Presenter Holly White, looking suave, and Emily creating a small buttermilk explosion. Photo by Penny Corbett.

I think our May 2nd workshop was the best workshop ever that didn’t do what was intended. Thirty people attended – our second-best-attended workshop ever – to see how to make three dairy products from scratch: creme fraiche, butter, and mozzarella cheese.

Get the workshop handouts here!

Creme fraiche (sorry, I’m not sure how to do the accents in WordPress…) is often called “French sour cream.” It can be used the way you would sour cream, though it has the advantage of not separating when heated, the way American sour cream does. Making it is simple; mix some cultured buttermilk into cream and let it stand at room temp for 24-48 hours until thickened. (Full details are in the downloadable recipe handout.)

Our presenter, Holly White of the Detroit Zymology Guild, also explained a bit about the two types of buttermilk. The liquid left after you make butter is “true” buttermilk. The kind you buy in the store is “cultured” buttermilk. Both are great in pancakes, but only cultured buttermilk can be used to inoculate other milk to make cultured dairy products like creme fraiche and cheese.


Butter made at home by workshop attendee Penny Corbett. Photo by Penny.

Butter is also quite easy to make at home: just pour cream in a jar and shake. We’ve probably all done this at some point…but Holly explained to us about the importance of “washing” the butter to get all the watery liquid out. Any liquid left in the butter will cause it to spoil more quickly, so you need to press the butter against the sides of a bowl to encourage all the liquid to come out. Rinsing the lump of butter with cold water helps this process, especially early on. It’s easiest to do this if you stop shaking the butter at the “grainy” stage, and before it forms a solid brick.

Finally, we moved on to the cheesemaking…and this is where things went a bit awry. We were aiming for mozzarella, but we ended up with ricotta. The ricotta was delicious, though it was disappointing not to get to stretch the mozzarella. We thought the problem might be with the portable butane burners we used – you need to heat the milk very slowly when making mozzarella, and it was hard to keep the burners at a very low flame.

Well, our intrepid workshop leader Holly spent the better part of the next week experimenting to figure out what happened, and determined that it was the milk that was the problem. The short version is that apparently Calder milk is pasteurized at too high a temperature to make mozzarella. Here’s her assessment of the situation:

I’ve tried 4 more batches with Calder’s “natural” milk, and I get the same result we got on Sunday.  I replaced my citric acid, I tested the rennet and I switched to a double boiler.  Still got ricotta.

I called Calder, and they told me they do low-heat pasteurization.  But the problem is certainly their milk.  This is exactly what happens when it is overheated- it won’t set and you get those little grains for curds.  It’s just that in this case, the overheating happened at the plant.

So I switched brands [of pasteurized milk] and it still didn’t work.  So going forward, I’m not teaching mozzarella unless I can do it with raw milk.  Illegal food workshops, hooray!

I called some chef friends for troubleshooting, and found out from one of them that Zingermann’s uses raw milk in their mozzarella workshops.  Interesting, huh?  And that they also use commercial curds to make their “in-house” cheeses.

Holy cow. The fancy-schmancy local creamery uses pre-made curds to make their mozzarella? Interesting, indeed!

I intend to have another cheese workshop in a few months featuring cheeses that are less fussy about their milk – paneer, farmer’s cheese, etc. I will test the recipes with readily-available milk products.

A question for the peanut gallery: If we can’t get commercial pasteurized milk to make a decent cheese, would you rather I used raw milk (which is hard to find and quite expensive) or just not have another cheese workshop at all?