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Making your own cheese

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

"You're definitely, definitely better off buying cheese from people who know what they're doing, But, it is fun". Juliet Harbutt

This all began because of a Guardian reference - I can't quite remember what exactly - to stracciatella. What's straciatella thought I and put it down on my list of possible topics.

In my head I had it as some kind of layered pasta dish, but when I eventually started looking into it I found that it was actually three things - a soup, an ice-cream and a cheese. The cheese is actually the creamy stuff which is in the centre of those oh so trendy balls of burrata and there it is looking particularly luscious below. In the list of sites was one from The Washington Post which claimed it was ridiculously easy to make. I was intrigued and read on, only to find that actually you needed the curds from making mozzarella. So first make your Mozzarella. And yes you can make your own mozzarella and actually it didn't sound too hard really. And from there you can move to making your own Straciatella.

All too hard for me though so I set it aside for now, thinking perhaps that I would do something on straciatella in its various forms and what to do with the cheese, some time in the future.

Then in the last Guardian newsletter - in the 'waste not' section there was an article on how to make Paneer which is in fact very easy to do - just curdle some hot milk with lemon juice or vinegar, leave it to drain and then press until hard enough for you. I vaguely remember Madhur Jaffrey saying that although she had originally used vinegar, she now found lemon juice was better - or was it the other way round? I really can't remember, but yes, do give it a go. Theoretically either should work, although the taste might be different.

It then occurred to me that there are heaps of these very easy cheeses to make at home and that various different cultures have slightly different methods of doing it. The website where I found the recipe for the Mozzarella, which is admirably described and photographed - New England Cheese Making Co. has recipes for just about all of them if you are interested.

Cheese is a very old food, dating back to the first settled civilisations. One story goes something like this:

"A forgetful shepherd might have noticed that his neglected milk turned acidic and curdled into a thick yoghurt. This yoghurt could then be separated into solid curd and liquid whey. The whey provided a refreshing drink on hot journeys. The fresh curd could be salted to produce a simple cheese, maybe the first ever cheese." Andy Connelly - The Guardian

Another version has something to do with people noticing curdled milk in the stomachs of animals being butchered, or else, milk curdling in containers made from those stomachs. Nobody really knows of course, like virtually all of the origins of any kind of cooking. But interesting to think upon, and pretty soon everybody made their own cheese at home - until modern times. Now nobody does - well probably more are because it's becoming a fashionable thing. Like making your own sourdough.

The interesting aside to this and the fact that cheese is so ancient - and sort of natural too - is that the East Asians, including the Chinese do not have cheese. One theory is that only the nomadic tribesmen made cheese and these were considered to be barbaric so it was considered uncouth to eat cheese. More likely though is that the East Asians are lactose intolerant - mostly because of not being exposed to dairy products. Why? Well they needed their cattle to work the fields, not give milk. And they had plenty of cattle to provide protein - and soy as well. The Western world had fewer sources of wildlife for meat (really?), and therefore developed cheese, which over generations and evolution overcame the natural lactose intolerance of man. Well it's a good story, and it's certainly true about the lactose intolerance in East Asia.

I have never made most of these cheeses, but I have made yoghurt, (easy) and I have made Labneh. Anyone can make labneh. In spite of various people saying various other cheeses are the easiest to make, they lie. Labneh is the easiest because you don't have to get anything to curdle.

All you do is get your yoghurt - Ottolenghi says not Greek yoghurt. Full fat, and I guess organic is best. I also guess the quality of your yoghurt will affect the quality of your labneh, because all you do is hang your yoghurt over a bowl, wrapped in muslin - or even a chux. I saw somebody suggest an old (but clean) T-shirt would do, for at least 12 hours I suppose. Well until it reaches the degree of dryness that you prefer. I have made a perfectly acceptable spreadable labneh in just a few hours. And if you squeeze it when it's in the muslin that would hasten the process a bit. They say to do this in the fridge, but I confess I just usually hang it over the laundry sink. Then you can roll it into balls, roll it in something else, put it in jars covered with oil, or just put it on a plate and drizzle over some oil - and spices, and herbs, lemon rind ... And I guess you can mix stuff into it as well. I love it and it makes a wonderful appetiser. Remember that it will shrink hugely in volume though - by about half.

And don't throw away the Whey because there are a thousand and one ways of using whey which is also rich in protein and all sorts of other stuff. Whey being the liquid that drips out of the yoghurt, and separates from the curds. One of the traditional uses in Italy is to make ricotta. You won't get enough whey from labneh for this though - I think the smallest quantity of whey I found for making ricotta was 2 litres, so I'm guessing that none of us are going to be making ricotta any time soon.

You can find recipes for making ricotta with milk, but it seems to me that this then becomes Cottage/curd cheese. Indeed, in a way it's difficult to see the difference between paneer and cottage cheese, because both of them are really made from heating up milk and adding something to make it curdle. Mind you rennet is often an ingredient in cottage cheese, so maybe that's the difference. I don't think you will find this on the supermarket shelf - well not unless it's one like Leo's but your local health food shop will probably have it. Although then again maybe not because it's not vegetarian is it? Online anyway - you can find anything online.

I would love to find a recipe for fromage frais - because you cannot get that here - which has always intrigued me - ditto for crème fraiche. Yes I know you can now get crème fraiche but not that easily and it costs a lot. But that too you can make at home. For fromage frais though you seem to need special cultures so I'm not including that here.

The last one I am including as potentially easy though is the one you see those children making at the top of the page - Halloumi. I had no idea that you could make halloumi - the lovely rubbery stuff you fry for a Greek appetiser, sprinkled with lemon and olive oil. You will need rennet though. The process is slightly more complicated - well there are a few more steps but they are very simple and can be made with children - supervised of course. If they can do it, so can you.

"Making cheese with children is easy and loads of fun, striking a brilliant balance between a kind of whizz-bang chemistry and gentle alchemy." Claire Thomson - The Guardian

So there you go. Next time you are locked down and don't know what to do with your kids or grandkids, make some cheese. They are all fairly bland so you can then have fun tarting them up in all manner of ways - or make cheesecake or pizza.

There are a few things to bear in mind though.

  • Don't use homogenised or long-life milk. Pasteurized is OK because I doubt that any of you has access to raw milk from a farm. Full fat is best, although some of them are possible with low fat. And I suppose organic is best too. It won't work with all of those non milks though. No it won't.

"Cheese always works best with fresh (as in out-of-the-cow-that-day) milk, but unless you live on or next to a farm, that's pretty much impossible to get hold of, so supermarket milk will have to do." Mary-Ellen McTeague

  • Keep everything very clean. Some go as far as to tell you to sterilise everything. No need for this with labneh though!

  • Any water you use should be unchlorinated. Well not everyone said this but anyway:

"To remove chlorine from tap water, let the water sit out, uncovered, overnight. The chlorine, which is a gas, will dissipate."

Not sure about that.

I did see recipes for cheddar too, but I think that involved all of those starters and things, so really that's for someone who really gets into this. I do feel a bit inspired to try the halloumi though - and maybe the paneer and cottage cheese too. Even the mozzarella sounds doable.

"much as I'd like to, I can't promise it will always be worth the effort. Sometimes, whether due to bacterial spoilage, or a mistake with the temperature, or the alignment of the goddam planets, cheese occasionally just doesn't work out. Take it from me, if it smells horrible by the time you've finished, skip the taste test and discard it. When it does work out, however, it is so very satisfying and you will be feeling delighted with yourself for days." Mary-Ellen McTeague


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