Experiment Kitchen: Making Raw Milk Yogurt and Kefir

I feel like my kitchen has become something between a test kitchen and a science lab.

Not that what I’m doing hasn’t been done by thousands, likely millions, of people over centuries; it’s just never been done by me, in  my kitchen, for consumption by my loved ones.

I’m culturing raw milk. Yes, I now have a weekly source for raw cow milk . . . unpasteurized means it hasn’t had the protein damaged by the high heat (researchers now believe that the damaged milk cells left in pasteurized milk are a top reason for allergies to it) plus all the immune boosting enzymes are left alive and intact to boost our immune systems. AND, there is quite a quantity of probiotics in the milk, which has been proven by the easy time I’ve had culturing it.

I have made yogurt and kefir in the past with pasteurized milk, but it was a bit of an exact science with heating the milk properly, adding just the right amount of starter culture, blending it in, trying(!) to keep it at the right temperature for 12 hours or so (I don’t have a yogurt maker). My results were less than satisfying: the flavor was there, but the texture was always too liquid, and if I left it any longer then I had cheese at the bottom and whey on top.

Well, with raw milk from a pasture fed cow (read: healthy cow with healthy stomach flora = healthy milk with lots of probiotics) yogurt making is as simple as setting the fresh milk on the counter. No joke.

And it worked: the first week I cultured 2 qts of raw milk by placing it, covered, on the counter for 48 hours. However, I wanted to know what would happen if I introduced some of the cultures I had previously used for culturing. So the second week I did 3.5 qts with 4 different cultures.

From left to right: European, Natural Culture, Kefir, Yogourmet

In the first culture (left), I added a heaping Tablespoon of plain European Style yogurt (from Trader Joes). I love this yogurt as a protein snack, and would love to be able to make it from raw milk.

In the second culture, I added nothing, allowing the natural probiotics to be the only culture.

Kefir grains

In the third culture, I added kefir grains I have on hand. These are squishy tapioca-like curds which are actually both yeast and bacteria that can be reused again and again to make kefir. At right is a picture of about half of the grains after I removed them from the finished kefir and rinsed them in filtered water.

In the fourth culture (which was a pint rather than a quart) I added the commercially available Yogourmet yogurt culture. This culture is a powder, sold in boxes with individual packets. I had to use half a packet, as a whole is meant for 1 quart.

Velvet texture of cultured top cream

Of course each culture retained the original natural probiotics which actively culture the milk along with the added culture. I did not heat the milk or warm it at all: it came directly from being refrigerated for 12 hours after coming from the cow. I also did not skim the milk, so the cream rose to the top and was cultured with the milk. You can see the velvety texture of the top cream in the photo at right.

And here are the results (drumroll, please!):

European: more distinct yogurt flavor than the others, texture resembles starter (creamier, and less slippery solid than others) but still some of the slippery curd texture; will try 2 Tbs. starter next week.

Natural Culture: solid slippery curd, with whey separating distinctly (see photo with yellow whey separated), has a slight fermentation “sparkle” on the tongue

Kefir: sourest in flavor, but with a true kefir texture—smooth and thick

Yogourmet: yeasty, fermented flavor with sparkle, yet not too sour with hints of fennel (Hints of fennel? I know . . . this is getting as ridiculous as wine reviews . . . but I tasted them all again, and sure enough, there were hints of fennel.)

My raw dairy shelf

All of these cultures were a success! Now I have plenty of cultured milk products for smoothies and soaking grains all week long. I decided to devote the top shelf of my refrigerator to my raw dairy; gallon of goat milk on the left with its pouring pitcher in front, gallon of cow milk on the right with its pouring pitcher in front, cultured cow milk in quart jars as they fit.

To recap, here is my procedure:

  1. Pour raw milk into freshly clean quart jars (straight from the dishwasher is best, don’t use a dish-towel to dry, as this could introduce a negative bacteria)
  2. Add new culture to milk, if desired. Try 2 Tbs. of a plain live active yogurt, 3-6 kefir grains, or commercial powder to instructions.
  3. Set open jars, covered completely with a clean dish-towel, on counter in an out-of-the-way area, protected from drafts is best. They don’t need to be in the kitchen, but should not be in an area where they could absorb fumes, such as a laundry room (detergent fumes) or garage (gasoline, etc.).
  4. Wait 48 hours. You can check the culture and stir it during this time: this may be beneficial for the kefir to move the grains around.
  5. Straining kefir grains from finished kefir

    When yogurt is finished, cap with the jar lids and return to refrigerator. For kefir, straining will be necessary to remove the grains. This can be done with a funnel fitted with a filter, or with a sieve held over an open funnel. Rinse the grains in filtered water and store in a small jar of filtered water in the refrigerator.

The Shopping Habit

We women have gotten a bad rap for shopping. But being a good shopper is a valuable skill. And let’s face it; if we never shopped, we’d all be naked and starving. (Unless you live on a farm, and even then it’s debatable.)

Shopping can be a healthy habit, if you know where and how to shop. This means finding Quality at a great Price for those of us on a budget (that’s most of us!).

Quality

I find that making a habit of doing my weekly grocery shopping at a store which has a wide selection of natural and organic products is the most important healthy habit to start. That way, when I am out of a staple, like ketchup, instead of wondering about the quality of ingredients in the standard brand, I can reach for the organic bottle. It’s there, I’m there, it’s what’s going home with me.

Different parts of the country have different grocery chains, and it’s great to see that some of them are bringing in more organic lines. Here on the West Coast, O organics is a store brand carried by Safeway, Naturally Preferred the Fred Meyer brand, and Wild Harvest the Albertson’s brand. There are also many national brands of food and household supplies that are now being carried in the supermarkets, from Seventh Generation cleaners and diapers to Muir Glenn tomato sauce to Organic Valley dairy products. If a standard supermarket is all you have in your area, take advantage of all the natural and organic products you can. (And check regularly for store coupons for these “new” organic brands. . . some of these special coupons often can be found near the pharmacy.)

However, dedicated health food stores will give you a more complete selection, and probably a better price. They are popping up all over the country, so chances are there is a Wholefoods Market or Sprouts near you. Although generally considered more of a specialty foods store than a health foods store, Traders Joes really should be considered both, as they have a commitment to no artificial colors or preservatives in any of their food, and they have a huge number of organic items available.

Price

Staying within your budget is not only healthy for your financial future, it is emotionally healthy, and it’s a must-do for a healthy marriage. But sticker shock over those organic prices can leave any newby to green shopping in despair. Not to worry (or despair), there are lots of ways to stretch the budget while buying natural products.

Buy Local: farmers markets, or farm stands will have produce at peak ripeness, and often for less coin than the less-vibrant veggies at the market. Locally raised pastured for high Omega-3 content beef/lamb/pork/chickens can be purchased direct from the farm and picked up at the butcher (you’ll want to find several friends to split a large animal with). Farm fresh eggs and milk if available are also excellent staples for which to find a local source. Check localharvest.org and realmilk.com for farms local to you, or do as I did, and knock on the door of someone with animals on their acreage. You might just find your own personal source for meat/dairy/eggs.

Buy Seasonal: many local fruits can be had for a bargain when they are at peak ripeness, and if you pick them yourself you can get an even better deal. I have purchased 100 lbs of apples in the past for canning into applesauce and freezing as pie filling. This summer, I plan to pick 150 lbs. of blueberries and strawberries to freeze for smoothies year round. (Yeah, wish me luck.) It will be a lot of work, but I’ll save a bundle over organic frozen berries or even conventional frozen berries at Costco. (And maybe I’ll have a tan to show for it too. . .)

Buy with a Co-op: There are several distributors nationwide of natural products which will allow you and a group of local people to organize yourselves into a monthly co-op with a drop point for their shipment. Savings are realized from near wholesale pricing, and bulk pricing. In the Northwest, Azure Standard is an excellent full-selection coop company, with the bonus of their own extensive organic farm which supplies many of their bulk grain and veggie items.

Buy in Bulk: See above for Co-op ordering. Also, some stores (such as Fred Meyer in my area) will allow you to order a case of a product for 10% discount. I have also heard that Whole Foods will do this at 15% discount, and sometimes near wholesale. And of course, comparing the price per ounce on the small and large bottle of the same product will often mean greater savings on the larger bottle.

Buy Online: nutritional supplements, body care, household products, and some specialty foods can be purchased through online stores. Iherb.com is an excellent company with slashed prices (30-50% off) on lots of brands, great service and low or free shipping. Using code RON268 gives you $5 off your first order. I order every other month to have a $40 minimum order for free shipping. Lucky vitamin also has good prices, although the minimum for free shipping is $100. They carry some brands that iherb.com doesn’t so I do order from them a few times a year. Online buying can also be a money saver for one-time purchases, like cloth diapers.

Buy on Sale, with a Coupon: In the last year I began to follow a couple of coupon-ing blogs. It really is amazing some of the deals that can be found, even on organic and natural products. Read this post about coupon-ing for natural products. The idea with couponing is to save your coupon until the item is on sale to score a really great price. If you are going to do this, find a local blog that lists all the weekly store deals. When there’s a great sale, stock up!

Buy from Discount Stores: Look for natural body care products at Marshalls and TJMaxx. The Grocery Outlet also often carries natural body products, and organic foods for great deals. Lastly, another plug for Trader Joes: they don’t run sales because the have their rock-bottom prices available all the time. I shop there weekly for excellent prices on organic dairy, breads, pantry items, and frozen veggies. Of course, at all stores you must know how to read your labels to know what you are buying, and some of the “clearance” type discount stores (like TJMaxx) may have an old formula of a natural product which carried parabens, and now the manufacturer has reformulated it. Read my post on How to Read an Ingredient Label.

Meal Plan, Make a List: this allows you to stay focused on what you need at the store, and to avoid filling your cart with “filler” items that aren’t parts of meals you’re actually going to make. A rule of thumb on dinner planning is to plan for 5 dinners a week, so you can have one night for leftovers and one night to be out. And then have at least 2 easy meals in your pantry/freezer (like spaghetti) which can fill in if you don’t end up with leftovers or go out.

Plan to not buy cereal. . . even the “healthy” cereals are way too shelf-stable to be “real” food. And they’re pricey. Read Breakfast: Off to a Great Start for some breakfast ideas.

Plan for healthy snacks, too, but don’t let these dominate your budget; focus on the meals. Avoid buying bottled drinks unless it’s a special occasion; they are calories you don’t need, and can wrack up your bill. (Not to mention the environmental impact.) Quality teas and coffee, filtered tap water with lemon or lime, and organic raw milk are real nourishment to your body, and are easier on the budget.

Action Plan:

1. Look up your local Farmers Market or farm stand and begin going weekly for your veggies and fruits.

2. Locate a local natural food store at which to do your other marketing. It doesn’t need to be the same day of the week as the Farmers Market.

3. If possible, locate a local source for raw milk and pastured eggs (eggs can often be found at Farmer’s Markets, but they sell out early!). Again, pick-up days will likely differ from your marketing day.

4. Begin to set aside $50-$100 of  your monthly budget to purchase a side of beef, lamb, or pork. Find a ranch which offers quality grass-fed (not grain finished) meat; you will also need the freezer space to store your meat when you purchase it.

5. Begin to order (bi-monthly works well) from an online retailer such as iherb for savings on personal care products and supplements. Read Iherb.com: Awesome Prices + $5 Off.

6. Find a natural coop which delivers to your area for bulk item orders.