“Cheese” is a deceptively small, generic word for a food tradition with such a long and complicated history. To look at cubes of cheese on a party platter or in your lunchbox, you’d probably never guess that its history stretches all the way back to around 8,000 BC. No one knows exactly how our ancient forebears discovered the secret to making cheese, but there is a legend that goes something like this:
A family in the Middle East packed up all of their worldly belongings in preparation for a long trek across the desert to find game, water, and trade. The family milked their animals that morning while it was still dark and filled their canteens, which were made from dried animal stomachs. This would provide hydration and nutrients for their long journey. As the day progressed, the only sound they could hear in the barren desert air was the milk swishing back and forth of the pouches hanging from their belts. As the heat of the sun pounded on them, they occasionally stopped to drink. After two days of travel, they stopped once again in the in the burning heat to have some milk, and were shocked to discover the milk had turned hard and clumpy. Pouring it into their hands to investigate, they found that the clumps were white and shiny with a squeaky in texture. The liquid that was left had turned almost clear and taken on a yellow tint. The substance they discovered was what we would call curds and whey.
Though this story is a fictionalization based on guesswork, it is actually very informative, because it identifies four significant factors that contribute to the transformation of milk into cheese. These are: The heating up of milk to a very hot temperature, just below boiling; the gradual time period over which the milk must be heated up; the presence of acidic digestive enzymes, which would have been residual in the dried animal stomachs, to curdle the milk; and the movement of the milk swishing back and forth in the animal pouches, making sure none of the milk was untouched by the digestive enzymes.
All of these basic steps are still part of the cheese making process to this very day. Whether we like to think about it or not, cheese is really just sour milk. The digestive enzymes, or other acidic compounds used, promote the growth of “good bacteria” and prevent the creation of “bad bacteria” that can make us sick. In short, they make it possible for the milk to sour in a way that is good for us, much like the fermentation of foods like sauerkraut or yogurt.
During the thousands of years since cheese was invented, though, we’ve learned ways to control the end result by adding a few extra steps. This has led to the creation of the literally hundreds of varieties of cheese we have today, many of which started as regional recipes.
With just a little basic knowledge of the process, you can embark on your own cheese making adventure right at home. First, though, you’ll need to gather some equipment and ingredients:
Bare Bones Equipment
– A heavy bottomed pot for heating up the milk.
– A perforated ladle for stirring and ladling out the curd.
– A dairy, candy, or meat thermometer.
– A colander or two.
– Cloth to drain liquid off the curd (Cheese cloth, butter muslin, a clean cloth diaper, a clean pillow case. When making soft cheeses it is recommended to use a finer cloth like butter muslin, cloth diaper, or pillow case so that you don’t loose the small curds. If you don’t have access to any of these you can double up on cheesecloth).
– A few large microwave safe glass bowls to catch the whey draining from the curd.
– Measuring cups and spoons.
– Optional: 4 milk crates and a round wooden rod about the length of a broom handle for hanging the curd to drain.
Bare Bones Ingredients
You can use many different kinds of animal milk. Cow, goat, sheep, buffalo, and horse work the best.
You can use many different forms of these milks. Raw, pasteurized, and even non-fat dry milk (mixed with a touch of heavy cream). Stay away from ultra-pasteurized milk. This process makes the milk unusable for cheese making, because the high temperature at which it is processed damages the calcium and proteins that are needed to bind the milk proteins and form a curd. All milk-processing plants are required to label it as such. If using pasteurized milk from the store, you can use whole, 2%, 1%, or even skim. The higher the fat content in the milk, though, the higher yield of cheese you will get.
Recommendation: Use either raw or whole pasteurized milk. You can sometimes get raw milk right from your local dairy farm.
– Curdling Agents
Rennet: This is the digestive enzymes taken from the inside of a cow’s stomach. It is sold in both tablet and liquid form. You can also find vegetable rennet which comes from plant-derived enzymes. Both varieties are generally available at natural food stores or online. If you have a local creamery near you, ask if they have any leads on where to find it nearby. The tablets run about $1 apiece, but you only need 1/4 of a tablet to turn a gallon worth of milk into cheese.
Lemon Juice or Vinegar: If you use vinegar in the place of lemon juice, you will need to use more, because the acidity level is lower. It is also good idea to rinse off your curds before draining, unless you like the flavor of vinegar in your cheese.
Citric Acid: This is usually used in combination with rennet, but can sometimes be substituted for lemon juice. Recipes will usually indicate if this is the case, and will warn you to cut down on the amount, because citric acid is more concentrated than lemon juice.
– Salt and Herbs
Sea salt or non-iodized salt is best. This helps draw the water out of cheese and also contributes to the flavor and texture. Salt is a preservative, too, so it will help keep your cheese last longer.
Keep fresh and/or roasted garlic, onion powder, dill, Italian herbs, pepper, crushed red pepper, and any other spices you think would make a flavorful cheese. Cheese recipes are a blank canvas for you to fill with flavor. Experiment to find out what you like.
– Heat the milk up slowly, stirring frequently to the temperature indicated in the recipe.
– Add a curdling agent or two as the recipe specifies.
– Continue to mix, using an up and down motion to make sure the curdling agent reaches all of the milk and surfaces of the curd that start to form.
– Let the milk set to make sure the curdling agent works to its fullest potential. The milk will no longer be a milky color anymore. It will turn translucent and yellow.
– Use a perforated ladle to remove the curds that have formed.
– Place curds in a cloth-lined colander with a bowl underneath to catch the whey.
– Sprinkle with salt and mill the salt around into the cheese with your hands. At this point you can add any other herbs you want to experiment with.
– Tie the ends of the cloth around the curds to create a ball.
– Hang the curd ball with the colander and bowl underneath, or keep itin the colander and press with a weight specified by the recipe. (This can be easily done by filling a bowl with water and placing it on top).
– Let it ferment or sit weighted for the amount of time specified by the recipe.
(Healthful hint: Whey is high in potassium. Try adding it in bread or other baked goods in place of milk or water, putting it in smoothies, or suing it to make ricotta. It is too good to throw away!)
Voila! You have now made cheese! In the coming weeks, I will be sharing a number of different cheese recipes in the recipe section of this site, so be sure to keep an eye out.
Denise Dill is a co-op livin', garden diggin', homegrown cookin' fool who creates soups of song out of local ingredients. She's currently working as a baker and soup maker while she completes culinary school. In the past, she worked as an urban gardener and community cooking educator. She has also toured the country as a folk musician, opening for such acts as Pamela Means and Hamell on Trial.