Spring is working its way into Montana. This means 4 weather cycles in a day, plenty of mud, the first harvest of walking onions, and baby animals in the barn. At the farm where I garden, two baby cows have arrived, with a third on the way. Although the mommas will keep their milk for their newborns, it always seems like the perfect time to explore home-fermented dairy and cheese.
I’ve spent little time making cheese over the past year. A year ago, I skipped my planned cheese posts to extend the sourdough giveaway and share ways to eat well when stuck at home. Then I co-opted my “cheese cave” (aka mini dorm fridge) for pickles while I was launching my new book.
Yes, You Can
The first thing to know about cheese making is that you can do it. And it’s easy. Cheese, at its simplest, consists of milk and something that will make it acidic enough that the proteins can gather into curds. If you’ve been following all my pickling posts over the last year, you’ll have noticed all sorts of potential acids: vinegars, lemon juice, and others that are probably already in your kitchen. You’ll also have noticed lacto-fermentation methods that create acid. Both can be used to make cheese.
As with pickles, I think it’s simplest to make cheese by adding acid. How simple, you ask? You just need milk, lemon juice, and salt.
1. Heat the milk.
2. Stir in the lemon juice and let it sit (to separate and gather the curds).
3. Drain off the whey.
4. Salt and enjoy.
And boom: In 30 minutes, you have cheese. The full recipe is here.
Still don’t think it’s easy? My niece made her first batch (with adult supervision) when she was 3. If you want adult supervision too, keep your eye out for the return of in-person Twice as Tasty workshops next month.
Other dairy products can be as easy and delicious as homemade cheese. Have you ever stirred vinegar into milk and let it sit for a few minutes? It’s a standard substitute for buttermilk: You just added acid to milk—sound familiar?
As with pickles, relying on vinegar can make dairy products taste more one-dimensional than a fermented variation. Fermenting can take more time and care, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. With dairy, it usually just means acquiring a culture. For yogurt, I go to the grocery store, buy a small container of plain yogurt labeled as having live bacteria, and use it as the starter culture for my first homemade batch. After that, I use the final spoonfuls of one batch to make the next.
Store-bought buttermilk and sour cream are harder to find with live cultures and no additives, so I prefer a powdered starter for those. You can find them in some local natural-foods stores or online, and they keep well in the freezer. The starter and process for these two are essentially the same: you just choose milk for buttermilk and cream for sour cream.
1. Slowly heat the milk or cream.
2. Mix in the starter.
3. Let sit for a day or so and enjoy.
Your active time for each is only about 20 minutes. Click here for the full recipes for Cultured Buttermilk and Homemade Sour Cream.
Your homemade cheese world will expand exponentially when you start using cultures. The type of healthy bacteria that you add to a cheese is really the only ingredient that distinguishes Monterey Jack from Romano; the rest is all technique.
You don’t have to go as big as pressed cheese to see the benefits of using a culture. Feta is the perfect starting place. It uses both starter culture and rennet as a coagulant (which is generally available from any source that sells cheese cultures). Otherwise, you just need milk, water, and salt.
1. Slowly heat the milk.
2. Mix in the starter and let it sit.
3. Mix in the rennet and let it sit.
4. Cut the curd.
5. Drain off the whey.
6. Salt, let sit, and enjoy.
Your longest stretch of active time is only about 20 minutes, but you’ll spend a few more minutes here and there over the course of 6 hours and will have the tastiest cheese if you let the salt sink in over a few days in the fridge. The full recipe is here.
Twice as Tasty
This month, I’ll add even more easy cultured cheese variations to the blog. I’ll also share our favorite upgrade for cheap blocks of store-bought cheese: smoking.
Until then, the recipes outlined here are great ways to get comfortable with homemade cheese making. You’ll find several others in the recipe index. In the blog’s Basics pages, you’ll find a page with essential and nice-to-have tools and ingredients. And if you have questions, you can always comment on a recipe post or on Facebook.
Want to play with more fermentations? Get a signed copy of The Complete Guide to Pickling to fill your shelves and fridge with vinegar and fermented pickles, chutneys, hot sauces, salsas, and more. At the same time, pick up the The Pickled Picnic to learn how to use pickles and leftover brine in a range of recipes. Click here to order.