Using (raw) milk as an ingredient

We ran a survey of our CSA members this week, assessing interest in receiving deliveries of raw goat’s milk from the farm under the condition that it’s not to be consumed raw (read more about this here and here). Quite a few people expressed theoretical interest tempered with some version of “I like the idea but I don’t know what to do with it if I can’t drink it”. This is thoroughly understandable, given the very Western/American cultural view of milk primarily as a pure drink, quite different from many other cultures’ uses of the product. In this and further posts, we’re going to discuss various other ways to use and handle milk in the home to create lots of fresh and tasty foods. Even for folks not interested in our goat’s milk (or for non-CSA members), there’s a lot to learn here about diverse ways to use good milk to make new foods and often save money. (If nothing else, many of these recipes/techniques are the base of versatile ways to use vegetables.) Non-organic goat’s milk is currently selling at a local grocery chain for over $5/quart, as compared to our price of $6/half-gallon, and the equivalent yogurts and cheeses you can make are even pricier.

Milk as an ingredient
As Anne Mendelson points out in her excellent book Milk, (read a long and useful excerpt/summary here) for most of the world through most of history, fresh/raw milk was not something widely consumed for the simple reason that it spoiled too quickly in the absence of effective refrigeration/transportation. Most cultures soured, fermented, cultured, or otherwise altered the fresh product to make it tastier, more palatable, and/or more stable. This is a similar concept to cooking or curing raw meats, with the same benefits and results. In both cases, a skill that used to be widespread became co-opted by larger food producers with long transportation chains and resulting food safety concerns, such that curing meats, pasteurizing milk, or making cheese became widely seen as something only big inspected food companies can do safely. Note how no health agencies from the FDA down to local authorities issue any guidelines on safe handling/pasteurization/cooking  with raw milk, despite the fact that most recipes using milk end up pasteurizing it in the process or can be altered to do so, and most home kitchens can easily accomplish this step.

As part of the backlash against industrialized food, there is now rising interest in re-learning these lost skills, as evidenced by the sales and footprint of books like Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie or Ricki Carroll’s Home Cheese Making, both of which became staples of our kitchen while literally changing the course of our lives. We hope to pass along some of the interest, excitement, and skills we’ve developed in learning how to use farm-fresh ingredients such as fresh milk, which is a very different product than the highly processed milk sold under most store brands.

The “rawness” in and of itself isn’t the primary factor; it’s how the milk has been handled and processed (or not) that affects its flavor, texture, and ability to be used for cheese making and other recipes. The kind of high-temperature flash-pasteurization used by large commercial dairies alters the chemical structure of the milk, rendering it less useful for many home projects. Thus many people do focus on raw milk because that’s a guarantee it hasn’t been overly processed, but gently pasteurized and minimally processed certified whole milk from a good source will also generally work. Raw also matters because in many cases it’s the only way a small farm like ours can sell the milk legally, but that’s a reflection on food policy, not an inherent difference in quality.

How we use milk in our kitchen
We can easily go through 2 gallons a week of milk in our kitchen without drinking a drop straight, not counting the making of large batches of aged cheeses for later consumption. Here are the main ways we use it fresh, most of which we’ll write up soon in more detail with photos (and add retroactive links here):

Home pasteurization
We almost never pasteurize our milk solely for drinking, though it’s quite easy (we just don’t care for milk as a drink compared to all its other possibilities). If you can boil an egg, you can pasteurize milk. It’s simply a matter of gently heating the milk to 145ºF for 1/2 hour or to 161ºF for 15 seconds (FDA standard; see page 8 of this publication). Use a reliable, calibrated thermometer. A double boiler is gentlest on the milk, though a saucepan works fine if you heat slowly and stir regularly to avoid imparting a cooked flavor to the milk. Then cool it back down and you have milk to drink, or use in recipes which won’t otherwise heat it enough again (like certain fresh cheeses). Most other possible home uses end up heating it past the safety point anyway, something health authorities tend to neglect in their safety advisories.

Most tasters have found that our milk isn’t particularly “goaty” if used fresh, though flavors do change with the seasons and what they’ve been browsing lately. I’ve found store-bought goats’ milk, generally older, to be much stronger in flavor and quite unpalatable compared to our truly fresh stuff, which many people can’t easily tell from fresh cow’s milk. It’ll taste stronger than most store milk, but that’s a reflection of the weak, over-processed nature of most commercial milk.

Making yogurt is easy: The process involves heating the milk (to 180ºF, well above the pasteurization temperature), partially cooling the milk, adding a live culture, and keeping the result warm for ~6 hours (an insulated thermos can achieve this). Before we began relying on our own dairy products year-round, we found that buying a 1/2 gallon of organic milk (which we could obtain from a local source) and making it into 2 quarts of yogurt saved us about half the cost of buying the equivalent 2 quarts of organic yogurt (which we could not obtain from a local source). We have no problem eating this amount weekly on granola, mixed with fruit, and in baking.

Cheese making
Many basic cheeses can be made at home by anyone with remotely reasonable kitchen skills and some basic equipment. The easiest is whole-milk ricotta, which has an excellent flavor and is highly versatile, suitable for everything from pizza and calzones to desserts (try topping it with drizzled  honey and roasted nuts). Several of our farm workers, who have been taking milk from us for years, have gone crazy over the easy success of making ricotta in a busy life; it’s one of the single most rewarding uses of milk you can do relevant to the work input.

As a rule of thumb, you’ll get ~1 lb of cheese from 1 gallon of milk. So for a $6 half-gallon of our goat’s milk, you’ll end up with 1/2 pound of fresh ricotta at a pretty competitive price for a little time invested. (A recent 1 gallon batch yielded ~3.5 cups of ricotta.) We’ll be posting illustrated recipes soon.

We use milk in all sorts of other recipes. Our favorite unleavened scone recipe uses milk instead of water, giving the end product some more nutritional heft and flavor, and any form of baking naturally raises the end product’s temperature above pasteurization temperature. Any kind of cream sauce for pasta, or creamy soup/chowder, benefits from the addition of fresh milk, again in a context which naturally pasteurizes it. And of course yogurt balances leaveners in things like coffee cakes and cornbread.

Fresh milk can be used in all sorts of custards, puddings, flans, and more (often along with good fresh eggs), pretty much all of which will naturally pasteurize the milk in the process of baking/cooking. Eric especially enjoys making fresh eggnog (milk, sugar, eggs, vanilla, rum), while Joanna loves fresh chocolate milk made with high-end cocoa powder, both of which easily involve heating the milk enough to pasteurize it. Cooked bases for home-made ice cream are also an excellent idea.

Cheese making will naturally result in a lot of leftover liquid, the whey. We generally feed this to our chickens and swine, but it can also be used in the home kitchen. Whey can be used instead of water for yeasted breads. Vegetable fermentation recipes often call for whey; for such use, we use whey from pasteurized, cultured cheeses or whey drained from yogurt, as the live cultures help to start the fermentation process. (Whey from raw milk hard cheese must be pasteurized before use to be in compliance with our sales agreement.) At worst, whey makes a good plant food; don’t send it down the drain. We can’t take back whey on the farm, it’s just too hard to track whether it was properly handled or mixed with anything before feeding back to our animals, and we don’t want to risk introducing any off-farm pathogens to our animals.

Anything else?
If that doesn’t give enough ideas, readers are welcome to submit their own in the comments. Milk is a fantastically diverse ingredient that’s a lot of fun to play with in the kitchen; all we ask is that you treat it, yourself, and us with respect by gently pasteurizing and/or cooking it by the time it’s consumed, and you’ll have a great time adding this fresh, local, delicious product to your diet.

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