Dairying is particularly enjoyable in May because the wealth of green grass for the cow produces wonderfully rich, sweet milk, and lots of it! Historically, butter and cheeses made in springtime have been greatly esteemed, but the delights of such seasonal nuances have become lost in our industrial food system. So this month, I will tell you about Coco the cow and all the gifts she gives us.
I start each and every day with Coco, and we visit again in the late afternoons. Coco is a Brown Swiss milk cow. The first time I saw Brown Swiss cows many years ago I thought they were so beautiful I knew that I wanted one someday. I love her silvery brown color and her sweet face and huge ears. Brown Swiss give nearly the butterfat content of Jerseys and their milk is especially good for cheesemaking. I milk by hand in the barn and Coco stands patiently. She’s a very good cow.
I milk into a stainless steel milk can with a wide strainer on top fitted with a new, disposable filter to keep the milk clean. As soon as the milking is done, the lid goes on the can and I set it into a bucket of very cold water to chill the milk as quickly as possible. I cannot over emphasize the importance of cleanliness and careful milk handling during all steps of dairying. Good milk can turn bad real quick if contaminated with harmful bacteria. It is also of utmost importance that your dairy animals test free of diseases that can spread to people who consume their milk.
There is much written on the health benefits of good quality raw milk, so I really don’t need to go into that. All I will say is that we made the switch six years ago as a way to help one of our children facing health problems, and we have all enjoyed the benefits ever since. We drink a lot of raw milk, and I also use it to make our butter, cheese and yogurt. The buttermilk, whey and any extra milk help make superb rations for the pigs. Yogurt is also an excellent tonic for growing birds. We’ll often give it to turkey poults and young chickens to help them develop robust immune systems—the opposite of the common practice in the poultry industry to feed a steady diet of antibiotics, endangering the immune systems of those who consume the poultry. A milk cow truly can be the heart of a healthy homestead.
I got four 10 quart stainless steel milk cans with lids from Hamby Dairy Supply. I love these and use them for all my dairying. They are easy to sterilize, I milk right into them, and I use them for butter, cheese and yogurt making. I also got fine mesh stainless steel sieves, fine enough for straining butter and mascarpone, so I never have to mess with cheesecloths. I’ve always hated having to wash out cheesecloths. I find the sieves much easier, since I can just put them in the dishwasher.
I fill two milk cans to the top and let them sit in the refrigerator for a day or two so the cream fully separates from the milk. Then I can easily skim a lot of cream off the top of both cans–this is easier than skimming the cream off multiple jars of milk. I put the cream into my electric butter churn. Believe me, I’ve hand churned butter many a time in the old-fashioned up-and-down-with-the-dasher type churn, and I say that electric butter churns are a genuine modern convenience. All I have to do is plug it in and then I can go help the children with schoolwork for an hour or so until the butter is made. Then I pour the contents into a fine mesh stainless steel sieve to strain out the buttermilk, scoop the butter into a large bowl and wash it with cold water several times, working it with a spatula until all of the buttermilk is washed out. Sometimes I salt it, often I don’t. Generally, I make butter once or twice a week, storing extra in the freezer until needed. Sometimes instead of butter, I’ll use the cream to make mascarpone, sour cream, ice cream or whipped cream (a must when there are fresh strawberries coming out of the garden!).
Click here to learn why raw butter from grass-fed cows is a super food.
Click here for a basic homemade yogurt recipe.
I’ll often make yogurt weekly, 8 quarts at a time. My family can go through a lot of yogurt so if I go to the trouble to make it, I want the effort to count. Yogurt makers that you can buy usually only make a little bit at a time, so I improvised my own. My stainless steel milk can will fit inside a standard five gallon bucket with room to insulate around it with Styrofoam packing peanuts. To save time, I bring the milk straight to the kitchen still warm from the cow, place the milk can right on the stove top, stick in a dairy thermometer and gently heat the milk to 185° F. This must be done carefully, only on low to medium heat since the bottom of the milk can is thin and the milk can easily be scorched if the heat is too high. As soon as the milk reaches 185° F*, I take the can off the stove and place it into a sink full of ice water and stir the milk until it cools to 114° F. Then I take the can out of the sink, stir in yogurt culture or plain yogurt from the previous batch (2 tablespoons yogurt per quart of prepared milk). I put the lid on the milk can, wipe the bottom dry, and place it inside my five gallon bucket and fill the space around the milk can with packing peanuts. I put the lid on the bucket and let it sit for 8 hours. The packing peanuts insulate it perfectly and the temperature stays warm enough for correct yogurt incubation. After 8 hours, I pull the milk can out of the bucket and place it in the refrigerator to chill. And there, from milking the cow to completed yogurt, the milk never left the same container. Works for me!
*It is a common misconception that the first step in yogurt making of heating milk to 185° F is to pasteurize the milk, and so proponents of raw milk will often recommend skipping this step. In fact, the purpose of this step is to prepare the milk proteins to form a thick yogurt curd. The step of heating the milk may be skipped, but the resulting yogurt will be thin. I like a thick yogurt, and I don’t worry about any beneficial bacteria that may be lost in the heating since, after all, we will inoculate the milk with beneficial bacteria in the yogurt culture!
I’m a big fan of New England Cheesemaking Supply Company. If you are seriously interested in making cheese at home, I highly recommend Ricki Carroll’s book, Home Cheese Making.
While I play around with different soft cheese recipes like mozzarella, ricotta, panir, and brie, our staple cheese is a soft cultured-buttermilk cheese that can be used in infinite ways. After evening milking, I bring the milk can to the kitchen while the milk is still warm from the cow (about 85-90° F). This saves me the step of having to warm the milk! To one gallon warm milk, I stir in 2 packets buttermilk culture and 2 drops vegetable rennet diluted in ¼ cup cool water. Then I put the lid back on the can and let it sit at room temperature overnight. In the morning, the milk has formed a solid curd and whey. I pour the curds and whey into a fine mesh stainless steel strainer placed over a large bowl or pot and place the whole set-up inside the refrigerator. I allow the whey to drain from the cheese for six to twelve hours and the result is a delicious spreadable cheese. I can add salt, different combinations of herbs or fruit preserves for variety. I use the cheese in dishes such as lasagna, soups and sauces, egg dishes and on sandwiches. The point is that I can make cheese for our every-day use with less than ten minutes prep time. I am in awe of people who make artisanal aged cheeses, and someday I hope to get a cheese press and learn to make cheddar and gouda! In the meantime, simple and easy is the name of the game.