Doctor Strangegrain: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cheese

It all started a few weeks ago, when I opened my mailbox to find…a box. Inside was a collection of items I’d known was coming, but for which I was still somewhat unprepared. In the box was a white cotton towel, a sheaf of photocopies held together with a small binder clip and a sandwich-sized Ziploc bag holding what looked like an alarmingly large clump of ear wax.

They were, in fact, kefir grains, and the photocopies were pages from The Art of Natural Cheesemaking: the directions for waking these dormant grains so they would produce a fermented beverage — and, eventually, cheese.

I had my friend George to thank for this. (He has someone else to thank in turn, but he can do that on his own blog if he wishes.) He had some of these grains for a while, started feeding them, and soon he was making kefir milk (actually, the milk is what is called kefir) and then somehow hanging and draining and salting it and turning it into cheese. I must have sounded pretty enthusiastic about his activities, because soon I was informed that my very own SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast) would be in the mail.

(n.b.: The term SCOBY naturally made us think of Scooby-Doo, being from “Generation SuperFriends” as we are, but nicknaming the grains Scooby struck us both as being somewhat too much of an obvious joke. So we went with Fred instead, with the consequence that George’s SCOBY is named Fred and mine is Fred Jr. If you’re of our generation, you may share the absurdity of the possibility of a Fred Jr., which underscores the lighthearted character of the entire home-cheesemaking enterprise.)

I received my “cheesemaking kit” on February 1, and decided that I would feed my kefir grains with whole milk, which just seemed right even though it was not required. (Apparently they’ll be happy to be fed with any kind of milk — even skim milk, which many people don’t consider to be any real kind of milk.) Raw milk might have been better, but I don’t have a source for that (more properly, I haven’t tried to find a source for raw milk, though one may well be within walking distance) so I decided to start with whole milk.

Then the milk sat, unopened, in my fridge for so long that its “sell by” date came and went. Reluctantly I decided to get rid of that milk, buy a fresh half-gallon, take a deep breath, and start Fred Jr. on his lactose-exclusive diet.

Feeding Fred Jr. turned out to be pretty easy. I’m someone who can really fret over the details when something’s at stake, but this really sounded like a low-risk proposition:

  1. Place kefir grains in a jar.
  2. Pour any kind of milk over the kefir grains.
  3. Put a lid on the jar and leave it alone at room temperature for 24 hours.
  4. Check on the kefir; when it’s “ready,”strain out the milk, drink the milk, and repeat from Step 2.

After the first 24 hours, I drank the milk and didn’t find the taste very strong. It was odd, though; I texted George to inquire as to whether or not the first batch of kefir usually tasted like feet.

The second day, there wasn’t much difference in the milk. It still tasted, basically, like warm milk that had gone just a bit off course. The room temperature is kind of low, I thought. It could just be that the fermentation process will have to take more time — maybe 36 hours instead of 24. That evening I forgot to strain the milk from the grains and re-feed them. When I checked the kefir the next morning, I found that it had, truly, become something else. It was fizzy, a sort of naturally carbonated milk.

So I fed Fred Jr. again, giving his jar a little shake whenever he seemed to be getting too complacent. That’s fine, boy, fizz up, I’m on to you now and I’ve figured out your schedule. Maybe someday we’ll make cheese together, but for now I’ll keep drinking the milk.

This afternoon I took another look at the jar.

I texted George: My next kefir batch appears to have gone mad.
He replied: Go ahead and hang it to dry for a day.

I took another look at the sheaf of photocopies. How hard could this be? What would I have to do, and when would I have to do it? The answers seemed to be, somewhat disconcertingly for me, not much and whenever. Here I wanted to know the details of a structured, scientific plan, and my instructions were just to put the yogurty goop into the cloth and hang it from a wooden spoon until the liquids finally dripped out. Who was running the homemade cheese franchise anyway? A bunch of reckless hippies?

Oh, yeah.

So, tonight I’m trying not to look at my little formerly-filled-with-pasta-sauce glass jar because I might not be ready for the level of coagulation I’ll have to face. But in the morning I might have to come to terms with the fact that I might be on my way to making the cream cheese that will go with my bagels.

Please, if you are thinking of mailing me a mated pair of salmon so I can breed them in the bathtub and start making my own lox — please don’t. Please don’t.

I only have one bathtub.

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