again. The grains do not need to be rinsed unless they become contaminated with foreign materials (aka try not to drop them on the kitchen floor).

Kefir: Process

A kitchen cupboard makes a good place to stash your culturing kefir. I like to stop, stir, and strain mine just when it’s starting to show small pockets of whey separation (right).

A kitchen cupboard makes a good place to stash your culturing kefir. I like to stop, stir, and strain mine just when it’s starting to show small pockets of whey separation (right).

Variables, Variables, Variables
(Or: Adjustments, Adjustments, Adjustments)

That being said, fermentation projects are perhaps more an art form than an exact science. The type of milk, the ratio of milk to grains (and the available surface area of the grains in use), and the culturing time and temperature can all impact the taste of the final product.

I found that it took a couple of batches for my grains to start producing a consistent result once I got them home. After a batch or two of adjustment, I wanted to get a firmer handle on the process, so I left the milk to culture about 12 hours overnight, and then began to stir the grains around every few hours and taste the milk using a clean spoon. In this way, I was better able to pinpoint when my milk had thickened and achieved a taste that was agreeable to me.

Once you are comfortable with this part of the process, there are still myriad variations to explore: adding sweeteners and/or fruit before consuming, secondary fermentation options (with or without added flavorings), or even the creation of things such as kefir cheese. Need a buttermilk substitute when baking? Your kefir will be there. You can also use dairy kefir grains to ferment non-animal milks such as soy or coconut, but the grains will need to be refreshed in animal milk every few batches to maintain their health. Those looking for a truly vegan option may wish to explore what’s possible using water kefir grains instead.

Care and Feeding

Despite the implied upkeep, you don’t need to take your grains on vacation with you. They can be stored in fresh milk in the refrigerator for a week or two, or can be rinsed and dried completely and then stored in the refrigerator for a longer period. I have not yet had to store my grains for more than a few days, but you can read more about recommended methods here.

DIY Kefir

The Verdict

Especially if there are not many people in your home who are interested in a morning smoothie fortified with kefir or an afternoon snack of kefir and cookies, I can see that daily production could become overwhelming. If kefir will only be a very occasional treat in your kitchen, the powdered starter might make more sense. Still, learning about these amazing little balls of culturing action was so interesting to me, I would definitely recommend it as something any DIY enthusiast should at least give a try. Apparently you can even eat them, though I haven’t been that brave just yet. And I’m in no way qualified to speak to the many health benefits ascribed to kefir consumption, but there is plenty of interesting reading out there for those who would like to dig in deeper.

Ready to fall down this rabbit hole? You might start here and here.

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This post was created for my “DIY vs. Buy” column on Serious Eats.

DIY Cultured Buttermilk

DIY Buttermilk

The first time I used a stand mixer to whisk my own butter out of heavy cream, I thought I could spread the results on my bread and bake with them, too, since I also then had just enough of what I thought was buttermilk left over to make a loaf of Irish soda bread. How neatly economical! However, I quickly discovered that what we mean when we say “buttermilk” today is a bit muddled, and that the thin white liquid that remained behind in my bowl after the butter was made was quite different from the type of buttermilk the recipe assumed I was using.

In 2012, when you purchase buttermilk from your local dairy or grocery (that is, if you can even find it—I often discover a carton or two wedged somewhere near the 7,000 flavors of fake coffee creamer) it’s a cultured dairy product that has a tart and slightly sour taste. It is often called for in baking (the acidity activates baking soda), is used to make dressings and sauces, or can simply be drunk by the glassful (though you won’t catch me doing that). Depending on what type of milk was cultured, it could be a creamy full-fat or 2% version (similar to a thin yogurt), or a thinner skim option. Label reading may reveal the addition of other thickeners—especially in the no-fat versions—such as tapioca starch, guar gum, locust bean gum, carrageenan, and/or carob bean gum.

Back in the day, however, buttermilk was a different beast. Based on my reading, it seems the story is this: Raw milk was not churned right away since a certain volume of cream would need to be collected and the milk and cream needed time to sit and separate. Bacteria naturally found in the milk would multiply, the milk would sour, and the “buttermilk” that was left behind after churning was, as a result, not the same as what is left after DIY-ing your own butter from pasteurized and homogenized milk. And neither of these versions is the same as the cultured buttermilk sold commercially at your local grocery today.

To DIY cultured buttermilk, you need a starter that contains the living bacteria required to ferment new batches—similar to making yogurt. If you have access to raw milk, you can start your own buttermilk culture, but you can also purchase freeze-dried starters (either to establish a mother culture or of the direct-set, one-time-use variety) or simply use store-bought buttermilk to culture more milk. You need to make sure the cultures are still active, however. When testing these various options, I didn’t have a problem using my local store-bought option as a starter, but the fresh buttermilk from a local dairy and the freeze-dried starter produced a quicker clabbering and a significantly better tasting buttermilk, in my opinion.

DIY Buttermilk

Whole vs 2% vs Skim: As you might expect, the buttermilk gets increasingly thick and creamy as you move from skim (left above) up to whole. Tasting it straight, the tartness of the whole-milk version is balanced by the rich, yogurt-like creaminess of the full fat milk, and that is somewhat true for the 2% version as well. The skim is very tart, thin, and less balanced to me, and I cannot see drinking this or recommending it for use in salad dressing unless personal taste or nutritional concerns make it preferable. For baking applications or in soups, however, any of these could be used.

As an additional experiment, I couldn’t resist attempting to culture some modern “buttermilk” after making butter (sort of the reverse process of old fashioned buttermilk) just to see what I might get. The result was as thin as the skim milk version, but the taste was much more drinkable, the tartness of the beverage balanced in this case not by a creaminess but by a buttery fattiness that seems to still infuse the milk. Just as old fashioned buttermilk is often noted to have contained a few bits of stray butter left behind after churning, the same could be found here. With a little salt, I could almost see sipping it. Almost.

And honestly, with so many jars full of buttermilk, in the end I also figured I might as well make my first batch of crème fraîche. This could be a new addiction.

A word on culturing temperature: Keeping the milk at the required warm room temperature is a challenge in my house now that the colder weather has set in. If the kitchen is warm from a marathon of weekend cooking, it’s not so hard to find a cozy 76°F corner for the bacteria to do their thing, but otherwise I have to get creative. Some cooks have recommended placing jars on top of the fridge or on some other warm appliance or high shelf in the house. I found a kitchen cabinet that runs warmer than the rest of the room due to location and had good luck (if slower clabbering times) at about 70°F there.

The Verdict

I was already a buttermilk fan, not only for baking but also for exceptional homemade salad dressings, but I don’t use enough dairy to make purchasing large volumes of different types worth while. By culturing my own buttermilk, I can have a small yet steady (and additive-free) supply to meet my needs, and use the rest of my weekly whole milk purchase to make yogurt, cheese, or just to lighten my coffee. You can make larger (or smaller) volumes as needed. I use a ratio of one tablespoon starter for every cup milk with reliable results. Unless your culture was not designed to be perpetuated (some freeze-dried options fall into this category), you can reserve a bit of each batch to culture the next. Some recipes indicate that you should pasteurize your milk first or at least warm it to 76°F. I added my starter directly to the cold milk and didn’t have any issues (or extra dishes to do).

DIY Cultured Buttermilk

2 tablespoons buttermilk (store-bought or activated dried starter)
2 cups milk (whole, 2%, or skim, depending on your nutritional needs and preferences)

In a mason jar or other glass container, thoroughly mix the starter and milk. Cover with a coffee filter or piece of cheese cloth (do not seal tightly with a lid) and leave to culture out of drafts at a warm room temperature (between 70-78°F is recommended) until milk has clabbered (10-24 hours).

To test if the milk has thickened, tip the jar slightly. It should move away from the wall of the jar as a single mass. Just as with yogurt making, once the milk sets, it will get more tart the longer you allow the culturing to continue.

Refrigerate to halt culturing for at least six hours. Stir before using.

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This recipe and post was created for my “DIY vs. Buy” column on Serious Eats.

Real Deal: DIY Greek Yogurt

greek-yogurt-finished-two

I am not generally a “doing the math” kind of person. As a result, I end up economizing in weird ways. I’ll stand in a grocery store aisle agonizing over the cost/benefit of something based on price and ingredients and brand, maybe saving a dollar here with a bulk buy or spending a dollar there to get the organic option. Later that night, however, I won’t think twice about going out to dinner with my husband, making the utility of the entire exercise somewhat questionable.

When it comes to the Greek yogurt consumed in our house, however, I finally did all the math for my latest Serious Eats column, a process which left me convinced I no longer knew how to divide. I was shocked by what kind of savings I might manage in a given year if we could get off the little cups with the parchment paper tops and start making it all at home. But I was going to need a much more streamlined process than my yogurt-making appliance filled with little glass jars would allow, so the research began.

Producing yogurt at home may not be quite as simple as making ice cubes, but it’s not much more complicated than measuring liquid into containers and letting it reach or hold certain temperatures. Ultimately, if you can stir and read a thermometer, you have all the skill needed to culture your own. The process takes a lot of hands off time, however, so if you’re more accustomed to the immediate gratification of cookie baking, this may take some getting used to.

DIY Greek Yogurt: strained and portioned

A few things to consider before you begin:

  • Both the milk and the starter you select will impact the taste and consistency of the final product, and you will likely need to experiment some before you hit on your ideal ingredients. If you’re using fresh yogurt as your starter rather than freeze-dried, be sure to use a plain variety that contains live and active cultures.
  • There is more than one way to incubate at 110°F—from a simple thermos to a special appliance specific to yogurt making. I found the method below (which I first learned about here) to be both simple and consistent, but you may want to experiment and use the process you find most efficient.
  • A useful trick I picked up from Alana Chernila’s The Homemade Pantry is to incubate a small portion of the milk and starter mixture in a 1/2-pint jar alongside the two filled quart jars. Reserve this smaller portion to culture your next batch of yogurt. If using the small cooler method outlined below, you can keep this smaller jar above the water line by setting it on top of a narrow, empty 1/2-pint jar.

DIY Greek Yogurt: ingredients

DIY Greek Yogurt
8 cups milk
4 tablespoons plain yogurt with live and active cultures or freeze-dried yogurt starter

DIY Greek Yogurt: hot and cold

In a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, bring milk to 180°F, stirring regularly to prevent scorching.

Once milk has reached temperature, allow it to cool to 110°F (place pot in an ice bath to speed cooling, if desired). When milk has cooled, add yogurt to the pot and whisk thoroughly to combine.

DIY Greek Yogurt: incubation

Pour milk and starter mixture into two quart-sized jars (and smaller 1/2-pint, if using) and screw on lids. Place them in a small insulated cooler and fill with 120°F water until jars are submerged nearly up to their lids. Close cooler and leave in a draft-free, undisturbed place for six hours or until desired tartness is achieved.

When incubation is complete, remove jars from water bath and place in refrigerator for at least six hours to halt culturing and set yogurt.

DIY Greek Yogurt: straining

At this point, yogurt may be eaten, but to achieve a Greek-style consistency, it will need to be strained. Place a fine mesh strainer over a bowl and line it with two layers of cheese cloth. Spoon yogurt into lined strainer and allow to drain for two hours or until desired thickness is achieved.

Transfer yogurt to a storage container and refrigerate until needed. Remaining leftover whey (approximately two cups) may be reserved for another use if desired.