I can give you a long list of reasons for making feta. It’s delicious. It’s relatively easy. It lets you become comfortable with many ingredients, tools, and techniques that are important in more finicky cheeses, including slow heating, powdered starter, held temperatures, curd cutting and stirring, hang draining, molding, and salting. It will impress all of your friends, if you decide to share. And did I mention how tasty it is?
In Greece and other Mediterranean countries, feta is as common as cheddar is in the United States. During my travels, I ate feta made from backyard goats and sheep, feta flavored with herbs just snipped in the garden, and feta in lots of salads. Feta is traditionally made from sheep or goat milk; if you can get your hands on either, you’ll get the best flavor. But even homemade cow’s milk feta tastes better than many of the most readily available commercial types.
1/4 teaspoon powdered mesophilic starter, such as Meso II or feta culture
1/2 teaspoon liquid rennet
1/4 cup unchlorinated water
2 tablespoons flaky sea salt
Take the milk from the fridge and let it sit for 1 hour to come to room temperature; gather and sterilize your equipment. Pour the milk into a large kettle and slowly bring it to 86°F over low heat. Remove it from the heat and sprinkle on the starter; let it rehydrate for a couple of minutes, and then stir it in with a large spoon, using about 20 up-and-down strokes from the top to the bottom of the pot. Cover the kettle and let the milk sit for 1 hour, ensuring it stays around 86°F while ripening.
Dilute the rennet in the water, and then gently stir it into the milk, repeating the up-and-down motion for several minutes. Cover the pot again and let the milk sit undisturbed at 86°F for another hour.
Check that the curd has formed a solid mass and separates clearly when a thermometer is inserted at a 45° angle. If you don’t see a clean break, wait 5 minutes and recheck. When the curd is ready, use a large, long knife to cut it into 1/2-inch cubes: Cut straight, top-to-bottom lines from one side of the pot to the other, and then turn the pot 90° and repeat. Do the same double-cut process again with the knife at a 45° slant. Cover the pot again and let the curds sit undisturbed at 86°F for 10 minutes. Then remove the lid and gently and slowly stir the curds with a large slotted spoon for 20 minutes, releasing more whey. Let the curds sit untouched at 86°F for another 5 minutes.
Set a large colander over a large bowl and line it with butter muslin. Pour or ladle in the curds, letting the whey run into the bowl; set the whey aside for another use. Tie the corners of the cloth into a knot around the large spoon handle, and hang the cheesecloth bag in the kettle or over a large bowl for 1 hour to drain. Ideally, transfer the cheese in its cloth to a square mold set over a baking sheet; otherwise, continue to drain by hanging.
In the mold, press the curd into the corners and fold the cloth over the top of the cheese. Let it sit another hour, checking regularly to pour off the released whey. Remove the cheese from the mold, flip it over on the cloth, and rewrap the cloth over the cheese before returning it to the mold to sit another hour. Flip once more, and then let the cheese sit in the mold an additional 3–9 hours.
Remove the cheese from the cloth and cut it into 1-inch cubes. Put the cubes in a large bowl, sprinkle them with salt, and toss gently to coat the cheese evenly. Place in a covered container in the refrigerator for 4–5 days, pouring off the released whey daily, until the cheese is well aged. Makes about 1 pound.
Tips & Tricks
Twice as Tasty
To me, a Greek salad is the classic home for feta: no lettuce, just gorgeous tomato, cucumber, bell pepper, fresh herbs, and cheese splashed with oil and lemon juice or vinegar. I think I ate one of these salads almost daily during my time in Greece, with a slab of freshly baked bread on the side.
At home, those peak flavors are only available a few weeks of the year. So I use feta in many other salads that give me an excuse to make the cheese year round. Legumes such as chickpeas and kidney beans and grains such as quinoa, couscous, and pearl barley hold their own with the salty texture and firm shape of feta. Any number of vegetables and fruits can be tossed in, depending on the season: even dried fruits in winter. And a simple dressing can add a bright bite without overpowering the flavor of your homemade cheese.
Warm Quinoa and Feta Salad
1 cup quinoa
2 cups Vegetable Stock or water
1 cup loosely packed arugula, coarsely chopped
1 Ataulfo mango
3 scallions or onion tops, thinly sliced
1/2 lemon, zest and juice
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
dried chili flakes to taste (optional)
4 ounces Dry-Salted Feta
Boil the eggs as you would for Basic Potato Salad: Gently add each egg to a small pot of bubbling water, cook for 10 minutes, and then immediately and gently transfer each egg to a large bowl of cold water until cooled. Rinse the quinoa, and then add it and the liquid to a clean small pot and bring it to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 10–15 minutes, until the liquid is absorbed.
Cut up the arugula, mango, and scallions. Zest the lemon, and then squeeze out 1-1/2 tablespoons of juice and pour it into a small jar. Turn the juice into Creamy Salad Dressing Base by adding salt and pepper, shaking briskly, and then adding the olive oil and, if desired, chili flakes and shaking until combined. Pour into the warm grains and mix well, and then fold in the fruit and vegetables until the arugula is slightly wilted. Peel and slice the eggs. Gently fold the eggs and cheese into the salad or arrange it on top. Taste, adjusting the seasonings as needed before serving warm. Serves 4.
Tips & Tricks
- Once you make this salad, you’ll find it works with whatever ingredients are in your kitchen—starting with the grains. Instead of quinoa, substitute pearl barley, farro, or even a small pasta like orzo. Adjust the liquid and cooking time as needed for the grain type.
- The ingredients here use the first harvest from the garden and the first seasonal fruit at the market. Other spring salad options include spinach, asparagus, snap peas, and fresh herbs like mint and cilantro. In summer, choose snap beans, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and red onion and consider serving the salad cold. By fall, you can move on to carrots and kale.
- In the states, I prefer small, yellow-skinned Ataulfo mangoes, also called Manila, honey, and champagne mangoes. Ataulfos are more delicate than their larger red and green–skinned cousins, but I have better luck finding them approaching ripeness in my local markets.
- The cheese and egg give plenty of protein for a light, one-dish vegetarian meal, but you can create a more filling one by serving grilled shrimp or salmon alongside or mixed into the salad. Vegans miss out on homemade cheese but can substitute chickpeas or kidney beans and toasted walnuts.
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