Adventures in dairy

March 21, 2009 at 2:17 pm 6 comments

Adventures in dairy

Dairy trio

“When denatured in acid conditions, with relatively little casein around, as in cheese whey, lactoglobulin molecules … bind to each other and coagulate into little clots, which can be made into whey cheeses like true ricotta.” – Harold McGee, “On Food and Cooking”

I’ve been having a week of dairy experiments. It all started with a pint of heavy cream bought as a treat for guests who take their coffee light (I take mine black). They didn’t use much of it, so I decided to use the rest to make créme fraîche, that thick, tangy, cultured cream that’s far superior to sour cream in almost any use.

It’s as easy as can be: Heat a pint or so of cream until steam rises from the surface and bubbles form around the edge, stir in a few tablespoons of cultured buttermilk, pour it into a glass jar and let it sit on the counter, loosely covered, until it’s thick (roughly overnight). Refrigerated, créme fraîche keeps for a week to 10 days, and can be substituted for sour cream in virtually any use; it also makes a superior base for cream sauces, because the culturing prevents it from separating and curdling when heated. And it’s lovely on a biscuit, with just a dab of jam.

However, that meant buying buttermilk, which around here comes in nothing smaller than a quart container. I don’t drink buttermilk. I do bake with it (buttermilk biscuits are wonderful!), but I wasn’t in a baking mood.

So I decided to experiment, and that led me to ponder the wonders of milk and milk products, and how the same basic ingredients, treated differently, can produce remarkably different results.

I could write a treatise on the subject, but I’d rather point readers to Harold McGee and his fascinating book, “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.” First published in 1984 and revised in 2004, McGee’s is not a recipe book, but it’s the text for the cook who wants to know why and how food behaves the way it does, from “why do beans cause intestinal distress” to “why can’t I make a decent meringue on a stormy day?” And the very first chapter is all about milk.

In short, McGee tells us that how milk behaves in cooking is based on its complex chemistry of microscopic fat globules and protein bundles, along with dissolved salts and sugars, vitamins, minerals such as bone-building calcium, and other compounds suspended in the water that makes up most of the fluid. The most important components to cooking are fat, protein and milk sugar, or lactose. (I’m among the majority of adults who no longer produce the enzyme necessary to digest lactose, and am grateful for the over-the-counter tablets that allow me to enjoy dairy products without unfortunate consequences).

A serendipitous aspect of milk is its relationship with a friendly little bacteria known as Lactobacillus. The bacteria renders milk slightly acidic, which helps keep it from spoiling – but it can also be introduced to fresh milk to increase the acid level and create cultured milk products such as yogurt and fresh cheeses.

I’d like to say a word here for whole milk, and against the reduced-fat varieties that threaten to crowd it out of the supermarket dairy cases. Drink 2 percent or skim milk if you must, but understand that cooking with it will produce inferior results. The *behavior* of milk in cooking depends to a large degree on its fat component, and how the tiny globules of fat suspended in the liquid interact with other ingredients. Among other things, McGee points out, “Interactions between fat globules and milk proteins are … responsible for the remarkable tolerance of milk and cream to heat.” A sauce made with cream can be simmered and reduced to velvet smoothness; make the same sauce using low-fat milk and it’s likely to curdle and develop a grainy texture.

Enough chemistry. On with the buttermilk cooking. My little Donvier ice cream freezer has been sitting empty in the freezer for far too long, and the notion of buttermilk ice cream seemed appealing. I had a bunch of lemons in the fridge. So I tweaked my standard ice cream base recipe to come up with:

Buttermilk-Lemon Ice Cream


  • Juice and zest of one large, well-scrubbed lemon
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 4 large egg yolks


In a small, non-reactive saucepan, combine lemon juice, half the sugar, and the finely grated lemon zest. Heat over medium-low heat and stir until sugar dissolves. Take off heat and allow to cool.

In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the buttermilk, cream and remaining sugar. Heat until steam rises from the surface and tiny bubbles appear at the edge of the pan, stirring occasionally to keep the bottom of the pan from scorching. Remove from heat.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk the eggs until well-blended. Keep whisking and slowly drizzle in about a cup of the hot milk mixture to warm the eggs. Pour yolk mixture back into the saucepan of milk, return it to the burner on medium-low heat, and stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture has thickened slightly.

Strain into a bowl and place in a bowl of ice water to cool. Once cooled, whisk in the lemon syrup and stir well. Transfer to ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer’s instructions.

Makes about a quart of tangy, lemony ice cream that reminds me of lemon cheesecake. I can’t wait for strawberry season so I can try this again topped with fresh local berries!

I still had just over two cups of buttermilk remaining. What to do, what to do? A friend recently described a method for making home-made ricotta cheese, using lemon juice to acidify the milk and transform it into curds and whey. Hm. Buttermilk is acidic, too. Google revealed several recipes for buttermilk ricotta. Oh, hell, yes.

This is so easy you’ll wonder why you never tried it before:

Buttermilk ricotta


  • Four parts whole milk, or part-skim milk plus cream. Do not used ultra-pasteurized milk products for this recipe; the prolonged heating of the pasteurization process will prevent it from making curds. Reduced-fat milk will curdle, but it won’t produce enough cheese to bother with.
  • One part cultured buttermilk
  • Pinch of salt


Have ready a large bowl and a strainer lined with dampened cheesecloth. (Have you tried to find cheesecloth in a supermarket lately? I couldn’t – so I used a Handiwipe ™ having run it through the washing machine to get rid of the fragrance the manufacturer insists on adding to the things. Worked like a charm.)

In a large, heavy bottomed saucepan, combine all ingredients and cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly until the milk begins to steam and curds start to form. Stop stirring, but continue heating until the mixture reaches 175F and has formed fine curds. Remove from heat and pour carefully into the cloth-lined strainer. Allow to drain until most of the whey is drained off, then gather up the curds in the cloth and hang it from the faucet, or from a spoon laid over a bowl, to continue draining until it’s as dry as you want it. Pack into a clean refrigerator container. Keeps as long as commercial ricotta, but tastes sooooo much better.

The amount this makes depends on a lot of variables – the fat content of the whole milk, the acidity of the buttermilk, and other factors that are hard to judge in advance. I used a pint of buttermilk to two quarts of whole milk, and got almost two cups of cheese – enough for the artichoke-and-pea lasagne I plan to make tomorrow night.

What about all that whey? I confess that I tossed it, but there’s still a good deal of food value there, and I’ve used it before to enrich home-made soups, or to substitute for water in bread recipes.

These recipes would be even better with fresh, whole, local milk. Midway Farms, on Highway 20 between Albany and Corvallis, sometimes carries local milk. I’ve also heard that several local farms offer fresh goat’s milk, which also makes a nice ricotta, but I haven’t investigated.

Four weeks till the Albany Farmers’ Market opens!


Entry filed under: cheese, Cooking from scratch, dairy, dessert, ice cream, recipe.

PSA: Small Farms Conference Market season begins!

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Amy  |  March 25, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    Both recipes sound delicious! I happen to have some buttermilk sitting in my fridge and some lemons on my counter.

    Thanks for sharing

  • 2. Serene -  |  October 2, 2010 at 1:28 am

    Just made the ricotta, and will do the creme fraiche in the morning. Thanks!

  • 3. Serene -  |  October 2, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    Well, I only just got around to the creme fraiche, but the ricotta was lovely in blintzes. The creme fraiche is bound for a recipe called Gerard’s Mustart Tart, one of the Dorie Greenspan ones I’m doing. Thanks for this.

  • 4. marketcook  |  October 2, 2010 at 11:35 pm

    Glad you liked it. We can thank Kathy Walton for the original inspiration!

  • 5. Weekend Cooking: Blueberry Blintzes | The Mom Food Project  |  October 3, 2010 at 12:03 am

    […] Remember when I made my Aunt Sandy’s blintzes and ruined the blueberries and forgot the sour cream? Well, I just had to have a do-over, and this time, I cranked it up a notch and made my own ricotta! (Thanks, Pat, for the recipe.) […]

  • […] I even made my own creme fraiche! […]


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March 2009


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