Life Lessons from the Barnyard: Go(a)t Milk?
As fairly new dairy goat owners, many years ago, we learned one thing quickly: Once babies are weaned off their mother’s milk, you accumulate a lot, rather quickly.
Even with only one milker in the barnyard, producing three to four quarts a day, that’s somewhere between five and seven gallons of fresh milk coming in each week. And although goat milk is deliciously creamy and sweet (especially that of Nubians), it’s a little too rich and high in butterfat for my family to drink straight, since we’re used to drinking nonfat cow’s milk. (Did you know that goat’s milk is naturally homogenized, which means it’s impossible to separate the cream from the milk without a mechanical cream separator?) So, not long after our first goat kids weaned, I decided it was time I learned to make goat cheese.
I thought this would be a very complicated and time-consuming procedure that would require all my focus and attention to master. And given that my summers were busy with all the camps I ran, animals and human kids to care for, and goat shows to attend, I thought I would learn the art of cheesemaking while on vacation in northern Michigan. Each July, we travel to Mullett Lake, where we relax at a 100-plus-year-old rustic cottage that has been in my family for five generations. Life is simple there as we have no phone, no television, and few responsibilities. I thought this would be a great break from my normal hectic pace that would allow me time to really focus on becoming an artisan cheesemaker.
And it just so happened that the first year we had goats was also the first year we drove to Michigan instead of flying, which meant I could bring milk with me!
So, a couple weeks before we left for our trip, I ordered some basic ingredients and equipment from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company. We prepared to make the three-day journey across the country and I packed a cooler with three half-gallon containers of frozen goat milk. Each night along the route, I carefully drained melted ice from the cooler and repacked it with fresh ice from our hotel’s ice maker. Once we arrived at our cottage, I put the frozen milk in the refrigerator and waited for it to completely thaw while I took time to unwind and relax.
Finally, the big day arrived! I had my trusty Home Cheesemaking book at the ready, along with my cheese thermometer, butter muslin (very fine cheesecloth), and a packet of chèvre culture. I gingerly heated the liquid gold in a pot on the stove. The directions said to heat it to 86 degrees, add the culture (which was about 1/8 of a tsp. of very fine white powder), stir, cover, and let sit for 12 hours at room temperature. As I sprinkled the powder into the milk, I couldn’t imagine that this tiny amount would have any effect on the large pot of milk, and I was surprised at how little action was involved in these few steps, but I figured the hard part must come later.
When I checked the pot after 12 hours, I was amazed to find a large, solid round “curd” surrounded by a liquid pool of slightly yellowish green “whey”— amazing! The next step called for scooping the curd into a cheesecloth-lined strainer, and then tying the ends of the cloth together and hanging it over a sink to drain for another 6-12 hours. Easy enough. And then more waiting. After the required length of time had passed, I untied the cheesecloth to reveal a lovely, creamy white mass of something more similar to cream cheese than the dry, solid chèvre I had envisioned. But upon tasting it on a cracker, we all agreed it was a success!
Now, several years and many, many pounds of chèvre, fromage blanc, ricotta, and mozzarella later, I can’t help but laugh at how mysterious and difficult I thought simple cheesemaking would be. Turns out it really is quite simple and the hardest thing, for me at least, was clearing my mind and slowing down long enough to just give it a try. For anyone out there who thinks they don’t have time to make cheese, or to try something else that seems daunting at first, remember you’ll never know it til you try it!