It wasn’t always that way. Vickie Reh watched her maternal grandmother make a tart and creamy cottage cheese, stirring in snipped scallion tops from the garden. Grace Tholstrup was a farmer’s wife in northern Kansas. After her chores were done and the children were tended to, from the 1950s to the 1970s she would drive 13 miles into Concordia to work as a restaurant cook. Reh doesn’t know whether her grandmother made cottage cheese at the restaurant, but diners were so impressed with her plates in general that they sent tips back to the kitchen.
Reh has made cottage cheese just about every other day since 2009 at Buck’s Fishing & Camping in Northwest Washington, where she heads the kitchen. She didn’t have her grandmother’s recipe, so she found one and tweaked it. “I’m a chef who doesn’t invent the wheel,” she says. “I want to produce the perfect wheel.”
Cottage cheese was the first kind of cheese that Sue Conley learned to make. It was in 1997, in Washington state, before she and Peggy Smith founded Cowgirl Creamery in California. Conley’s instructor was cheese culture expert David Potter. “He was a master cottage cheese maker,” she says. “I had never tasted anything so good.”
It became her sentimental favorite, a handmade labor of love that Cowgirl produced at a low-key 150 pounds per week until the end of last year. They called it “clabbered,” which refers to the way the curd was thickened with a blend of cultured cream and milk.
“We haven’t stopped for good,” Conley says resolutely. “Just call it a suspension of production. We need to figure out a way to improve the process.”
Cottage cheese began as a byproduct, often derived from making butter. It was allowed to curdle on its own, over days, sometimes helped along with a natural acidic culture. The problem with American cottage cheese began after World War II, Conley says. Industrial shortcuts diminished the curd on several levels. Rennet was used to hasten the process of coagulation. The milk dressing was thickened with cornstarch instead of cream, displacing the fresh dairy taste with something sour. Any clabberation, so to speak, went out the window. These days, the best-selling brands use thickeners such as guar gum and carrageenan.
The flavor has also been bred out of the commercial stuff, not unlike what has become of factory-farmed chickens. “Natural flavor” is added to tubs of cottage cheese in the grocery store dairy case. But flavor comes about naturally in handmade versions.