cup cheese

I have a new recipe to share with you: cup cheese.

Best I can tell, cup cheese (or soda cheese) is native to Lancaster County, the land of the Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonite dairy farmers, but the first ten years of my life were spent in Lancaster Country and I never encountered cup cheese, so I’m not for sure about that. The cheese is made with soured milk—via a process of heating, straining, melting—and with the addition of several common kitchen ingredients.

The strange thing is, I’m not sure whether I like the cheese or not, and promoting a non-favorite recipe on my blog feels a little weird. But I’m going to do it anyway because 1) the recipe is way cool to make, and 2) people who grow up with this stuff are crazy about it, and 3) with a few recipe tweaks (that I have yet to try but have included below), I may decide I’m crazy about it, too.

And I really want to be crazy about it. The stuff is awesome, some of the most satiny, creamy, spreadable, scoopable cheese you can imagine. It’s glorious to behold.

The problem (for me, anyway) lies in the flavor. My cheese was on the funky side, I do believe. But since I’ve never tasted cup cheese before and had nothing to compare it to, I’m not for certain about that. However, I think I know why it turned out strong and how I might make it less strong.

Also, my kids, while not head-over-heels in love with the cheese, are open to it, so it may be worth a redo just so as adults they can say they grew up with the stuff and are crazy about it.

This is not a hard cheese to make, though it felt hard because it was my first time and I was super-vigilant throughout the whole process (which is lengthy but doesn’t involve much active work time). The main trick is getting the milk to sour. I read that raw milk will sour in about 48 hours if left to sit on the counter. After 24 hours, my milk was smelling strong but not thick so I added a cup of buttermilk. Another 24 hours and it was ready to go. Next time (and what I say to do in the recipe), I’ll heat the milk to room temperature and add the buttermilk at the very beginning—hopefully that will cut back on the funk.

This cheese has an incredible texture, creamy-smooth like peanut butter, and a luxurious richness to rival cream cheese. It’s amazing stuff, really. Most people eat it spread on bread like butter, but I think it could be mixed with all sorts of things (fresh herbs, chopped ham, boiled eggs, capers, radishes, etc) to make exciting dips and spreads.

Have you ever had cup cheese? What did you think about it?

Cup Cheese (a.k.a Soda Cheese)
Adapted from a recipe my friend Kathy sent me, as well from the recipes I found in Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll and Mennonite Country-Style Recipes by Esther H. Shank

1 gallon raw milk
1 cup buttermilk
½ teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons melted butter
1 cup cream
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon salt

Pour the milk into a large kettle and heat over medium heat until slightly warm. Remove from the heat and stir in the buttermilk. Lid the pan and set aside until the milk is thick enough to cut with a knife—about 36-48 hours. Skim off the thick sour cream and reserve for some other baking project.

Cut the curds into ½ -inch cubes with a knife. Heat the milk to 115 to 130 degrees, stirring gently. Remove from the heat (or, if you want your curds to be firmer, keep the milk at that temperature for up to an hour) and separate the curds and whey by pouring the mixture into a cheesecloth-lined strainer. (Reserve the whey for other baking projects.) Tie up the corners of the cheesecloth and let the curds drain for 8 hours or overnight.

Dump the curds into a bowl and mix in the baking soda and melted butter. Let sit at room temperature for 4-5 hours.

Put the curds into the top part of a double boiler (I set a smaller kettle inside a larger one), making sure the top part is not touching the boiling water. Melt the curds, stirring occasionally. Once the curds are melted (they’ll be creamy-smooth and stringy, like melted marshmallows), add the beaten egg, cream, and salt. Bring the cheese to a boil (mine never got there—I just cooked it for awhile) and pour into dishes. Cover and refrigerate. Serve with crackers, bread, etc.

This same time, years previous: now, he wore a dresschickpeas with spinach, the case of the flying book, spinach-cheese crepes, and skillet-blackened asparagus


  • Neil Ferguson

    I used to live in Dallastown, PA in York Count. I used to attend Weight Watchers meetings and later attended TOPS meetings. In both organizations the help you to lose weight and they are quite knowledgeable in low calorie, low fat and other healthy foods to assist in the weight loss. Someone in one of those organizations told about cup cheese with very little calories and no fat. I found Shenks Cup Cheese at the New Eastern Market in York, PA. They had mild, medium and sharp. I don't remember if I went from the milt to the medium or from the medium to the sharp. Anyway I stuck to the sharp and love it on crackers. As many mentioned in the comments above it make an excellent dip and spread. I live in Washington, DC now and as many mentioned it is practacily not available unless you live in Lancaster County. And as someone mentioned Shenks will not ship their cup cheese. You need a friend to buy it and ship it to you. Back when I used to drive I would drive up to York to the New Eastern Market and buy out what ever stock of sharp cup cheese and bring it back to DC and put it in my freezer. I don't know if anyone has tried freezing it but it does work. I just dug my last container for cup cheese out of the freezer and put it in the refrigerator and am really enjoying it. I am going to be very distraught once it is long gone. I don't know if it will go bad in the refrigerator for long periods of time but it won't last long enough to find out. I really enjoyed reading all the comments on this website.

  • Unknown

    Does this cheese reproduce itself? My mother in law always had what she called cup cheese in the frig and after she ate some she'd put it back then the next time she got it out it was like what she had eaten had grown back. Seemed kinda creepy but the whole family loved it and now she's passed away so I can't ask her how she made it.

  • Unknown

    I'm really late to comment, but I grew up in a PA dutch family that loved cup cheese. I remember some of the Shenk family visiting our farm in Maryland (I think they went to school with my parents in Lancaster-Strasburg and/or Penn Manor and we are third cousins as well) on a motorcycle road trip and bringing cup cheese with them. When my husband and I were in Frankfurt we went to the cider pubs, and they served a soft cheese that the locals called stinky cheese–and it was the cup cheese I remembered from the Shenk's of Lancaster County!

  • Anonymous

    I would love to put this on pinterst!! as soon as I can find raw milk, I am going to try this and want to save this online

  • Anonymous

    Haley, your description sounds pretty close to the Shenk's cup cheese we enjoy here in Lancaster, PA. It's made with skim milk and baking soda (according to the ingredients list) and it's an almost translucent yellowish color. The cup cheese I grew up with has the look of mucus, the texture of rubber cement when left at room temp and it does have a bit of a funk to the smell. The sharper the better as far as taste goes. But it's a wonderful snack I enjoy on a yummy, thick chip like Grandma Utz chips.

  • Haley

    This is a very interesting cheese. Down here in central Texas the German immigrants made something similarcalled Kochkaese or cooked cheese. I've made it a few times and the recipe isn't as precise. It is:

    To 3 gallons farm-fresh skimmed milk, add 2 cups sour milk (clabber). Let it stand in as hallow pan until clabbered (about a day). Heat clabber until very warm and curdles. Pour into a thin sack and press out whey until the curd is dry (or hang outside overnight). Crumble curds in a large bowl. Add 2 teaspoons baking soda and mix well. Cover with a clean cloth and let stand until cheese turns a glazed yellow color (another day). To cook, place 1/2 cup milk and 3 tablespoons butter in pan. Add cheese and salt to taste. Cook slowly until all curds are dissolved. Pour into a buttered serving dish. Serve warm with homemade bread.

  • Anonymous

    My brother just sent me 6 containers of Shenk's Sharp.for Christmas. Love to have it on a Pa. Dutch sourdough pretzel. I too describe it as the consistency of snot, but that never bothered me . My mom used to serve it to us kids back in the 50's & you either love it or hate it , there is no in between .

  • basketpam

    It's a shame so many people are unable to try this cheese due to just the smell or the consistency. Even though its easier to eat as far as spreading when its room temperature, it does have less smell when its cold from the refrigerator. I bet MANY of the people who are turned off would be so surprised how much they would like it if they could just get that first cracker eaten with it on. I have had the same problem with people trying Hog Maw. When people first hear what it is, what the casing is, especially these city slickers or folks outside of the PA/MD area. Then I ask them if they like sausage, potatoes and onions. I PROMISE them that if they can just try the "insides" they'll love it. They don't have to eat the outsides. I have yet to have anyone that doesn't LOVE it. We have a local small market that makes something in their deli and calls it hog maw. It's just potatoes, onions, sausage and they add cabbage (our family never did the cabbage) but no maw. It is nothing like hog maw. You MUST have that maw, there is no other flavor like it in the world. Cup Cheese is the same thing.
    My problem is I can sit and eat an entire little plastic tub in one sitting if I let myself do it. I can't keep it in stock and at the price its running I could bankrupt myself very quickly buying as much as I want. If these folks ONLY knew what they were missing. And the nice thing, its SO low fat too!

  • The Eccentric Eclectic

    Regarding the soured milk, two comments:

    1) It makes a certain sense, in that "cultured" butter (the butter people made and ate before pasteurization) is made from cream that is covered with something breathable and left to the bacteria naturally growing in it for 3-5 days before churning. "Raw" (unpasteurized) cream works best, of course.

    2) The techniques I've read for letting dairy "cultures" grow emphasize that the temperature should be about 65 degrees Farenheit. Too warm, and the wrong kind of bacteria take over, spoiling the milk/cream; too cool, and the bacteria don't grow, and/or you get another kind of bacteria that also spoil it.

  • The Eccentric Eclectic

    As I suggested in above replies to others' comments, the result of this recipe doesn't resemble the Lancaster County, Pa. "cup cheese" I grew up with. My standard is Shenk's which is still made and can be found at the Green Dragon farmers' market in Lititz.

  • Anonymous

    Oh….I forgot to mention in my previous post that the cheese is made from skim milk and is fat free and only 25 calories per ounce! Imagine that! My favorote treat was only 25 calories an ounce and fat free! Wish that cook be said about my othet childhood faves dumplings with hard sauce and a littlr pitcher of milk poured over it all or bread wth butter and Turkey Syrup( a type of molasses).

  • Anonymous

    1. pot cheese is not cup cheese. it is totally different.
    2. there is no butter or eggs in Shenk's cup cheese.
    3. it used to come in a smoked version as well.
    4. The week I spent at the Shenk family farm as a young teen (Elsie Graybill who knew my family as customets in Central Market Lancaster invited me) was the most rewarding week of my life!
    5. yes it resembles mucus when room temperature and is rubbery when cold but it is heaven on a potato chip!!!

    • The Eccentric Eclectic

      All five of your comments jive with my experience of "cup cheese" (Shenk's–always Shenk's).

  • Anonymous

    Schmierkase and cup cheese are different cheeses, by the way. Schmierkase is sort of a mild, dry cottage cheese, or a crumbly farmer cheese. Dad made a sandwich of white bread, apple butter and Schmierkase. Cup cheese is like glue (or snot.) My Dad and several generations before were from Lebanon, PA. When a Martin's grocery opened near here, I could briefly buy their cup cheese, but it quickly changed/reverted to a Tops, and no more chees 🙁

    • Anonymous

      EXACTLY! When someone doesn't know the difference, I tend to distrust their recipe. Schmierkase you "smear" on bread, & is a "thicker" cottage cheese: excellent drizzled with molasses, & eaten on bread. Borden's used to sell it – you know, "Elsie" the Cow? Anyway, cup cheese is wonderful served as a breakfast cheese, right on your plate, eaten with eggs & bacon, sausage, liver puddin, or panhaus = scrapple (pronounced pun hoss, & means house pan.) I also especially enjoy it on a good cracker. And, "yes", I was raised Pennsylvania Dutch, born 'n raised into the Witmer/Sipe family, a York Co., PA, life-long resident. Been eating Shenk's cup cheese for 59 years, now, with no plans to stop!!!!

    • The Eccentric Eclectic

      You have ten years on me (been eating Shenk's cup cheese for 49 years). My great grandmother was a Witmer, born and raised on a farm outside Paradise. Pleased to meet you, cousin! (Or perhaps we've already met.)

  • Alexandra McKeever

    I was born in Ephrata, and grew up on a farm near Schaefferstown in Lebanon County. We often ate cup cheese then. I loved it and still do. Most of the time I spread it on soft white bread. I left the area to go to college and have lived mostly in the west since then. My older sister sends me cup cheese each year for Christmas. It is my best present. I love it. I can't wait to bite into it. This year I had some Costco torta rolls. The cup cheese was really yummy on them.

  • Anonymous

    My late husband, of German heritage, told me about his Mother making this when he was growing up. He couldn't remember enough about how she made it for us to try it ourselves, but he dearly loved it.

  • Kathleen Stoltzfus

    The cup cheese I grew up with was decidedly funky and snotty.
    Several years ago my father and uncle made some using cottage cheese. Not sure if that was a traditional way to make it or a shortcut they discovered.

  • gail

    My mom 86 and deceased father are from Mt Joy and Lancaster. We used to go to Rutz(not sure of spelling) flea market and get cup cheese and sticky buns. It is delish on them and on pretzels. I have tried to get it from Amish in Al, Ky and Tn but t they don't know what it is.

    • luv2sew__77

      Ask the Amish you know if they are familiar with "spread cheese" which is a direct translation of the word we called in the German Dialect. 🙂 I grew up with it, my parents came from Ohio. But different areas may not make it. We love it (even my children and they've not had it very often). Bring on the sour milk i want some! Btw my mom used to use fresh milk and clabber with citric acid for a less sharp taste.

  • Gini Featherstone

    I was born in York, PA, but grew up & still live in West Palm Beach, Florida. Cup cheese was an adult-only delicacy enjoyed when we went back to York for vacations. Intrigued, I finally tried it as a teenager and decidedly loved it. I am now 61 and just returned from visiting my dear mother living in Manchester. We made our traditional trip to Central Market in York, and . . . . no cup cheese anywhere!! Very disappointing. BUT–you have given me hope with this recipe! I will attempt making my own (sharp, yes), and put it in the little Shenk's plastic cup I saved for posterity. Thanks for working out the recipe for us! 🙂

  • Melissa

    I grew up in Lancaster PA eating cup cheese. I agree that you either love it or hate it. I haven't lived in Lancaster in 26 years, but love having it each time I come for a visit. We grew up eating cup cheese and potato chip sandwiches. Later I ate cup cheese spread on a toasted bagel – heaven! I lived in western NY from 1987-1995 and would order it directly from Shenk's . Since I moved to the Kansas City area post 1995 I've been unable to get it from Shenks. Not sure why I can no longer get it – would love to order some – any ideas?

  • Anonymous

    I've made this cheese quite often. Its delicious, very creamy and not snotty. If you add a starter, and want a milder cheese, only let it set out overnight or around 8 – 10 hrs until the curd is thick.
    Another thing I always do is rinse the curds with cold water after I have them in the bag. That way they aren't as sour. then I hang the bag of curds to drain.

  • Unknown

    Hi thanks for the recipe! My dad often bought it as a treat for himself since non of us liked it. I wanted to make the real stuff for his birthday and came across your blog. My Amish MIL makes it all the time for church but the Amish started making a easier recipe. Here's her recipe, 1 qt milk minus a 1/2 cup, 2 1/2 lbs white American cheese, 1lb of Velveeta cheese – heat milk just to boiling point, add 1/2 stick of butter and turn burner off. Add the cheese slice by slice, put on low and stir until melted. Let cool and Enjoy! I do like this version of cup cheese! 🙂

  • Anonymous

    My mom used to make it up in Montana. I loved the stuff spread on bread. She made a mild flavored one and a strong one that she'd send with my dad to work. I preferred the mild. Wonderful stuff!

  • Renee King

    I too grew up in Lancaster Co PA and have always loved this funky smelling cheese! I no longer live there but reports are that it's difficult to find. Very few stores carry it.
    So thanks for the recipe! I think some in my family are up for making it!

    • Donna

      Igrew up in Lebanon and we ate cup cheese on bread with chips love it. My sister just ordered us 12 cups from Shenks and we shared a little pricey to ship but worth it ,

  • Anonymous

    I've lived in Lancaster County all my life. My grandmother always had cup cheese in her fridge and she would let it come to room temp before she spread it on her bread. I love it but my family doesn't!

    • Mary Ellen Clouser

      I grew up in Berks County, PA, from a PA Dutch family. My mother used to buy Shenck’s cup cheese at the local farmers’ market. I loved the sharp variety on Ritz Crackers. Living in SW Ohio for many years, cannot buy it locally. I’m must try this recipe! Where to find raw milk, though.

  • crsheilah

    I grew up in Lititz, Lancaster County, PA. My mother would often go to the farmer's market on Saturdays and buy cup cheese. I could eat it but wasn't crazy about it like she was. It's been a long time since I had it. I'm living in Costa Rica now and may try making my own.

  • Jann

    Cup cheese was available at all the farmer's markets in Lancaster County when I grew up there in the 40s, 50s and 60s. It had to be sold in cups because it was a runny cheese (snotty is a good description). A few places still make and sell it, but it is much less available nowadays. My grandfather loved it and ate it on bread. I never aquired the taste for it, but people who like weird cheeses might like it.

  • Unknown

    I googled the cup cheese after seeinng it in a series of Amish books by Sarah Price. This was helpful information thank you.