Suddenly Sauer: Preserving Food and Tradition in a Modern World

Would you like some culture with that dairy?
April 18, 2010, 9:08 pm
Filed under: food, Pickled Anything

I’ve heard the same story again and again, “I bought milk, it spoiled, I washed it down the sink as my stomach sank, then I cried.”

Ok, so maybe there were no tears involved, and maybe this is a bit more hyperbolic than most of your dairying experiences, but the point remains… that sweet fresh milk only lasts you a few days… and what then?  what to do then…

This past friday, myself and a gathering of individuals attempted to answer this question at the kickoff event for Urban Ecology Detroit, a group dedicated to urban ecology, an intentionally loosely defined topic, which hopes to draw enthusiasts of all sorts together for the common goal of learning.  The subject matter for this inaugural class was culturing dairy: what could be more universal than the desire to preserve our milk?  only the vegans were disappointed…

Quark becoming Quark (a cultured cream cheese)

Most simple dairy cultures are just a matter of adding things and waiting for things to change: sometimes 6 hours, sometimes 24, sometimes a few days.  In the class we talked about Cultured Butter, Buttermilk (both traditional and cultured), Clobber (wild cultured milk), Quark, and Yogurt.

I’ll spare you the nitty gritty details from the class, but there are a few introductory elements I’ll replicate here.

Culturing dairy is a timeless technique common in cultures where dairy animals have been a predominant part of everyday subsistence.  Culturing dairy (adding bacteria that yield certain desirable characteristics, or allowing the bacterial flora that naturally populate unpasteurized milk to flourish under ideal living conditions) yields a dairy product that is much easier for us to digest, and that is naturally preserved.  The ease of digestion comes from the fact that bacteria digest milk sugars (lactose) and convert them into lactic acid, and because the bacteria essentially begin the digestion process for us, leaving less work for our digestive tracts.  Lucky for us, cultured dairy also tends to be delicious: pleasantly tart, creamy, textured, sweet, and all other complex flavors abound.

I’m posting recipes for the items we discussed in class here– most of them are extremely simple, and, strangely enough, difficult to find instruction for.

Creme Fraiche

Pour cream slowly off the top of your non-homogenized whole milk.  If it’s raw milk and your kitchen is warm enough (about 70 degrees), cover with a cheese cloth and let sit until cream thickens (a few days).  For pasteurized cream, or for culturing cream at cooler temperatures, pour off cream and add 2 Tbs cultured buttermilk to your cream.  Allow it to sit and it should thicken in 24 hours or less.  Once the cream is thickened (regardless of method), scrape it out of the container it was setting in and save it in a jar.  Keep in the fridge, where it will continue to ripen.


This is the stuff that’s left after you scrape off your cultured cream.  The milk that separates our of the heavy cream and sinks to the bottom also thickens up (after 24 hours when started with buttermilk, and after a few days when left to spontaneously ferment).  I read that clobber was traditionally eaten with molasses, nutmeg, and cinnamon for breakfast (by whom I don’t know), but I mostly use it to create quark


Quark is a German word, which until my recent google search I understood to mean cultured cream cheese.  Turns out, I’m not entirely correct.  Nonetheless, I like the name and feel that it works, so I’m going to choose to let it stick.  I make quark by simply straining the whey out of clobber.  I line a strainer with cheese cloth, allowing the whey to drip into the bowl housing the strainer, and I place the whole contraption in the fridge for a day, spooning out the quark once its dry enough.  I like to whip my quark with salt and sundried tomatoes, or lemon zest and honey.  But truly, the possibilities are endless.  I also save my whey at this step and use it as a starter for other ferments.

me squeezing lemon juice into my little quark whipping contraption

Cultured Butter

While making a successful batch of butter didn’t happen in the workshop, I did manage to make up a batch when I got home, and because it was my intention to make butter, I’m still going to include directions here.  Once I’ve saved  one quart jar full of creme fraiche, which usually takes about four gallons of raw milk, I make butter!  Take chilled cream and pour it into a food processor, press the on butter, and wait.  The separation will take longer than you expect, you may even panic and think it won’t happen, but after 15-20 minutes, an unmistakable change will take place– all the butterfat will begin to clump together and be suspended in milky white buttermilk.  When this happens, strain the butter solids out and save the real buttermilk (if you desire), then pour the butter solids into a bowl.  Press the butter mass with a spatula and watch how it continues to exude buttermilk.  Press the butter, pour off the buttermilk, and repeat this until the butter stops exuding milk.  You may dribble a bit of cold water over the butter and press again just to be sure it runs clean.  When you’re satisfied, place your butter in a container and enjoy!

Buttermilk (Cultured)

One of my favorite fermented dairy products is cultured buttermilk.  While traditional buttermilk comes from the butter making process (as explored above), cultured buttermilk is the result of a buttermilk culture being added to whole milk.  I like buttermilk not only for its delicate flavor, but also because it is an immensely helpful starter for other dairy ferments.  In order to make your own buttermilk that can be saved as a starter, you must pasteurize your milk.  This means you need to heat your milk to 190 degrees and then cool it down to room temperature before adding your culture.  If you don’t pasteurize your milk, the naturally present bacteria will eventually overwhelm your buttermilk starter.  Then you’ll just be making clobber.  yummy… but now quite the same.  You’ll need a buttermilk culture in the beginning.  I get mine from Calder Dairy, but you might also buy a starter online from New England Cheesemaking Supply Company if you don’t have a local supplier.  Once you have your cultured buttermilk starter, add about 1/4- 1/2 cup to a quart of pasteurized milk.  Let it sit at room temperature for 24 hours, agitating every so often, then stick it in the fridge.


Yogurt has become something of a holy grail of dairy culturing for me, perhaps because I’ve been trying to perfect it for about 2 years now, and probably also because it figures so prominently in my diet.  In the class we made 2 quarts of yogurt.  First I lightly pasteurized the milk by heating it to 190 degrees, stirring it consistently once it began to form a skin on its surface.  One of the participants mentioned that she holds her milk at 190 for ten minutes when pasteurizing, which further improves the texture of her yogurt.  After using fully pasteurized milk for yogurt for the first time, I have come to believe that her suggestion is absolutely correct.  Whether you have the patience to keep your milk at 190 for ten minutes is another story.

Regardless of what you decide, the next step is to use a cold water or ice bath to cool your milk to 95 degrees.  The temperature at this step should range anywhere from 90 to 110 degrees.  On the lower end, your milk will culture slowly (6-8+ hours) and develop a less tart flavor. On the higher end, your milk will culture quickly (2-3 hours) and it will be more tart.  I would suggest cooling to 95 so that in the time it takes you to complete the next few steps, you loose a bit of heat but not enough to drop below 90 degrees.  Once your milk is cooled, take 2 Tbs – 1/2 cup of starter (can be store bought or saved from a previous batch) and add 1 cup of your milk to it.  Stir to homogenize.  Add mixture into the rest of the milk, stir, and then pour into your incubation vessel.  The yogurt now has to be kept between 90 and 110 degrees, undisturbed, until it has finished fermenting.  I use a fancy (read: Styrofoam) contraption called a yogotherm to incubate my yogurt, but you could also place yogurt in a yogurt container and put it in an insulated bag with a hot water bottle, or in the oven with the pilot light left on.  Experiment with your own kitchen and supplies.  When you think your yogurt is ready (based on temperature of milk when you added the culture), open the lid, taste what’s inside, and either let it continue to ferment or stick it in the fridge.  The yogurt will thicken up slightly once it’s refrigerated, so don’t judge it tooooo harshly.

There are a few things to keep in mind about culturing dairy, and they mostly have to do with the relationship between your homemade product and the kind of cultured dairy available in stores.  Many commercially produced dairy products have thickeners such as pectin or guar gum added to them to achieve their consistency.  This means that a) you shouldn’t necessarily expect your homemade products to be as gelatinous/thick as store bought cultures and b) you should be careful when buying dairy cultures as starters because some additives may inhibit your fermentation.  Choose products with live cultures listed in the ingredients, and avoid as many additives as possible.

Without a doubt, the highlight of the dairy culturing class was tasting all the dairy products perched atop Gwen’s whimsical sweet breads!  You should definitely check out her recipes, and consider baking up a loaf, to be enjoyed with a side of quark.

Thanks to Eve VanDalsen for the lovely photos, and happy fermenting!