Cultured dairy foods enjoy a long and vibrant history. In every society that historically consumed dairy foods, cultured yogurt and other probiotic dairy foods earned a much-loved and much-respected place in the indigenous diets. That place was rightly deserved, too. While culturing milk and cream inevitably offered the practical benefit of enabling dairy foods to last longer; it also enhanced their nutrient profile. Cultured dairy products like raw milk yogurt and milk kefir offer the same probiotic benefits that you’ll find in true sour pickles or real sauerkraut coupled with the beneficial nutrients found in animal foods like preformed vitamin A (did you know about the connection between maternal vitamin A intake and cleft palate?), beta carotene, vitamin K2 and CLA- particularly if the animals were pasture- or grass-fed.
There’s life beyond yogurt and kefir, though. Cultured dairy foods are as diverse as the societies that cherished them. Here’s a look at ten cultured dairy foods – some might be new to you! Here’s a little thing I love about cultured milk products: they all seem to offer double vowels – blaand, piimä, chaas, viili.
1. Bonny Clabber
Bonny clabber is a traditional cultured dairy food in both the Southern United States and in Scotland. In the United States, it was customarily eaten with molasses, cinnamon and nutmeg for breakfast. Bonny clabber is a wild-cultured dairy food in that it requires no starter; rather, its probiotic properties stem directly from the natural flora in the milk and in your home. In that respect, it’s similar to a wild sourdough. Preparing bonny clabber is simple: take raw whole milk (and, yes, it absolutely must be raw) and leave it on your counter until the milk solids naturally separate from the whey – developing a thick and yogurt-like consistency. You’ve made bonny clabber as simple as that.
Filmjölk is a Swedish cultured dairy food that is mildly sour in flavor and remarkably versatile. Filmjölk, like most of the tastiest cultured dairy foods, is cultured at room temperature without the need for a heat source or yogurt maker. This makes it particularly easy to work with. Filmjölk earns its tangy taste from lactococcus lactis and leuconostoc mesenteroides. These bacteria, like other involved in fermentation, render the milk slightly acid and that acidic environment coagulates the milk’s natural proteins turning the milk into sour, thick Filmjölk. To prepare Filmjölk, you’ll need to obtain a starter culture from a reliable source. I serve my Filmjölk over fruit in the morning or, from time to time, make homemade Filmjök Ranch Dressing. You can purchase starters online (see sources).
Viili is also a cultured dairy food of Scandinavian origin. Viili originally hails from Sweden but is now found in Finland where it is largely considered a national treasure. Viili’s ropy, unctuous and gelatinous texture is produced by a combination of yeast and lactic acid bacteria. I’ve read that a good viili can reach lenghty ropes of up to 1 foot or longer without breaking, but I’ve yet to see it. The flavor of viili is mildly sour in comparison to other cultured dairy products which makes it a good option for children or folks who are just wetting their feet in the territory of naturally sour probiotic foods. Viili is traditionally served with a touch of sweetener or gooseberry jam and is quite good served as a parfait with layers of all-fruit jam sandwiched between the viili. Viili is cultured at room temperature so you do not need a yogurt maker, only a starter culture which you can purchase online (see sources).
Piimä, like many of the other cultured dairy foods described here, is of Scandinavian origin. It has a sour flavor coupled with the subtle nuances of a mild cheese. This combination of flavors makes piimä particularly well suited to savory dishes (check out my pan-fried brussels sprouts with piima cream) and it is, according to my little boy, the best and most delicious of the cultured milk products. Unlike other cultured dairy foods, piimä is thin in consistency and is traditionally used as a beverage similarly to buttermilk. Piimä is easy to prepare because it, like many cultured dairy foods, it is mesophillic meaning that it cultures at room temperature instead of through added heat. All you need is a starter culture with which you can innoculate your milk with the strains of beneficial microbiota that make piimä particularly unique. Piimä can be cultured indefinitely, with proper care, and you can find your initial starter online (see sources).
Matsoni is an Eastern European cultured dairy food with a heritage attributed to Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia or Russia depending on who you talk to. Lore promises that matsoni will prolong life and there may be something to that as we’re just now beginning to understand the mechanisms surrounding how fermented and cultured foods benefit our long-term health. Matsoni is produced through unique strains of lactic acid bacteria which produce this mildly sour yogurt with a syrupy consistency. Children are particularly fond of it. Matsoni is particularly good for breakfast, but I also like it poured over fruit for dessert. Matsoni is also mesophillic so it requires very minimal effort to prepare. Just mix a starter culture with fresh milk and leave it on your counter to culture for a day or two depending on the temperature of your home. See sources for a starter culture, and this is my preferred yogurt for making labneh, or yogurt cheese.
6. Buttermilk (Cultured)
When I think of buttermilk, I invariably think of the scene in Some Like it Hot when Spats announces he’s drinking buttermilk to a visibly disappointed police chief. I don’t know why, it’s just always there lurking in the recesses of my childhood memories when we’d spend entire summers watching old black and white movies. Buttermilk is traditionally made from the thin milk reserved from making cultured butter; however, many traditional food lovers are now using a starter culture and making whole-milk buttermilk. Buttermilk’s sour flavor is the result of lactic acid bacteria – particularly streptococcus lactis or lactobacillus bulgaricus. It can be enjoyed in a variety of ways, but it is particularly well suited to baking – granted, that destroys the beneficial bacteria – but it makes a killer bread or cake (check out my soaked flour gingerbread). Or, like Spats, you can drink it plain as was popular until the middle of the 20th century. Take care not ot purchase or use most store-bought buttermilks as even the organic versions often contain fillers instead of pure, cultured milk. Instead, make your own using a starter culture (see sources).
7. Chaas (Traditional Buttermilk)
Traditionally buttermilk was not cultured as buttermilk in and of itself; rather, it was simply the thin liquid leftover from making butter. This traditional buttermilk is versatile and rich in the natural beneficial bacteria found in the raw milk itself. Alternatively, it may be rich in the bacteria that was introduced into the whole milk prior to culturing it for buttermaking as in the case of cultured butter. Now, aside from a few home kitchens, traditional buttermilk is only really used in India where it is called chaas. In India, chaas is often flavored with salt, cumin, chilies and other spices much in the same way that bonny clabber is flavored with nutmeg and molasses in the west. You can prepare chaas by first making butter (learn how to make butter) then straining the resultant liquid. Now you have chaas or traditional buttermilk, no starter culture is typically needed.
Blaand is a traditional Scottish drink made from fermented whey with quite an alcoholic kick. While it’s been made for centuries in Scotland, it has largely fallen out of favor perhaps, in part, to the decline of home cheesemaking and the increased availability of other alcoholic beverages. First, whey is reserved from cheesemaking or, I imagine, you could use the whey leftover from Bonny Clabber or strained yogurt as well. But, if you’re adventerous enough to attempt to make blaand, you’re probably adventerous enough to make cheese too. That whey is then traditionally poured into an oak cask similarly to wine, and allowed to sit until the desired flavor and alcohol content are acheived. When the fermentation is complete, blaand should have an alcohol content similar to wine. Take care, because if you allow it to ferment too long you’ll end up with whey vinegar instead of blaand, and that’s decidedly unpleasant.
Kefir (pictured above) is a cultured milk product that, unlike the others mentioned here, results from the introduction of kefir grains into raw milk instead of through wild, spontaneous fermentation as in the case of bonny clabber or via starter culture as in the case of viili. Kefir grains are small, spongy, symbiotic colonies of beneficial yeast and bacteria with an appearance that resembles cottage cheese. Kefir is a strikingly tart cultured dairy beverage with a slight effervescence that takes some getting used to. Kefir originally comes from the Caucasus region where, legend has it, the grains were guarded for their life-prolonging properties. That may, indeed, have some merit as kefir is rich in nutrients including folic acid and the kefiran in it has been linked the supression of high blood pressure. Traditionally, raw milk was mixed with kefir grains and placed in animal skin pouches to ferment. Don’t have an animal skin pouch or don’t want to use one? You can culture kefir in a glass container like a mason jar by mixing the kefir grains with fresh raw milk and allowing it to culture 1 day or longer (a longer ferment produces more nutrients, but renders a sourer beverage). Purchase a kefir grains (see sources), and learn how to brew milk kefir with this simple tutorial.
What would a post about cultured dairy products be without a mention of yogurt? When used broadly, yogurt can describe any of the fermented dairy foods listed above with the exception of blaand, kefir and possibly chaas; however, yogurt is unique in and of itself. Yogurt is the only fermented dairy food on this list that is thermophillic – meaning that it requires a heat source in order to culture properly. In that respect, yogurt is relatively unique. Yogurt is made by culturing milk with a variety of lactic acid producing, thermophillic bacteria. The most common and well known strain of bacteria in yogurt is lactobacillus bulgaricus, though many other strains of bacteria are used as well. To make yogurt, you’ll need a constant, but mild heat source and a starter culture. If you plan to make yogurt regularly, I recommend purchasing a yogurt maker – they’re reasonably affordable and make culturing yogurt fool-proof such as this one which produces 2-quarts or this one which produces individual servings. You’ll also need to acquire a starter culture – you can purchase powdered yogurt starter for Greek or Bulgarian yogurt (see sources) or, more simply, use a few tablespoons of store-bought plain yogurt to start your batch. If you use a store-bought yogurt, make sure it has several varieties of live bacteria and contains no sugar, fillers or other strange things.
Maintaing a Pure Starter for Raw Milk Yogurts
Just one last note before you begin: if you’re planning to produce raw milk yogurts and cultured dairy products (with the exception of bonny clabber, chaas, blaand and kefir), it’s important to maintain a pure starter with which you can reculture the milk. If you fail to maintain a pure starter, the natural bacteria in your raw milk will eventually overtake the bacterial strains in the starter and you’ll no longer make viili, piimä etc.; rather, you’ll simply be making clabbered milk. To keep a pure starter, boil and cool milk to eliminate its natural bacteria and culture that milk with your starter on a weekly basis, then use a few tablespoons of the boiled milk starter in raw milk to culture raw milk yogurt.