Tag Archives: sauercheese

Time-Lapse Video and Troubleshooting Cultured Milk

Fermentation can be funny sometimes.  Same ingredients, same process (or so it seems), and yet different results.  Fortunately, “different” seldom means “ruined.”  But it requires us to think creatively or adjust expectations.    So my curds separated from my whey in my dairy ferment.  Ruined?  No, certainly not.  Cheese?  Well on its way!

Donna Schwenk created a short time-lapse video that effectively illustrates how temperature, time and starter ratios (the volume of starter culture compared to fresh milk) all interact to produce different results.  Watch the video here (sorry, there’s no way to embed):


Milk is just a colloidal suspension (specifically, an emulsion) of proteins and fats in water.  Under certain conditions (such as acidification), these different components can separate out.  In this case, the physical process of separation involves the denaturing (curdling) of proteins, causing them to tangle and gob up with one-another, and the production of carbon dioxide, which then gets trapped among the now-solid proteins, causing them to rise to the top of the vessel.  Shaking or stirring typically disentangles and redistributes the proteins, releasing the trapped carbon dioxide as well.

In my experience, the separation tends to happen when acid-producing strains become dominant. There’s a rhythm to backslopping, so the frequency with which you use and renew the culture also affects its behavior (people who work with sourdough tend to understand this principle).  I would consider frequency a fourth variable for us to keep in mind, alongside ratio of starter used and temperature and time (as displayed in the video).

If I’m making a rennet-free kefir or yogurt cheese, then I want the curds to separate from the whey, as the video portrays.  This involves minimal disturbance so the proteins can tangle together and form a gel-matrix.  I can then further drain and salt and press and age the curds into cheese, depending on the type of cheese I want.  However, if I want my dairy ferment to stay smooth and creamy, then I’ll shake and stir it periodically as it ferments, or try making several smaller batches in rapid succession and use a smaller ratio of starter:total volume than normal to rebalance the microbial community.

Relational Note

Learning these subtleties takes fermentation and our relationship with the wonderful micro-organisms who preserve our food and nourish us to a whole new level.  It involves a dialog betwen us and them.  “Ok, this is what I want, what do you need to help me produce those results?”  We think of the industrious little critters less as slaves and more as coworkers and colleagues, and ultimately giving us better food and better emotional results (including less stress!).

Community Note

This post started as a follow up and embellishment of Donna Schwenk’s response to a confused customer’s questions.  I respect her for trying to troubleshoot problems based on 3rd party descriptions.  I wouldn’t.  Too many variables and…ever played a game of telephone?   This brings about another reason for why Saueressen exists:  to provide real-world community-based expertise.  We need to talk directly.  We need to workshop food security in the same room, compare notes as we observe the same problems and processes.  This is the next level of the fermentation revolution.  We have tons of internet experts.  Saueressen will contribute its small part.  But the we need now, more than ever, solid and rigorous community-based expertise.  Just like deli’s dot the map across the continent, Saueressens (and artisan co-ops like them) should find their niche in every community where moderate interest in food fermentation exists.


Sideways and Sauerchi: Introduction to Living Foods


  1. Background:  Managing Expectations
  2. Inspiration: Maya from Sideways on Wine
  3. Why Wine? A Sideways-sauerchi comparison
  4. Live-culture labeling

Background:  Managing Expectations

I find increasingly that living foods seem to pose a lot of questions and confusion to many of us not used to interacting with them.   How do we start thinking effectively about living foods and our relationship to them?

The way we view our food factors hugely into what we expect of it.  For example, did you know that wineries only tend to clarify (remove tartrate sediment from) their lower-end, cheaper wines, and leave their higher-end wines cloudy?  Clarifying wines takes extra time and labor, and can even result in a lower-quality, less-complex wine.  So why go through the trouble of clarifying low-end wines?  It makes no sense, right?  Except consumers of low-end wines expect a clear wine.  To them, an unclarified wine has “gone bad.”  I don’t know how the expectation got started.  We’ve gotten ourselves stuck in an endless loop, and it seems no one has the courage to dare break the cycle!  Wineries fear losing their low-end market, and consumers fear drinking something “bad.”

On the flip-side, wine snobs will tend to reject “clarified wines” as overprocessed — like the difference between distilled grain vinegar and a fine oak-aged wine vinegar.  So, everyone wins if people can adjust their expectations accordingly:  wineries can save time and money, and low-end wine consumers can get a better product for their money!

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Inspiration:  Maya from Sideways on Wine

Maya explains to Miles, the main character in Sideways, why she likes wine.


I like to think about the life of wine.  How it’s a living thing.  I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were grown:  How the sun was shining, the rain…I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes, and — if it’s an old wine — how many of them must be dead by now.

I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I open a bottle of wine today, it will taste different than if I open it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive, and it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity…that is, until it peaks.  And then it begins its steady and inevitable decline.

…And it tastes…So. F***ing. Good.

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Why Wine?  A Sideways-sauerchi comparison

Sauerchi shares many similarities with wine (and beer; and yogurt, and fermented live-culture food in general).  They also have many differences.

I find it useful to think about the similarities between wine and sauerchi because, as Maya explains, they are both /alive/.  However, wine has a more established place in our society.  We can make the transition from dead/canned/pasteurized foods to living foods by thinking about sauerchi in similar ways we think about wine, and adjust our expectations of our food to better nourish ourselves.

  • wine and sauerchi both represent ways to process perishable foods that enhance rather than diminish their value over time (have you ever tasted a 4-year-old sauerkraut?  Yes, they exist!  Sandor Katz, the author of Wild Fermentation, describes his experience with them as “sublime”)
  • they continue to change and evolve over time, gaining complexity
  • the rate and type of change depends on their storage conditions
  • they remain sensitive to oxygen, light and heat
  • they can “go bad” if not properly cared for before opened
  • their “going bad” has little to do with danger and mostly to do with expectations and aesthetics (e.g,. wine turns to vinegar; sauerchi can develop kahm yeast [read about it here and here]; when it develops a heavy kahm yeast, it tends to exhibit cheddar-like flavors and textures, and I call it “sauercheese” and enjoy its different properties in this manner, with adjusted expectations).
  • Wine gets fermented in a way to minimize the risk of vinegar bacteria development during its initial fermentation; but subtle and slow processes occur after bottling and during aging, opening and consumption that add to the wine’s complexity and aesthetics.  Similarly, sauerchi gets fermented in a way to minimize the risk of kahm yeast in its initial fermentation, but subtle and slow processes occur during aging, jarring, opening and consumption that add to the sauerchi’s complexity and aesthetics.
  • if left too long in warm or aerobic (“with oxygen”) conditions, wine and sauerchi both turn into different foods with different aesthetics and expectations and uses (wine turns to vinegar; sauerchi turns to sauercheese).

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Live-culture labeling

After thinking through the above, and with feedback from many customers and advisors, it seems necessary to include three short statements that go a little way toward educating customers on the nature of living foods:

I’m a living, breathing food.  Please store me upright in a cool, dark location.  Enjoy my many phases of life!

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