Have you wondered what natural cheese making is and how it differs from making cheese with store-bought cultures? Join me in this podcast with Robyn Jackson from Cheese From Scratch as she shares her years of knowledge with us.
Today's guest on the Pioneering Today Podcast (episode #384) is Robyn Jackson from Cheese From Scratch. Robyn is a wealth of information when it comes to raising a dairy cow and turning it into natural cheese using “clabber.”
You don't have to own a dairy cow to learn from Robyn! In this episode, she's taking us back to how cheese was made traditionally before the use of cultures or direct-set items.
Robyn got into cheese making in 2014 when her husband brought home a dairy cow and asked, “can you make me cheese?”
She jokes that she was kind of thrown into it due to the large amounts of milk her family was getting. In order to not let much of the milk go to waste, she dove into cheese making.
She's had many ups and downs in her cheese-making journey but never learned so much as when she took an in-person class. This was the game-changer for her. If you're in a similar boat and frustrated with making homemade cheese, be sure to read to the end of the post for where you can take a live class from Robyn!
What Makes a Good Cheese Maker?
Robyn says the root of being a good cheese maker is enjoying the process. If it's frustrating and you're experiencing failure after failure, the likelihood of you continuing on with it is slim.
Robyn recommends trying out some true beginner recipes that are almost fail-proof. Check out her blog for multiple cheese recipes as well as common cheese-making problems and troubleshooting tips.
The Inconsistencies of Milk
Most cheese recipes are based on the assumption that the pH of your milk is 6.8. However, during the different phases of a cow's lactation cycle, the milk pH can vary greatly.
If you're having a hard time with cheese recipes turning out correctly, this may be a culprit.
I shared my butter making experience with Robyn where I was having a hard time turning my raw cream into butter. It just so happened to be at the end of the summer, just before we were drying Clover up before she calved.
The milk had a great cream line and I was getting enough to make lots of butter. However, I couldn't get the cream to churn into butter at all, it was like the fat solids would almost separate out, then they would break. The end result was more like a thick whipped cream than butter.
Robyn says this was because during late lactation, the fat globules in the cream actually change. Though it looks like there's a lot of heavy cream, the fat content isn't the same and it will be extremely difficult (if not impossible) to churn into butter.
Azure Standard is the sponsor of today's podcast, and they are my go-to for so many of the many items we use here on the homestead. Speaking of butter, ever since losing our beloved milk cow this past year, Azure is now my source for butter.
I can get a case of butter and store it in the freezer for an amazing price (as well as the peace of mind of knowing I won't run out!).
Azure also sells heirloom starter cultures for dairy products like Bulgarian yogurt! If you've wanted to learn how to make your own, check out my tutorial on making homemade yogurt here.
If you're a new Azure Standard customer, you can get 10% off your first order of $50 or more by using coupon code “Melissa10” at checkout.
The Importance of Cheese-Making
Both Robyn and I agree that cheese-making seems to be a lost art. It's surprising even how many people who own a dairy cow that don't make homemade cheese.
We think it may be because it seems somewhat of a daunting and confusing process. However, Robyn says when you realize that milk is meant to (and wants to) be turned into cheese it's an easy way to shift your mindset as to how easy it is.
The Four Steps of Cheese-Making
The basics of cheese-making include these four basic steps:
- You heat the milk back up to the temperature it was when it came out of the udder.
- You add a lactic bacteria or an acid to create an acidic environment.
- You add in rennet (which is actually an enzyme in calves' stomachs).
- And finally, it forms into a curd.
Natural Cheese-Making Day Strategies
Because cheese making is such a long process (not so much with hands-on time, but more with waiting) I compared it to making sourdough bread. Robyn completely agreed.
The first time you look at making a sourdough bread recipe or even learning how to make a sourdough starter it seems so intimidating and confusing. But if you stick with it, you realize it's not that complicated at all. You even figure out your preferred feeding methods, the type of flour you prefer, and even the recipes you enjoy making (and your family enjoys eating).
Cheese-making can be very similar in this way. Once you learn your recipes and know the steps, you can start a batch of cheese in the morning and know that while the culture is sitting you'll have an hour to take care of other household chores before moving to the next step.
Another big tip Robyn shares is that she doesn't make cheese year-round. Very similar to canning, which is generally done one time per year, she makes cheese during the springtime (which is perfect timing for opening enrollment to her class, Milkmaid Society, more on that below!).
What is Clabber?
Clabber, when fed and nurtured correctly, is similar in consistency to buttermilk. You can think of clabber like you do a sourdough starter. It needs to be fed consistently or else the flavors will be off, it won't work correctly, and you'll end up with an undesirable product.
Clabber is a cultured milk product that occurs naturally when you leave raw milk on the counter at room temperature for a few days. The whey separates from the milk solids and curdles as it ferments.
At first glance, it seems the whole jar of milk has gone bad. And for drinking purposes, it has. However, this clabber has so much potential!
After your milk has clabbered, you then take a small spoonful of the clabber and add it to a new container of fresh raw milk. Leave this milk out on the counter until it clabbers and repeat the process until you're left with a delightful and slightly tangy clabber that's the consistency of yogurt.
It's this delicious clabber that can be used in place of yogurt, sour cream, or used as a culture in homemade natural cheese making.
How to make cheese starter culture
You have a few options for cheese starter culture, the first is clabber as stated above. Your other options are cultured buttermilk or cultured yogurt.
Cultured buttermilk is a mesophilic culture and is used for cheeses that don't require heat. Cultured yogurt is thermophilic and is used for cheese recipes that are heated and require heat above 110 degrees F.
Natural Cheese-Making vs. Cultured Cheese-Making
Robyn is still studying natural cheese-making and shares that she'll probably still have thousands of questions on the day she dies because there's so much to learn.
She loves the book The Art of Natural Cheesemaking: Using Traditional, Non-Industrial Methods and Raw Ingredients to Make the World's Best Cheeses by David Asher. She said it really opened up her eyes to how milk wants to be turned into cheese and to stop using such a “sterile” environment.
After she read this book, Robyn was fortunate enough to take a live class from author David Asher who helped her realize she didn't quite have the correct process down.
She'd been making cheese from clabber and the flavors weren't great. It was this live class that made all the difference.
Modern Homesteading Conference
If you're interested in learning more from Robyn, she is actually going to be a speaker at the Modern Homesteading Conference this year in North Idaho. If you haven't purchased your tickets yet, you're in luck! We're having a Spring sale for 20% off all general admission tickets from March 28-April 3, 2023!
Use coupon code “Spring20” at checkout and receive 20% off your general admission tickets (coupon code not valid for child tickets, family tickets, or VIP passes).
Where to Find Robyn
- Her website, Cheese From Scratch
- Her online membership, Milk Maid Society (currently closed, but opening Spring 2023 so be sure to sign up for her newsletter!)
- Cheese From Scratch on Instagram
More Posts You May Enjoy:
- How to Make Whey in Four Easy Steps
- How to Smoke Cheese at Home
- How to Make Homemade Mozzarella in 30 Minutes
- Homemade Buttermilk Ranch Dressing (Probiotic)
- Dairy Cow 101: Everything You Need to Know
- Keeping a Family Milk Cow- 8 Things You Need to Know
- Fermented Dairy: Why You Should Be Doing This Now
- How to Preserve Meat, Eggs & Dairy
- How to Make Homemade Yogurt That’s Thick and Creamy
- Homemade Marinated Cheese Balls Recipe- in Less than 5 Minutes
- How to Make Biscuits – Sour Cream Biscuit Recipe from 1940
Melissa: Hey, pioneers. Welcome to episode number 384. On today's episode, we are going to be diving into natural cheese making, talking about clabber and my friends, if you are unfamiliar with clabber, you are going to be just as excited as I am to learn more about this wonderful, wonderful thing that has been around for centuries but many of us aren't familiar with today. We're also going to be talking about how milk affects the outcome of different dairy products at different phases of lactation. So this is a jam packed episode and I am very excited to introduce you to my guest today, which is Robyn Jackson from Cheese Making From Scratch. Robyn is a wealth of information when it comes to making cheese and having a dairy cow, but even if you don't have a dairy cow, with cheese making, and especially going back to what is traditionally how cheese was made before we had things like direct set cultures and those different things that we have at our disposal now, but going back to that very old form of traditional cheese making.
So if you have never made cheese before, you're going to love this episode. But if you have dabbled in cheese making but you've never used clabber or you're relying on those direct set items in order to make all of your cheese, this is going to be a game changer. So to access anything that we talk about in today's episode, you can grab that at melissaknorris.com/384 because this is episode number 384. Now, speaking of things dairy, today's episode is brought to you and sponsored by Azure Standard. Azure is one of my absolute must-have go-tos for a plethora of things that we use here on the homestead. And one of those items is for dairy. As I shared in past episodes, many of you know we lost our beloved Clover a couple of months ago, our milk cow. So I'm getting raw milk from a friend's farm, paying for that, and it's an excellent source.
However, if I have to buy all of that raw milk in order to get enough of the cream to then make things like butter, with the cost of the raw milk and then you factor in your time, it's actually not worth it for me to have to buy that much extra milk in order to make butter. So I am getting my butter from Azure Standard, which means I can get organic grass-fed butter and buy it by the case. I store my butter in the freezer, but I don't ever like to just buy things item by item. I always like to know that I have a backup, so I buy my butter by the case. It's definitely one of those things, "Go big or go home," so that we've always got extra butter on hand. They also have different starter cultures that are the heirloom starter cultures for things like Bulgarian yogurt.
I got my very first starter culture to make yogurt, and it was the Bulgarian strain years ago. I am trying to even think how many years it's been since I've started making my own yogurt with the Bulgarian strain. It's probably been close to eight years and I have never had to repurchase that. I just keep it going. I just needed to get that initial inoculation and that initial starter kit. So you can get all of that through Azure Standard. They have a ton of other products, and if you are new to Azure Standard, right now you can get 10% off your first order of $50 or more by putting the coupon code Melissa10, that's M-E-L-I-S-S-A, and then the number 10, 1-0, Melissa10 at checkout. Now let's get into this interview with Robyn. Robyn, welcome to the Pioneering Today Podcast.
Robyn: Thank you so much. I'm so excited to be here.
Melissa: I am really excited to have you here. Robyn and I actually were like, "We probably should hit record and capture all of this," because as soon as we got hopped on our call together for this interview, we just immediately started talking shop about beef cows and bottle-fed babies and then dairy cattle and we're like, "Oh, we probably should actually record this so that people can get the benefit from it." So I know this is going to be a really fun episode and so excited for those who aren't familiar with you to get to know you and just to glean information from you. And I have had a fun time getting to know you by following you on Instagram. So for those who are not familiar, I'm just going to do a quick intro. So Robyn, when I think of natural cheese making, you are immediately who my mind first goes to. So I'd love if you would share a little bit about your story on how you got started cheese making and how that is incorporated with your guys' homestead journey.
Robyn: Oh, thank you. Yeah, well, first off, I'm so excited to be here. Yeah, so we got started cheese making in 2014. So I was born and raised on a beef ranch, kind of like you. And my husband was born and raised on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, and so he moved to Canada. We met married, bought our own ranch, and in 2014, I came home from work... I'm a nurse, but I don't do that job very much anymore. So I came home from work and there was a dairy cow in front of our house and he's like, "Can you make me cheese? And so that's really where the journey began.
Melissa: He just threw you in.
Robyn: He just threw me in. I knew that he always wanted a dairy cow, but I didn't really realize how much he wanted a dairy cow until he just got one. Yes, so that's where it started. And he's like, "Can you make me string cheese?" Because I don't know if you guys have string cheese in Washington there, but in Wisconsin, string cheese is a big thing. So that was the first thing I had to make him. So the whole thing behind getting a milk out was so that his wife could make him string cheese.
Melissa: So he could have string cheese. I'm assuming it's like we have very commercial, it is string cheese that you buy. It's like individual sticks and you can peel it off and it'll come off in strings, but you buy it wrap... Oh gosh, I'm trying to think of the brand. It's been so long since I've bought it. Anyhow, but you buy it and it's like individually sealed in plastic, these cheese sticks basically.
Robyn: Yeah, exactly. That's the only kind of string cheese I ever knew here in Canada. But in Wisconsin, you can go to the cheese factory and they make it in big long ropes and it's mozzarella, that's all it is. And so they make it in big long ropes and then you can just peel the whole rope back. It's super good.
Melissa: Okay, that sounds much more fun than the plastic wrap stuff I am envisioning. A rope of cheese sounds-
Robyn: So much fun.
Robyn: Yeah, it's so much better. So that's how it got started. And then it just kind of spiraled from there because he ended up... So the original purpose behind the milk cow was so I could make him string cheese. And the second was that we could use it for a nanny cow for our ranch so that any bottle babies we had or anything, we could stick on her. But for a while there, she was a freshened Holstein dairy cow and we were getting eight gallons of milk a day and it was so much milk. And so I kind of had to dive into aged cheese just to be able to use some of the milk because at that time, we just had one daughter, she was only a year old, and for our tiny family of three at that time, it was just way too much milk and cheese was kind of the way to be able to preserve it.
Melissa: Yes, having now had a dairy cow under my belt, the amount of milk... I thought naively or just without knowing that the actual milking part would be where a lot of my time went. And yes, you do have to milk obviously every day if you don't have a calf on there to do a calf share, which didn't when we got her, the calf was already out of the picture. But it was actually all of the prep. The actual milking wasn't the majority of the time. It was all of the cleaning and washing of vessels and then dealing with all the milk just like you're sharing. But I have to say I found in my own cheese making journey, I do not find mozzarella the easiest to make.
Robyn: It is a tricky cheese to make. And I do tote it as a beginner cheese for people, but not because it's an easy cheese. The thing with mozzarella is that it is a bit of a tricky cheese, and the reason that is a tricky cheese is you have to be able to get it in a very specific pH window. It will only stretch when it gets down to an acidity of between 5 and 5.4, and you don't have to test that. I don't test pH when I'm making cheese, but the reason that I say that it's kind of a beginner cheese is because it teaches people that you actually kind of have to follow the recipe to get a desired result.
And I feel like as homesteaders, we like to diverge off the recipe a little bit. If you're baking sourdough, you're going more by feel and stuff like that. And that is really something that you learn in cheese making, but it's more of something that you learn later on. So as you're just getting started, if you want to have a desired result, you kind of have to follow that recipe pretty closely to get that result basically.
Melissa: Okay. I love that because there's that old adage, "Recipes are a guideline," or at least I have followed that except when it comes to cheese making and canning.
Melissa: Those are the two times the recipes are not just a guideline. You really need to follow them for specific reasons. So I love that you said that is why... Because I honestly have often wondered, I'm like, "Why do people say moz...?" Well, you don't have to have a ton of equipment because there's not the pressing and that type of thing with cheese molds and weight, et cetera, and the aging process. So I kind of understand fundamentally all that, but for all the other cheeses that I've made, I'm like, "I do not find mozzarella is the beginner cheese," because it's one I probably struggled with I think the most to get more of a consistent result. And sometimes, like you said, sometimes it would stretch so wonderfully and I'm like, "Yes, I got it." And then other times I'm like, "I swear I did everything the same and I'm not getting the same stretchiness," and I would get so mad.
Robyn: And it's so frustrating when it doesn't work out. And so that's one thing where if it's not working out, then just ditch it and try another cheese. Feta is a great beginner cheese because the root of you being able to be successful in cheese making is you actually liking cheese making. And if it's frustrating and not working, then you should just find a different recipe kind of thing. And the thing with mozzarella too is that it depends a lot on your milk. So at different stages during your cow's lactation and stuff, your milk is going to be different. And all recipes are kind of developed with the idea that milk is on the pH line of 6.8, which is what it comes out of the udders, but at different points it might be a little bit more acidic or anything like that. So that's where you're getting those inconsistency with swift mozzarella is because you're just trying to get it in that specific window. But if your milk is a little bit different, it's going to make it harder.
Melissa: Okay. This brings up a very fast... Actually, there's a lot of places I want to go with this conversation, but first up, this one I have to ask you because actually, in my sphere of people who live close and around me, I don't have very many people who have a home dairy cow and milk and use that milk to actually make cheese and a lot of products with. So Clover was our dairy cow, which unfortunately we ended up losing her in January with the birth of her... Which is now my bottle baby. He was breaching upside down and there was some other complications, but when we were drying her off, because she was that far into her pregnancy that she needed to be dried off, it was in summer.
And so I had all of this wonderful butter fat because she was on all the things. And so I'm like, "Okay, I know we're going to be drying her off pretty soon because of where she is, so I'm going to make a bunch of butter with the cream that I'm getting off these last few weeks before we fully dry her off." And I could not get that to actually form butter. So have you ever had that experience and it's in at the end when you're getting ready to dry them up where you just couldn't get it to turn into butter? Have you ever had that happen?
Robyn: Yeah, that's a really common late lactation problem. And it's kind of actually also exuberated a little bit by it being summertime. So during late lactation, I don't know if you've noticed this, but you will have these really epic cream lines. They look so thick. But the thing with that is that they look so thick, but the actual fat content in them is not as much. So the fat globules actually changed during that late lactation. And what late lactation is referring to is not that they've been in milk a really long time, but that they're getting closer to the end of their pregnancy basically. So that's one reason why it looks like there's a lot of fat, but it's actually more milk solids in there than it is fat globules. And then the second thing is that during summer, the fat actually gets a lot softer when they're out eating grass and stuff like that.
So if, say, a normal practice is to let your cream warm up to room temperature and then churn it, if you're doing that during summer, sometimes people have this problem where it just kind of almost dissolves back. They'll get it to turn for a second, but then it kind of dissolves back into milk again, whips back up, and it's just because the fat globule is so soft and it just kind of melts back in. So if you are churning butter that you're having that problem with, it's actually better to churn straight from cold cream instead of from warm cream.
Robyn: It's kind of the only time.
Melissa: Okay. That is so good because I got really frustrated. I mean it was still usable, it just stayed in more of that... It's like half whipped cream, half trying to become butter, but not really either one. And so I just ended up mixing in some sugar and using it almost as a mock frosting type thing because I'm like, "I'm not throwing out all of this goodness, even though I can't get it to actually turn into what I want." So I was able to salvage it not in the way that I had anticipated I would be using it. So that is really interesting though, and makes a lot of sense when you were talking about the lactation part.
But also what I found fascinating with the dairy animal that I don't get to see with the beef cattle so much is how different their milk was affected by the seasons and what they were eating. It was very fascinating from a scientific standpoint because I felt like you could see the changes so much faster than obviously with beef. The harvest is obviously very different, but it's that much prolonged thing to see if you've made a change, how is this affecting the cow and then the end products and all of that.
Robyn: And I think we're in a super unique position as homesteaders where we only have one or two dairy animals that we actually get to see those changes and it makes it almost better for cheese making. You can choose to make cheese during the seasons that cheese is a good thing to make, whereas you're seeing those changes in later lactation where it's not as easy to form into butter. And a lot of times people are having troubles actually forming a curd in later lactation, whereas people that are making cheese with multiple animals' milk, we're kind of at it more of an advantage because we can adapt our cheese to work with our milk.
Melissa: Yeah. Why do you think that cheese making is such an important skill to have on the homestead? Because like I said I actually know some people who have milk cows, but a lot of them haven't gotten to doing cheese making or they just are drinking it fresh and maybe making a little bit of butter and stuff, but actually fully going into cheese making, I don't see that as much. And maybe it's just my circles or where I live or even the people that I follow online. I don't see as many people doing cheese making as some of the other skills of homesteading.
Robyn: It's funny because I didn't really realize until I started my business how many people have milk cows but don't make cheese. And I think there needs to be a little bit of a shift in mentality around it because when you look at cheese making from the outside, if you have never made cheese, and I remember this in my first cheese making, it looks so confusing and intimidating and it looks like you don't even know where to start. There's so much information. There's also a lot of fear around raw milk. I grew up drinking pasteurized milk, having margarine. I never even knew what raw milk was. So there's a lot of fear and a lot of overwhelm when you look at cheese making from the outside. And I think that there needs to be kind of a shift in mindset that it is a natural process.
Like milk is meant to be made into cheese. It's meant to come out of the udder, it's meant to go in that little calf's stomach and in that little calf's stomach, it's nice and warm. There's enzymes in there, it's acidic. And what actually happens is it turns into a curd mass. So when you can kind of shift your mind to think that this is what milk is meant to do, then you are able to better look at cheese making and see it can't be that hard. It's what it's meant to do. And we just have to push away all of the kind of science and everything that seems overwhelming to us and just go back to that and realize that there's a cheese for everybody. You just have to figure out what cheese fits for your homestead.
Melissa: That is a actually very beautiful answer. I never have thought about it at that level, that milk wants to become cheese and that that's actually what it's doing in the calf's stomach is the curd formation.
Robyn: And so all cheese recipes... I'm actually writing my speech for the Modern Homesteading Conference now and so I'm kind of going through all these things as I'm writing it or not while right now but this week I kind of have been thinking more about it. And all cheese recipes, they start with those kind of same four steps. So you're heating your milk up to get it to the temperature that it came out of the udder at, you are adding an lactic bacteria or an acid so you can create that acidic environment, you're adding in your renit, which is an enzyme, the enzyme that's actually in that little calf's stomach, and then you're having it form into a curd. So all cheese recipes start like that. So that just makes it kind of a little bit less overwhelming I think.
Melissa: I think that you're right. And I think the other thing that overwhelms people is just we've lost that general know-how with cheese making I feel faster than we have in modern society and most of the population bread making, but there's more people who bake bread than there is who make cheese. And you could argue that, well, it takes more volume of milk and milk is more expensive if you don't have a dairy animal. And that is a true statement. But I feel that there's less people who have even seen cheese making done at any level. They've never seen anybody make cheese at home before for a lot of folks. There's nothing for them to have in their memory of as a child maybe seeing grandma. They saw her bake bread or something along those lines. But for most folks, they've never actually seen cheese making.
So not only does it feel very foreign, I think a lot of people are like, "Well, I don't even know how I would fit that in my day," because it feels like it's a longer process of heating and waiting and then pressing and flipping and drying and aging. It feels like it requires so much time and commitment, I think, in comparison to doing something like a loaf of bread or sourdough, that type of thing. So what brings me to is what does a normal cheese making day look like for you? Is this something that you're doing every single day? Is it something you kind of more batch? Walk me through how that's incorporated.
Robyn: Yeah, so I love how you compared it to bread because it really is very similar to sourdough. You remember the first time you ever looked at a sourdough recipe and it seemed like crazy confusing and, "How am I ever going to manage this?" And then it got easier and easier. The more you made it, the more you were able to fit it into your lifestyle a little bit better. You're like, "I'm going to bake on Saturday, so I'm going to start feeding my sourdough on Thursday," kind of thing like that. And cheese is the same way. The biggest thing I tell people when they're learning how to make cheese, and this is something that I do in my daily life, to be able to fit cheese making into our life is choose one or two cheeses that your family loves and make those cheeses often.
And you're seeing farmstead creameries and stuff like that. They aren't making dozens and dozens of cheeses. They're making just one or two that fit into their lifestyle that their milk makes really good cheese with. So over the years, I've kind of developed these recipes for us. We eat a lot of Brie, we eat a lot of cheddar, a lot of Colby, and I know how to make those recipes really, really well. It's kind of like if you're making a weeknight dinner, you just know what the recipe is, you don't have to go and look at it and stuff like that. So that's kind of how I incorporate it into our life is making those standard cheeses. And as you make them more and more, you kind of figure out what you can do while you're at certain stages.
Like I'm making cheddar today, I know I'm going to put this culture in and then I have an hour. I can go out to the garden, I can do this, I can come back. So you kind of figure out that, how to fit into your life. Another big thing that I do is I don't make cheese year round, just kind of canning where you're only canning during a certain season. I'm only cheese making usually in the spring. This is actually usually my cheese making season, but my milk cow's really sick, so this is usually the time that I am making cheese and dedicating my time to that. And then when garden season comes around, then I'm dedicating more of my time to that.
Melissa: Okay. I love that that because you've made it very seasonal. And also comparing it to sourdough, yes, I remember the first time I was reading sourdough recipes and it was talking about stretch and fold and I'm like, "What on earth are they jabbering about? What is a stretch and fold?" I knew kneading because my mom had made not sourdough bread but kneading bread. And so even just some of those terms, I'm like, "Oh my goodness, I don't even know what that actually means to literally do." So I like that because I think a lot of folks have tackled sourdough and so a lot of people can relate to that and putting the cheese making towards that and that it's not something you're doing all of the time, that it's kind of sets season, which also makes sense when you're putting it into where the cow is, how they're lactating, and how that really affects the different types of cheese or different things that you can make with the milk and for it to turn out.
We were talking about better end of summer and end of lactation is not a wise idea because you're not going to get a very good desired result. So I am super excited that you're coming to the Modern Homesteading Conference. I know you mentioned that, but one of the things that has really drawn me to the way that you make cheese, and I've seen you make cheese and things that you've been talking about for the past couple of years, and that is natural process of cheese making. And so if anybody who's listening to this, the first time I heard natural cheese making, I'm like, "What does that mean?" But it's kind of using packets of yeast from the store versus natural leavening of completely a hundred percent sourdough. Or at least in my mind, that's kind of how I differentiate natural cheese making versus homemade cheese making where you're buying the culture and that type of thing. So can you walk through what the natural process of cheese making is and how it can help take some of the scary, confusing parts out of cheese making?
Robyn: So natural cheese making is something that I'm really interested in and I still have so much to learn about it. It's kind of like the day that I die, I will still have thousands and thousands of more things to learn about cheese making. It's just such a diverse subject. But one of my favorite authors, his name is David Asher and he wrote The Art of Natural Cheese Making. And so I had made cheese for quite a few years before I first read his book and I read his book and my mind was blown. I had never even understood that cheese could be like this. So for so long I had been making cheese in a really sterile environment. It added this level of hardness to being able to make cheese. I would go down to the barn and get my milk, but then by the time I got up, I'd have to sterilize all my equipment and then get ready for cheese making.
And it was like this whole big production. I couldn't have other things going on in the kitchen at the same time. So I read David Asher's book and he really talked about the importance of using good quality raw milk and then trusting your milk. If you are using good quality raw milk that actually wants to be made into cheese, is meant to be made into cheese, then you have so much lower of a risk of contamination and you're able to just make better cheese with that milk. And so I read his book and then I kind of went all into natural cheese making and I did it wrong actually at first. And so I made a bunch of cheeses. I ditched freeze-dried cultures and freeze-dried cultures, like you said, are kind of the packaged yeast from the store. Whereas I was using all natural cultures like basically a sourdough, but with milk.
So it's called a clabber where you feed it every day and you discard some and then you feed it again. So I was using that and I made all my cheeses for a couple months with that practice. And then I started eating the cheeses and they were disgusting. And I had been doing it wrong the whole time. I wasn't feeding my culture the right way and I kind of backed away from natural cheese making for a while. And then this last summer, I had the opportunity to go and actually learn live from David Asher and I figured out what I had been doing wrong, and so then I've been able to start back up on that. So I've got a lot of learning to do, but it's really something that I'm interested in. And I think that we're going to see more and more homesteaders moving back to more natural cultures in the coming years.
Melissa: Yeah, I'm with you. I think so too because one of the things obviously with homesteaders is like we really don't like to be super reliant on something that is not something that we can make or create or even get locally. And so for me, when it came to the cheese making, I was like, "Man, I'm always going to have to buy this starter culture." It felt kind of frustrating. And it also begged the question like so many things that us homesteaders look at is like, "Well, how did they do it before this?" Because we weren't always able to get these little packets of different starter cultures from all over. How were we making cheese prior to this? Were we not just having these kinds of cheese or what was it?
I have David's book as well, so yeah, awesome resource, but also the importance of sometimes just that in-person learning, there is something about that that I'm with you, I have found so precious and so I'm so excited that you are able to come and share that in-person with us at the conference. But I do want to talk about clabber because I had never heard of clabber. And for a lot of folks that don't have raw milk or weren't growing up where raw milk was a practice, there is that scary part of raw milk because I have had raw milk. We had friends when I was little that had raw milk that we would get raw milk from them and my dad would drink it, but my mom would also buy pasteurized milk from the store.
And with the raw milk, it has to be kept a certain temperature. Even when we went and got it, it would be in a nice chest and not like when we'd buy milk from the store and come home from the grocery store, just sit in a bag. There was no putting it in a ice chest. And so keeping that raw milk obviously really clean and then at a really cold temperature, but with a clabber, it's sitting out at room temperature for quite a long time. So for those who maybe aren't even familiar, "I don't know what clabber is," can you kind of walk through that process of actually making clabber, what that looks like?
Robyn: Yeah, so clabber, I feel like it's the magic that we've been missing from cheese making. So you'd hear grandma's leaving sour milk on the counter and then using it in things. So that's basically what clabber is except you are feeding it sourdough starter. And so when you first start it, all you have to do is you take good quality raw milk that has all those good bacterias, it's from a healthy animal, and you put it on the counter and you leave it there for a few days and eventually it will coagulate, and then you take a little spoon full of it and then you add it into more raw milk and discard the rest. You use it for all sorts of other things. And then the more and more you kind of do this rhythm of discard, feed, discard, feed, it actually starts to taste better.
It starts to kind of formulate into almost like a yogurt. The taste is really good. And the thing with using clabber for cheese making is when you inoculate your milk, so you put that clabber into your milk, what you're doing with it is it's becoming basically a big clabber culture. And so you want it to taste good. You want it to taste a certain way because that's what your cheese is going to become. So that's the big mistake that I made when I was first learning how to use clabber was I was just using any old clabber that maybe had over-fermented. It's kind of like when you make sourdough where you have your rise and your fall, but instead you have your set and then you have your almost overset where your whey separates from the curd.
So I was using any old clabber to make my cheese, and then I was making really bad tasting cheeses because my milk was becoming that starter culture. So yeah, it's just a really versatile product. I use it in replace of sour cream. I'll make smoothies for the kids with it. Yeah, there's something to having it on the counter and the people that I've heard that have started keeping it on the counter, they use it for almost everything. They replace all of their kind of fermented dairy products with it. So that's pretty cool.
Melissa: Interesting. So yeah, actually it reminds me a lot of buttermilk. When you're making cultured buttermilk, same thing because I use my cultured buttermilk in place of yogurt oftentimes. Okay, very, very interesting. So I have to ask with the clabber, and this is probably ingrained from the dangers of raw milk or the dangers of, whatnot, leaving it out at room temperature, how would you know if it had went too far or if it had went bad? There would be maybe color, mold growth, or you would know because it would smell so bad you wouldn't be able to consume it?
Robyn: Yeah, so I kind of like to think of it... Actually David Asher turned us on to thinking of it like this in his live class that I saw, and it really helps me be able to think of it. So if you think of clabber as it's on a bell curve, so at the bottom of the bell curve, all it is is raw milk that you have just fed some of your clabber culture. As it goes up the side of that bell curve, the lactic bacteria in that starter culture is starting to feed on the lactose that's turning in into lactic acid. And then when it reaches the top of that bell curve, there's a lot of those lactic bacteria, they have become really plentiful. That's where you're getting your set where it is just looking like yogurt. And so that's the perfect time to use it for cheese making.
If it goes onto the other side of that bell curve, it starts to separate, you might see some bubbles in there. And what's happening during that time is that the lactic bacteria in that clabber agriculture have fed on most of the lactose, it's become a really acidic environment, and it's no longer a really great environment for those good lactic bacterias that you want for your cheese. It's not a really a good environment for them to thrive anymore. So now other organisms that are also in that clabber have started to be able to thrive like yeast and maybe some unwanted bacterias. So if you can always get your clabber before it has any bubble formations or anything like that, and you can take some of it and you can feed it to new clabber, you can just keep that going indefinitely.
If you do have it over-ferment, because sometimes that happens, all you have to do is take some of it and put it back into raw milk and then get it to set again. And it might take a couple rounds before you're getting that good taste. And how I tell if it's safe is if it's having a good taste, there shouldn't be any other mold growth on it other than you might get a white skim of, it's called Geotrichum candidum, kind of on the top of it. And that's totally normal and it's actually a really good sign of a healthy clabber culture. But if you're getting green molds or anything like that, one, you haven't fed it as frequent enough. And two, you probably should just start a new one. But David Asher in his live class, he said that you can almost always rescue an over-fermented clabber culture. You just take some of it and it might take a few feedings, but you'll get it back to being that good tasty result.
Melissa: Okay. This is just fascinating. I don't even think I've ever tasted clabber. I know that sounds so silly, but I'm like, "Man, now I want to taste," because within other cultured dairy, like cultured buttermilk and then your different strains of cultured yogurt, there's actually a lot of different nuances of flavor depending on what culture. The Bulgarian culture of yogurt, to me, is creamier and sweeter than a Greek culture or some of the other cultures, even though they're all yogurt cultures. So now I'm like, "Oh, I want to taste the nuances in clabber and play with all of that."
Robyn: Yeah, it's so cool. And we're all going to have different clabber culture because we all come from different parts of the world where we have different bacterias and stuff going on in there. So that's the neat part because the thing with clabber culture is that it's a culture that's filled with all sorts of different bacterias and yeast, and you're kind of using your cheese making technique of heating it to certain temperatures that certain bacterias like to thrive at to be able to isolate the ones that you want. And that's what makes it a little bit trickier as well with cheese making to get a consistent result because unlike freeze-dried cultures where there's maybe one or two lactic bacteria strains in there, with clabber culture, you've got all sorts of different lactic bacterias and yeast and everything like that in this culture. So it does make it a little bit trickier, but it also makes it really interesting.
Melissa: Yes, I can see where you would say there's so much to learn with cheese making, especially natural process of cheese making even more so that you'll never be done with that learning process, which is also one of the things that I love about homesteading. I feel the same way. I'm like, "I'm never going to know it all." I'm always going to have a bucket list of things, but I'm still learning and refining and discovering.
Robyn: Exactly. Yeah. No, it's so cool. It makes it very interesting.
Melissa: Yeah, it really does. So I think probably a wrap up question is... There's so much more to go through, so I'm excited to have you be at the conference. As I said, I can't wait to sit in and listen to your sessions myself, but for the scarier part of cheesing, and especially with raw milk, I think the only thing that I may get more questions of from people that are cautious or even fearful would probably be botulism with canning, but other from that topic, then the next is raw milk. And I get a lot of people that are hearing the benefits of raw milk, but they're having a hard time getting over the fear part. And especially, unfortunately, I should say too, a lot of times they will talk to their, maybe it's a doctor or someone who actually has no knowledge of raw milk, to be honest, other than what they have seen of media clips or just things like that.
And so they'll talk to somebody who is is an intelligent person, they just don't have any knowledge on it, and they'll just reiterate what they've seen headline-wise, and then they're like, "Oh, but So-and-so said blah, blah, blah, blah." But you can tell from the response they actually haven't researched it. And not that I'm ever telling anybody not to go against what their doctor says, not for that. So I guess where I'm going with this is some of the fears that you might have had around raw milk and also with cheese making and how you've overcome them as you've went down your journey with cheese making.
Robyn: Yeah. So when I first started, same way, I was really nervous about using raw milk. When I first started, I didn't even know that that was something that people did, not pasteurizing milk. I thought that was something you just had to do. And then as I was dealing with so much milk, I was like, "Oh man, it would be really hard to pasteurize all this, and why should I pasteurize all the good bacteria out of it?" And so it definitely took some kind of practice. And I always used to test my cheeses first before I ever let my family eat them, kind of thing like that. But I think it was probably David Asher's book that really secured in my mind that if you have good quality raw milk from a healthy animal, it will be okay. If you treat it with respect, you clean your milk, you do all these safety practices, it will be okay.
And I don't sterilize everything in my kitchen anymore for cheese making. I will sometimes if I haven't made cheese for a while or something. There's nothing wrong with sterilizing, but I think just the idea that as homesteaders, we have the control over our animals. We can choose what we feed them and we can see that they are healthy animals that every day we go out there and they're happy, but then maybe one day they're kind of a little bit off and we can see that because we only have a couple animals that we're dealing with every single day. So we're in that really unique position where we can monitor the health of our animals like that.
And then when you look back at why raw milk became so controversial in the beginning, you see that it all had to do with the health of the animals and the way that that milk was being treated. Those animals, they were being fed byproducts from beer plants and they were not healthy animals, and people were getting sick from that milk. So raw milk does have the potential to be dangerous if it's not handled correctly, because milk is the perfect host for bacteria. That's what makes it make such good cheese. But if it's coming from a healthy animal, then that really has put my mind at ease.
Melissa: I'm with you, the health of the animal. And I think with homesteading and animal husbandry... And I have to say that I have seen some folks who approach homesteading and their animals trying to mimic the way that we've seen larger modern agriculture, their animal husbandry practices. So just because someone is a homesteader, sadly, you can't assume that their practices are what's ideal for the animal and ideal for raw milk. But I would say that most of those cases are very, very few and far between. And so we do have this beautiful... Even with meat, raw milk, meat, all of those things, there are things that you can do with an animal that is in a very healthy state and you're butchering it and it's not in a slaughterhouse environment, that you can then take that meat and preserve it in ways that you would never be able to do with animals that have went through a slaughterhouse or coming off of where they're being fed things like Skittles and just absolutely-
Robyn: Gummy bears.
Melissa: Goofy stuff. I mean silly stuff. But it is stuff that animals are being fed in some of these instances. And so anyhow... Yeah, this is a whole nother soapbox. We could have an entire another podcast episode about this, but I love exactly how you're going. We have to look, at that time and place when things were going bad, why were they going bad? Was it the milk's fault? Was it the way the animal...? Really looking at all of that and then looking at the animal you're getting your milk from, if it's your own or if you're getting it up... As I said, we lost our milk cow, so I don't have a dairy cow right now, but there is a raw milk dairy. She's very small.
Melissa: I go to her farm, I see her process, I'm in her milk room, and so I'm very confident in getting my raw milk from her. She's kind of walked me through all of her stuff, and I'm getting to support her until we get our own dairy animal back again. So I guess just do your due diligence on your raw milk source. And I feel like that will probably take away a lot of the fear too. Once you really understand it and have some knowledge, then that helps to alleviate that fear.
Robyn: Yes, exactly. Yeah, no, I think it's great. If people can go and see where they're getting their raw milk from, talk to the farmer, that just comes down to just closing the loop a little bit and being able to really rely on your community, which is also a amazing subject.
Melissa: Yes. Yeah. Well, we've went a little bit over, but there's so many more questions I have. Seriously, I am doing my best. I'm looking at the schedule for the conference and I'm trying to put my talks... I'm like, "Oh man, I want to go to all of them." So I'm so excited to be able to sit in and to take notes and can't wait for that. But thank you so much for coming on here today. So I do have to ask you, I know you said that you made several different cheeses, but do you have a favorite? Do have an absolute favorite that's your personal favorite?
Robyn: Brie, definitely Brie. Yeah.
Robyn: That's my favorite. It's actually almost a beginner cheese. I would classify it as a beginner cheese, and it's also one that you can make with a little bit less milk. So if you're buying milk right now and you don't have a ton of milk, you can make four fairly good-sized Bries with a gallon of milk. So that's a cool one to make. I think everyone should make Brie.
Melissa: Okay, tomorrow, I'm getting milk and so I'm going to have to text her and say, "I need an extra gallon because I'm going to try Brie."
Robyn: That will be awesome.
Melissa: Oh, thank you so much for coming on, Robyn. So obviously you're going to be at the Modern Homesteaders Conference, and I can't wait to meet you in person, but where is the best place for people to connect with you to follow along on cheese making and to learn from you?
Robyn: Probably Instagram. I'm on Instagram quite a bit, so that would be @Cheesefromscratch on Instagram. So that's where I'm a lot. And then I also have a monthly membership. It's called the Milkmaid Society. It's a really fun group, and yeah, that's where you can find me.
Melissa: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming on. I look forward to seeing you soon.
Robyn: Yeah, I can't wait.
Melissa: Well, I hope that you enjoyed that interview as much as I did and as excited to get started with clabber as I am. And if you have not gotten your tickets yet to the Modern Homesteading Conference where Robyn is going to be and a ton of other presenters... We're going to have in-person Joel Salatin, who's going to be doing a chicken butchering demo on one of the days. We're going to have kombucha making. I'm going to be teaching vegetable fermenting, we're going to have sheep shearing. And if you haven't seen, this is really exciting, we are going to be having a two-day shed build by Amish builder, Ivan Keim. So Ivan is actually going to be building, he is a hundred percent Amish with their amazing carpentry skills. He is going to be building onsite a shed. So you'll get to see that happen.
You'll get to learn, ask him questions. There's so many amazing things, you're not going to want to miss it. And if you are listening to this episode, when it goes live, then you can use coupon code Spring20 for 20% off general admission tickets. But do not wait because this coupon code expires on Monday, April 3rd, 2023. So go over to modernhomesteading.com and grab your tickets using coupon code Spring20. Thank you so much for joining me, and I can't wait to be back... I can't wait. I'm so excited, I'm tongue-tied. I can't wait to be back here with you next week. So blessings and Mason jars for now, my friend.
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