As far as we know, there are no raw milk cheese spread products on the market today in the United States. There may be some that combine raw milk and pasteurized products, but we have found none that are 100% raw milk. Because our customer base has requested a spread version of our Kefir Cheese, we have set out to design a cheese that can be produced using Kefir culture, but also can be used with other more traditional cheese cultures. Two methods for producing a raw milk spread cheese with Kefir culture have been established, and make sheets for both methods are included in the final report. These methods can also be used for aging other raw milk spread cheeses with very little modification. An important aspect of this project was to establish a probiotic cheese that is spreadable. Both methods have been tested for probiotics, with good results.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires a raw milk cheese product to age for 60 days or more, and a moisture standard of 44% [Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, Volume 2, Revised as of April 1, 2009, Cite: 21CFR133.123,124] see uploaded files, Documents 2 and 3. These facts have inhibited dairy producers from processing and marketing a high moisture cheese made with raw milk. Designing a raw milk cheese spread required a new look at recipe development, packaging technology, and product safety. Rose Marie Belforti, owner and operator of Finger Lakes Dexter Creamery worked with a team of advisors to design and package a raw milk Kefir cheese spread according to the USDA standards. The team consists of Dave Barbano, and Rob Ralyea of Cornell U., and Neville McNaughton, a cheese consultant with CheezSorc, LLC. They brought together experience in cheese making, manufacturing, production efficiency, and a knowledge of sanitation regulations. All kefir products for sale today, except for Rose Marie’s Kefir Cheese, are cultured with a commercial kefir starter, which contain only a very small amount of beneficial probiotic bacteria compared to the broad spectrum of friendly organisms contained in the live culture of kefir grains. Probiotic foods are becoming a market success with the larger yogurt corporations in the US, but these foods are not cultured with kefir grains. They typcially use a spray-dried skim milk powder containing the beneficial bacteria (Gardiner, G., Stanton…(1999) Evaluation of Cheddar Cheese as a Food Carrier for Delivery of a Probiotic to the Gastrointestinal Tract. “Journal of Dairy Science“, 82: 1379-1387).
The cheese or yogurt functions as a vehicle or delivery system to bring the potentially viable micro-organisms to the consumer. It is not yet clear if the added probiotics have adequate shelf life to benefit the consumer. Our Kefir Cheese is probiotic because it contains numerous strains of living bacteria that promote digestive well being, see uploaded Document 1. The 30-50 micro-organisms identified in kefir culture represent a full spectrum of nutrients that support digestive health. The grains contain vitamins, minerals, important trace elements, and essential amino acids that help the body with healing and maintenance functions, and contain easily digestible complete proteins. A unique soluble gel-polysaccharide discovered in kefir grains is called kefiran. Experiments performed with mice revealed kefiran exhibited anti-tumor properties. In these experiments, orally administered kefiran was found to reduce the size of tumors, by inducing a specific immune response in mice. Much of this early research was performed in Japan (Murofushi, M., Mizuguchi, J., Aibara, K., Matuhasi, T. et al. Immunopharmacology  Aug;121:29-35. Immunopotentiative effect of polysaccharide from kefir grain, KGF-C, administered orally in mice.)
In recent times, milk fermented with kefir grains has been used in treatments for tuberculosis, digestive diseases, chronic constipation, allergic reactions, control of high cholesterol, and lactose intolerance. One typically thinks of bacteria as something to avoid, but in fermented foods, culturing good bacteria is the goal. As scientists learn what makes fermented foods healthy, their research supports reason to take a new look at these time tested foods. Finger Lakes Dexter Creamery is the only producer utilizing kefir grains in a commercially cultured milk recipe. Based on current trends, this niche market has great potential for growth. Our customers appreciate our efforts to make a superior product, and we are looking forward to introducing the very first raw milk Kefir cultured cheese spread to the marketplace.
The objective of this project is to establish benchmarks and document a method to make a raw milk spreadable kefir cheese that complies with USDA regulations and can be sold in the marketplace. The goal is to establish a make-sheet, or recipe that would not only work for kefir cheese, but for any raw milk cheese. The method we establish can then be utilized by other dairy producers who may have their own cheese spread recipes they would like to produce and sell. The technology and materials identified in this project will add new information to the dairy industry, and will benefit current and future cheese makers who would like to expand their product lines. If milk is to continue to be a viable choice for our children, and for those who are making conscious food choices, we need to expand our dairy horizons to include raw milk products. The public is eager for it. Wholesome fermented raw milk products like our Kefir cheese are gaining momentum in the mainstream marketplace. We have seen the market grow by leaps and bounds just over the past few years. We hope to share what we do at our dairy with other producers to bring beneficial and innovative dairy choices to health conscious consumers. An important aspect of our kefir products is the fact that they are naturally probiotic. We sent samples of our new spread cheese to the Silliker labs to be tested for probiotics that would be retained in the cheese after the aging and shelf dates. The results are positive and are presented here in an uploaded file (see introduction, Document 1 above).
What follows are two distinct methods for making a Kefir Spread Cheese. These methods can also be used to process other raw milk spread cheeses. RECIPE 1. KEFIR CHEESE SPREAD: A BLEND OF TWO AGING METHODS The first method was designed at Cornell University with the support of Prof. Dave Barbano. We used two aging methods to produce the kefir cheese, aged for 60 days.
1. Made the cheese with the make sheet process from the first SARE grant we received in 2006, See Document 3 uploaded below. Once the cheese was brined, we aged the cheese with two different methods, and then combined them. (If making another style of cheese, use the recipe for that cheese and follow directions accordingly. 1. Aged for 60 days as a natural rind cheese.
2. Aged for 60 days in a vac pack. Notes are as follows: Analysis of cheese making process after 60 days of aging: The composition of the natural rind aged cheese was: Moisture 34.7% Fat 30.67% pH 6.3 The composition of the vac packed aged cheese was: Moisture 49.7% Fat 22.06% pH 4.9 The flavor of the vac packed cheese was clean, relatively bland, with mostly a taste of acid which is consistent with the low pH, which makes an ideal base for the cheese spread because the pH is low. This will encourage better shelf-life and be safer with low pH. We worked on making small batches of spread, and made a blend of the vac packed cheese with the natural rind aged cheese. The natural rind aged cheese delivers the flavor. We first blended (in a blender jar) some of each cheese separately. Then, we mixed them together and heated them to soften the cheese to 90F. Just enough to soften the fat but not have it become liquid and separate from the product. Then blend warm to whip them into a smooth consistency.
The cheese standard says that 44% moisture is the max for this type of product. With the vac packed cheese at 49% this is not a problem. Even if we go up in fat content on the vac packed cheese and the moisture comes down a little, it will still be OK to hit a final moisture near 44%. A small amount of natural rind aged cheese delivers the flavor and the vac packed cheese provides the base. The yield of the vac packed cheese will be high because of the high moisture. This gives flexibility also. At room temperature the product could be spread. Fresh out of the refrigerator it may be too hard. Therefore, it may be required to place a label on the product that suggests warming before serving. If the fat content of the vacuum packed product was higher and we could keep the moisture up, then it might produce a softer product. The fat on a dry basis of the vac packed product was about 43.9%. If we could get it up to 55%, the spread might be softer, and would not need to be warmed. That can be accomplished by gravity separating some milk and making the vac packed cheese with a mixture of milk and cream. Then aging it for 60 days. This is the more preferable way to achieve the best end result.
RECIPE 2. KEFIR CHEESE SPREAD ACID SET: In the cheese making vat, add a quantity of raw milk to be cultured with 1.5-2% kefir culture, brewed from kefir grains (a fresh mother culture for each batch of cheese). If for another cheese type, use directions for that cheese type. Add Holbac 5 DCU/220# of milk. Holbac unhibits growth of pathogens. Temperature of milk in vat should be 72 F. Take pH reading at this point. When pH is 6.2 add 1.5 ml rennet per 100# of milk (1 oz. = 29.57 ml) (single strength calf rennet). Could also use vegetable rennet. Set until pH 4.6. Whey should be sitting on top of curd, 1 – 2ml thick Stir and pour into Kadova molds with netted insert, and also another layer of cheese cloth to prevent curd from draining out (or use cheesecloth drain bags). Press for two days, while flipping and stirring.
Cheese at 50% moisture at this time. Remove from moulds and add 2% min, 3% max. salt, Microguard (helps protect the product flavor and provides a more reliable shelf life) 1% and thick cream. Stir. Mixture, do not blend. Add to mason jar or other tightly covered container and close lid firmly. A stainless steel container might be preferable. Could put a 1/4′ layer of olive oil over the top of the cheese, not necessary if jar is sealed tight. This will add another barrier to any pathogens that might form on the top of the cheese during aging. Age for 60 days at 52 F. pH should be at 5.1 after aging for 60 days. Blend thoroughly in a blender, herbs to added at this stage if desired. Spoon into small food grade plastic containers. Cryovac with inner seal to protect for best shelf life. This product could be frozen for best shelf life as well, and might be the preferable way to market it. Label and market. Taste results for this method were predictable for Kefir cheese. Tangy, smooth in consistency and spreadable. This method was preferred over recipe #1. Analysis is pending. Will be tested for moisture content to make sure it is less than 44% at Cornell U.
The demand for authentic, wholesome food is a growing trend and does not show signs of slowing down. On the contrary, demand for authentic healthy foods is increasing exponentially. We see this first hand at the Ithaca Farmers Market. More people want to buy farm fresh foods from local, sustainable farms where they can come and visit and see how the product they are buying is processed. Healthy value-added raw milk products are especially sought after at markets, restaurants and health food stores. With allergies and gastronomic ailments on the rise, people are learning about the benefits of kefir products cultured from living kefir grains. The matrix of symbiotic micro-organisms that make up the kefir grains are known to support digestive health (see http://users.chariot.net.au/ for scientific studies, history and use of kefir grains).
Because our cheese is the only one of it’s kind on the market today in the United States, we focus on educational content and use helpful visual materials at our market booth to inform the public of the benefits of eating kefir products. Many customers ask for a spreadable version of our cheese. Our current efforts to design the new Kefir cheese spread are primarily to meet this demand. The procedures and results of this project will become public information. Other cheese producers will be able to take the information we document for aging and packaging a raw milk cheese spread and adapt it to their own raw milk recipes. This will bring more innovative value-added dairy choices to those looking for raw milk products.
As far as we know, there are no other raw milk cheese spreads on the market today that do not contain pasteurized ingredients. We do know there are no raw milk Kefir cheese spreads, cultured with living kefir grains. There are a few kefir spreads on the market today made with pasteurized milk and cultured with a commercial, industrial kefir starter that contain four or five strains of probiotic bacteria. In contrast, the authentic kefir grains that we use in our recipes contain a full spectrum of nutrients that have been used by many peoples over the world for centuries. The health benefits have been documented, and well known by the peoples who integrate kefir products into their diets.
The kefir grains are a rare food source that requires preservation. Kefir grains cannot be created in a lab, they are natural, and no one knows how the symbiotic relationship between the organisms arose. Therefore, if they are not nurtured and protected, and propogated, they will cease to exist. We feel that we are not only bringing an excellent product to the public, but we are involved in a sustainable process of preserving kefir grains so they will not become extinct. This is vital to any agrucultural endeavor. Passing on the vital knowledge of kefir culture is as important to us as making and selling the products. We also pass along kefir grains to those who would like to culture kefir at home. This is a very rewarding aspect of our business. Many of our customers are delighted to make their own kefir. We are adament about promoting and conserving kefir culture knowledge for those who are interested in the health benefits of this matrix of beneficial organisms. We hope that our biggest accomplishment is adding to the body of Kefir culture knowledge for future generations who insist on the availability of real, pure, and authentic foods.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
Our completed raw milk kefir cheese spread project is now documented and will be available to other cheese producers when SARE publishes the results. We will display, sample and inform customers about our new Kefir Cheese spread at all our market venues, especially at the Ithaca Farmers Market where we come face to face with our customers. Articles to be submitted to: Culture, an artisanal cheese magazine, The American Cheese Society News, Cornell Small Farm Journal, ACRES, a progressive agricultural journal, Weston A Price Foundation’s Wise Traditions, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy News, Edible Fingerlakes, a local culinary journal. We have 4 open house tours at our dairy each year as we are members of the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail. These tour days are opportunities to share the benefits of Kefir culture and our new product. Rose Marie will give a presentation at the Annual meeting of the New York Cheesemakers Guild. We will add more recipes to our website, www.kefircheese.com. A cheese sampling will be planned at Greenstar Coop in Ithaca NY. The articles we publish in journals will bring information on Kefir culture, and a new way to make kefir cheese to the world. The project will add new information to the dairy industry, and benefit current and future cheese makers who would like to expand their raw milk product lines.
We believe that the digestive health of this country is failing because of what is called, the Standard American Diet. We hope to contribute to the ever growing health foods with Kefir culture through the sales and education of our authentic kefir products. The more people learn about probiotics, the better they are equipped to work with the physical conditions that trouble them. We have so many customers who are looking for a probiotic product that is genuine and pure. They are learning about fermented foods, and very excited about it. Our goal is to educate through our products. There is no end to kefir madness in the kitchen. Our products help point the way to better health.