Cottage cheese faced a problem: After World War II, batches of the soft, lumpy dairy concoction developed a propensity to take on a rancid odor and a bitter taste. That changed in 1951, when dairy researchers identified the culprits, three bacterial miscreants that produced this “slimy curd defect.” To prevent the condition, researchers advised cheesemakers to keep these bacteria from entering their manufacturing facilities in the first place. Thus ended the scourge.
Despite this and other advances in cottage-cheese production, like texture analyzers, high-powered microscopes, and trained human tasters, cottage cheese has never enjoyed the same popularity as yogurt. That’s because cottage cheese, once revered for its flavor and versatility, has taken a series of gut-punches in the dairy sector: enduring associations with weight loss, inconvenient packaging, and near-total displacement by its cousin, Greek yogurt, to name a few. But stalwart food scientists and artisanal dairy farmers have high hopes for the future of cottage cheese. With yogurt sales on the decline, a golden age of curds might be right around the corner.
“It’s a pretty straightforward cheese to make,” says John Lucey, a professor of food science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Even so, the process is time-consuming and labor-intensive. It begins with creating the curd, the lumpy matter found in cottage cheese.
The curd comes from nonfat milk and added cultures, which trigger the milk’s fermentation. After hours of cooking near room temperature, the milk turns into a gel that is cut into pea-size curds. Cutting the curd releases whey, the liquid that remains after curdling. The fragile curds that result are then washed, to cool them and rid them of excess water and acidity. Finally, a dressing, made from fermented cream, is mixed with the curds. Other ingredients such as stabilizers, gums, and salt are added as needed in large-batch production.
Dave Potter and his wife, Cathy, distribute cultures to artisan cheesemakers and to small- and medium-size dairies. The cultures are bacteria used to ferment the lactose in the milk. “The bacteria are just trying to survive, but we’re using their by-product to produce these foods,” he explains.
Although cultures are used in making both the curd and the dressing, they add little flavor to the final product because they’re killed off during its production. It’s the cream in the dressing that gives cottage cheese its dominant flavor and distinguishes one cottage cheese from another. “There are a lot of people who have their own proprietary way to make the dressing,” says Lucey. Some might be buttery, others tart, for example. How the mixtures are cooked and the origins of the milk and cream also affect the taste and texture of cottage cheese, and ultimately its appeal.
But it doesn’t appeal to many. In the United States, cottage-cheese consumption been in a free fall since the mid-1970s.
Negligence is the reason, says Moshe Rosenberg, a professor of food science and technology at the University of California at Davis. In the last half century or so, yogurt makers have added flavor to their products, while cottage cheese has failed to receive the same treatment. Meanwhile, Americans consume about 15 pounds of yogurt per capita, compared with just two pounds of cottage cheese. “I would dare to say that had there been the same effort to dress up cottage cheese with new flavors and new ingredients, we would see a much higher consumption of cottage cheese,” Rosenberg says. “Cottage cheese has been neglected, and the new king has been crowned.”
Already disregarded, cottage cheese faced another setback during the late 1990s: a new zeal for low-fat foods. Creamed anything back then was a “no-no,” Rosenberg notes. Creamed meant fattening, or at least people thought it did. But full-fat cottage cheese is only 4 percent fat. That’s dramatically less than other cheeses like cheddar, which hover around 30 percent.
In industries like salad dressing, Rosenberg explains, a significant reduction in fat content boosted sales. “There was a campaign to introduce what I call cheeseless cheese: cottage cheese that was low-fat or fat-free.”
Rosenberg’s lab spent two and a half years looking at what happens when the fat is removed from cottage-cheese dressing. The results weren’t pretty. “The minute a little bit of cream was taken out of the product, it significantly affected its quality attributes, especially the texture,” he says.
That’s because full-fat cottage cheese allows the cream to cling to the outer surface of each curd particle, which prevents the curd from absorbing the moisture from the dressing. When you eat full-fat cottage cheese, you can feel the curd particles on your tongue and you can taste the cream.
Not so with low-fat and non-fat cottage cheese. The product becomes “pastelike,” according to Rosenberg. Most of the moisture from the dressing gets absorbed by the curd, leaving it very mushy and soft. “This deterioration in the traditional quality of the product turned many people off,” says Rosenberg.
Greek yogurt filled the void left by cottage cheese. Over the last few years, people have been seeking low-fat, high-protein foods, and Greek yogurt offers a tasty, nutritious option for some. But Rosenberg has bad news for them.
A 100-gram serving of full-fat cottage cheese contains 11.5 grams of protein and 4.3 grams of fat. An equivalent amount of full-fat Greek yogurt offers about 25 percent less protein (8.7 grams), but provides almost as much fat (4.1 grams) as the cottage cheese. Low-fat cottage cheese still has a lot of protein (10.5 grams) but only about a gram of fat, whereas low-fat Greek yogurt contains more fat—1.7 grams—for only 8.2 grams of protein.
Rosenberg shakes his head at Greek yogurt’s figure-defying rise. “Nobody talks about it,” he says, almost as if a conspiracy is afoot, before acknowledging that it’s just marketing. “When there is a campaign to promote a product by building an image around it, miracles can happen, and what we see with the Greek yogurt is a miracle.” Greek yogurt seems sophisticated and cosmopolitan, while cottage cheese remains associated with the tedium of weight loss, not to mention the blandness dieting can imply.
Cottage cheese built that reputation over a long time, and breaking it will be hard. Potter recalls that when he began his career as a dairy producer 30 years ago, cottage cheese was marketed mostly to women, men on diets, and bodybuilders.
The connection between dieting and cottage cheese seems to have endured, even with Millennials. When Rosenberg’s lab needed some cottage cheese for analysis, he asked two students to pick some up at the local supermarket. Both of them refused. To Rosenberg’s dismay, the students didn’t want to risk being seen buying cottage cheese.
Cottage-cheese makers have started offering single-serving packaging akin to yogurt, making the product easier to eat as a snack or on the go. That could help distance cottage cheese from its old-fashioned serving methods, spooned from a large tub and topped with canned peaches, for example. In so doing, the milky curds might shed some of its associations with dieting, too. Rosenberg says he’s puzzled by the lack of marketing for cottage cheese, given its near identical composition to yogurt. He worries that the cottage-cheese industry might have given up, especially given that the big producers can just make yogurt instead.
If that’s the case, why do dairies bother producing cottage cheese at all, anymore? Many don’t, it turns out. Potter estimates that only about two dozen U.S. dairies make the stuff. However, there is a movement among artisan cheesemakers to revive the curd and give yogurt a run for its money.
Maureen Cunnie makes Cowgirl Creamery’s Clabbered Cottage Cheese. It’s a time-consuming artisanal process, but one that yields a product with its own nuanced character. The creamery sources its milk from a local supplier, Bivalve Dairy, about a half-hour’s drive from Petaluma, California, where the cottage cheese is made.
“It’s a very slow set,” says Cunnie, referring to the curd. That allows the milk to develop more flavor, she explains. The milk is separated, pasteurized, and cultured in the afternoon, and allowed to set overnight. The next morning the curd is “cut,” or stirred. “We gently stir the curd over about two hours, and this creates little pillows of curds,” Cunnie explains. “If you stir it too fast, it would shatter, so it’s really a sensory process on the part of the cheesemaker.”
Cowgirl’s dressing is crème fraiche mixed with cultured milk, which Cunnie says gives it a little tang and a little sweetness. “This gives it a much richer presence in your mouth,” she says.
Last year, the dairy industry reported a slight slowdown in the sale of Greek yogurt. That might be good news for Cunnie and her fellow curdmasters. Potter, who eats cottage cheese straight from the container, thinks yogurt’s popularity has peaked. He also sees large-batch cottage-cheese makers putting more effort into the consistency of their respective brands’ taste and quality.
He’s also seeing more single-serve packaging with a greater diversity of products and flavors. Potter thinks that trend is the most important for increasing cottage-cheese consumption. Lucey agrees. “You don’t get a five-pound tub of yogurt and say, ‘There you go, John, there’s your lunch,’” he says.
But its proponents still hope that the intrinsic properties of cottage cheese might win people over. For starters, Rosenberg says, forget about the low-fat and no-fat variations. Embrace full fat, instead. After all, it’s still just cottage cheese. “People don’t think twice when they go and buy fries or cheeseburgers,” he says. “But when it comes cottage cheese, and they see the words full fat, they get cold feet. ‘Oh, no, no, this is pure poison!’”
“Just cottage cheese” isn’t enough for Potter. He has greater gustatory aspirations for these lumpy curds of soured milk. “You have to make it accessible to everybody and convenient and not just plain cottage cheese. People are looking for flavor, and a little excitement.”