A souring economy and rising food prices have driven many Americans to choose simple pleasures over fancy trimmings at the dinner table. For some, this means less dining out and more creative meals made with less expensive ingredients. However, many home cooks are using the downturn as an opportunity to reconnect with forgotten methods of food production, unlocking the rich potential of the home kitchen and their own creativity.
A $12 container of fresh mozzarella, for example, may seem indulgent at a specialty store, but the same decadent cheese can be made at home by hand for half the cost, not to mention double the foodie street cred. Cheese making, in my opinion one of civilization's most prized culinary achievements, is neither an expensive nor a difficult task.
The simplest cheeses are no more than milk, salt and curdling agents, although specific varieties include the addition of friendly bacterial cultures and mold to enhance flavor. Some cheeses, like cave-aged Roquefort, require exacting conditions, equipment and aging techniques to produce their signature characteristics. However, a number of simple cheeses can be produced quickly and easily at home with sumptuous results.
Most supplies can be found in the average cupboard. A large stainless-steel saucepan, a slotted spoon, a colander, measuring utensils and a cooking thermometer are the only tools necessary to transform a gallon of milk into Miss Muffet's famed cheese precursor, curds and whey. Cheesecloth, a loosely woven cotton fabric designed to strain out curds of young cheese, is an ideal and inexpensive tool, but in a pinch, a clean dish towel works.
The ingredients for simple cheeses are also easily accessible. Fresh milk is the obvious primary component, and nearly any variety of milk (cow, goat, sheep, buffalo) will do the job. Full-fat milk will yield the most and the richest cheeses, but any grade of milk will work. Avoid ultra-pasteurized milk (shelf-stable), as the high-heat pasteurization method renders the milk incapable of producing curds. Raw milk is my pick for the best simple cheeses – the natural dairy cultures lend a noticeably richer flavor to the end product without additional ingredients.
Citric acid alone can be used to set the curds for some soft cheeses, such as Italian ricotta or South Asian paneer. Citric acid powder is available in the canning section of many grocery stores or in the food-supplement section of healh-food stores.
Rennet is used for producing most types of cheese and is cheaply available from both animal and vegetarian sources. Liquid rennet is available at Country Sun Natural Foods in Palo Alto, and rennet tablets can be ordered online from cheese specialists like fermented food craft supplier Leeners (www.leeners.com).
Most cheeses taste better with the addition of salt, and noniodized salt trumps table salt for flavor.
With your pantry in order, the cheese making can begin. The process of making cheese is straightforward. With a little practice, your homemade dairy delicacies can rival those found at a gourmet grocery. Whole-milk ricotta is an easy beginner's cheese for the experimental home cook and can be produced from start to finish in under an hour.
1/2 gallon whole milk
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon citric acid, dissolved
in 1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon (or more) salt
Begin heating milk (and cream, if using) on medium flame, stirring constantly to avoid scorching. Add salt right away – 1 teaspoon yields mildly salted ricotta suitable for both sweet or savory uses; add more to taste. Add half of the citric acid solution right away as well. Monitor temperature – you do not want milk to reach a boil, but it should seem close (approximately 185 F). Hold temperature here while you add remaining citric acid solution. Remove saucepan from heat and allow to sit, undisturbed, for 15-30 minutes as curds begin to form. As you wait, you will notice curds grow larger and the remaining liquid (whey) becomes nearly translucent.
Once curds have formed, separate out the whey. Place a colander in a large bowl or sink and line it with cheesecloth. Slowly spoon or pour curds into colander, allowing whey to run through as the curds are trapped in the cloth. When most of whey has drained out, gather the corners of cheesecloth and tie them together, molding cheese (for now it is truly cheese) into ball. Leave ball of ricotta to drain for another 15 minutes, either by hanging it around neck of sink faucet or simply leaving it in colander. (You may dispose of whey if you wish, but if you keep a garden, reserve liquid to nourish your favorite plants.)
When ricotta has drained, it is ready to eat. Layer fresh ricotta into lasagna, spoon it atop homemade pizza or drizzle cheese with honey for a delicious and simple dessert. Fresh ricotta can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to a week.
Once you have mastered the basics of curdling and draining ricotta, you are ready to attempt a rennet-based cheese, mozzarella. The initial steps are similar, although mozzarella is curdled at a much lower temperature. The addition of rennet produces a distinctly springy curd valued for easy melting. Basic mozzarella1 gallon whole milk 1/4 teaspoon liquid vegetarian rennet, dissolved in 2 tablespoons water; or 1/2 tablet vegetable rennet, dissolved in 1/4 cup water 1 1/2 teaspoons citric acid, dissolved in 1/4 cup water 2 tablespoons salt Cheesecloth Heat milk in stainless-steel saucepan over medium heat until it reaches 55 F. Stir in citric acid solution and continue to heat milk, stirring gently. Once milk has reached 90 F, pour in rennet solution and stir gently for 20-30 seconds. Turn off heat and leave pot undisturbed for 15-30 minutes, as thick curds begin to form and pull away from sides. Whey for mozzarella should be nearly clear. If whey remains milky, let curds sit for a few extra minutes. Scoop out curds using slotted spoon and transfer them to cheesecloth-lined colander placed over bowl – you want to reserve some whey for later. Press gently on curds with back of spoon until most (but not all) whey has drained. Transfer curds to cutting board, slice into thin strips and place them in medium-sized bowl. Take 4 cups of reserved whey and heat in saucepan to 180 F. Stir in salt and pour hot solution over curds. Keeping curds submerged, use two spoons to push together curds, which will begin to knit together into solid mass. Once curd has formed a ball, remove it from hot whey (a fresh pair of dishwashing gloves can provide added comfort for this step). Now comes the goofy (or is that gooey?) part. Holding one end of curd in each hand, stretch cheese into cord as if pulling taffy. Fold curd back on itself, and stretch it again. Continue pulling and folding until cheese develops shiny exterior, approximately 30-45 seconds. If cheese does not feel elastic enough, submerge it again in hot whey to soften it. When finished stretching mozzarella, it can be eaten immediately, sliced warm and fresh for a rare treat. If you plan to shred the cheese, submerge it in cold water so that it can firm slightly. Fresh mozzarella can be refrigerated in an airtight container of cool water for up to three days.