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Cheesemaking is having a resurgence! Ready to try a simple cheese recipe? With our new Beginner’s Guide to Cheesemaking, learn about the art of making cheese, why it’s worthwhile, and how to make an easy cheese recipe.
While making cheese may seem too involved and complex for a home kitchen, our ancestors would disagree. They made such a variety of cheeses in kitchens far more primitive than modern ones. Yes, some cheeses do take practice and special tools and ingredients to successfully make and age. However, other cheeses need minimal time and effort and can be made with tools and ingredients you likely already have. Beyond the satisfaction of making them yourself, these fresh, homemade cheeses are, quite simply, delicious as well as healthy and cost-effective.
As soon as people began raising sheep, goats, and cows, they likely began making cheese. European immigrants brought the craft with them to America. Cheese was even among the Mayflower supplies when it sailed in 1620, according to the International Dairy Foods Association.
Although immigrants brought cheesemaking skills and recipes from their home countries, the New World lacked everything else they needed, from cows to tools and means to acquire them. Pioneers became inventive, using wash boilers as kettles, gunny sacks as cheesecloth, stone-filled beams as cheese presses, and bare hands to mix ingredients and monitor temperature, according to the National Historic Cheesemaking Center in Green County, Wisconsin. The effort was worth it: Before refrigeration and pasteurization, cheese, yogurt, and other fermented dairy products preserved milk that otherwise would sour and spoil.
Local farmers, particularly women, continued as cheese’s main producers, with the practice spreading with settlers from east to west, until factories began opening in the mid-1800s. In just a few decades, most of the cheese Americans made and ate transitioned to processed versions made by ever fewer, and ever larger, manufacturers.
A shift in recent decades revived the desire for artisan cheeses. The small-scale farmers leading this rebirth were in the same position as the first American pioneers: limited access to ingredients and equipment. They also had to comb archives for recipes that by then had been lost—without the ease of an Internet search. Through their efforts, cheese businesses continue to grow and supplies, tools, and recipes are increasingly available so that you can make cheese at home.
Basic Cheesemaking Process
Cheesemaking uses a fairly straightforward process and a few simple ingredients. The differences in flavor, texture, and other characteristics come down to the details.
To make cheese, you typically heat milk and then hold it at a certain temperature while adding an acid or a culture, a strain of beneficial bacteria that starts to transform milk into cheese. You may add other ingredients like rennet, a set of enzymes that helps the proteins in milk to coagulate and form curds floating in liquid whey. You then drain and sometimes press the whey from the curds, compacting them into cheese.
The specifics of this basic process make one cheese variety different from the next. Temperature matters, as does how long and how many times you keep it there. The acid or starter culture used to separate milk into curds and whey affects flavor, texture, and even whether cheese melts when reheated. Aging again transforms cheese, say from fresh ricotta, which is ready in an hour but only keeps a few days, to ricotta salata, which is salted and pressed for a week but keeps for months.
The best way to learn the basic process and when to introduce variations is to start making cheese.
Ingredients and Tools
American pioneers and the modern revivalists have shown that you can make cheese with just a few basic ingredients and tools. Specialized ones can be useful as you broaden your cheesemaking repertoire, but even then you might reach for common household items and ingredients to press, mold, and flavor cheese.
Cheese starts with milk, typically from cows, goats, or sheep. Whichever you choose, how the milk has been processed can affect your results.
Pasteurized milk is recommended when you start making cheese—even if you have access to raw milk. Pasteurization ensures the acid or starter culture that transforms milk to cheese isn’t competing against rogue, potentially harmful bacteria.
Store-bought milk is increasingly ultrapasteurized, sometimes labeled UHT for ultrahigh temperature. This extreme temperature kills harmful bacteria while extending milk’s shelf life. Unfortunately, the ultrahigh heat also affects milk’s proteins, preventing curds from bonding. Homogenization, the process that breaks up fat to make milk smooth and consistently creamy, also weakens cheese curd, although not as badly as UHT pasteurization.
For cheesemaking, your first choice should be pasteurized and nonhomogenized milk, with homogenized, but not ultrapasteurized, as your next option. Whole milk creates many cheeses, but some recipes use different fat percentages or cream. Organic milk is often a good choice, but not always. A small local dairy that raises a non-GMO, hormone- and antibiotic-free herd may provide better milk for making cheese than an organic brand that is ultrapasteurized and shipped across the country.
Choosing Starter Cultures
Curds and whey need something to help them separate. That “something” generally falls into two categories: an acid or a starter culture.
An acid, like vinegar, lemon juice, or citric acid, turns milk you heat to a high temperature into cheeses like farmer’s cheese and ricotta. Other cheese types use a starter culture and lower temperature. The specific acid or starter culture adds to that cheese’s distinctive flavor.
By starting your cheesemaking adventures with a high-temperature, acid-based recipe, like a farmer’s cheese, you can pull ingredients and tools from the cupboard and learn the basic process. Once you become hooked on home cheesemaking, you can buy starter cultures for your favorite varieties. Powdered cultures generally last for up to 2 years in the freezer.
Salt preserves and flavors most cheeses. Packets specifically labeled “cheese salt” contain pure, midsize grains that dissolve evenly into warm cheese curds. Flaky kosher salt is another good option for the same reason, whereas finely ground or coarse salts may be less effective.
Whichever you choose, look for packaging that lists one ingredient: salt. Additional ingredients that prevent salt from caking can affect texture and flavor. Iodine, a common table salt additive, kills the lactic bacteria that help cheese age properly.
Home Cheesemaking Equipment
The most basic cheesemaking tools are likely already in your kitchen, perhaps several times over:
Large, lidded pot: Choose a stainless steel or other nonreactive pot with a heavy bottom that will hold at least 1 gallon of milk. If your biggest pot is made of a reactive material, like aluminum or cast iron, or has a textured bottom, consider buying a stainless steel steam-table insert from a restaurant supply store. Pair this with the pot as a water bath: set the insert on a rack in the pot, and then fill the insert with milk and the pot with water.
Spoon, ladle, strainer, and bowl: A wooden or silicone spoon and ladle let you stir and scoop out curds without scratching the pot’s bottom. To capture the curds, use a strainer or colander that rests steadily over a bowl. The bowl should be large enough to hold at least two-thirds of the milk you started with while keeping the strainer suspended above the whey.
Butter muslin: Cheesecloth’s loose weave may let curds slip through, making butter muslin, a more densely woven material that can be washed and reused, a better choice. A store that stocks beer-making supplies may carry butter muslin for hops bags. A cloth napkin or tea towel may also be thin enough to let whey drain through steadily.
Thermometer: Farmer’s cheese and some other fresh varieties are fairly forgiving about precise temperature, but you still don’t want the milk to burn. A metal-probe digital or dial thermometer with a 0°F to 220°F range will be essential when you start making cheeses that need to be held at specific temperatures throughout the process.
If you enjoy making cheese, you may soon add tools like molds, mats, drip trays, weights, and presses to your collection. For your first attempts at molded and pressed cheeses, like the paneer variation of farmer’s cheese, a cutting board, plate, and pan weighed down with a couple of cans of beans may be all you need.
A few notes: As with any fermentation, you’ll want your ingredients to be fresh and your tools and work area to be clean. And note that making cheese takes patience just like baking or other cooking techniques. In this case, cheesemaking is about slowly heating milk, waiting while curds and whey separate, waiting again as curds drain—but the hands-on time is minimal and you’ll work faster as you learn the technique and develop the best setup for your kitchen.
Farmer’s Cheese Recipe
Ready to make cheese? We recommend a Farmer’s Cheese recipe for your first homemade cheese. Popular worldwide, farmer’s cheese can be made quickly with a few basic ingredients likely already in your kitchen. No prior experience is required to follow this recipe—but once you know how, you’ll make it often. The process takes less than 20 minutes of hands on time, and the cheese can be ready to eat in as little as an hour.
1 teaspoon cheese salt or flaky kosher salt to taste
Pour the milk into a large, heavy-bottom pot.
Heat the milk over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the temperature is between 185°F and 190°F. (A food-grade thermometer is helpful here.)
Remove the pot from the heat. Slowly pour the vinegar into the milk, stir well, and then cover the pot. Let it sit for 15 minutes, until the curds and whey separate.
Check for clear separation. If the whey looks milky, add another 1 to 2 tablespoons of vinegar and let it sit an additional 5 minutes.
Set a colander over a large bowl or pot and line it with a single layer of butter muslin. Ladle the whey and then the curds slowly into the muslin so that most of the whey runs through before the curds slide into the colander. Let the curds drain for 5 to 10 minutes, until most of the whey has dripped into the bowl; the whey can be reserved for another use.
Sprinkle the curds with the cheese salt and then gently mix it in. Tie two opposing corners of the muslin into a knot, and then tie the other two corners around a wooden spoon handle or other support so that it can hang over the pot to drain.
Let the cheese drain for about 30 minutes for a soft, spreadable cheese and up to 2 hours for a dry, crumbly cheese.
Remove the cheese from the muslin and store it in a lidded container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
Julie Laing has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years and is the author of The Complete Guide to Pickling (Rockridge Press, 2020). Julie also writes the weekly Twice as Tasty food column for the Flathead Beacon, named after her food blog, and her writing and photos regularly appear on The Spruce Eats, Taste of Home, Kitchn, Health.com, and other websites.