A Mini-Guide to Polish Dairy
There is no Polish cuisine without soured milk, sour cream, and fresh cheeses. Traditionally manufactured dairy is wonderful and people hunt for it through trusted local producers or at outdoor food markets. Shelves inside Polish supermarkets bend under the weight of tens if not hundreds of varieties of dairy products. To the uninitiated, all this range can seem baffling. Here is a brief guide intended to help you figure out how to choose the good stuff.
‘If it’s milk, it’d better come straight from the cow!’ is a typically Polish line of thought, recalling summer holidays spent in the countryside. Today, completely raw milk isn’t available in stores and its sale is subject to a variety of regulations. Sometimes food markets do provide an opportunity to purchase raw milk from merchants, but caution is advised whenever the conditions of storage and transport of this kind of milk are not known.
Polish shops offer milk with a variety of fat content: 0%, 0.5%, 2%, and 3.2%. Recently, a new product for children with a heightened fat amount of 3.8% has also appeared in shops. Lactose-free milk has also been available for some time. Much like in other countries, a significant part of Poland’s milk market consists of UHT milk, which has undergone pasteurisation at very high temperatures. As a result of this process, it loses most of its qualities as well as its flavour. We don’t recommend this kind of milk!
So, how do you choose, if you don’t have access to rural produce? Milk ought to be processed as little as possible, and you can choose from products whose labels say ‘mildly pasteurised’, ‘pasteurised in low temperatures’ or ‘micro-filtered’. In the latter case, milk undergoes pasteurisation for some fifteen seconds at a temperature of 73°C. This guarantees safety but at the same time has limited influence on the milk’s flavour and smell as well as its bioactive ingredients. Some even say that micro-filtered milk tastes just like ‘milk straight from a cow’.
In Poland, soured milk (zsiadłe mleko) is something that’s associated with summer foods prepared by grandma, and especially the simple lunch classic of new potatoes with melted butter and dill.
What do you need to make soured milk? The only thing – or rather THE thing – required is fresh, raw milk. A few decades ago, everyone made it themselves, because raw milk was available even in the city. All you had to do was to leave it to turn sour inside a clay jar. Due to the bacteria normally present in milk, the process of fermentation made its sweet flavour turn sour. As a result, the milk split into layers of curd and whey, which had to be mixed after removing the top layer of cream.
Today, not many people make soured milk at home because raw milk is difficult to get. Luckily, for some time now, many producers have also made soured milk that you can simply buy in shops. It is usually sold in small 500 ml cups. You should only buy the kind that contains milk and bacteria cultures.
Soured milk is healthy, because the lactose present in raw milk gets broken down by bacteria and becomes better tolerated by the body. When pressed, soured milk can be used to make delicious cottage cheese. It’s also great to use in milkshakes along with seasonal fruit such as strawberries.
A fridge isn’t truly Polish without a bottle of buttermilk, or maślanka. Much like soured milk or kefir, it’s a very popular and refreshing drink, and a common side to a typical summer lunch. Real rural buttermilk is made after fat is separated from buttered cream. Lactic acid within the buttermilk induces production of digestive juices and it regulates digestion.
And what is its influence on the mercantile reality? Shelves are indeed abundantly filled with all kinds of labels such as ‘rural buttermilk’ and ‘granny’s buttermilk’. But, beware! In spite of all the reassurances on the part of the producers, you should becareful. Due to the lack of specific regulations, the name maślanka is applied to many products that have nothing to do with the rural speciality. Big dairy manufacturing plants simply make their ‘buttermilk’ from milk with the addition of bacteria (much like yoghurt) and sometimes use powdered buttermilk. Not that you should avoid buttermilk, you should just remember to choose products free of additives, such as guar gum, animal gelatine, modified starch, pectin, and powdered milk. And forget about flavoured buttermilk – it contains huge amounts of sugar. If you want a fruity drink, the best solution is to add the fruit yourself and blend it.
Although the history of kefir in Poland is rather short, nowadays Poland is the world’s second biggest producer of kefir after Russia. Kefir first appeared there in the early 20th century and it became popular in the subsequent decades.
What is it? It’s a refreshing sour drink from fermented, skimmed, and pasteurised milk. Kefir ‘grains’ or bacteria are used for its production. High-quality kefir is considered a natural probiotic. It stops the development of harmful bacteria within the digestive system, it regulates the body’s metabolism and helps to assimilate protein and calcium. It’s also a source of vitamins and minerals, known to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Similarly to buttermilk and soured milk, you ought to choose products that do not contain any additives such as powdered milk. Kefir is usually sold in plastic bottles, cartons, and sometimes, although less frequently, in a traditional glass. It goes well with a simple lunch of buckwheat groats, fried eggs, and spinach. You can check out this dish in one of Poland’s milk bars. Some also claim that kefir can cure hangovers.
Quark cheese is an approximate translation of the Polish word twaróg, which designates both Quark cheese and a variety of cottage-like cheeses that do not exist in the English-speaking world. Made with cow’s milk, it is used in a thousand different ways. Stuffing for ruskie pierogi is made with it, it’s used as a dough ingredient in various dumplings, it is put inside pancakes and racuchy, it is used as a yeast pastry topping, as an ingredient in desserts, and, of course, it's also the basic ingredient in cheesecakes. Producers offer a blended version for making the latter, which of course saves a lot of work. Twaróg, also known as ‘white cheese'; is often eaten for breakfast, spread on a slice of bread with spring onions, or eaten as a paste made with the addition of herbs, chopped vegetables, smoked fish, and the like. High-quality twaróg is a valuable source of protein.
You can buy twaróg made with cheese mass obtained by fermenting milk, or with milk to which lactic acid and rennet was added. The cheeses are usually sold in oval, foil packaging, or in blocks cut according to the desired weight. They have a variety of fat content: the cream type (14.5 %), full-fat (9.5 %), fat (6.5%), half-fat (3%) and skimmed (under 3%). Supermarkets sometimes also sell cheeses from ecological manufacturers who make them in natural conditions.
For more than 20 years now, Poland has also produced a cottage cheese version of the product, which has a grainy consistency and which is sold under the serek wiejski. Homogenised cheeses are also popular in Poland, and they are made by blending twaróg mass with sweet cream. The homogenisation process results in a smooth texture. You should look for products that don’t contain anything other than milk, bacteria cultures, sweet cream, and rennet.
Sour cream is an important resource in Polish cooking. But the rural high-quality version is now very much a niche product, available only from small local manufacturers outside of the supermarket mainstream.
And what does the latter offer? Firstly – sweet cream, obtained through the centrifugation of milk. The cream is usually pasteurised at a high temperature (UHT) or sterilised. Sweet cream with a fat content of 9% to 18% is used as coffee creamer. The so-called kremówka cream contains between 30 and 36% fat, and it is used for desserts. Sour cream on the other hand (śmietana in Polish) is a product made by adding lactic acid bacteria to the sweet cream.
The sour cream available in shops, which is usually either homogenised or thermized after fermentation, can also contain various additives such as gelatine, guar gum, carrageenan, etc. It can have 10%, 12%, 18%, 22%, or 30% fat content. Producers use varying kinds of descriptions on their labels and often don’t inform about the ingredients. Creams with lower fat contents are even sometimes made by diluting sour cream with milk.
Polish country-style butter can be delicious. But producers often violate the rules ofits production, and as a result – in spite of the dizzying amount of available ‘butter’ goods – it's easy to end up buying something that has nothing to do with butter.
The different kinds of available butters vary first of all in their fat content. Butter, ‘masło’ in Polish, is sold under a variety of labels: masło ekstra (editor's translation: super butter), masło delikatesowe (ed. trans.: gourmet butter), and masło wyborowe (ed. trans.: select butter) should all contain at least 82% fat, and a maximum of 16% water. Masło stołowe (ed. trans.: table butter) is a lower quality product, as the requirements for its production are not as restrictive. Masło śmietankowe (ed. trans.: cream butter) is yet another kind of butter, and one typical of the Polish market. It is made with sweet cream, and contains relatively high amounts of lactose but less fat – 73.5%. Masło ekstra is more healthy than the cream kind, especially for those with lactose intolerance, people suffering from various medical conditions, and the elderly.
Not everything that the producer chooses to label ‘butter’ is really butter. The most common fraudulent practice is to add plant fats. Some add plant oils without informing customers at all.
After being taken out of the fridge, real butter ought to be very hard, and almost white, not yellow (the latter case indicates use of artificial food colouring).
Poles are starting to appreciate local butters from a variety of regions, which have their own specific flavours. The Regional Products’ List of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development includes more than a dozen different butters from different regions in Poland.
While yoghurts in Poland fall short of their exquisite Balkan cousins, they are still much superior in taste and texture to the average commercial yoghurt sold in English-speaking countries.
The true flavour of yoghurt results from the presence of bacteria during the process of fermentation itself. You should read labels when choosing your yoghurt in order to verify that it doesn't contain anything besides milk and bacteria cultures. Natural yoghurt is the healthiest, but there is also an abundance of those with blended fruit. They can contain high amounts of sugar. It’s a highly competitive area of production, with the number of large-scale producers exceeding fifty. Opt for yoghurt made by small and local manufacturers.
Written by Magalena Kasprzyk-Chevriaux, translated by Paulina Schlosser, June 2016