Food

How Difficult Is Making Delicious Fresh Cheese At Home? I Tried It

How I lived down my reputation for making homemade cheese that no one wants to eat.

A Selection of Cheeses at Fromagerie Hamel

A selection of cheeses at Fromagerie Hamel in Montreal (Photo: Elie Gill)

Have you ever made a big mistake, only to later find that one piece of information could have saved you? I have, in the infamous “T-Shirt Cheese” incident. I made homemade cheese using an old T-shirt that I considered clean. The rest of the household thought it was so gross, they wouldn’t even try it. I didn’t know that cheesecloth is available, for about two bucks, at every grocery store, pharmacy, and dollar store. Now, older, wiser and armed with a solid recipe for fresh cheese from Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything Vegetarian, I’m going to try again.

Why make cheese at home?

I love cheese. During the pandemic, trying different cheeses has been a bit like travelling. You can put a little on a cracker, pop it in your mouth and imagine the combination of soil, weather and plant life that gives the cheese that specific flavour. The French call this the terroir. I tried a cheese recently from a sheep herd that grazes in a valley with volcanic soil. It tastes like acorns smell, but buttery, and a little tangy. The cheese has been produced since the mid-1800s. The sheep must be very tired.

A selection of Quebec cheeses

Quebec cheeses. (Photo: Elie Gill)

Homemade cheese is a staple around the world, from paneer to Québécois cheese curds to ricotta, with an enormous variety in texture, creaminess, salinity and flavour. This is a great reason for making fresh cheese at home, rather than buying it at the store: You can decide exactly how creamy, salty or sour you want your fresh cheese to be. And you’ll have the confidence of knowing exactly how fresh your cheese is. Fresh cheese picks up other flavours beautifully, so you can also add homegrown herbs, homemade pesto, curry powder, chopped nuts or dried fruit, citrus zest or ground pepper.

The equipment

The good news for me, an abominable home chef, is that making fresh cheese requires little equipment or preparation: just a clean sink and countertop, a large pot, a spoon, cheesecloth and some kitchen twine.

cheesecloth set over a colander

(Photo: Elie Gill)

You can, in a pinch, use any truly clean cloth, and any string that’s food safe. For the milk, my recipe for fresh cheese called for about 2.4 litres. It will produce a dense, but crumbly, fresh cheese, somewhat like paneer with less bounce. Generally, recipes for fresh cheese are flexible; you can use any type of milk and any fat content you like at any volume, as long as you use enough of the milk splitting agent, the ingredient that separates the curds from the whey. Bittman’s recipe calls for buttermilk, the splitting agent that’s most easily available to me, anyway. I also bought two liters of 2% milk, with the addition of about a quart of 18% table cream that I had on hand. The freshness of the milk is what’s most important.

Glass milk bottles on a shelf

(Photo: Elie Gill)

Getting started

The recipe I used isn’t complicated either. The essential step is splitting the milk into curds, the protein and fat part, and whey, the liquid part. You can accomplish this with bacteria, acid (usually lemon juice or plain vinegar) or rennet, an enzyme found in the stomachs of calves, which helps them digest their mothers’ milk. (Of course, vegetarians often avoid cheeses made with rennet for this reason. If you’re vegetarian, using bacteria or acid will work perfectly well.) I used buttermilk, since it’s easily available and I like the flavour.

Rennet at Fromagerie Hamel

(Photo: Elie Gill)

It’s just a matter of the flavour you prefer, and what you have access to. Rennet can be bought online, or from specialty cheese shops. The one near my house in Montreal, Fromagerie Hamel, sells a 50 mL bottle for about 10 dollars that lasts through at least 50 pounds of cheesemaking. There’s a bonus for gardeners, too: Whey is a helpful natural fertilizer, and it lowers soil PH if you have plants that like an acidic soil.

How it went

I combined the milk and the cream, leaving the buttermilk aside, into a large pot, and put the burner on medium-high.

pouring milk into a saucepan on a stove

(Photo: Elie Gill)

After about 15 minutes of boiling with an occasional stir, I poured in all the buttermilk (though the recipe only called for a quart, as more won’t hurt, and I didn’t have another use for it afterwards), and stirred constantly, as the curds split from the whey.

Splitting into curds in a saucepan with a spoon stirring it

Split curds (Photo: Elie Gill)

Once the curds and whey stopped splitting—a minute or two—I added about a tablespoon of salt. Then I poured the whole mess into a strainer lined with three layers of cheesecloth.

Three layers of cheesecloth in a colander

(Photo: Elie Gill)

I let it strain until it was about the consistency of thick pea soup. This took about two minutes. I then picked up the ends of the cheesecloth, twisted the top, and held the ball of curds under cold water, while I pressed as much of the liquid out of the cloth as I could.

You have to be careful not to scorch your fingers on this step. It feels a lot like a stress ball, which is an added bonus. Then it was just a matter of hanging the ball up over the sink with the twine, for an hour or so, in order for it to set. The whole process took about half an hour of active time.

Cheese in cheesecloth hanging to set

Hanging the cheese to set it (Photo: Elie Gill)

Results

The cheese I ended up with had the consistency of a stiff ricotta, with a delicate flavour of salt, milk, and a hint of cheddar. It was perfect to eat with a spoonful of jam as a snack, and would make a delicious addition to a lasagna, a quiche, or a fruit tart. I ended up with almost a kilo of cheese. I ate about half myself, and gave the rest to my roommate, to use in a lasagna. Fresh cheese needs to be stored in the refrigerator, where it lasts about 5 days. My roommate said it was delicious, which I will be telling everyone who knows of my previous “T-Shirt Cheese” fiasco.

The finished cheese

(Photo: Elie Gill)

Final thoughts

It’s a bit of a project, but a pleasant one for a slow weekend afternoon. All the ingredients and equipment only cost $11.50, and now that I have the cheesecloth and twine, a batch will only cost about half that. Store-bought cheeses are all based on this process; they just ferment for longer, or they’re pressed in big machines, or split with different bacteria. The recipe I used even suggests variations, like adding fresh herbs from your garden, citrus gratings, or spices.

Was it worth it? Absolutely, especially for vegetarians who would like a nice homemade snack that’s high in protein. You might already have the necessary equipment at home. Once you have the twine and cheesecloth, each batch will only cost about five dollars.

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