Can I make cheese at home?
If the Food Inspectors were in charge, we’d probably ban cheese. A product that is essentially formed from curdled milk – usually poured down the drain with disgust – and then injected or smeared with bacteria and mould, left for months at a time, in a cave… You’ve got to admit that cheese-phobes have a fair point. But along with bakers and chocolatiers, cheese makers are the alchemists of food production.
So where did it come from? The earliest remains of cheese were found in an Egyptian pot in the stepped pyramid of Saqqara dating from 2300BC, making it among the oldest known food products. Through what must have been phenomenal trial and error, the earliest cheesemakers would make a brine solution to extract the enzymes from the stomach lining of milk-fed calves to make a cheese somewhat like feta.
But you can make your own cheese in as little as twenty minutes at home with just a few ingredients. A fresh cheese, made without rennet, can be brought to life using a little yoghurt as a bacterial starter and vinegar as an acid. These form curds in the milk which can be scooped out and drained through a muslin cloth held in a sieve. The length of draining time will determine how crumbly or firm the cheese is. You can also play with the fat content of your milk – adding cream if you want a more spreadable version. Or press it further to make a sliceable, fryable paneer.
The crumbly ricotta-style cheese we made in a few minutes. Next time - more cream.
It’s crumbly and tangy and the smell as you make it is amazing – it’s like the smell of a baby’s head filling your kitchen. This cheese won’t melt like a rennet-curdled cheese – the protein structure is too fragile. But on top of a pizza (possibly mixed with chopped, wilted spinach), as part of a lasagne, drizzled with honey and served with soft fruits, your own homemade cheese lets you be a dairy alchemist for a half an hour.
Here are some great adventures in simple, rennet-free cheese:
- David Lebovitz’s ‘ricotta’
- Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s creamier versions
- More faux ricotta with buttermilk
- Homemade paneer
Five questions about cheese
What is vegetarian rennet?
Since the 1980s, biotechnologists have created a rennet substitute from bacteria, yeasts or fungi that synthesise chymosin – the enzyme that causes curdling - these have been used to meet the huge demand for cheese and to provide a vegetarian alternative to animal-derived rennet. However, plant-derived rennet is not a new invention to meet a modern demand. Wild cardoon flowers were used by sheep and goat farmers to form curds in cheeses such as Serra and Torta del Casar. The thistle flowers contain a close biochemical relative of the chymosin.
What makes the holes in Swiss cheese?
The same bacteria that causes spots makes the holes in Swiss cheese. Well, the same species, anyway. Propionibacteria forms part of the Swiss starter culture that feeds on lactic acid during the ripening phase and converts it to other acids and carbon dioxide. These gas bubbles form holes in the cheese as it ripens at a warm temperature for a few weeks. Propionibacteria acnes, its rather less popular cousin, inhabits human skin and particularly, blocked oil glands.
Why does cheese sometimes crunch?
Cheese crystals – the little salty crunch you sometimes feel in a piece of aged gruyère, parmesan or cheddar – are calcium lactate salts form during the ripening of the cheese, rather than the salt added by the cheesemaker. Pecorino, feta and roquefort are the saltiest, containing about 5% salt content.
What’s American process cheese?
Processed or ‘process’ cheese is very popular in America. It pops up here in fast food outlets and in ready-wrapped slices. This cheese is made by melting together the scraps and unripened cast-offs of industrial cheese production. Phosphates and acids are added to transform this into a homogenous mass which can be molded, cooled and sliced. These cheeses melt very well, but have a lower calcium content for it.
Does cheese clean your teeth?
Research published in 2007 showed that caseinophosphopeptides contained in cheese (and other dairy products) do help dental enamel recalcify – or harden up- after eating. As opposed to brushing your teeth directly after eating, which can brush away small bits of softened enamel from the tooth. So cheese doesn’t clean your teeth, but it can help them stay strong.
Bonus factoid: Cheese is the most shoplifted item in the world.
Have you tried making cheese - what were your findings? Tell us your cheese factoids!