Using Kefir and Clabbered Milk Cultures in Cheesemaking

Clabbered milk vs. kefir and an ages-old cheese technique.

Using Kefir and Clabbered Milk Cultures in Cheesemaking

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Kefir and clabbered milk recipes aren’t common, but they are the way people made cheese for thousands of years.

If you have dairy goats, you likely will want to make cheese at some point. Most hobby-level and professional cheesemakers in the U.S., and even around the world, make cheese using a method often referred to as “clean slate” cheesemaking. This refers to the fact that most of the time the milk is pasteurized, which kills unwanted bacteria as well as much of the beneficial bacteria in the milk, making it a “clean slate.” Standardized, lab-produced, freeze-dried cultures are then added back into the milk to create just the flavors and textures for the cheese desired. 

There is nothing wrong with this method of cheesemaking per se and many cheesemakers find it convenient and relatively easy to achieve consistent results this way, especially for those who don’t have access to good fresh milk. But that’s not how cheese was made hundreds and even thousands of years ago! And many folks, especially those with a good supply of fresh, clean milk (like dairy goat owners) are going back to some of the more traditional natural methods of making cheese. By using raw milk, and/or kefir grains, you can bypass these conventional cultures and perhaps develop cheeses that are more flavorful and nutritious than those made with the more modern, clean slate approach.

David Asher, the author of The Art of Natural Cheesemaking, is arguably the world authority on this subject and I’ve been lucky enough to take some classes from him and experiment a bit with his approach. Much of what I address here comes from his expertise and I am just going to cover the tip of the iceberg. If you really want to make cheese this way, I highly recommend his book and his courses. 

The two alternatives to conventional freeze-dried cultures that are used in natural cheesemaking are kefir grains, fermented in milk, or raw milk which is allowed to clabber or spontaneously ferment. I’m often asked, “How long does raw milk last at room temperature?” and as you will see, it quickly becomes “clabber” (within 24-48 hours) which is not so great for drinking or pouring on cereal, but is wonderful for making cheese.

Let’s take a look at clabbered milk vs kefir:

Clabbered Milk Culture

What is clabbered milk? Clabber is a culture made from naturally fermented raw milk. It contains a broad range of heterofermentative, lacto-fermenting bacteria helpful for fermenting milk, as well as yeast and fungi helpful for aging cheese. Fresh raw milk, left at room temperature (68-86 degrees F) will spontaneously ferment and curdle into clabber which can be used in place of freeze-dried cultures. Here are some tips for using clabber in your cheesemaking:

clabbered-milk
Clabbered milk.
  1. Start with a small jar of fresh raw milk and leave it for 24-48 hours at room temperature until it begins to curdle.
  2. Take a spoonful of that initial thickened milk and place it in a new jar. Poor fresh raw or pasteurized milk into the jar, mix it up, put the lid on, and ferment it again until it begins to thicken — about 12-24 hours.   
  3. Repeat this step one or two more times and then it is ready to use. Keep repeating this daily to continue keeping your clabber fed, or put the resulting clabber in the refrigerator for up to one week. You can also freeze it.
  4. When making clabber cheese, you will use one part clabber to 50-100 parts milk (roughly ¼ cup per gallon of milk) in place of freeze-dried culture.

Kefir Culture

Kefir is a fermented yogurt-like milk beverage made from kefir “grains.” These grains are ancient colonies made up of proteins, lipids, sugars, bacteria, fungal cultures, and yeasts. When added to milk, these grains multiply over time. The resulting fermented liquid can be used in place of freeze-dried cultures. Kefir culture is much more complex than standardized cultures because it contains many different bacteria, fungi, and yeasts, whereas freeze-dried culture might just contain a few. Kefir grains can be purchased at many online sites including Cultures for Health, or you might find a friend who is willing to share some with you as they do multiply quickly when being fed regularly. Here are some tips for how to work with kefir in your cheesemaking:

clabbered-milk
Kefir grains and products made from kefir culture.
  1.  The dried grains should be fermented at least three times before the first kefir culture is ready to use to be sure they are healthy and active. To do this, you place 1 tsp of the dried grains into one cup of raw or pasteurized milk (any species, any fat content). Allow them to sit at room temperature (ideally 60-75 degrees F; warmer will just ferment faster) for 24 hours. Then strain the grains out and add them to a new cup of milk (you can drink the kefir liquid or add it to your smoothies for a healthy, probiotic drink). Wait another 24 hours and do the same thing one more time. The final fermented kefir liquid is ready to use as culture. Use it within 24 hours, or repeat this process to keep feeding the grains. If you don’t want to feed it daily, you can put it in the refrigerator to hold it for a week or so. You can also freeze it.
  2. When making cheese, use ¼ cup of the fermented kefir per gallon of milk in place of freeze-dried culture.
  3. Allow it to ripen for one hour before adding the rennet.
  4. For aged cheeses: Save one quart of the whey after you make your cheese, add one tablespoon of salt, and use this as a wash for your cheeses every other day for the first week or so to combat unwanted blue mold from developing.

A simple recipe using clabbered milk or kefir culture:

Cultured Crème Fraiche

clabbered-milk
Crème fraîche is a popular clabbered cream spooned over many dishes.

This is a simple cultured cream that can be used in recipes, as sour cream, as the foundation for cultured butter, or as the filling for burrata cheese.  You can also enjoy it over fresh berries.

  1.  Add one tablespoon of clabber or kefir culture to one quart of cream
  2. Allow it to ferment at room temperature until thick (12-24 hours).
  3. It’s ready to enjoy! Refrigerate any leftovers for a week or two.
clabbered-milk
Close-up.

Reference: Asher, David. (2015). The Art of Natural Cheesemaking. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Originally published in the September/October 2021 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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