I’m currently spending a couple of weeks with my elderly father. I was asking him about his childhood, when he suddenly mentioned that he knew how to cook. Loyal readers might recall that growing up, I never saw my father make much more than a cup of tea. But it turns out that he knows the recipe for farmer’s cheese: Set out fresh milk for a day or two and let the fat rise to the top. Remove the fat. Let the milk sit for another couple of days. Put it in a cloth and let it drain.
I would love to try this recipe, but I can’t make farmer’s cheese. I only have access to pasteurized milk. My father made cheese from the raw milk he collected from the local farmers that his mother would sell out of their home in pre-war Poland.
Pasteurized milk is also a problem in recipes calling for sour or soured milk, like quick breads and pancakes. In times when refrigeration wasn’t common, milk spoiled quickly and home cooks found uses for milk that was turning sour. They took advantage of the natural bacteria in milk that caused it to ferment. Soured milk adds a tart flavor to baked goods in the same way that many recipes call for wine, vinegar, and sourdough yeast that are also naturally fermented foods.
Nowadays, milk is pasteurized to kill harmful bacteria that can cause illness—the pathogenic bacteria. Pasteurization involves heating the milk to about 72 degrees Celsius for 15 to 20 seconds. The problem is that pasteurization kills the “good” bacteria that made sour milk suitable for cooking or for making cheese. But bacteria is relentless and attacks any food that is not properly preserved, including pasteurized milk. The bacteria are non-pathogenic, but they still destroy food and will eventually cause the milk to spoil.
While spoiled milk won’t kill you, the bacteria have broken down the milk enough that there isn’t much nutrition left in it. It also tastes terrible, and heating it won’t return the fresh flavor. Drinking spoiled milk or spoiled food of any kind is unwise unless you’re literally starving.
If you have a recipe calling for sour milk, put a teaspoon of vinegar in a cup of fresh milk and let it sit for a few minutes.
Tip: Scalding milk, or heating the milk to just below boiling, was a way to stop unpasteurized milk from fermenting. If you come across scalding in a recipe you can skip it.
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