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 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.

2 thoughts on “What is clabber?”

  1. Many people in Latvia swear by clabber, that it’s the best of all sour milk products. Basically because it’s been around since their childhood (in our climate clabber or kefir are the only “natural” end product of letting milk get sour; yogurt bacteria don’t live here), and people who have access to fresh milk often make excess milk into clabber and use it to bake pancakes – due to its different texture from other sour milk products available, pancakes turn out fluffy and flavorful. Because of habit of making excess milk into sour milk many think that store bought milk is not good and not “natural”, because it often spoils instead of getting sour. People just don’t realize that by pasteurization all bacteria in milk, which would process it into sour milk, are gone, and it’s a matter of luck whether good or bad bacteria will get into this milk first. The idea of adding any cultured product to fresh milk haven’t gotten to many people yet 🙂

    1. Very good point, Antuanete!

      A lot of the bacteria that make clabber are actually in the cow, so yes, once you pasteurize it the culture is killed…and who knows what sort of undesirable culture might move in after they’re dead. Which is why you always want to inoculate milk with an established culture before you try to make clabber, crème frâiche or any other fresh-fermented dairy product. A tablespoon or so of buttermilk, yogurt or sour cream is all you need to get the fermentation going.

      GREAT point. Thanks so much for the comment!


      – Joe

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