It is not difficult to make cheese in your home kitchen, especially a fresh, soft cheese like ricotta. Giving it a try may introduce you to a whole new world of kitchen craft, and soon you’ll be making more sophisticated types.
By Michelle Branco
Cheese. Since that lucky moment some ten thousand years ago when someone figured out that cow’s milk stored in a stomach took on an entirely different and delicious form, human creativity has created thousands of variations of cheese.
The story of cheese is the story of the land from which it comes. The type of animal raised and the particular flavor of the pasture on which it fed begin the story, but there is a great deal more to be learned. Salty cheeses are typical of the Middle East; cheeses born in the more temperate and humid European climate need less salt. Areas with abundant pastures create the opportunity for excess production of milk that then needs to be traded. Trade beyond a small local area requires preservation and ease of storage. Sophisticated cheese making requires a safe, long-term space where the airflow and humidity is stable. All of these things go a long way toward explaining how cheese became such an important product in some areas (namely Western Europe) and a markedly less important, yet still delicious, one in others.
Make Cheese by Starting With Milk and Heat
Cheese in its simplest form is milk that is heated and acidified so that the casein protein in the cheese coagulates and forms a curd. Rennet (that magic enzyme found in the stomach of ruminants) allows larger and firmer curds to be formed, although acid alone is also used for some cheeses.
When you make cheese, the heating of milk helps to break down the proteins that cause irritation in the gut and trigger allergic reactions in those susceptible. That is why cheese generally more easily digested than fresh milk. Cheeses that get their acidity from a bacterial culture are also lower in lactose than fresh milk, as this sugar is what the bacteria digest as they ferment the milk. Ripened firm cheeses, like cheddar, contain only about five percent of the lactose found in fresh milk.
Fermentation is not always part of the cheese-making process. Fresh cheeses are found in many cultures and, while some rely on bacteria to create acidity, many simply use acids like lemon juice. This sort of fresh cheese is simple for the home cook to make and provide a tasty source of protein and fat. The downside is that they do not keep any better than fresh milk.
Cheeses that are fermented use a variety of cultures to obtain the specific flavor and texture of the particular variety being made. For example, the big bubbles typical of Swiss cheese are a gift from the bacteria Propionibacter shermani. This bacterium creates large amounts of carbon dioxide that are then trapped within the cheese as it firms. Cheeses made from raw milk often require no additional culture to be added – the bacterial strains particular to the place where the cheese is made are those found in the cheese of that region. Today, cheese makers can purchase commercially prepared cultures for many types of cheese without relying on what is in their milk or in the air.
While traditional cheese-makers likely knew nothing of the Latin names of the particular strains they nurtured in their cheeses, today’s research into beneficial bacteria shows that many of the strains used in cheese-making have important roles in maintaining gut health in humans. The gassy Swiss cheese bacteria, for example, is particularly good at breaking down fats in milk. And it has been studied for its protective properties against colon cancer.
After the rennet is added, the curds come together and are then cut and strained from the whey. (Yes, Miss Muffet was a true story!) The whey is watery and translucent and can be used in other cooking that calls for milk. When you make cheese that is cultured, the whey contains abundant amounts of live bacteria. This whey can be used as a starter in other types of lacto-fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and pickles. Once the curds are separated from the whey, they may be rinsed for milder flavor, heated again to draw out more moisture, or stretched to provide a smooth stringy curd, as with the famous mozzarella.
Cheeses that are aged after straining have a significantly longer shelf life and far greater variety. The ageing or ripening process not only improves storage, but also flavor and texture, adding depth and complexity and reducing the rubbery bite of unripened firm cheese.
Sometimes, additional bacteria or mold are added at this stage – either on the surface or into the body of the cheese. Blue cheeses, such as Stilton or Roquefort, have both molds and bacteria – the blue veins are mold introduced into the cheese. Surface bacteria are sometimes allowed to settle from the air, while other times they are applied with a “wash.”
Regardless of the simplicity or sophistication of a particular cheese, the freshness of the milk with which it begins and the cheese maker’s gentle hands are the two constants.
As with many staple foods, modern cooks have lost not only the skills needed to make cheese, but the confidence that these foods can be made at home at all. While the home cook likely won’t be turning out Camembert the first time out of the gate, it is not only possible to make a simple, fresh cheese easily. And your first effort to make cheese may introduce a whole new world of kitchen craft.
Homemade Ricotta Cheese
This is a very simple cheese recipe that makes a delicious, creamy cheese that can be used in both savory and sweet dishes. Our family’s favorite dish in the summer is fresh ricotta topped with ripe slices of strawberries and a ribbon of local honey.
When you make cheese, don’t discard the whey (the liquid you strain out); it is an excellent substitute for buttermilk and a nutritious addition to soups and stews. If you really have lots, it makes a fine fertilizer for acid loving plants such as blueberries and irises and trees such as pines.
- 4 cups of whole milk (lower fat milk is fine, but the end result is not as unctuous)
- 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- ½ tsp salt
Heat in a saucepan over medium heat until almost boiling (about 190F if you have a thermometer), stirring often. Turn off the heat and stir in the lemon juice and salt. Stir gently to avoid breaking up the curds and let it sit until cooled.
Once cooled to room temperature, pour it into a strainer lined with cheesecloth. Let sit over a bowl for a few hours or overnight in the refrigerator.
While you can serve the cheese as is, you may thicken it further by wrapping it in cheesecloth and pressing it for another several hours. (If you don’t have cheesecloth and are willing to make a mess of a dishcloth, you can do that too.)
Yield: 1-1/4 cups ricotta cheese
Home Cheese Making: Recipes for 75 Delicious Cheeses by Ricki Carroll (Storey Publishing, 2002)
Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz (Chelsea Green, 2003)
Michelle Branco is a freelance writer and blogger at www.mamabear.ca. There, she writes about mothering, breastfeeding, product safety and food. Her much-put-upon family serves as lab assistants, taste testers, and clean-up crew. She is also an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and when she’s not at the keyboard or experimenting in the kitchen, she runs a private lactation consultant practice at Latch Lactation (www.latchlactation.com). This article was first published in Natural Life Magazine.