Cheese, in all its forms, is merely milk curds that are drained and flavored. From that same simple process come such widely varied products as camembert and cheddar, mozzarella, ricotta, Gruyere, Roquefort and chevre. Historically, cheesemaking developed as a way to preserve milk. When people started keeping cows (and sheep and goats), the animals produced much more milk than the farmers could drink before it spoiled. Making butter kept the valuable food for weeks; cheese kept it for months.
Before I met Chef Theresa Brown and took her one day Cheesemaking Workshop at the Culinary School of the Rockies, I never even considered making my own cheese. It seemed like a complicated, long term process for which I had no knowledge, equipment, or proper milk product. Theresa, who is a local farmer and homesteader, brought in fresh milk from her two goats (Libby and Charlotte) and an antique butter churn with a built in drain for the buttermilk. It was a treat to use these special products, but the majority of the cheese we made was from regular old store-bought whole milk, and we used tools that can be found in any kitchen.
We made three types of cheese, (mozzarella, ricotta, and soft goat cheese) as well as fresh butter, all in one day. Obviously, there are many types of cheese that require special tools, age, and conditions to ripen, but my mind was opened to the possibilities of basic (delicious) homemade cheeses.
Why make your own cheese? Imagine serving a platter of farmer’s cheese with crackers, or making pizza with homemade mozzarella.You can give specially flavored cheeses as gifts, and experiment with herb combinations.
Most of all, it is fun and surprisingly easy.
The cheese I made for this article is one of the most basic, but also one of the most tasty quick cheeses. Similar in texture to gourmet Boursin, it is excellent spread on warm bread or crackers, and takes flavoring with herbs and spices beautifully. With this base recipe you can make a garlic-thyme cheese to crumble into salads, a spicy jalapeno cheese to add to a burrito, or a sweet breakfast spread for a bagel. Use your imagination and palate to explore the possibilities.
Equipment for Cheesemaking
To succeed with this cheese, you need:
- large saucepan, big enough to hold 1/2 gallon of milk (deeper is better than wider)
- instant read thermometer (I got one at King Sooper’s for $6.99)
- collander or strainer
- large piece (at least 18″x18″) butter muslin (This might be the most obscure. I use an old curtain, washed of course. Look for scrap cloth that is finer than regular cheesecloth, but still transparent. Also, be sure it is pure cotton. If you are having trouble, you can order butter muslin from a cheesemaking supply store.)
- cooking spoon
The ingredients are just whole milk (cow, goat, sheep, based on the flavor you want) and 1/4 cup of lemon juice to curdle the milk. Then you will need a variety of fresh herbs and spices to flavor the cheese after it has drained, as well as some heavy cream to blend in for texture.
When you have collected your equipment, it is time to make the cheese.
This recipe takes about 20 minutes to prepare, and then must drain for at least an hour, preferably two, to produce the proper texture. A half gallon of milk yields approximately one pound of cheese. This recipe is from local chef and homesteader Theresa Brown.
- 1/2 gallon whole milk (cow, goat, or sheep)
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
In a large pot, heat the milk to between 185 degrees and 200 degrees F. When It has come to temperature, turn off the heat. Add the lemon juice and stir a few times, and wait for curds and whey (see slideshow for visual.) The curds should be white and clumpy, and the whey should be a clear, watery, slightly greenish color. Keep adding lemon juice until you get full separation.
Line a collander or strainer with butter muslin, assuring the muslin is centered. Strain out the curds, and let them sit for a few minutes. Gather the rest of the muslin over the curds and twist the extra cloth around a long spoon, forming a suspended pouch. Hang the curds over a deep bowl (so that they don’t touch the bottom) and let drain 1-2 hours.
Unwrap the curds from the butter muslin and put them in a clean bowl. You now have cheese! You’ll find it doesn’t taste like much, and crumbles when stirred. Time to finish it with herbs and spices.
Following are three suggestions. The proportions are up to your palate. Make sure you taste the cheese all along the process.
Adding 1/4 cup heavy cream to each pound of cheese makes it smoother and easier to spread.
Garlic Herb Cheese
- lemon zest
- fresh ground pepper
- garlic, chopped fine and crushed into a paste
- fine salt
- thyme, leaves only
Mix all the ingredients into the cheese. Allow to mellow and blend for a few hours in the fridge. This cheese is excellent spread on crackers, or crumbled into a salad.
Spicy Jalapeno Cheese
- jalapeno, minced
- chili flakes
- garlic, minced and crushed into a paste
- cilantro, chopped fine
- fine salt
Mix all ingredients into the cheese, tasting as you go for spiciness. Serve with vegetables or crackers, or add to Mexican dishes like quesadillas for added complexity and heat.
Honey Walnut Cheese
- walnuts, chopped fine
- pinch of salt
- berry jam (optional: this will dye your cheese pink, which can be weird)
Mix all ingredients in with the cheese. Makes a delicious spread on bagels, as well as a great topping for chocolate desserts.
Molding the Cheese
This cheese can be easily molded, and will keep its shape. Try filling your favorite cookie cutters with the blended cheese on a non stick surface. Chill for fifteen minutes, then remove the cookie cutter carefully. Transfer the cheese sculpture to a platter and surround it with crackers.