Fermented dairy was the main (and generally) only way that dairy was consumed until about 150 years ago. The peoples who first discovered that you could drink another mammal’s milk were from hot climates (there were four different milking regions, but we don’t need to get into that now), and they definitely weren’t drinking cow’s milk.
In hot climates, the bacteria in raw milk cultures becomes sour very quickly, and over the past few thousand years, we’ve learned how to catch and culture other bacteria too. You’re familiar with grocery store “yogurt,” kefir, sour cream, cream cheese, creme fraiche, and all kinds of cheeses; these are all made by fermenting dairy (except mozzarella and commercially available cream cheese).
Now, why do I want to ferment dairy? Why wouldn’t I just go to the store and pick up whatever they have there? There are two great reasons for fermenting dairy: to help with digestibility and increase shelf life. Fresh raw milk has a lot of lactose in it, which is a kind of sugar that can be hard for adults to digest. Raw milk contains lactase, which enables you to digest lactose to a certain extent, but not in enough quantities for those who are sensitive.
So to make milk more digestible, you let bacteria work on the sugars for a while so that there’s little to no lactose left over to cause digestive problems. And of course, another main benefit is all of the probiotics that are created in the process, which help your digestive tract. This soured dairy product can last much longer in your fridge than just regular milk. Fermenting is also a good way to add life (bacteria) back into processed milks, and using regularly pasteurized dairy is a good way to start making dairy ferments because it promises a more consistent culture (you don’t have to compete with the bacteria that already exists in the raw milk). It is telling that most yogurts won’t culture in UHT (Ultra-High Temperature pasteurized) milk; the milk has been altered too much for the bacteria to survive.
Today I’m looking at a couple of different kinds of yogurt. The kinds you normally get from the grocery store are all pretty similar: tart (if unsweetened) and firm. But there are many, many different kinds of yogurt out there, such as lassi, piima, viili, filmjolk, kefir, kumis, labneh, matsoni, shanklish, skyr, smetana and many others. Since I don’t have a yogurt maker or dehydrator, I wanted to select a couple of strains that could be cultured at room temperature. After looking at the Cultures for Health website, I decided on kefir and matsoni (no, they didn’t pay me to advertise…I wish!). Kefir is a runny yogurt that you can drink, or it can be strained to make cream cheese, and matsoni sounds like it will be similar to grocery store yogurts: tart and thick. The packages come with great instructions, which I will summarize below with some pictures:
Culturing Kefir from Dehydrated Grains
- Place the grains in 1 cup of cold or room temperature milk and leave in a lightly covered container for 24 hours at room temp.
- Each day, strain the grains from the milk and add the grains to fresh milk, even if the milk does not coagulate. The strained milk can be discarded or used for cooking providing it looks and smells okay.
- Within 4-7 days, the 24-hour milk batch will begin to have a clean, sour smell. Eventually the milk will start to coagulate within 24 hours, temperature dependent. If the milk begins to thicken and you have a good aroma, you can increase the amount of milk you use for each batch.
- The first few days may yield an overgrowth of yeast or a layer or froth or foam on the milk surface. Within 5-7 days, the bacterial balance should stabilize and the kefir will begin to smell clean, sour, and possibly of fresh yeast.
For my milk I decided to use organic, non-homogenized, grass-fed milk. Starting with raw milk is possible, but makes it a little harder for the kefir to rehydrate. You can see the package with the grains, instructions and milk below.
Bacteria isn’t really a fan of metal, so be sure to culture your dairy in either a ceramic crock or glass jar. Old jars from the grocery store work just fine, no need to buy new jars just for this. I poured the grains in first, just to see what they look like. The powder is just powdered milk used in the packaging, the grains are at the bottom right of the photo.
When I opened up the milk after having shaken it, I saw something that looked like curds at the top. To someone who has only had homogenized milk, they might think the milk had already gone bad. But really, this was just the butterfat that had separated from the rest of the milk. When milk is held at really cold temperature, this happens very quickly, so instead of just seeing a cream line, you’ll see what looks like butter particles floating around the top. This is absolutely no problem. You can see them floating around the jar in the picture below. The darker things floating to the right side of the picture are the kefir grains.
Because bacteria is alive, it needs to breathe, so I didn’t just want to put an air-tight lid back on the jar. I use a product called Abeego in place of plastic wrap and tin foil. It is made from beeswax, tree resin, jojoba oil, hemp and cotton, and is therefore completely compostable. It molds with the heat of your hand and then stays molded at room temperature or in the fridge. And it smells lovely! So I put my abeego on the jar and put it in the warmest room in the house (house normally stays around 67-70). We have a shelf in our living room that we normally use for fermenting, but I didn’t want the kefir to accidentally pick up some sauerkraut bacteria and make things to funny.
And there you have it! I’ll be changing the milk out daily and will give an update later.
Fermenting Matsoni from Dehydrated Culture
- Stir one packet yogurt starter into 1 cup of pasteurized milk. Be sure to fully incorporate the starter into the milk.
- Cover the jar with a towel or coffee filter and secure the cover with a rubber band.
- Let the mixture culture undisturbed at 70-77 degrees F for 12-48 hours. Check the culture every 6 hours or so.
- Once the yogurt is set (when the jar is tipped, the yogurt shouldn’t run up the side of the jar and should move away from the side of the jar as a single mass), cover the jar with a lid and place in the yogurt in the refrigerator for 6 hours to halt the culturing process.
Below you can see the ingredients for culturing the matsoni.
When I opened the box, the instructions said there should be two packages of culture, but I only found one. And more than that, that one package was leaking! I immediately called the number listed on the packet, got directly through to customer service and explained the situation. They were extremely apologetic and said they’d send a new one out on Monday. So I’m not sure how much powder is supposed to be in a packet, but I used what was left in 1 cup of milk, and we’ll just see what happens! You can see from the picture that there wasn’t a whole lot of powder. Oh well, it’s an experiment!
Since our house doesn’t stay consistently between 70-77 degrees F, I decided to put the jar in our cabinet that holds our electrical items. The router is always on at the very least, so I think it’s a pretty controlled temperature in there. When I took the picture the thermometer I had just taken from another room read 68. I just went back to check on it and it now reads 71.5. I’ll continue to monitor it to make sure it keeps roughly the right temperatures.
Since I’m doing GAPS right now, I’ll just start by introducing the whey from the yogurt (will explain in a later post), and then slowly trying a bit of yogurt to see if I can handle it. In the past, dairy has disagreed with me, even though I just love it! So I’m hoping the GAPS is healing those dairy issues, and I’ll be able to move from whey, to yogurt, to kefir, and eventually on to raw milk. Since kefir is a stronger probiotic than regular yogurt, I’m going to wait until after I’ve acclimated to yogurt to try it. My husband doesn’t seem to have dairy issues so he’ll get to enjoy it before me!
Have you ever tried different kinds of yogurt, or making your own fermented dairy?