What the Heck Are Curds and Whey?
Just what was Little Miss Muffet eating on that tuffet?
“Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet, eating her curds eating and whey
Along came a spider who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away”
Published in 1805, this simple nursery rhyme presents a lot of questions. Chief among them: What the heck are curds and whey?! Let’s investigate.
What Are Curds and Whey?
Before we talk about curds and whey as a whole, let’s break this down piece by piece:
- Curds are a byproduct of coagulating milk, a process also known as curdling. Coagulation happens when you add an acid, like lemon juice or vinegar, to dairy. The increase in acidity causes the milk proteins to tangle together into solid masses. This process will also occur naturally if you leave milk out to sour.
- Coagulation is one of the first steps in cheese production. After the curds are formed, they’re pressed and drained before different elements are introduced, depending on the type of cheese being made. The liquid that is leftover after the curds are drained is called whey.
So there you have it: Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet, eating her byproducts of cheesemaking.
Sound kinda gross? Well, it’s not quite as weird as it seems. If you think about it, curds and whey are just cottage cheese in its purest form.
Curds and Whey vs. Modern Cottage Cheese
While it’s not exactly commonplace to chow down on plain cottage cheese these days, eating curds and whey as a snack was a relatively normal thing to do when the nursery rhyme was first published.
If you do choose to spoon your cottage cheese directly into your mouth, though, no judgment here. But you should know that what you’re eating may not be exactly what Little Miss Muffet enjoyed on her tuffet all those years ago.
Modern cottage cheese is washed, salted, and drained. Cream is usually added to the cottage cheese you buy in stores to improve the texture and taste.
The curds and whey of yore likely tasted more acidic than today’s cottage cheese, as the lemon juice or vinegar that promoted curdling would’ve affected the flavor.
Who Was Little Miss Muffet?
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So who was this Little Miss Muffet who liked to sit around and eat curdled milk? Nobody knows for sure.
One popular origin story is that the subject of the nursery rhyme was Patience Muffet, the stepdaughter of a prolific English entomologist named Thomas Muffet. The poem was allegedly inspired by an ill-fated family meal, when a spider from the elder Muffet’s collection frightened Patience and caused her to run away from her breakfast.
There’s no evidence that this tale has any truth to it at all, as the rhyme wasn’t published until 200 years after Muffet’s death—but that doesn’t mean it’s not delightful.
Now that we’ve cleared up the curds and whey thing and we know who Little Miss Muffet may have been, we have one final question: What the hell is a tuffet?