The Virtues of Cultured Dairy

Refreshing homemade yogurt.  Photo courtesy of Vera Almann.

Consuming cultured dairy was one of the first changes our family made when we started our journey of bringing whole-food nutrition into our lives–specifically, store-bought goat yogurt. The reasons were many, but here are a few:

• The culturing of dairy reduces the lactose (milk sugar) in the milk, transforming milk into a rich source of immune-building probiotics that is lower in naturally-occurring sugars and higher in Vitamins B and C

• Culturing dairy generally makes it much more digestible by breaking down the casein (milk protein) that can be very troublesome for many

• It also increases the enzymes in the milk (even pasteurized milk that is then cultured has a boost to its enzyme capacity), which helps to digest the components of the milk

Once I understood WHY it was important to consume cultured dairy, I quickly became interested in all the different HOWS—how to make my own, what types of culturing could be done, what types of milk could be used. I became culturally consumed!

After our family became used to the tangier flavor of commercially-prepared goat yogurt, I became keen on making my own—after all, I knew that making homemade yogurt was a skill still widely practiced in Europe, so the tools had to be out there.

Thankfully, there were a few online resources regarding the different types of culturing, and places to buy what was needed to get my own home chemistry happening—this was definitely the start of my seeing our kitchen as a place of production, experimentation and lab work! My paradigm shifted from seeing our home as a place of consumption to rather being one of creation.

Profoundly satisfying!

My study of cultured dairy brought me to understanding how traditional cultures have used the culturing process for centuries as a means of food preservation (in the tradition of sauerkraut, kim chee, and the like.) Before the advent of refrigeration, and when food came at a much greater effort (milking the animal, rather than stopping by Safeway on your round of errands), it was imperative that there be a means of preserving what was produced.

This ancient way of preservation helped to create some of the incredibly nutritious foods our forefathers consumed. I’m not sure if there was an understanding of the healing byproducts of their preserved foods, but regardless, they were an integral part of keeping them well. (One can only imagine where we would be, physically, had the refrigerator never come to pass.)

 

Soon I located a yogurt maker—basically, a warming container, that holds the temperature even so that thermophilic (heat-loving) cultures could flourish in the milk being cultured. In turn, I also learned that if there are some cultures that are heat-loving, then there are others that will culture at room temperature (mesophilic.)

Around this time, I also found the thermophilic cultures necessary to make yogurt with my yogurt container from Cultures for Health –they have many varieties of yogurt from which to choose.

Given that the milk is heated (albeit rather low, in the 110 degree Fahrenheit range), and the culture is rather acidic, I never felt right about using the plastic containers usually sold for homemade yogurt. Pretty early on, I started using glass Ball jars, which I cover with a paper towel that is held in place with the metal ring that is used for canning. This removes any concerns over plastics leaching, the paper towel keeps out anything I don’t want in there, and the glass jars make for a very clean washing and reuse (no greasy residue, as happens with plastics.)

Around this time, I also started reading about something like yogurt, only more of a drinkable cultured dairy—and it was a type of culturing that called on not just healthy bacteria, but also on yeasts, and in doing so made a rather fizzy, fermented drink. What a concept! Taking still, sweet milk, and creating a bubbly drink? In kefir , it happens!

So, between the 2 means of culturing, I soon had 4 jars of cultured dairy products on the counters—yogurt and kefir made with cow’s milk, and yogurt and kefir made with goat’s milk—and there was great variance in all of them! The goat products tend to be thinner and more tart—better as a base for a smoothie rather than spooning. The cow products do thicken up more—adding just a bit of stevia with vanilla extract, or fresh fruit, makes for a refreshing snack, definitely spoonable!

And once the Pandora’s box of culturing was open, I found myself trying out all kinds of cultures and methods—crème fraiche, buttermilk and various soft cheeses have all been part of my endeavors. Not once have I been disappointed—making freshly cultured foods is very satisfying, and it seems everyone is interested to try them. (It is a joy to bring along freshly-made chevre to a dinner party!)

These days, I tend to stick with kefir made from raw goat’s milk, and yogurt made from raw cow’s milk. It’s easy enough to switch this up if I choose—simply add a bit of kefir grains to either type of milk, allow to sit, covered, at room temperature for a day, and we have kefir. The same is true for the yogurt—add the cultures to our milk selection, and we’ll have fresh yogurt made from that milk chosen, in about 6 to 8 hours.

Yogurt and kefir tend to be the base for sweeter foods at our house—adding a little stevia and sweet spices creates a great foundation for some fresh fruit. But each is also wonderful when taken in the savory direction—add some to a homemade dressing, or use as a dip or sauce for vegetables—just add garlic, onion, sea salt and any herbs you like.

When I make yogurt, I just add fresh milk to what yogurt was left over from that day (I like to reserve at least 1/3 of the original for this—otherwise, there is nothing from which to culture the milk.) Then I put the mixture into a clean jar and leave it overnight in the yogurt maker, during which time it makes itself. How easy is that?

And in the morning, we have a wonderful, freshly-cultured food, ready to go. I remove the yogurt from the maker and leave it in its jar for the day, stored in the refrigerator to halt the culturing process.

Likewise, after milk has been transformed to kefir, I strain the kefir from the kefir grains, and place the kefir in the refrigerator to hasten the culturing.

Next, I rinse the grains in clean water and place them in a glass jar, covering them with fresh milk and storing them in the refrigerator. When I’m ready to make more kefir, I simply add the grains to a quart of new milk, and set the new mix out at room temperature overnight.

Simple and terrific!

So, if you’re not making your own yogurt or kefir at home, I encourage you to give it a try—it really does make itself. In fact, if your interest is piqued to learn more, I might suggest the Nourished Kitchen Get Cultured class on culturing foods at home.

When you culture at home, you make a product that is prepared with the healthy ingredients you choose, full of life-giving enzymes and probiotics. But if you plan to use a store-bought variety, just look for a full-fat, unsweetened, organic option. And do try the goat yogurt—you might just love it.