I’ve always loved the tang of goat cheese, or chèvre. Unfortunately, goat milk is hard to find in my area. Local stores tend to carry one ultrapasteurized brand or a powdered version—neither of which works for cheese. Regulations for selling milk directly to individuals are so strict, convoluted, and enforced that it feels like a black market. I occasionally trade with friends who are milking goats (and have momma and babies willing to share), but mostly I gave up on making soft cheese.
That changed when I took a chance on fromage blanc. I’d written off this cow’s milk cheese as too mild for my tastes. But it has a surprising amount of tang and flavor. Best of all, the technique for soft cheeses really does work across milk types—cow or goat, reduced fat or whole milk or cream. It can be soft and spreadable or drained until it crumbles. It can be shaped or molded, and it absorbs flavors like herbs, zests, and spices. Learn to make soft cheeses, and you have so many choices. You can do it!
When you add up the time you spend actively making a soft cheese, it takes about 30 minutes. Each step is simple: heating, stirring, draining. What makes this cheese type so delicious is its slow ripening period and long draining time. Think of it like sourdough: letting it sit and work its magic without your help gives the best flavor.
The recipe below walks you through each step, but here’s the basic technique for soft cheeses:
- Heat. Heat the milk to 75°F in a water bath, which takes about 15 minutes.
- Culture. Sprinkle on the starter and let it sit for about 5 minutes.
- Stir. Stir in the starter, followed by the calcium chloride and then the rennet.
- Ripen. Let it sit at room temperature for 12 hours.
- Drain. Strain off the whey, and then let the curds drain at room temperature for 4–6 hours.
- Salt. Mix in the salt and enjoy now or later.
Soft cheeses are a step up from Lemon Cheese in terms of special ingredients. You have options for each, and they’ll be useful for many other cheese types and dairy products. Besides milk (more on types later), here’s what you’ll need:
- Mesophilic starter. This family of starter cultures is used for low-temperature cheeses. You can use the various types for a range of other dairy products besides soft cheeses, and they keep up to 2 years in the freezer. I use Aroma B for Homemade Sour Cream and Cultured Buttermilk. Flora Danica works for everything from cottage cheese to stinky rind cheeses. I like to use the MA 4000 series for its complexity; I keep it on hand for making semihard cheeses. All of these starter cultures also work for Dry-Salted Feta, and all can be used for the soft cheeses described in this post.
- Rennet. Rennet coagulates milk, gathering the proteins into curds. Traditionally made from animal sources, vegetable rennet has become as widely available. Liquid rennet can last a year in the fridge; tablets can last up to 5 years in the freezer. Either way, it will never go bad; it just may lose some of its coagulating power. It helps with all kinds of cheese, including feta and Quick Homemade Mozzarella.
- Calcium chloride. This additive helps firm up the curds and lets them clearly separate from the whey. The amount of calcium in milk can be affected by everything from the cow’s breed to the season to how long the milk sat at the store, all of which can be balanced out by a little calcium chloride. It’s usually optional but lasts indefinitely, so it’s worth keeping on hand. Brewers often use crystals (it balances the minerals in water too), but a liquid form is easiest to measure for small-batch cheese.
- Salt. You can buy cheese salt, which is finely textured and dissolves easily at low temperatures. A flaky kosher salt, like the Diamond Crystal brand I prefer for pickling, may be more readily available and works just as well.
Ready to give it a try? Full details are in the recipe below, but here are the basics:
You just need milk and salt plus the cheesemaking ingredients described earlier.
1. Heat the milk.
2. Stir in the culture, calcium chloride, and finally rennet.
3. Leave to ripen.
4. Pour off the whey and drain.
5. Mix in salt and enjoy.
Homemade Fromage Blanc
1/8 teaspoon mesophilic starter
1/4 cup unchlorinated water, divided
4 drops liquid calcium chloride (optional)
4 drops liquid vegetable rennet
1 teaspoon flaky kosher salt or cheese salt
Gather and sterilize your equipment. Set up a water bath: Place a rack or layer of canning rings in the bottom of a large pot. Fill the pot by 1/3 with water, and then pour the milk into another heatproof container that fits within the pot. Insert the container into the larger pot, making sure the water in the outer pot is at least at the milk level in the inner container but does not overflow.
Remove the container with the milk and set it aside at room temperature. Bring the large pot of water to 85°F. Turn off the heat, set the container with the milk in the large pot, and cover the pot. Let sit for about 15 minutes, until the milk reaches 75°F. If the milk is warming too quickly, remove the lid; if it is warming too slowly, turn on low heat under the water bath.
While the milk is heating, stir the calcium chloride and 2 tablespoons of water together in a small cup. In a separate cup, dilute the rennet and remaining water in the same way. Set aside.
Remove the water-bath pot from any heat and sprinkle the starter on the milk; let it rehydrate for about 5 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 milk container. Add the diluted calcium chloride and incorporate it in the same manner. Add and incorporate the diluted rennet in the same way. Cover the water-bath pot and let the milk sit at room temperature (about 72°F) for 12 hours.
Check the curd: It should have formed a solid mass floating under clear, yellowish whey. When it’s ready, set a large colander over a large bowl and line it with damp 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 pot or over a large bowl for 4–6 hours to drain.
When the cheese is your desired texture, remove it from the cloth, sprinkle it with salt, and mix gently until blended. Eat immediately, or place the cheese in a covered container in the refrigerator, where it will continue to develop flavor and keep for 2–3 weeks. For longer storage, shape the cheese into a log, wrap it in parchment paper, seal it into a zip-close bag, and freeze. Makes about 1-1/2 pounds.
Tips & Tricks
- If you’re just joining me in cheesemaking, you may not have a thermometer or butter muslin in your kitchen. You can learn more about fermenting dairy and essential tools on the basics pages.
- Even though I have a pot ideal for directly heating milk, I prefer a water bath for slowly ripening cheeses. The water bath will continue to heat the milk once the starter is added (which is why the target temp is so low) and will help hold onto that heat during the ripening time. If your house is especially cool, you can wrap a towel around the pot.
- You can get the target water temperature of 85°F straight from the tap, although keeping a steady temperature as the pot fills can be finicky. It’s often easiest to heat cold water on the stove. The higher your stove setting, the easier it will be to blow past 85°F, so keep a close eye on the water bath.
- I like the balance of creaminess and tanginess that comes from using 2% milk, but the choice is yours: whole milk, 1%, skim, or a blend, even with a bit of cream. The less fat in the milk, the lower the yield and drier the cheese; the more fat, the creamier the cheese.
- Ripening and draining times can be flexible. I’ve let soft cheeses ripen 24 hours and drain 12 hours. The longer soft cheeses ripen, the more tang; the longer they drain, the more they crumble. Ideally, I start making a soft cheese in the evening, let it ripen overnight, hang it to drain in the morning, and sample it for lunch.
Twice as Tasty
You’ll find soft cheeses in cultures around the world, all essentially made using the technique given here. By changing up the milk type or source, you get a new type of cheese. Fromage blanc (white cheese) typically uses a low-fat milk. For quark, use the same technique with skim milk.
You can make richer cheese with this technique too. Add a pint of heavy cream, and you get Neufchâtel. Keep boosting the cream to milk ratio, and you end up with a reduced-fat or (using just cream) a full-fat cream cheese. For chèvre, swap out the cow’s milk for goat’s milk.
In all cases, avoid ultrapasteurized milk. That heat affects the milk so severely that rennet and even calcium chloride can’t make the curds join together in anything but rubbery chunks. Nonhomogenized (cream on top) milk is best: The fat globules haven’t been broken apart and stay suspended in the milk, giving you a jump-start on the process. My preferred readily available local sources for cow’s milk are Kalispell Kreamery and Lifeline Farm. Goat’s milk I find locally only if I’m lucky. Some other good milk sources for other areas are listed here.
What goes well with cheese? Pickles! Get a signed copy of The Complete Guide to Pickling to fill your shelves and fridge with vinegar and fermented pickles, chutneys, hot sauces, salsa, 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.