Butter: Wild and Raw
Thank you for signing up for my Farm Bites articles! If you received this article without signing up, it's because I was thinking of you and hoping you'd join.
I've learned a lot over the past few years about things I had imagined doing but never believed possible. In these articles, I'd like to share some of that experience. While filling my barn with goats and cows, sorting through fact and fantasy about modern farming, and trying to manage 26 acres of possibilities and problems, my mind has been blown, my heart broken, and my wildest ideas fulfilled. There is more than one story I'd like to tell about all of this.
Just this week I learned how to make real, cultured butter. Not regular industrial butter made from pasteurized commercial cream, not the kind that needs lots of salt added to make it taste good. Instead, I made old-time, naturally-cultured butter from raw cream skimmed from milk I collected myself—butter as it's meant to be: wild and raw! As byproducts, I also got sour cream and real buttermilk, deliciously different from any store-bought I've ever tasted before. (I’ll tell more about this in future articles.)
On the surface, this might not seem like such a big deal. But it's an effort that started two years ago, almost to the day: our mini-Jersey cow Hollywood's second birthday was July 15.
In November 2017, we brought Hollywood home. She was about 4 months old at the time. For my part, I knew nothing about raising a cow. But I thought, "She's so cute!" (Today I recognize these thoughts as the warning signs they are—there's an adventure ahead!)
We raised Hollywood for a year, and then it was time to make her pregnant. These days there's no bull involved; it's all done with artificial insemination. The A. I. guy came and did the deed with a long plastic tube—not very romantic. (Goat unions are rather more sexy... but more about those later.) For nine months as we watched Hollywood get bigger and bigger, we discussed names (Bollywood for a girl; Darnit for a boy). Hopeful, excited, we waited. Then came the day. After hours of sweaty, backbreaking work by my wonderful vet, Bernadette, and worry by all of us, our little cow gave birth—to a stillborn bull calf. Small consolation that we’d lost a boy rather a girl. The whole day was as exhausting as it was heartbreaking, and it took me a long time to get over it.
Yet while it wasn't the best day of my life, the situation could have been so much worse. Sometimes, stuck calves need to be cut apart with wire to be removed. As I face such prospects, my awe for real farmers deepens.
Thankfully, cows are more resilient than people. Hollywood was quickly back on her feet, cheerfully eating hay and producing milk that we now had to collect daily and use. No calf by her side meant no grace period for us—we had a bagged-up heifer, and we had to get milking. It was time to scramble! Up on the stanchion, OK, some tasty grain took care of that. A clean bucket and gloves. All set! Being a mini-Jersey, she's low to the ground, not the easiest space in which to squeeze. But we managed, and her yellow, creamy milk began to flow.
Hollywood has the prettiest little udder imaginable: clean, healthy and covered with peach-colored down. Lucky for me! This kind of lovely, healthy udder is the origin of clean raw milk. In this regard, here is a mind-blowing fact about raw milk: The native microbes that have made cultured milk products possible since before 4,000 BC come not from the milk itself but from the surrounding environment—udders, feed, grass, and bedding.
Milk flowing from a healthy udder is nearly sterile: clean and safe to drink. Both the good microbes that make the dairy products that nourish, and the nasty microbes that would make us sick—all these are introduced after milk leaves the teat. This is a big deal when you understand how to apply it. Raw milk isn't so dangerous, but the system that collects, delivers, and uses it certainly can be!
Here’s how today’s industrial dairies gather and process milk: First, it is vacuum-pumped out of chemically sanitized udders using plastic "claws" that allow no exposure to air. The milk is then pasteurized to kill contaminants—all microbes, good and bad—introduced by air, human hands, milk lines, holding tanks, and the tankers that deliver milk from dairies to creameries. Finally, the microbes needed to make the dairy products we love (sour cream, cheese, butter, yogurt, and so on) must be reintroduced. For the dairy industry, these microbes are isolated, or genetically engineered in labs, propagated, packaged, and distributed commercially. Today’s dairy industry is so vast and dirty, this is the only way it works. It’s also the way most everyone thinks it has to be.
I saw no reason to replicate the chemical-dependent dairying system in my backyard. How could I escape the conventional thinking and methods that sustain modern dairy practices? It clearly worked differently—more naturally—in the olden days, at least for those who figured out how to do it safely, right? People have been making fermented milk products for more than 6,000 years without modern industrial know-how. It’s only in the recent history of scaling and mass industrialization that raw dairy has come to be seen as a dangerous food. While I could find little information about how to pursue a different kind of dairying, I was convinced it could work without harsh chemicals, boiling milk, and commercially controlled microbes. I figured, if no one was going to tell me how, then I'd just had to learn myself.
Turns out, it does work. And of course it just makes total sense. Indeed, some of today's most delicious cheeses are made from raw milk and cultures native to farms, but rarely on US soil. These dairying traditions are little understood and less approved of by most of our American cheesemaking experts. Fortunately, I was initiated into the secrets by a couple of heretic cheesemakers who pointed the way. (For more on Peter Dixon and Rachel Schaal at Parish Hill Creamery, check out the Cornerstone Original Project!)
My approach all starts with Hollywood's pristine udders. She doesn't live in a feed lot eating silage, and she's not confined to an overcrowded barn. Instead, she sleeps on fresh clean straw, eats clean dry hay, and wanders through tall, fresh green grass when she grazes. All this means that Hollywood’s udder is virtually crud-free and exposed to a world of healthy microbes: the ones that safely curdle and ferment milk. There is no place on our farm for the nasty bacteria to hide and grow; in every aspect of our work we ensure that the good bacteria outnumber the bad. Our commitment: We husband not just livestock but also good microbes!
Here’s how it works in my backyard. In the open air, I collect milk from clean, but not disinfected, udders: I want those good microbes that inhabit Hollywood's udder to inhabit the milk we collect from her. This raw milk goes into clean jars and is warmed to different temperatures that favor the different microbes I need for different products. When the good microbes are established in a yogurt-like culture, I use this culture to inoculate my milk for my cheeses, butter, yogurt, and so on. Finally, I propagate these microbe cultures weekly to maintain a constant supply. Voila: a raw-milk, wild-culture-based system that makes the very best dairy products possible.
What do I mean by the very best dairy products? They are the safe ones that reveal qualities and flavors unique to my animals and land. In short: wild and raw!
For fun reading on raw milk and cheese:
- Mark Kurlansky, Milk! A 10,000-year Fracas
Bronwen Percival, Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes, and the Fight for Real Cheese
It's true, everything is really better with butter!
Here is a quick view of a Transformation: raw Jersey cream turning into butter. After ladling off and culturing the cream with wild microbes, first you get sour cream. Then proceeding as shown in the pictures below. You get butter at it's best...wild and raw! The liquid thats left is real buttermilk, and it's not too shabby either.