Each April, the recipes on Twice as Tasty focus on making cheese and other dairy products at home. Between the information on the blog and the workshops I’ve been teaching to everyone from adults to kids, the pool of home cheesemakers has been growing steadily all year.
As I wrote last year, yogurt was my first homemade dairy product. It’s still the milk-based product I make most often, partly because it’s so easy and partly because it’s so versatile that I eat it all the time. This also means I’m constantly finding new ways to improve my yogurt-making skills.
I’ve also been playing with variations on acid-based cheeses and delving into new cheese styles and dairy products. Some of these will be the focus of blog posts in the coming month. But these styles have also taught me a few tricks that apply to my homemade standards. So before I offer you new recipes, here are some things I’ve learned in the past year about making yogurt and cheese.
Making Better Yogurt
I started making Fresh Yogurt almost 15 years ago, before Greek yogurt was common on American grocery store shelves and before I really knew what I was doing: I simply followed a recipe. It worked, and it kept working, so I’ve done little to change my process in the years since. But I’ve recently learned a few tricks that are improving every batch:
- Separate and almost equal. I’ve been keeping my starter yogurt (more properly called the seed culture or seed yogurt) in a separate container instead of simply using what’s left when I get to the bottom of the yogurt jar to start the next batch. This helps to prevent contamination by someone dipping in a honey or jam spoon and ensures I don’t scrape the jar clean by mistake. But the real advantage is that the seed culture seems to keep longer and can be fed with a little milk if I’m delayed in making a new batch.
- More isn’t better. Although it seems like more starter would give a better set to your yogurt, that isn’t the case. In the latest edition of The Joy of Cooking, Irma Rombauer explains that more starter “crowds” the good bacteria and can ultimately make your yogurt sour and watery. I’ve always been happy with 3 tablespoons of seed yogurt per quart of milk, but many recipes call for 2 or even 1 tablespoon. If your yogurt seems too sour for your taste, try a little less starter in your next batch.
- Thickening by subtracting, not adding. Greek yogurt’s popularity is at an all-time high as people learn to love its dense texture. Unfortunately, most commercial yogurts are thickened by adding ingredients, such as gelatin, carrageenan (from seaweed), and less savory unpronounceable mixtures. True Greek yogurt is thickened by straining—an easy way to thicken your yogurt at home too. Don’t throw out the whey; I mix it back into my smoothies, where I’m thinning the yogurt anyway to a drinkable texture, and use it in recipes.
- Refreshing to repair. A batch of yogurt rarely fails to set, but it can happen if you let the yogurt cool below 105°F before adding the culture. To get a second chance at thickening, simply reheat the batch to 110°F, stir in 1 tablespoon of fresh starter, and let it sit another 4+ hours.
Making Better Cheese
High-heat, acid-based cheese is so easy to make that there doesn’t seem to be much room for improvement. But learning to make other, more finicky cheeses has taught me a few things that I keep in mind when whipping out a round of Lemon Cheese:
- Take the heat. Added-acid cheeses are heated to high temperatures, and that heat is key to the process. It’s also key to the flavor: The warmer your milk, the less acid it needs to separate. So if you’re having problems getting your cheese to set, check the temperature before you start pouring in more lemon juice or vinegar.
- Take it slow. Time is as important as temperature when making cheese. The faster you heat milk, the grainer the texture of your final product—that goes for yogurt and sour cream too. So don’t be impatient and turn up the dial on your stove. This is especially important when you start working with low-temperature cheeses and run the risk of overheating the milk.
- Soft, dry, or dense. As with yogurt, draining your cheese can produce a range of effects and even what appears to be an entirely different product. If I want to spread Lemon Cheese on sourdough toast with marmalade, I might only drain it for 15 minutes. If I plan to sprinkle it on a pizza or salad, I’ll drain it far longer, perhaps even overnight. If I want to cook the cheese, I can press it until it forms a dense block similar in texture to extra-firm tofu.
- Have your way with whey. Whey Sauce is my favorite use for the copious amounts of whey left after draining cheese, but sometimes I don’t have enough time to cook it down to the ideal 2 cups. Because I mostly use the sauce in soups and pastas that are being thickened by other ingredients, the final volume really doesn’t matter. If I run out of time, I simply reduce the other liquids in the recipe. If I cook it down too far, I just add a little stock or milk to make up the volume. But I still try to get close to my target: that’s where the best flavor is.
The Science of Milk
The more I make cheese and other dairy products, the more amazed I am by the intricacies in milk. With cheesemaking, as with breadmaking, a seemingly endless array of flavors, textures, and uses can be created from just a few basic ingredients. Of course, this means that missing a temperature point, substituting an ingredient, or forgetting a step can give you an unexpected product. If you’ve every whipped cream, you’ll know what I’m talking about: it doesn’t take much to transform cream from liquid to perfectly whipped peaks to overwhipped butter.
So ensuring you have all your tools and ingredients in place before you start and following directions are essential to good cheesemaking. Learning a little about the science behind the process and why it works will take your cheesemaking to the next level. You’ll find some of this information on the blog and will learn even more in Twice as Tasty workshops. But there are plenty of other sources for learning about homemade cheese. Here are some of my favorites:
- Home Cheese Making, by Ricki Carroll
- Artisan Cheese Making at Home, by Mary Karlin
- Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking, by Gianaclis Caldwell
- On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, by Harold McGee
- Homemade Yogurt and Homemade Cheese at Cultures for Health
- Yogurt & Dairy at Brod & Taylor
- Recipes & Resources at Westminster Artisan Cheesemaking
Twice as Tasty
Fresh Yogurt and Lemon Cheese are just the beginning of homemade dairy options. This month, we’ll be moving to the next level by introducing items you can make with powdered cultures. Despite the addition of this crucial, specialty ingredient, the processes involved remain surprisingly simple. Next week, I’ll show you how to culture buttermilk, an easy creation that can be a side project any time you’re making yogurt or cheese. It’s just slightly more complicated to make your own sour cream, and I’ll explain why homemade is preferable to most commercial brands. You’ll also learn how to make fresh feta, the Greek staple that is common in American markets today but rarely tastes like the real deal. For each cheese or dairy product, I’ll share a favorite recipe that puts your creation to use in a side dish, meal, and dessert. As a bonus, I’m offering a new cheese workshop at a special rate from April to June. So there’s no excuse: join me in making cheese.
Want to learn more about making fresh dairy products? Twice as Tasty is teaching these techniques in workshops held in your own kitchen, among friends—and with my personal help. Click here to learn more.