Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bonny Clabber

I am fascinated by fermented dairy.  I love the idea that these little magic critters will happily predigest milk for me, making it easier on my stomach, removing some of the sugar, and improving its benefits.  It is thrilling to take the bowl of scalded milk that I left in my warm oven the night before and find creamy, beautiful yogurt.  I love that there are so many varieties--beyond yogurt, I have made piima, labnah, crème fraich, and buttermilk.  My next project is kefir
 In all the many varieties of cultured dairy, you add a starter culture, inoculating the milk with the specific species of microbe that produces the result you want.  The starter you begin with predicts the product you end up with.  It is fascinating to me that there are so many variants to soured milk.  In every culture that traditionally used dairy they depended on microorganisms to preserve their milk.  Each culture had its own unique version, from cheese to yogurt to sour cream, but the goal was the same—imbue perishable milk with a bit of immortality. 

Bonny clabber is another fascinating dairy ferment but it is a little different.  It is the product of wild fermentation. You don't inoculate the milk, it inoculates itself.   You set the milk out for a few days and let it go.  It thickens and curdles.  In the end you have something that looks a lot like cottage cheese and tastes very sour and yogurt-ish. 

Apparently, clabber came to the southern United States, especially Appalachia, with immigrants from Scotland.  The name, “bonny clabber”, is from Gaelic for soured milk. I can imagine that those thrifty, frugal people were unwilling to throw away nutritious milk that had soured in the hot weather (I can relate-raw milk is expensive and I don’t want to waste any of it).

Bonny clabber has died out with the advent of pasteurization.  In fact, it's a little difficult to get over the cultural notion that milk that has gone sour, and in the case of bonny clabber, has thickened and curdled, is not ok to eat.  Paradoxically, I have no problem enjoying yogurt, kefir, sour cream, or any other more “cultured” dairy ferment.  I had a hard time finding much about bonny clabber on the internet. I found a Civil War recipe, which was kind of cool, and Jenny at Nourished Kitchen mentions it when talking about the variety of cultured dairy.  Alchemille tried it back in 2009 and I found a mention of it in a book called Scotch-Irish Foodways in America.

 So, I had a gallon of raw milk that went sour this weekend.  Normally, I make sour milk into chocolate milk or eggnog and let my kids have a special treat.  I don't want to send expensive raw milk down the drain just because it's sour--raw milk that has soured is not like pasteurized milk which becomes putrid and rotten.  The little magic critters just start using up the milk sugar and turning the milk actually becomes MORE nourishing.  So, I find a way to get it into my kids' tummies. 

This time I decided to completely jump the shark and see if I could make bonny clabber.  I put a quart of sour milk in a mason jar, covered it and set it in what I have come to call my “ferment cupboard”—the cupboard above my range that stays nice and warm.  Three days later (that would be this morning), I took it down and opened it.  It had curdled into a solid mass and smelled like warm yogurt.  I put a little in a bowl and tasted it—wow! Very sour!  The texture reminded me a little of custard.  It was shiny and thick and white.  The cream had risen to the top of the jar and curdled separately, so I spooned that off first.  I had read that you can make clabber butter with clabbered cream…now, that’s a thought. The whey breaks out very quickly when you start to spoon out the clabber so I decided to stain some of it off.  I used a coffee filter to line my strainer and left it for a couple of hours.  It strains a lot slower than yogurt. 

After the straining, it looked more like cottage cheese than custard.  I tried it with brown sugar, cinnamon, and cream and it was good…different but good.  My 9 year old had it for breakfast and he liked it too.  I can’t see us having it very often because it requires a good heaping helping of sweetness to deal with the sour taste, but once in awhile a little bonny clabber might be a nice thing. 


  1. Thanks for sharing this. My class is reading "Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry" and they drink Clabber Milk in the story. Of course, the kids wanted to know what it is. I googled it and you came up! Appreciate all your insights. The kids still said yuck and didn't think they wanted to try it though. Also - not sure in the book how they "drank" it!!!

    1. Clabber milk is what is left over from making butter-known today as buttermilk.

  2. How fun! I love that book! They most likely drank it before it got thick. We've never repeated this experiment--I think you have to be raised with it to really like it.

  3. My bonny will not thicken. It sours, but stays runny. Any suggestions?

  4. Try clabbering raw milk that is fresh rather than sour, and you'll have a truly delicious bonny clabber (less tangy than yogurt after 2 nights on the least that's my experience with fresh raw jersey milk).

  5. If it has too much bite to it, add salt. It will act like a ricotta. Also if you hang the clabber in a cheese cloth, burp rag, or tea towel for 2-3 hours more of the tangy whey will drain off and you'll have yogurt. If you leave to hang 12 hours, then salt, you'll have a beautiful ricotta. Add spices and you will have an easy meal ready cheese. I do a garlic and herb that makes a wonderful cream sauce with chicken and pasta. Clabber possibilities are endless!!
    Kacee Thacker-- The Penny Cow :)