Soft cheese is a breeze

I never realized how simple it is to make things like ricotta, mozzarella, fromage blanc, etc., and how crappy the stuff is you buy under brand names like “President” and “Precious”. We took a class on making soft cheeses yesterday and it was an eye-opener.

Neat! Do you need rennet for some of those? I’ve made homemade ricotta and paneer (pretty much the same thing, just differs in how much water you leave in it), but those are so simple - no need for special cheesemaking ingredients.

How about making cottage cheese? I know that’s not exactly the same thing, but I’ve been considering using one of our cartons of whole milk and making my own. Do I need anything special?

It was a beginner’s class, but I can’t imagine that cottage cheese is much different than ricotta, but perhaps it requires sugar or something. I’ll check the book we bought.

As for an acidic such as rennet (or just vinegar), that’s what makes the milk clot, so it’s critical to cheese making. Our instructor used white vinegar for pretty much everything he did. If you can make ricotta, you can make every other soft cheese out there: it’s just a matter of how long it drains and how hot the milk is.

Did you guys do your mozzarella with only vinegar? I’ve only seen that one done with rennet. I haven’t done it in awhile, but I remember mozzarella being a little bit tricky, getting it to the right acidity and having it properly “spin” and come together into one homogenous mass. Half the time, I ended up with mozzarella; the other half, I ended up with a clump of something resembling cream or farmer’s cheese (still good, but not mozzarella.)

I’m anxious to try it. The instructions say to use 1/4 of a rennet tablet in a quarter cup of cool water, and also 1/2 teaspoon of citric acid (vinegar) in a cup of cool water, for a gallon of milk. Stir vigorously while adding the acid to the milk, heat to 90 degrees while stirring. Take off heat and add the rennet solution slowly. Cover and leave undisturbed for 5 minutes. It should then look like curd: if not, let it sit for a few more minutes. Cut the curd with a knife, place pot back on the stove, heat to 105 degrees while slowly moving the curds around. Remove and continue slowly stirring. Pour off the whey.

Heat a pot of water to 185 degrees; ladle curds into a colander, folding gently while straining off the whey. The curds become elastic when the cheese temp reaches 135. When it’s stretchable, remove the curd from the liquid and pull like taffy, which elongates the proteins. Add salt/herbs at this point. Stretch until smooth and shiny.

When finished forming it, submere in 50 degree water to cool for five minutes, then ice water for 15 minutes.

Keep in mind that I’ve never made this cheese, so have no idea about the above and what to look out for, but that’s the gist of the directions.

Isn’t vinegar acetic acid, not citric?

Real ricotta is made from the whey left over after making cheese. Wikipedia has a good explanation here. True ricotta cannot be made from the whey left over from acid-set cheeses - the whey must come from an enzyme-set cheese (e.g. a cheese made with rennet). An acid may be added to the whey, which is then heated (the root “cotta” means “cooked”). The resulting cheese has a different protein balance than conventional cheeses - a lot of albumin and not much casein.

There are a lot of faux-ricotta recipes that involve curdling fresh milk with acid. The result is more of a farmer’s cheese. True ricotta has a lighter texture, which is why it’s often used in cannoli - a farmer’s cheese would be too rich and heavy for this purpose.

You’re right. Normally, they’re interchangeable in cheese recipes, although citric acid is going to leave a different flavor. Some recipes call for cider vinegar, but white vinegar leaves a cleaner taste, apparently.

As for cottage cheese, I just looked at a recipe for it, and it sounds like a total pain in the ass to make. Instructions such as: heat at 1 degree per minute for 100 minutes; heat at 2 degrees per minute for ten minutes, then 3 degrees per minute for the rest of your life. You would have to have intimate knowledge of stove settings and how your pots distribute heat to do this, methinks.

Damn, where were you when I was trying this four years ago.

I always ran into two problems:

  1. How do you heat and then control the heat of the milk?
  2. How are you measuring the temperature of the milk?

For the life of me I just couldn’t seem to get that part right, and usually over shot my goal.

The other problem I had was getting the right curd, is it supposed to sink? Mine always floated.

Oh, one other question, where you guys adding calcium to the milk? I forget in what form, maybe calcium chloride.

He talked about adding calcium chloride, but it’s only for specific cheeses. The curd we saw was floating. He heated the milk on a hot plate, which, for a small batch, works pretty well. The burner is lower wattage than on a stove, and he heated it fairly slowly, checking often with an instant-read thermo. He removed the pot just before hitting peak temperature, and he also added some ingredients prior to it getting up to temperature (the culture, perhaps?), which avoided overheating.

Also, this was cheese that didn’t require maintaining a constant temperature for any length of time, which I can see being a problem that would only be solved by lengthy experimentation (a la the cottage cheese mentioned above). Some cheeses require a constant room temperature for a day or so. He said he wraps the pot in a blanket, which helps maintain it in a warm house. In the summer, of course, it’s a problem keeping the temperature cool enough, unless you have AC (at least here, where it can get quite hot).

I guess it’s not as much of a breeze as it seemed!

This book, Milk by Anne Mendelson, has great-looking recipes and formulas for cheese and many other milk products in the end of the book, as well as a big history of milk through the ages. Really interesting.

Wow. Yeah, that would be a pain. Thanks for the info; I might still give it a go at some point, but it may take some more experience on my part.

In my experience, no. It should be the top layer of your milk, about an inch thick or so.

I actually made mozzarella yesterday on a whim. I bought this kit From Austin Homebrew and I’m a fan of it.

Great, now I need a floating cheese thermometer.

How could anyone have made such a complicated recipe before the widespread use of kitchen thermometers? Ma makes cottage cheese in the Little House books, and I can’t imagine that her process was quite that involved.