Cheese. It makes our mac and cheese, pizza, and so many other dishes downright delectable. Who doesn’t like its creamy, soothing taste and texture? Well, there are a few folks that don’t, but I don’t quite understand them as I consider cheese one of the major food groups.
Actually, cheese is one of our oldest foods. The earliest ever discovered preserved cheese was found in the Taklamakan desert in Xinjiang, China, in 1615 BCE. That’s 3,600 years ago, and it has been documented that humans in prehistoric times made cheese more than 8,000 years ago. Wow, cheese has been part of our lives for a very long time!
The diverse varieties of cheese are almost unlimited, yet all cheeses are made from the same basic product: milk. Even so, there is a vast range of flavors and textures. Perhaps that is the beauty of cheese, that one raw ingredient gives such a diverse range of cheese types.
There are many variables that play in the different types of cheese. Flavor types, rinds, intensities, regions where it is made and methods of aging all play a role.
Twenty percent of a cheese’s final flavor comes from the milk that is used, and milk varies in flavor depending on what the animals are fed, their breed, and whether the milk has been pasteurized or not. The best cheese makers pay utmost attention that the milk they use comes from the right breed of cow and that they have been fed the right food. The other 80 percent of the flavors are due to the recipe used and aging and maturing techniques.
The different types of cheese are determined by the actual cheese making process that is used. The recipe, how much the milk is acidified, how much rennet is used to set the curd, how much moisture is drawn out and what additional molds and bacteria that are added are all determining factors.
Although cheese making is an ancient craft, it is actually quite a simple process that most anyone can make in their home. Homemade cheese is often healthier, because the home cook can work to ensure they are sourcing milk free from pesticides, hormones and antibiotics. Homemade cheese can have more protein, calcium and vitamins than store bought, again due to the quality of product you use. It’s good to know what is in it and homemade is almost always fresher than any that has been setting on store shelves.
Basic Components of Home Cheese Making
The basic principle in making all natural cheese is to coagulate or curdle the milk so it forms into protein and fats (known collectively as curds) and whey (that consist mostly of water). As we all know, milk will curdle quite naturally.
Although recipes for cheeses vary, there are basic processes that are followed in all cheese making. These six important steps include acidification, coagulation, separating curds and whey, salting, shaping and ripening.
There are two types of cheeses most familiar to home cooks, hard and soft. Hard cheeses are ripened or aged cheeses made by coagulating milk proteins with enzymes (rennet) and culture acids. They are then ripened by bacteria or mold. Soft cheeses are un-ripened cheeses like cottage cheese and cream cheese that is made by coagulating milk proteins, or casein, with acid. Here is how to make three different cheeses at home.
Hard Cheeses at Home
There are literally thousands of hard cheeses and each variety will have its own recipe with specific ingredients. However, the basic process is the same for all.
Start with fresh milk, the fresher the better. Slowly warm the milk.
Acidify the milk by putting white vinegar or citric acid into the milk to get the right acidity. This is called direct acidification and is used in cheeses such as ricotta and mascarpone. Another way to acidify is by adding cultures or living bacteria. Given time, warmth and the lack of competitor bacteria, these cultures eat up the lactose in the milk, turning it to lactic acid.
Add a coagulant, which is an enzyme that causes the proteins in milk to link together. The most common coagulant is rennet, of which there are three different kinds. “Traditional” rennet is an enzyme found in the fourth stomach of an un-weaned calf. It is a by-product of veal so no calves are actually killed just for this enzyme. “Bacterial” rennet, sometimes called “vegetable” is produced from recombinant bacteria, DNA from veal calf stomach cells. “Microbial” rennet comes from fungus, thus the mold that is sometimes used. When the term “coagulant” is used it refers to plant coagulants like sap from fig trees or milk thistle.
Mix the coagulant into the liquid milk and wait until a gel forms. After the rennet has the time to work in the protein in the milk, the milk will transform into a liquid gel. To test the doneness of the gel, press it lightly with your hand to see if it leaves an indent.
Cut the curd into smaller chunks from the giant “blob” using a cheese harp, knife or whisk. The size of the chunks will affect the amount of moisture in the final cheese; the smaller the chunks, the drier and more ageable the cheese will be and vice versa.
Stir the curds over low heat for the next few minutes. During this phase, acid is continuing to develop in the curd and the curds are drying out from the motion of stirring. The more the mixture is cooked and stirred, the drier the cheese will be.
Washing, the next process, is where some whey is removed from the vat and replaced with water. This creates a milder, sweeter and more elastic cheese.
Drain the curds, separating them from the whey. Dump them in a colander in the sink and knead them, working quickly to conserve the heat. This encourages them to mush back together to form a smooth wheel. Waiting too long to do this process, the curds get cold and the cheese crumbles.
Salt and age the cheese. Salt can be added before or after the curds are pressed in a wheel. If hard cheese is salted, properly acidified and has the moisture inside, a hard cheese can be aged into something more complex or eaten right away.
Homemade Cottage Cheese
This is a fresh cheese curd that is not aged and is made by draining the cheese as opposed to pressing it. It originally got its name because it was generally made in cottages with milk leftover after making butter. With only three ingredients needed, it lends itself well to making at home.
Start by heating one gallon of whole milk that has not been ultra-pasteurized to 190*F, stirring constantly.
Remove from heat and stir in ¾ cup white vinegar. Let set 30 minutes then pour into a colander lined with cheesecloth in the sink, being sure to save the whey because it is packed with protein and can be used in soup stocks.
Grabbing the corners of the cheesecloth, hold it under running water and knead and squeeze until it is cool. Dump into a bowl, break into curds and salt to taste. That’s it, you have cottage cheese!
Heat 4 cups of whole milk until you have a rolling simmer. Reduce the heat to medium and add 2 to 3 tablespoons of either white vinegar or real squeezed lemon juice one tablespoon at a time (lemon juice yields a smaller amount of curd than vinegar).
Cook until it curdles and the mixture separates. There will be a green liquid on the bottom and thick curds on top. Pour into a bowl lined with cheesecloth and let set 15 minutes. Then put the curds in a food processor and process until smooth and creamy. At this point you can add herbs, spices or anything else to your homemade cream cheese.
There is nothing quite like cheese and nothing beats natural cheese that you make yourself. Even better, there are so many varieties to try that you will never have to make the same kind twice!
Lois Hoffman is a freelance writer and photographer covering rural living with more than 20 years of experience, contributing to Successful Farming, Country, and Farm & Ranch Living. She lives on a 37-acre hobby farm in Pennsylvania. Read all of Lois’ GRIT posts here.