Make cheese at home and try these quick, easy cheese recipes.
You don’t need a commercial kitchen to produce great-tasting fresh, soft cheese at home. Dairy products and most soft cheeses can be made in a matter of hours with equipment you probably have on hand.
There’s an old saying that cheese is milk’s leap toward immortality. And perhaps no one feels more passionately about this adage than those who make their own dairy products and soft cheeses. It’s an ancient piece of edible culture that Americans are just now beginning to appreciate.
Home-produced soft, unripened cheeses have a wholesome good taste no shop product can imitate. By making these products at home, you’ll enjoy a fascinating and satisfying craft, with a delicious and healthy end result. It’s hard to beat the fresh flavor, nutritional value and low cost of homemade fresh cheeses.
Milk. The basis of cheese, of course, is milk, and almost any kind will do. Raw milk (as opposed to pasteurized) can be used, but it has many more variables to work with, particularly in the handling. Raw, or unprocessed, milk contains milk fat, which rises to the top as cream. When the milk is processed, most of the cream is removed. The amount of fat remaining determines the type of milk that is produced—whole, lowfat or skim. Some cheesemakers, especially the French, prefer to use raw milk because they believe its naturally occurring bacteria adds depth of flavor. But unless you own cows or goats or are friends with a farmer, it’s not easy to find raw milk in the United States. And though it’s sometimes available at farmers’ markets or at farms themselves, in most states, it’s illegal to sell milk raw because of potential contamination. The key word here is caution: Unless you really know what you’re doing and are used to handling raw milk, the safest milk is pasteurized.
Pasteurization is the process of heating raw milk to at least 145 degrees for at least 30 minutes or to 161 degrees for 15 seconds. The milk is then cooled quickly to 45 degrees or lower. Ultraheat pasteurization involves heating the milk to 274 degrees for two to four seconds, but ultraheat pasteurized milk does not work well for making cheese. The high-heat process affects the whey proteins in the milk, and they will not form curds that are firm enough for cheese-making.
Cheese is made by coagulating, or curdling, milk solids into curds. Curds start soft, then release liquid called whey as they continue to firm. You can use any variety of pasteurized milk, but skim and lowfat varieties will yield a less rich and flavorful cheese than whole milk or cream.
To make the cheeses in this article, you can use cow’s, goat’s or sheep’s milk. Goat’s milk has a slightly higher butterfat content than cow’s milk, but the butterfat is in smaller globules than that of cow’s milk. This makes goat milk easier to digest and also produces soft cheese. Always purchase the freshest and highest-quality milk or cream you can find. To find a farm near you that sells fresh milk, visit Local Harvest and search by ZIP code.
Rennet. Rennet causes milk coagulation. Either animal- or vegetable-based, rennet is available in tablet or liquid form. It’s always diluted with water before use to help it distribute evenly in the cheese. Both tablets and liquid rennet will come with dilution instructions, but general guidelines are 3 drops of liquid rennet or 1/2 of a rennet tablet to 1/4 cup of cool (50- to 65-degree) water. You can find rennet from cheese-making suppliers.
Cultures. Cheese cultures are usually divided into two basic groups: thermophilic and mesophilic. Thermophilic is a heat-loving culture used for cheeses that must be heated to a higher temperature such as mozzarella, Parmesan, or Swiss and Italian-type cheeses. Yogurt is made with a thermophilic culture. Mesophilic is a nonheat-loving culture that would be destroyed at higher temperatures. It’s used for 90 percent of cheese-making. Buttermilk is made with a mesophilic culture.
Cultures change the milk sugar (lactose) into lactic acid. They can be purchased as a freeze-dried powder that you simply add to the milk when making cheese. Stored in the freezer, cultures last indefinitely.
You do not need fancy, expensive equipment to make cheese at home. The basic equipment you’ll need includes:
Large pot. For making cheese, use only a stainless steel or unchipped enamel pot with a heavy bottom. A thick, heavy bottom will help prevent milk from scorching during the heating process. You can also use a stainless steel double boiler. Acidity levels in milk will cause aluminum to leach into your product, so don’t use aluminum pans or utensils.
Cheesecloth. Don’t buy cheesecloth from the grocery store. The holes are too big and the curds will drain through it. Instead, purchase “butter muslin” from cheese-making suppliers or specialty kitchenware shops. Butter muslin is 100 percent cotton and such a fine mesh that when you hold it up, you can barely see through it. It can be washed, sterilized and used again and again. (See “Cleaning your Equipment” further in this article for details.)
Colander. This is for draining the curds. Any sturdy colander will do because it will be lined with butter muslin.
Thermometer. You can find special dairy thermometers, but any food thermometer with a range from 0 to 220 degrees that can be inserted at least 2 inches into the milk will work. The kind that clamps onto the edge of the pot is best because it will allow you to obtain an accurate temperature reading as you heat the milk without holding your hand over the hot milk.
Ladle. A wide, perforated stainless steel ladle, also called a “skimmer,” works best for cheese-making. You’ll use this to scoop the curds out of the pot and into the colander to drain.
Knife. For some recipes, you’ll need a knife for cutting the curds. A “curd knife,” with a long blade and a flat (rather than pointed) end works well, but any long, flat-ended knife or spatula is fine, as long as the blade is 10 or more inches so you can reach the bottom of the pot to cut the curds.
String. For some of the recipes, you’ll need heavy-gauge string to hang the cheese to drain. New shoelaces work well. If you tie the corners of the muslin into a knot, you can also use a bungee cord to hang the bag from a kitchen faucet.
Cheese molds. Cheese molds come in a variety of sizes and shapes and are used to form the drained curds of many types of soft cheeses, such as ricotta and cream cheese. They’re available in stainless steel, food-grade plastic and ceramic, and they have holes through which the whey drains as the cheese sets.
All equipment and utensils must be extremely clean before you use them in cheese-making. Dirty equipment will invite unfriendly bacteria into the process. You can either thoroughly wash and rinse all equipment and utensils or sterilize them.
To wash: Use hot, soapy water, rinse thoroughly in hot water, and then let air-dry.
To sterilize: Boil for no less than 10 minutes in enough water to cover. Remove with tongs and then let air-dry.
Wash or sterilize all equipment and utensils after using them, and then again before using them. Also, it’s a good practice to rinse all utensils in hot water after they come in contact with ingredients during the cheese-making process.
This article is excerpted from The Home Creamery © Kathy Farrell-Kingsley, and is used with permission from Storey Publishing.
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