What is clabber?

A good question, reader Suzy. Clabber is/was nothing more or less than sour milk. Rural American housewives made it either by leaving milk out out at room temperature (where it would be slowly soured by lactic acid-producing bacteria), or by combining milk with vinegar or even rennet. Depending on how clabber was made and how it was treated, it could assume any one of several textures. It could be thick and spoonable, it could be a soupy, lumpy consistency, or it could be firm and dry, almost like a cheese. Mostly, clabber was a way to turn something that would otherwise go to waste (excess milk) into something useful.

Clabber came to America by way of the Scots-Irish: back-country Scottish lowland folk who were relocated to Northern Ireland (Ulster), but ultimately emigrated to the New World. The poorest of the poor of our early forebears, they could afford to waste nothing. Indeed, while the English slopped their hogs with the clumpy, curdled milk that remained after their cream was skimmed off, their Northern cousins would just as soon eat it. And so, just as clabber was synonymous with poverty in the old country, so it was in America, common among Appalachian hill folk and Southern farmers. They — and especially their children — would slather it over corn bread or just eat it by the spoonful.

When American housewives began experimenting with chemical leaveners in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, clabber became useful in another way: as an acid food to combine with saleratus, soda or pearlash to make bubbles in batters and doughs.The problem was that homemade clabber could be highly variable in its acidity, and that caused problems for reasons I’ve discussed below. No wonder then that so many home bakers were so relieved to have a consistent leavener like baking powder replace the old soda-and-clabber or saleratus-and-clabber combos. No wonder also why one of the most widely marketed baking powders was (and is) named Clabber Girl.

And with that Paul Harvey-esque finale I’ll bring this post to an end.

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31 Responses to What is clabber?

  1. Chana says:

    Very interesting. But then how is clabber/sour milk different than plain old spoiled milk? Why is one so good (I love sour milk), while the other can make you ill (and doesn’t taste good at all)?

    • joepastry says:

      There’s no difference between the two other than the type of microbes they contain. The trick to making clabber, however, was to keep a steady culture going. Back in the day, most kitchens had what was known as the “clabber jar” or “clabber pitcher” where a steady culture was kept and replenished every day, sort of like a sourdough starter. That population of non-harmful acid- and alcohol-producing bacteria would (usually) crowd out and/or prevent the growth of the type of microbes that would make you sick.

      • Jane says:

        I suspect that the key word in there is “usually” – like many foodborne illnesses, people getting sick from sour milk probably happened a lot more often in the past than it does now.

        • joepastry says:

          So true. We take for granted the safety of our food nowadays. Clabber jars are one of those things that sound quaint and wholesome, but could in fact be a great delivery system for something truly nasty. Thanks Jane!

        • Deb says:

          Actually, the reverse is true! People don’t get sick from “soured” (raw) milk, but they do get sick from spoiled (pasteurized) milk!
          The pasteurization process kills all of the beneficial bacteria naturally found in raw milk while it is killing the “nasties”. Nothing left but the crying and tossing! However, when raw milk (full of healthy, beneficial probiotics/good bacteria!) sours, it’s still very good for us, and will NOT make you sick. (Sour raw milk IS Clabber) :) Just the opposite, it helps keep us healthy just as do other probiotic foods such as sourdough, keifer, kombucha and saurkraut!

          • joepastry says:

            Hey Deb! I wish I could say I agreed with you that raw milk is always safe to consume. But you’re entitled to your opinion and I thank you for the comment!

            I do agree that at least traditionally, clabber was made from raw milk — it’s the only kind that most farmers had on hand. And again, many thanks!

            - Joe

  2. Lisa says:

    Isn’t the major difference between sour milk and spoiled milk whether or not the source milk was pasturized? If the milk is “raw” the natural bacteria still exist and culture the milk. If the milk is pasturized, all the native bacteria was destroyed and the bacteria that causes it to spoil is external to the milk.

    Not sure if that’s 100% true (i.e. I’ve heard it but not fact checked it), but that’s also the ancedotal reason some folks who are mildly lactose intolerant claim to be able to digest raw milk better than pasturized milk (as the enzymes and bacteria native to milk help break it down make it easier to stomach, so to speak).

    • joepastry says:

      Hi Lisa! It’s true that modern industrial producers pasteurize their milk before they “sour it” to make fermented dairy products of one kind or another. But the fact is that undesirable microbes can easily invade pasteurized milk from the air, possibly out-competing any bugs that were added to it intentionally. It all depends on who gets there, how numerous they are, and how quickly they’re able to thrive given their food, time, pH and temperature requirements.

      • Giovani says:

        I think Lisa was asking if pasteurized milk + warm temperature + time = spoiled milk and if raw milk + warm temperature + time = soured milk.

        • joepastry says:

          OK, let’s see here. First let’s clarify terms. Assuming that:

          Sour milk = milk that’s infected with microbes you want, and;

          Spoiled milk = milk that’s infected with microbes you don’t want;

          …it still depends on who shows up to the party. Raw milk is infected with a wide variety of microbes. That includes beneficial lactic acid bacteria, which are present in lots of places, even in the udders of the cow. Unfortunately so are a lot of other less desirable types of bugs, depending on the relative health of the animal, what was in the air, the equipment or the container when the cow was milked. All of which is to say that it isn’t a foregone conclusion that raw milk will ferment into something safe to eat. That’s why clabber jars were used, because they contained a constant culture which would (hopefully) overwhelm and/or out-compete anything that might make a person sick. it didn’t always work.

          Pasteurized milk is a blank slate. In other words, a food source that’s been largely emptied of microbial life, ready for any and all comers to move in. Those could be beneficial microbes or harmful microbes according to what might be around in the air or in the container. Dairies make things like yogurt out of pasteurized milk because it gives them more control over the culture. Which is to say they add a large amount of a safe culture to the milk, confident that it will out-compete any opportunistic guests at the buffet. They still test all their batches to make sure, because you never really know who might have tried to crash the buffet.

          Did I answer the question? Or am I still not understanding it?

      • Diane keiser says:

        Lisa is right, Joe. Grew up with this clabber. Made it used it, grated it, enjoyed it.

    • Deb says:

      You’ve got it Lisa! ;)

  3. juliet says:

    Is it related to buttermilk?

    • joepastry says:

      Yes, it’s very similar. Clabber is milk that’s been allowed to ferment. Buttermilk is the fermented liquid “whey” that’s left behind after cream has been churned into butter. It’s quite similar to low-fat milk. Good question!

  4. marilyn pierson says:

    My grandmother on the farm made cottage cheese. She clabbered her milk in a crock in her pantry. My grandfather and I loved it with a spoonful of sugar stirred in. The rest of the family thought it only fit for the hogs. What is the difference between clabber and yogurt? They taste the same. I have wondered that for years.

    • joepastry says:

      Just scroll down on the main page, there’s a post on that very thing! Cheers – Joe

  5. Jean Conway says:

    My parents were from Poland, my mother made clabber, although I cannot recall what she called it. It was our yogurt of the time. It sounds awful and dangerous but honestly none of us got sick from eating it.

    • joepastry says:

      I don’t think it’s awful or dangerous — especially if it’s done by someone who knows how! It’s really no different than making your own yogurt, as you point out. Thanks for your comment, Jean!

      - Joe

  6. Gissie Brieger says:

    My mother made clabber, butter, cottage cheese and of course butter
    milk. My mother and her mother would eate the clabber with corn
    bread. I did not like clabber growing up but now I very much like
    Greek yogurt and buttermilk. Nothing like homemade cottage cheese and buttermilk. My father made a cheese which must have
    been Quark, I did not like that, but today I wish I had some.

    • joepastry says:

      Homemade clabber can be strong stuff depending on how long it ferments. Maybe that’s the reason you didn’t care for it.

      But yes, home fermenting is the best!

      - Joe

  7. Peggy Stone Cheek says:

    This morning as I ate yogurt, my mind wandered back to my youth. I wondered if yogurt was anything like the clabber that my mother used to make. When I Googled “milk clabber” I found your page and all the good information that you had given about clabber.

    I am keeping a file for my only granddaughter and someday she will have all these “wonderings of her grandma!” She will also be able to know things about her great grandmother. The wonderful information that you gave are now a part of our “family history!” And, I learned much from your input regarding clabber!!

    Thanks so much -

    • joepastry says:

      That’s a wonderful thought to start my day, thanks Peggy! There’s more on clabber on the site I’m sure if you’re interested. Just do a search. But thanks so much for your very thoughtful note. Cheers,

      - Joe

  8. Lynn says:

    My grandmother used to make clabbers in. Pot on the
    back of her stove. My mother in law is from Russia and she
    makes Kiefer It tastes the same as clabbers I make Kiefer from
    a start she gave me. I make the kiefer from pasterised milk my
    Grandmothers clabbers from raw milk

    • joepastry says:

      So nice to hear that, Lynn!

      It’s a mostly lost art. But as you can see from my dairy section under Pastry Components, I’m doing my best to keep it going!

      Nice to meet a kindred spirit,

      - Joe

  9. Barry says:

    My maternal Grandmother (in Texas) made clabber and cottage cheese from it.
    She also made sour milk for baking, if the recipe required it.
    These Grandparents kept ice, when they could afford it, in a wooden ice box. So had the way to keep milk cool and fresh.
    My paternal Grandmother (Arkansas, rural, really rural) also made clabber and cottage cheese. Not having ice available, she kept milk and butter in the spring house at first, but the spring dried up during the 1950s, so she kept butter in the well. She also made real buttermilk.
    Sweet cream (fresh cream) butter is sweet and mild. The cream is skimmed off the fresh milk and churned. The buttermilk left after churning is not useful for anything excepting hog feed.
    When milk, with the cream, is left to sour the cream is skimmed off and churned. The milk is then allowed to clabber. The resulting buttermilk is a tart, refreshing drink, the buttermilk of history. It is nothing like commercial buttermilk. Sour cream butter has a very unique flavor. Biscuits made with this buttermilk and spread with sour cream butter are indeed little bits of ambrosia. Except it may be an acquired taste, like haggis.
    The main reason for making and keeping sour milk butter and buttermilk is that without the ability to keep the milk and milk products cool, the soured products didn’t spoil.
    When yogurt first appeared in our grocery, I bought some. Fifty cents for a small container, (very expensive). I opened it and had realized that I had paid fifty cents for a little box of clabber. The first commercial yogurt available was just that, clabber. Then sometime later yogurt became slimy as it is today. Clabber is silky smooth on the tongue, not slimy. I can’t eat the commercial yogurt stuff.

    • joepastry says:

      Love that, Barry. Thanks for the great stories. I love making those sorts of things at home. If you look under the “Pastry Components” menu on the left under “dairy” you’ll find just about everything…made the city way of course…but still it’s nice to keep these sorts of practices alive, since very few people even know where buttermilk comes from anymore!

      Thanks again for the delightful note. Cheers,

      - Joe

  10. EVELYN Ellis says:

    As I reached for my Greek yogurt tonight, I began to wonder if yogurt was the same as clabber.

    My great-grandfather was a slave in South Carolina, but he lived long enough for my father and his siblings to remember when he would come their house and ask their mother for some of her clabber.

    He would eat it with cornbread, then ride away on his big white horse.

    It’s funny how my mind suddenly made the connection between yogurt and clabber.

    Thanks for the great information, Joe.

    • joepastry says:

      Hi Evelyn!

      That’s a great question and an even better story. The answer is yes, clabber is yogurt…sort of. Different microbes in different parts of the world ferment milk in different ways. In Greece and the steppes of Asia, lactic acid bacteria create a milk gel so strong that you can stand a spoon in it. Here in the States our home grown bugs can’t quite equal that performance, though they still make the thick, tangy and delicious semi-yogurt that we call clabber. So yes, that was it, that concoction that your great-grandfather rode on over for. Your intuition was exactly right, and on-cornbread is still the best way to eat it!

      Thanks for the wonderful comment,

      - Joe

  11. Ellen says:

    We have been drinking raw milk for two years now from a farm that is USDA certified organic. I have also been carefully saving the soured milk and we have enjoyed buttermilk pancakes, muffins, and tonight I am making a buttermilk Bechamel sauce for my moussaka casserole. Delicous! You must know and trust a local farm!

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