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cottage cheese

Loose-curd fresh cheese with a mild flavor.

Cottage cheese is a luxury that should and would be eaten and appreciated by all classes if they knew how wholesome and digestible it is. – New York Herald, 1876


Soured and thickened skim milk

Thickened milk heating over simmering water.

Curds and whey have separated.

Curds and whey poured into cloth-lined colander.

Cloth gathered so that curds can drain.

Cloth gathered so that curds can drain.

Cream added to moisten.

Balls formed using two spoons.

Sprinkled with chives and ready to serve!

Many Little House readers have probably only eaten cottage cheese from the grocery store, sold in little plastic containers. Also known as pot cheese, Dutch cheese, or sour curds, cottage cheese is the naturally-occurring curds of soured skim milk drained from the whey and molded or patted into fancy shapes and typically eaten while fresh. As an experienced cheese-maker, Caroline Ingalls would have used no recipe when making cottage cheese. She would have simply heated sour milk, then drained the curds from the whey and flavored the curds with salt, onion, or other spices. Cream and/or butter added to the curds improved both texture and flavor, but was by no means required.

Sour milk is caused by bacteria that gets into the milk from the cow’s udder, from unclean hands handling fresh milk, from dirty farm equipment, or simply from the air itself. The bacteria multiplies as it consumes the lactose in the milk and the acid it produces causes the separation of the curds from the whey. Today, milk production is handled with the utmost cleanliness, so you’ll have to help the fermentation process along if you want to make your own cottage cheese from commercial skim milk. The photos at left illustrate the process described below.

Pour a quarter cup of cultured buttermilk (which includes a specific bacteria instead of something iffy) into a half gallon of skim milk in a bowl; stir to mix. Cover with a clean cloth and allow to sit at room temperature until it thickens and smells sour; this can take a day or more.

When the milk mixture is thick and smells slightly sour, pour it into a double boiler over cool water and heat slowly until the curds (small chunks) separate from the whey (thin liquid). This can take over an hour, properly done, and no stirring allowed! Don’t let the water boil or the cheese will be tough. You want the milk mixture to reach about 110 degrees F., and water boils at 212 degrees F., so two thermometers are pretty handy for this step. The yellowish clear whey will start to appear around the edges as the milk warms. By the time the milk reaches 110 degrees, the curds will be a lump floating in the whey. Remove the inner boiler and set aside to cool. You can slice gently through the curds to form cubes of about a half inch or larger, allowing more of the whey to escape from the curds.

Meanwhile, line a colander with a clean cotton dish towel, a piece of clean sheeting, or 90 weight cheesecloth, and set it over another container (to catch the whey for other use). Pour the curds and whey carefully into the colander. Allow the whey to drain away, then gather the cloth and squeeze until the curds are quite dry. Pour the curds into another bowl and mash with a spoon, adding a little salt to taste and a tablespoon or more of heavy cream for smoothness. Use two spoons to form small balls of cottage cheese, and serve immediately or refrigerate.

Using a half gallon of milk, the cheese (before crumbling) was a ball a little larger than a baseball. There were at least six cups of whey left. A half gallon of milk resulted in fourteen small cottage cheese balls, each about the size of a half dollar. Your mileage may vary.

Old cookbook recipes for Cottage Cheese.

The best plan of making this dish, is to set the tin pan of clabber on a hot stove, or in a pot of water that is boiling over the fire. When the when has risen sufficiently, pour it through a colander, and put the curd or cheese away in a cold place, and just before going to table, season it with salt and pepper to your taste, and pour some sweet cream over it. — Elizabeth Ellicott Lea, Domestic Cookery (Baltimore: Cushings and Bailey, 1869), 182-183.

Place a pan of clabbered sour milk over the fire, and let it become well scalded; then, pouring it into a clean cloth, squeeze out all the water, leaving the clabber quite dry. Put this into a kitchen basin, and work it with the hands, making it a little moist by adding cream. Add also a little butter and plenty of salt; mold it into little balls. — Mary Newton Foote Henderson, Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877), 265.

Place one quart thick sour milk in a pan on the back of the stove, and scald it until the curd has separated from the whey. Spread a strainer cloth over a bowl, pour in the milk, lift the edges of the cloth, and draw them together; drain or wring quite dry. There will be but half or two thirds of a cup of curd, but it is worth saving. It is the flesh-forming or nutritive part of the milk. Put it in a small bown, with one teaspoonful butter, one saltspoonful salt, and one tablespoon cream; mix it to a smooth paste with a spoon. Take a teaspoonful, and roll in the hand into a smooth ball. It should be quite moist, or the balls will crack. If too soft to handle, put it in a cool place for an hour, and then it will shape easily. Or it may be served without shaping, just broken up lightly with a fork. If scalded too long, the curd becomes very hard and brittle. It is better when freshly made, and is delicious with warm gingerbread. An excellent lunch or tea dish. Season this cheese with one tablespoonful of finely powdered sage, if you like the flavor. — Mary Johnson Bailey Lincoln, Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book: What To Do and What Not To Do in Cooking (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1884), 283-284.

Put a pan of sour or loppered milk on the stove or range, where it is not too hot; let it scald until the whey rises to the top (be careful that it does not boil, or the curd will become hard and tough). Place a clean cloth or towel over a sieve, and pour this whey and curd into it, leaving it covered to drain two or three hours; then put it into a dish and chop it fine with a spoon, adding a teaspoonful of salt, a tablespoonful of butter and enough sweet cream to make the cheese the consistency of putty. With your hands make it into little balls flattened. Keep it in a cool place. Many like it made rather thin with cream, serving it in a pretty dish. You may make this cheese of sweet milk, by forming the curd with prepared rennet. — Fanny Lemira Gillette, White House Cook Book (Chicago: R.S. Peale & Co., 1887), 196.

When the milk which has been left over sours so as to be clabbered, place it in a tin pan and set it over a pan of hot water. Heat it very slowly, so that the whey may become separated from the curd. If it boils, the curd will be tough. Strain it through a cloth, and press out the whey. Stir in a little butter, cream, and salt till it is moist enough. Work it well with a spoon until smooth, then make it into little pats for the table. — Annie R. Gregory, New Dixie Receipt Book (Atlanta: D.E. Luther Publishing Co., 1907), 168.

Allow the skimmed milk to clabber, over the clabbered milk pour hot water (not quite boiling), using about one quart of water to one quart of clabber. Allow it to stand until tepid. Over a colander or strainer spread a cheese cloth, pour the mixture into this to drip, allowing it to drain until it is quite firm. Place in ice box to chill. Serve with sugar and cream, with a dash of nutmeg if liked. To make cheese balls, moisten with thin cream or full milk to make a medium paste, make into small balls, roll in chopped parsley or chopped onion. — Mrs. S.R. Dull, Southern Cooking (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1928), 85.


cottage cheese (LTP 4, 9; THGY 15)
     balls (BPC 26; LTP 10)
     with onion (LTP 10)