Originally published in The Essential Herbal Magazine in the Mar/Apr '08 issue, it seems like this is a great time for folks to try something they've been wanting to do for a while. Betsy taught my sister and me to make mozzarella, and nothing compares to homemade!
One of my favorite things to do with fresh herbs is use them to flavor home made cheese. There is nothing better than a crusty piece of French bread, fresh Chevre flavored with basil and garlic, and warm diced tomatoes spread over top! Making soft cheeses is quick, easy, fun, and best of all it requires very little equipment.
The concept of how milk turns into cheese is relatively simple. Milk is mainly made up of water and proteins. To make cheese, you basically have to separate the proteins (curds) from the water (whey) by causing the milk to coagulate. The proteins stick together and form small lumps called curds, which are cut to release any remaining whey and then eventually they form a beautiful ball of soft round white cheese.
Equipment: The only equipment you will need is a stainless steel, glass, or enamel pot (no aluminum, it can make the cheese taste funny), a long knife that reaches to the bottom of your pot, a thermometer (one that measures temperatures as low as 65 degrees), a slotted spoon, and butter muslin. Butter muslin is very similar to cheesecloth but has a finer weave. You could use regular cheese cloth but I would double it up so that you aren’t losing any curds during the draining process. When making cheese it is imperative to make sure that all tools are clean and sterilized to prevent growth of unfriendly bacteria. I boil all of my supplies in a pot for about 5-10 minutes just to make sure everything is completely sterilized.
Ingredients: You will only need three ingredients for my recipes; rennet, culture, and milk. Rennet is used to coagulate milk. It is an enzyme that originally came from the stomach of a calf. How man ever figured out that it would make cheese is a story for another day. These days there is also the option of getting vegetable rennet which is made from, you guessed it, herbs! There are many herbs that can be used to coagulate milk such as bark from the fig tree, lady’s bedstraw, nettles, butterwort, knapweed, and yarrow. I have never been adventurous enough to try making my own rennet though; cheese is enough for me! I buy my rennet from New England Cheesemaking Supply Company, a fabulous company. Not only have herbs been used to make cheese, they have also been used to color cheese. Historically, yellow cheeses were desired because they were thought to contain more butterfat. Cheesemakers would add marigold petals, saffron, and hawthorn buds to their cheeses to turn them a beautiful yellow color in order to be able to charge more for their product.
New England Cheesemaking Supply Company also sells direct set cultures for cheese making, which I prefer using over a mother culture. Direct set cultures are more convenient as they are simply a packet of powder that is added to the milk and used to create a specific culture, depending on the type of cheese you want to make. Direct set cultures leave less room for unhealthy bacteria to grow because you are handling it less, and there is no need to keep a mother culture.
As for milk, technically you can use any type of milk straight from the grocery store. You can even use powdered milk. The main thing to remember is that you cannot use ultra-pasteurized milk because it is heated to such a high temperature that it usually will not work and you will end up with some runny looking ricotta. I prefer to use raw milk for my cheese. If you live in an area where raw milk is available I highly recommend trying it, just make sure to purchase it from a reputable farmer. I think it makes a more rich tasting cheese.
Basic Directions: Each cheese recipe is slightly different, but there are really only four basic steps to making soft cheese. Once you become familiar with these basic procedures you can make just about any recipe. To begin, you will heat the milk and add the culture and/or rennet. Next the milk generally left to sit until a curd is formed and well set. You will know once the curd is set because it will start to pull away from the sides of the pot, leaving a clear liquid. This liquid is the whey. You can also stick your finger or curd knife into the cheese. If the curd looks firm and releases a clear, greenish colored liquid when separated, it is set. Once the curds are set they are ready to be cut. You want to use the back (smooth) side of the knife to cut with. (They sell a special knife called a curd knife for this purpose which is smooth on both sides, but I think the back of a regular bread knife works just fine.) You want to slice the curd, sticking the knife the whole way down to the bottom of the pot, and cut acrossed, from left to right, about one inch apart. Then cut the same way but in the opposite direction, so that you end up with square pieces that look like a checker board. Basically, you just want to end up with equal sized pieces of curd about an inch or so in size, this will make it easier for the whey to drain out. Last of all, using the slotted spoon, place the curds in butter muslin or cheese cloth and hang to drain. It’s really that easy!
Basic soft cheese recipe
1 gallon milk
1 packet mesophilic starter culture
salt to taste
1. Heat milk to 72 degrees.
2. Add mesophilic starter culture
3. Cover and let sit for 12-24 hours until firm. (I usually let it set overnight.)
3. Ladle the curds into a strainer lined with butter muslin, tie the corners and hang to dry.
4. Allow the curd to drain 4-6 hours or until desired consistency.
1 gallon goat milk
1 packet direct set Chevre culture
salt to taste
1. Heat milk to 86 degrees.
2. Add Chevre starter culture.
3. Cover and let sit for 12-20 hours until firm. (I usually let it set overnight.)
4. Ladle the curds into a strainer lined with butter muslin.
5. Allow the curd to drain 4-6 hours.
This cheese is similar to cream cheese but has less fat because it is made with mostly milk and only a small portion of cream.
1 gallon whole milk
1 pint of heavy cream
1 packet mesophilic starter culture
¼ tablet rennet, diluted in 1/3 cup cool, unchlorinated water
salt to taste
- Combine and heat milk to 80 degrees.
- Add the starter and gently stir.
- Add the rennet and gently stir.
- Cover and let sit for 12-18 hours until the curd is set.
- Pour the curd into a strainer line with butter muslin, tie the corners and hang the cheese to drain.
- Add salt to taste.
Below are some of my favorite herbs blends. They are formulated for 1 pound of cheese. They can be added to any of the above cheeses after they are done draining. One gallon of milk will make approximately 2 pounds of cheese. This gives you a lot of cheese to experiment with and create your own personal blends!
3 fresh basil leaves, chopped
1-2 small garlic cloves, minced
¼-1/2 cup fresh chives, chopped
3 strips cooked bacon, crumbled
1 Egyptian onion, minced
1 ½ tsp fresh sweet marjoram
1 fresh basil leaf
garlic salt to taste
I think I love herbal cheeses as much for their aesthetic beauty as for their taste. Instead of blending herbs into the cheese, try forming the cheese into a ball and roll it in herbs such as herbs de province, peppercorns, nuts, dried fruits and berries, or a rainbow of edible flower petals. Garnish with pansies or nasturtiums.
Home Cheesemaking by Ricki Caroll is truly the bible for home cheesemakers and will teach you everything you need to know.
I can’t recommend Ricki Carroll’s books, website and catalog enough. She truly is the cheese queen. My goal is to someday be able to stretch mozzarella like Ricki! Check out the great pictures on her web site. She sells a fantastic 30 minute mozzarella kit.
New England Cheesemaking Supply
P.O. Box 85 Ashfield, MA 01330
Phone: (413) 628-3808 Fax: (413) 628-4061 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
www.smalldairy.com is also a fabulous resource with tons of information on cheesemaking, cheesemakers, and where to buy supplies.
Betsy May is a Certified Holistic Health Practitioner and Yoga Instructor with a love of all things herbal. She can be reached at betsy.may @hotmail.com.