Adventures in dairy, part one: a raw milk saga

Part One: Got (Raw) Milk?

My friend Catherine bequeathed me her cow for the summer. Or should I say, her share of the cow, while she’s away on vacation. Now Catherine has her quirks, but one could safely say she is about as far from hippie-dippy as a Park Avenue, Prada-toting New York socialite. (To clarify, she is not that either.) So when she handed me the key to the “cow barn,” a dingy basement in a Boston suburb, I was intrigued. Raw milk? I’m not so sure about that. Had Catherine’s obsession with health food gone too far? Anyway, I accepted the key and figured I’d ask questions later.

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Next stop Google. Many articles, interviews and podcasts later, I discovered the pros, as yet not conclusively proven, and the obvious cons. The short version is this: On the plus side, raw milk retains vitamins (B12, B6), enzymes that aid digestion, and probiotics, or “good bacteria” that assist the immune system, and a host of other benefits, all of which would be destroyed by the heat of pasteurization. On the negative side, without this heating process, disease-producing bacteria may be present in raw milk. The offending bacteria could be caused by unsanitary conditions in a dairy, poor cow health, or inadequate refrigeration and bottling procedures. I decided I would take my chances. The dairies that sell milk in Massachusetts have to be certified, and (dare I assume?) are run by caring and responsible individuals. Anyway, Catherine has been drinking it for months and she’s still okay. Yes, I am a risk-taker when it comes to food.

Raw milk cannot be sold legally in stores in Massachusetts, and for that matter in many states. If you want it, you have to go to a licensed, certified farm to pick it up, or join a buying club like my friend Catherine did. The milk is delivered to a local point, usually someone’s refrigerator, and you pick it up there. 

(Update: since I originally wrote this post last summer buying clubs have been shut down in Massachusetts)  

To find out more about raw milk, start by going to NOFA or www.realmilk.com

First Encounters of the Cow Kind

Here was the drill before the ban: I take Catherine’s key, unlock the basement door of a suburban house and descend the steps to a refrigerator. The milk is delivered from the farm once a week, along with eggs and even vegetables if you request them. I tear off the flap with Catherine’s name on it from a piece of paper taped to the refrigerator (to signal that her gallon has been picked up), grab the gallon, then, up the stairs and lock the door.

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At first, my weekly gallon sat on the refrigerator shelf next to the excellent locally produced pasteurized milk from High Lawn Farm that I purchased from Whole Foods. Although it is not organic, High Lawn Farm milk is the product of grass-fed Jersey cows and tastes truly scrumptious.  As everybody knows, (duh, I didn’t, until informed by some of my British friends) Jersey cows produce fantastic milk.

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Since Catherine didn’t want to stop her subscription to the raw milk for the summer, I decided to cut back on the store-bought milk. She contracts for a gallon (or as much as she wants) a week and pays up front whether she uses it or not. And because I am such a good dooby, good friend, and hate waste, and, let’s be honest, really curious, I  felt compelled to use it, and possibly even drink it. After a few days of staring at the jug, I plunged into café lattes. Strictly speaking, I was not drinking not raw milk. By heating it to a bacteria-killing temperature over 160°F, I was essentially pasteurizing it. Fine.

Moving on from lattes at week two, I decided to make some yogurt—another low risk project, since the milk has to be heated above 160°F to obliterate bacteria that interfere with yogurt cultures. Earlier in the summer, the purchase of that delicious High Lawn Farm milk I mentioned inspired me to start making yogurt, before Catherine’s cow came into the picture. Once upon a time in the eighties I made yogurt for our restaurant by the gallon using farm milk.  Perhaps it was a premonition, but shortly before the cow came into play, I decided to jump back into my personal yogurt-making cottage industry.

Without a yogurt maker, you can jerry-rig a set-up: pour the yogurt into a clean jar and cover it with a lid or plastic wrap to keep in the heat. Wrap it in a thick blanket of tea towels and keep it in a warm place. You could set it on a heating pad and cover it with a thick towel, or stick it in an oven (turned off) that has a pilot light. The temperature should be consistently warm, no lower than 90°F or higher than 118°F. After a few weeks of playing a guessing game, I succumbed to the purchase of a yogurt maker, a modest investment that makes my weekly yogurt production a cinch. I like the Salton 1-quart size which allows me to make several quarts a week if I want, without fussing with the little jars. (Note I purchased mine from Amazon for about $35.00 and it is now being offered at an inexplicable, RIDICULOUS price, so try getting from this website.)

My new supply of raw cow’s milk makes divine, creamy, I’m not kidding, to-die-for yogurt. I concede that it could be the richness of the milk that makes it so good. In any case, raw milk, or the raw milk from Catherine’s cow, worked best when the milk was heated to 180°F.  The addition of powdered milk clinches the deal if you’re aiming for thick and creamy; it helps the yogurt set and gives it a pleasingly dense consistency, but it is not mandatory.  In my yogurt trials and errors I discovered a commercial brand of yogurt, Emmi Swiss Premium, which makes a the best starter so far of all of the yogurts I’ve tried (Dannon, Stonyfield, and a plethora of organic brands from Whole Foods.) I also tried a powdered yogurt starter (Yogourmet),  which worked, but produced a very tart yogurt. You can use just about any plain yogurt as a starter, so I suggest experimenting with a few that are available to you until you find one you like. After the first batch, you can use your own yogurt as a starter. The following method can be used with raw or pasteurized milk, whole or low fat. You’re in charge!

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Plain Yogurt Recipe 

Makes one quart

4 cups milk: raw, pasteurized, whole, or low-fat

1/4 cup non-fat dry milk

3 tablespoons plain yogurt (Emmi is my favorite so far)

1. Pour the milk into a 6-cup or larger Pyrex measuring cup. You will need a container large enough to allow the milk to bubble up a bit (but not boil) in the microwave. Whisk in the milk powder until smooth. The idea is to blend in the powdered milk without creating too many air bubbles, so don’t be overzealous about whisking. Heat for 7 minutes in the microwave, or until the milk reaches a temperature of 180°F. You can also do this on top of the stove over low heat, but check and stir often to prevent scorching.

2. Pour the heated milk into a bowl to cool, or leave it in the Pyrex (hint: it will take longer to cool in a hot saucepan).

3. When the temperature cools to 110-114°F, stir in the yogurt.

4. Strain the milk into a clean jar, spoon the bubbles off the top if there are any, cover the jar with plastic or a lid, and keep it warm for 6 to 8 hours, until set. You can use a yogurt maker made for this purpose. Alternatively, set the oven at the lowest temperature and when it is warm turn it off;wrap the jar in a towel and keep it in the oven until set (6 to 8 hours.) Refrigerate for several hours or overnight before consuming.

Vanilla Yogurt

After the milk has been heated, stir in 3 to 4 tablespoons agave syrup (or maple syrup or honey if you like) and 1 teaspoon vanilla. You could also split a vanilla bean and add it to the hot milk, then remove it when you stir in the starter.

To be continued….

Posted on July 18, 2010 and filed under Breakfast.