Eating Your Curds and Whey

By using natural, raw milk from her cows, Mary Lou Shaw explains how she makes dairy products including butter, yogurt, and a variety of cheeses.

Dairy products

Raw, unprocessed milk—whether from dairy cows on a farm or a milk goat on a small homestead—is the key to making a plethora of nutritious food staples for your home.

Photo by Fotolia/julijadmi

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Mary Lou Shaw is a former physician, current homesteader, who has seen the consequences of unhealthy eating firsthand. These experiences have shown her the difference that good eating habits can make. And the easiest way to eat healthy? Grow your own ingredients. While processed foods put people at risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, farming, gardening, and eating food that only travels yards to the table promotes a return to a healthy lifestyle where you are directly involved in the creation of your meals and assured of their quality. In Growing Local Food (Carlisle Press, 2012), Dr. Shaw discusses her personal change to homegrown ingredients, how she’s found success on the farm and in the garden — from planting seeds to food preservation — and tips for how you can do the same. In her book are dozens of original recipes to browse, too, a great place to start searching for uses for your fresh ingredients. Healthy eating has to begin somewhere. Whether on an acre of land or in a garden box, it could begin with you.

Fresh Milk is a Nutritious Food

It’s fun to have our own milk, but you don’t have to have cows to do this. Even two acres are enough for a couple milk goats that can provide you with milk and wonderful cheese. The only problem is that animals don’t have an “on-off” switch. When they have their babies and the milk arrives, the amount can seem overwhelming. Perhaps the ideal situation would be to have dairy animals for each neighborhood so both the milk and the chores could be shared. Here is how we manage the milk on our homestead.

When our two Dutch belted cows have their calves, they each give about five gallons of milk a day. Our home abounds in milk and cheese and other dairy products at this time, but we also have the work of the other farm animals, a large garden and other family chores. We’re gradually leaning how to weave the milk-processing chores into our busy schedule.

First of all, we try to stagger the cows’ births by two months so the peak quantities of milk don’t coincide. The calves continue to nurse until nine months of age and by four or five months can consume all their mothers’ milk. This still gives us at least six of the busiest months of the year to deal with surplus milk.

Step one is to drink all we can. Raw milk is more of a food than a beverage, and I love its complex and delicious flavor. Its natural bacteria are helpful “pro-biotics” for the gut. People with lactose intolerance can drink it because it contains the necessary enzymes. European studies show that children who drink it have less asthma. We drink it because it’s available and tastes great!

The cows give far more milk than what we can drink however, and when the first cow has her calf in April, the race begins. Yogurt is a daily staples at our house and is easy to make. I save about 1/2 cup of yogurt from the previous batch and mix it with a quart of milk right from the cow. This is kept about 100 degrees F. until the next morning when I wake up to fresh yogurt for breakfast. Yogurt-makers can be either electric or insulated containers.

Making homemade cheese is as simple as separating curds from whey. The curds contain the solid protein and the whey has most of the lactose. Your “coagulating agent” will usually be vinegar or citric acid with soft cheeses like mozzarella or ricotta. Rennet is used in hard cheeses like cheddar. My big time-saver is to use the milk right after milking, when it’s about 90 degrees F. This is the perfect temperature for separating curds and whey in soft cheeses and for adding a bacterial starter in hard cheeses. It’s even the perfect temperature for yeast in bread-making. I can’t always begin cheese making right after milking, so I wrap a couple bath towels around the ten-liter milk container to maintain the milk’s temperature until other chores are done.

My favorite homemade cheese recipe is mozzarella cheese because it’s so fast. It takes one gallon of milk, citric acid and rennet, and only 1/2 hour with a microwave. The other soft cheese I make is ricotta. It can be made from one gallon of whey or whole milk plus citric acid. If hung in cheesecloth for a short time, it’s moist and can be used as a dip for chips or vegetables. Hanging longer makes a dryer, firm cheese that is great for stir-fry or lasagna. Soft cheeses are bland, so flavor it with salt, garlic and herbs to fit your menu. These recipes and many of my supplies, instructions and equipment come from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company.

Harder cheeses do take longer to make and require more equipment like a thermometer and cheese press. I make a lot of cheddar cheese because it takes two gallons of milk to make when I want to use as much milk as possible. The first step in making cheddar is adding a bacterial starter. After 45 minutes, rennet is added to coagulate the milk. After this the curds are put in a cheese press and then aged. This cheese is our milk product during the winter months when we don’t milk.

Clabbered cheese is the easiest cheese to make because it makes itself. The milk directly from the cow is simply left to sit until its natural bacteria multiply enough to slightly acidify the milk. The milk then naturally separates into curds and whey in about two to three days, depending on its surrounding temperature. I hang the curds in cheese-cloth until they’re the consistency that I want. My mouth waters now to think of the wonderful flavor of this simple cheese.

Butter is made by saving the twice-a-day milk in the basement and “creaming it off” in the morning. I use a small cup to skim off the cream and put it in the “Daisy butter churn.” Sitting in the 65 degree basement overnight allows the cream to slightly sour, and this gives the butter a delightful, full flavor. A by-product of making butter is butter milk—and there’s no better combination than homemade butter and buttermilk biscuits!

It’s no wonder that milk is called the perfect food and that people all over the world depend on it. Having a source of real milk is a big step towards food-independence.

More from Growing Local Food:

Sweet Potato Soup Recipe
Shepherd's Pie Recipe
Gardening Tips for Small Spaces


Reprinted with permission from Growing Local Food by Mary Lou Shaw, published by Carlisle Press, 2012.