I’ve been a fan of making cheese for a few years now. My go-to cheese is fresh goat cheese, which requires some culture and rennet to make the magic work (not hard to buy online, but not a spur of the moment project). I recently joined a year-long cheesemaking challenge, hosted by Rachel and Tom on the local Bay Area blog Another Year Without Groceries. Our first challenge was to make a cheese using only curdled milk. I chose to follow Rachel’s lead and make a goat-milk based Queso Blanco, which is curdled with cider vinegar. This is a crumbly fresh cheese that you often see topping Mexican dishes.
Since I don’t have my own goats like Rachel, I bought my milk. I like the Summerhill Dairy goat milk you can buy at Trader Joe’s and my local grocery heaven, Berkeley Bowl. It is not ultra-pasteurized, which is really important for good cheesemaking (the ultra high heat breaks down some of the proteins that make the cheesemaking magic happen). I used 3 quarts…don’t ask me why I didn’t round it out at a gallon…no idea! You can certainly use regular whole cow milk as well.
Dump your milk into a non-reactive pan (stainless steel or enameled is best, don’t use aluminum or cast iron). First, heat the milk to 180 degrees. You will need to use a thermometer for this step, but any meat or candy one should do. Then add cider vinegar. For a gallon, you need about a quarter cup. Since I used 3/4 of a gallon, I just under-filled the 1/4 cup measure by a bit…it doesn’t need to be an exact science. Stir slowly as you add the vinegar, and let it dribble in vs. dumping. Keep stirring slowly until you see the mixture begin to separate, with white clumps and a yellowish liquid. You now have curds and whey (see above)!
Take a large bowl and place a strainer on top. Line the strainer with a fine-weaved dish cloth (like the flour sack variety) or real cheesecloth (not the type with big holes you get at the grocery store). One of my favorite tools in the kitchen is a set of straining cloths (called “All-Strain cloths”, pictured above) I purchased from the chef Michael Ruhlman. He has a shop on the website Open Sky where he sells kitchen implements that he and local Cleveland craftsman have made. Open Sky is an amazing site where many chefs and other prominent folks sell items they personally use and endorse at a competitive prices. It’s one of those sites where you have to join to see prices and buy, but it’s really worth it–I’ve gotten many things from chefs like Tom Colicchio and Dorie Greenspan. If you are interested, you can follow this link for $10 off your first purchase. All-Strain cloths are $22 for 3, so only $12 with the discount. They are heavy-duty, and I use them for everything from straining stocks to draining fresh goat cheese. (I do get a little referral bonus if you follow my link to Open Sky and end up purchasing, but I wouldn’t share it if I didn’t really buy a ton of kitchen things from them!)
Keep transferring the contents of the pot (emptying the drained whey as needed to keep the liquid from touching the strainer) until it is empty. If you want to salt your cheese, as I did, wait until a lot of the liquid has drained off (maybe 30 minutes), then transfer the curds into another bowl. Add salt to your taste. I added 1 tsp for this amount, and it seemed to work well. Mix well to incorporate the salt, then transfer back to the cloth to do your final draining.
It is important to tie it up to drain for the final step, as the weight of the bundle hanging will drain out more of the liquid. I used kitchen string to knot the cloth together into a bag, and hang it from the handle of the microwave above my stove. All you need is a place to tie some string and hang your bundle above a bowl. It will still be dripping for a while–it’s up to you how dry you want your cheese. You can feel the bundle and see how firm it is getting, and take it down once it’s the consistency you want. It only took a couple of hours for mine to feel right to me. It is a firm, crumbly texture, as you see from my picture on the top of the post.
I was inspired by Rachel to use my cheese on a homemade whole-wheat pizza made with pesto and sauteed rapini (aka broccoli rabe). So yummy! It doesn’t really melt (similar to goat cheese or feta), but worked great on a pizza when topped at the last few minutes of cooking with a little bit of shredded mozzarella to hold it together. It also was delicious on a quesadilla, as long as you remember it’s a bit more loose than regular melted cheese and eat carefully. I think I’m really going to enjoy this cheesemaking challenge!