Simple pleasures: Creamy Homemade Cheese

Homemade cheese

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I made cheese the other day. It sounds like a ground-breaking, earth shattering event. I know, but in reality it’s something I do fairly regularly. Especially in the spring and summer time when I can make my very own fresh and tangy “garden herb” cream cheese using the abundance of fresh herbs growing in my window sill… But wait. Hold the presses. I know what you’re all thinking by now:

Why, Johan, would anyone in their right mind and of somewhat sound intelligence go about the complicated and geeky process of making their own cheese?

homemade fresh cheese

Homemade fresh cheese, one of life’s simple pleasures

Well, the fact aside that I am a major geek, allow me to offer up at least four reasonably good explanations:

  • Because it’s about a million times easier than it sounds.
  • Because it’s fresher, simpler and tastier than many store-bought varieties.
  • Because it’s another one of those party tricks that will just plain knock the socks off your guests.
  • Heck, it may even knock something else entirely off a date if you’re so inclined, cough, but that’s another post…

 

Ahem, anyway, it’s time for another little instalment in our series of painfully easy tricks to severely impress your guests. In part one, we whipped up a quick dessert in the shape of a refreshing Mojito Sorbet. In part two, we made surprisingly simple albeit delicious chocolate treats. This time around, we enter the dairy realm with an even easier yet possibly even more impressive trick: homemade soft, creamy fresh cheese from scratch. Yeah, you heard me! We’re making cheese!

You wouldn’t think so, but homemade fresh cheese is one of those little tricks that are unbelievably easy to pull off, yet sound and look overly impressive while tasting equally as impressive. How easy, you ask? Well, put it this way. To make cheese at home, you need a total of three basic things: Fresh dairy, an acidic ingredient and a heat source. A fourth, technically optional yet highly recommended, ingredient would be salt as it is the actual salting of the cheese that draws out most of the flavor.

 

First things first: What is cheese and how do we make it?

Cheese is concentrated milk as geeky food writer extraordinaire, Harold McGee so beautifully simply put it in his highly recommended classic read “On Food and Cooking”. In a few more words than that cheese is  – very basically – the major fat, protein and taste components of milk from which the water has been removed through a century-if-not-millennia-old process known as curdling.

Making cheese at home

Home cheesemaking, it’s a lot easier than you think!

Curdling involves heating milk to a certain point and then introducing a curdling agent to the party. The curdling agent will wreck a bit of havoc on the molecular structure of the milk and basically cause some of the various proteins and the fat in the milk to bond together firmly in new ways and, in return, expell the water. The newly formed complicated mesh of fat and proteins, we call curds while the watery liquid that forms the other part of the equation, we call whey. It is through the process of straining the whey from the curds to create a semi-solid to solid mass that cheese is born. And it’s through the careful pressing, ageing and/or the subjection to certain environments or microbial goodness that the thousands and thousands of different varieties that form the wide spectrum of aged cheeses is born. But that’s an entirely different post!

Want the greater picture? Are my rantings not geeky enough for you? Want an even greater picture of the history and chemistry behind cheesemaking? And just about everything else in the wonderful world of cooking and foodstuffs? Then, at the risk of repeating myself, do check out one of my favorite geeky food-related books of all time “On Food And Cooking” by Harold McGee. And no, no one’s paying me to say that. It’s simply one of my favorite geeky reads of all time.

 

Of Professional and Home Cheesemaking and their Differences

In the industry, and some more professional home setups, an enzyme known as rennet is used to invoke the curdling, but for simple home cheesemaking something as painfully simple as a highly acidic ingredient like, say, vinegar or lemon juice will do the trick just fine. And it’s this very fact that makes home cheese-making such a breeze: Heat some milk, add a squeeze of lemon and you’ve got cheese. More or less. It’s all slightly more complicated than that, of course, which is why we’ll take the liberty of going through the process together in detail below. Before we do, though, It is to be noted here that rennet is used in the industry for a perfectly good reason: It creates a firmer, more solid bond between the proteins and the fats of the milk, making for a tighter more stable mixture and preserving more of the protein components and micronutrients of the milk such as the casein and the calcium. In home cheesemaking these are, simplified speaking, washed away with the whey, leaving the end result slightly less nutritious and moldable.

Homemade cheese process - curds and whey

Curds and whey… Little Miss Muffet would be a happy camper!

But fear not! Making cheese without rennet is no crime! Neither is it dangerous or harmful in any way. Using rennet is really only essential if you want to fully maintain the nutritional qualities of your cheese, or you plan to press and age it. What this essentially means is that:

  • The nutritional value of your homemade cheese will technically not be quite equivalent to that of commercially produced cheeses or ones made at home using rennet rather than acid.
  • Your homemade cheese will not be suitable for pressing, ageing and or introduction of friendly molds or bacteria colonies.
  • Your acidic curdling agent may impart a slight “off” flavor on your final cheese product. In other words, your final cheese may taste a bit like the acidic ingredient you used. But if said acid ingredient is either lemon or a tasty vinegar, really, who cares?

 

Rest assured, though, that your homemade cheese will be perfectly healthy and tasty. And since you’re reading what is essentially a beginner’s guide to home cheesemaking, I’m assuming you’re not nursing plans to start a fromagerie just yet and will be fine with short-lived, albeit tasty, creamy, spreadable cheese.

Is cheese vegetarian? Here’s a fun fact for your cheese lovers to completely disregard: Rennet, originally, was derived from the stomach of calves. It’s a naturally occurring enzyme found in the first stomach of very young calves and cheese, some 2,500 years ago, was actually made using pieces of calf’s stomach for curdling. Later curious forefathers found out how to extract a brine from the stomach, making rennet, essentially the world’s first semi-purified enzyme. Today, many cheeses in the United States are made using a purified, vegetable rennet whereas most great, traditional continental cheeses call for calf’s stomach rennet. Is cheese vegetarian? You tell me!

 

Right, then? How do we make cheese? Well, once again, it’s easier than you think. So let’s grab our quality milk, our lemon juice, a bit of salt and some high-tech equipment in the form of a thermometer, a pot and a few layers of cheese cloth. Okay, so that’s one high-tech piece of equipment and two really not high-tech pieces of equipment… But I digress….

Notice how I said quality milk? We’ve been over this before, but I’ll gladly say it again. Your cooking is only as good as the sum of your ingredients. Garbage in equals garbage out. This holds especially true in dishes with very few ingredients so, please, if you want good cheese, use quality milk. Get the freshest, most local, organic milk that you can, preferably something as untreated as possible. Your results, I promise, will match the investment!

 

Cheese, in its simplest form is really just salted curds that have been drained. For this summer instalment, I’m gonna kick it up a notch by adding some fresh herbs to the party. It would be a shame not to. They’re growing in abundance right now and are readily available from your local supermarket if,  unlike me, you’re not lucky enough to have them growing in your window or garden. I’ve also gone and added a bit of heavy cream in the recipe below. You certainly don’t have to, but I feel like it adds a nice, well, creaminess. And now, without further ado… Let’s get cheesy! (Really, Johan, that’s the best you can do?!)

Simple pleasures: Homemade fresh cheese

Simple and easy recipe for homemade soft, cream cheese made from whole milk and fresh cream. This example features garden herbs for a fresh burst of flavor but can be adjusted any way you like.
Course Dairy
Cuisine Continental
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Total Time 1 hour 5 minutes
Servings 5 -10
Author Johan Johansen

Ingredients

  • 1 liter whole milk best and freshest you can get
  • 150 ml heavy cream
  • one lemon juice freshly squeezed
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs I used a selection of lemon thyme, basil, Moroccan mint and pineapple sage. But you can use whatever floats your boat.
  • Cheese cloth if you can’t find cheese cloth, you can use a coffee filter of a finely woven cloth

Instructions

  1. Pour the milk and cream into a heavy bottom pot set over medium heat.
  2. Heat milk and cream mixture slowly over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until a probe thermometer reads 85C (185F). Obviously you’ll want to make sure your thermometer isn’t touching the bottom of the pot when you’re doing your reading.
  3. If you don’t have a thermometer, you’ll know you’re getting close to 85C when steam rises rapidly from the pot, little bubbles are forming on the surface and the surface looks like it’s just about to simmer.
  4. Once up to temperature, remove pot from the heat and slowly drizzle the lemon juice over the entire surface of the pot.
  5. When all the lemon juice has been added, slowly and gently stir the pot for a few minutes to encourage the curd formation. You should notice the milk curdling pretty quickly, if nothing happens, add a bit more lemon juice or a small amount of distilled vinegar. Only add as needed, though, as it may affect the flavor in the end.
  6. After a few minutes, carefully pour the contents of the pot into a fine meshed sieve lined with a couple of layers of cheese cloth set over a bowl
  7. Allow the curds to drain for at least half an hour (for a very soft cheese) to overnight (for a very firm cheese).
  8. When you’re happy with the consistency, generously season your freshly made cheese with A LOT of salt along with your selection of chopped herbs.
  9. Mix everything carefully together and scoop into a ramekin, small bowl or similar, cover and place in the fridge at least overnight. This last step is not absolutely essential, but I do find it makes for a better end result if you allow some time for the flavors to blend together.

Recipe Notes

The end results of this recipe will probably serve upwards of ten for a sampler or five or so cheeseheads.

 

And there you have it: Homemade cheese! Now, let’s ask ourselves: so, what have we learned? We’ve learned that making your own cheese is only slightly more complicated, expensive and geeky than buying it at the store. We’ve also learned a little, but not all there is to know, about what makes cheese and some of the major differences between homemade and commercially produced cheeses. What remains to be answered, though, is: is it worth the trouble? And is it better than store-bought?

Well, it’s definitely better than a lot of store-bought! And certainly a hell of a lot more unique, natural and full of character. That being said, though… Professional dairies do have tight control and supervision, and in the case of a lot of the smaller ones, a real dedication and attention to detail and quality. Some of them really, really know what they’re doing, too, and produce solid results time and time again. Your homemade cheese will always be, well, homemade and subject to slight variations and change. With all the charm and uniqueness that this fact brings to the party. Your product will taste 100% pure and homemade, and decidedly unlike anything available on the shelves. In a good way. And that’s a pretty good thing to most people.

homemade fresh cheese with herbs

The end result, a little denser than one would have liked. But scrumptious just the same!

Want to know an even better quality of homemade cheese: It’s a hell of a lot more funky and interesting than store-bought! If you’re making your own, you’re not bound to the usual selection of your friendly neighborhood megamart. It’s your party (and you’ll cry if you want to!) and you can spice it up any way you like. Find some quality dairy that you enjoy drinking, the best you can, really, then curdle it, season it with salt, spice it up the way you like and serve it to your friends. They’ll be blown away.

I used local, organic whole milk and a splash of cream for this recipe. I’ve had great success, too, working with a combination of whole milk and buttermilk for a more tangy result. The flavoring you can change any way you want to. Here, I’m playing with fresh herbs. Garlic or wild garlic would work as well, fresh chilies is definitely one to try when they ripen later on in the summer. I’ve made a smoked paprika version, too, that was really good. The only limit is your imagination, really. Heck, I’ve even produced a variety blended with smoked salmon and very old Cognac. It was terrific. So… Go crazy! Try new things! If all fails, call it an experiment and move on! That’s what cooking’s supposed to be like. Experimenting. And hey, remember, you can’t win ‘em all! Knock yourself out, and if at first you don’t succeed, pick your cheese up and start again!

I hope you’ll take this as an encouragement or even an excuse to experiment with home-made cheese and I’ll leave you to it. Before I do, though, let me answer that final burning question in your mind:

 

What to do with all that whey left over from cheesemaking?

So, you’ve taken my advice. You’ve gone and made your own cheese. And now you’re left with a lot of perfectly murky, slightly funky and odd-looking whey. Of course by now you’re wondering. Can I do something with this stuff or should I just toss it?

Well, you could just toss it out, or… How is this for controversial suggestions… Actually find a use for it! As loyal readers (and a few unfortunate women that I have hissed at for tossing scraps and leftovers over the years) will know, I try my darndest not to waste perfectly good food and have a strange habit of trying to make something out of EVERYTHING rather than just tossing it out. With that in mind, I took to the internet thinking, there’s got to be something that can be done with all that whey left from cheesemaking. Thanks to the magic of Google and a few wise folks over at FARMcurious and The Prairie Homestead, here are a few perfectly good ideas for excess whey:

  • Use it in baking: Whey, apparently, makes a perfectly good and flavorful substitute for plain water (or milk) in baking. I’m definitely trying this the next time I’m making sourdough.
  • Supercharge soups or stocks: Whey can be used in place of water when making homemade stock. I’ve yet to confirm this fact, but I have seen Michelin-starred chef Heston Blumenthal use powdered milk to boost stocks. Whey, I imagine, would do much of the same. I’m trying this the next time I’m making my homemade chicken stock.
  • Marinate meats: Add salt, herbs and/or spices to whey then use it as a marinade for tenderizing and imparting flavor on steak, chicken or pork.
  • Feed your pets or livestock: Again, I’ve yet to confirm the validity of this claim, but it’s pretty nutritious stuff, I can’t see why it shouldn’t be a solid idea. Provided you own pets or livestock, of course.

 

Want even more ideas? There are plenty to be found here and here. I hear it’s even good for hair washing and personal hygiene. Someone else will have to check that out, though. Maybe you? Or maybe not. The fact of the matter is, there are plenty of uses for whey which again happens to be just the byproduct from the wonderful process that is cheesemaking.

homemade fresh cheese - a variation of flavors

Want more cheesy ideas? Here’s a wild garlic version, a lemon version and a smoked paprika version posing alongside a few varieties of homemade sourdough… Bam!

Whether you’ll toss or use the whey, I hope you’ll find a chance to give homemade cheese a go, and impress the hell out of your friends in the process.

Thoughts? Comments? Suggestions? Leave a Reply!