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Making fresh cheeses at home really isn’t that complicated

Homemade cheese? Doesn’t that sound complicated?

Well, it’s as easy as curdling milk.

You can do it today, in an hour or two, with no special equipment and no ingredients beyond milk and buttermilk.

We are not talking about hard, aged cheeses. We’re talking strictly about cottage cheese, ricotta cheese and homemade “fresh cheese,” sometimes called “pot cheese,” similar to Mexican queso fresco or Indian paneer.

Making cheese at home sounds intimidating, but up until the last few generations, people always made cottage cheese at home – that’s why the word “cottage” is in the name. Farm wives have known how to do it for millennia, and you can find easy recipes in modern cookbooks such as “Joy of Cooking” by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker. I learned how to make it from the indispensable cookbook in our kitchen, “How to Cook Everything,” by Mark Bittman.

In brief, Bittman’s method goes like this: Take a half-gallon of fresh milk. Heat it up. Pour in a quart of buttermilk. The milk will then separate into curds and whey. When you pour off the watery whey, the remaining curds are, essentially, cottage cheese.

It’s that simple. And then those curds can be formed into other kinds of fresh cheese.

The first time I tried it, I was astonished at how simple, delicious and fresh-tasting it was. We’re reprinting Bittman’s full recipes below, but first, let’s go through a few tips and guidelines about the cheesemaking ingredients and processes.

Milk: Most kinds of milk will work, from whole milk to 2 percent to 1 percent to skim. Whole milk will be the richest and creamiest, but your cardiologist might be happier if you try 2 percent or 1 percent or skim. Try to find milk that is simply pasteurized, not “ultra-pasteurized.” Ultra-pasteurized milk is treated at such a high temperature that it can affect the protein.

Buttermilk: Any cultured buttermilk will do. It is quite acidic, which is why it causes the milk to curdle. Other cottage cheese recipes use other kinds of acids, such as vinegar. Others use rennet, which is the curdling agent used in most other kinds of cheese.

Cheesecloth: You can find it in many supermarkets in the cooking utensils section or in larger packages at fabric stores. The cheesecloth sold at supermarkets is fairly coarse, so you might have to use a double or triple layer so the cheese curds won’t ooze out. If you can find a kind of cloth called “butter muslin,” that’s even better.

Temperature: Bittman’s recipes call for cooking the milk until it “bubbles up the sides,” which is, essentially, scalded. I have found that that a simmering temperature of 180 degrees to 195 degrees, measured with an instant-read thermometer or candy thermometer, is just about right. You want to heat the milk to just under its full boiling point.

Texture: The relative moistness/dryness of the cottage and ricotta cheeses are determined mainly by how long you let the curds drain. I suggest erring on the moist side at first. The first time I made it, I drained it too long, and my cottage cheese was dry and crumbly. (You can solve that by mixing it with some half-and-half or heavy cream before serving).

Uses: Homemade ricotta will make your next pan of lasagna taste even richer and fresher. Also, try it in other baked pasta dishes, such as manicotti. You can also use homemade ricotta as part of a filling for ravioli or tortellini. Or stir some ricotta into your favorite tomato-based pasta sauce to make the sauce richer and creamier.

Meanwhile, regular “fresh cheese” or pot cheese is perfect for use in many Indian recipes calling for paneer, such as saag paneer or palak paneer. “Fresh cheese” is also a fine substitute for queso fresco or queso blanco in many Mexican dishes. You can crumble some atop your taco or sprinkle some in a burrito.

Cottage cheese is, of course, excellent eaten all by itself or mixed with some fresh fruit.

Some avid home cheesemakers have gone way beyond this, making aged cheeses such as cheddar, Gouda and Monterey jack. These aged cheeses require a lot more time and expertise.

I have recently tried making homemade fresh mozzarella (see sidebar at right), which is relatively quick, yet it, too, requires more practice and finesse.

My mozzarella experiments have made me appreciate Bittman’s cheese recipes even more. His recipes are so stripped down and simple that even a cheese novice like me can master them on the first attempt.

Here they are:

Fresh Cheese, the Easy Way

From “How to Cook Everything” by Mark Bittman

1/2 gallon milk

1 quart buttermilk


Put the milk in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally to keep it from scorching, until the milk bubbles up the sides of the pot, about 10 minutes,

Line a strainer with a triple layer of cheesecloth or a piece of undyed cotton muslin. Have long piece of twine ready.

Add the buttermilk to the (nearly) boiling milk all at once and stir constantly until the mixture separates into curds and whey; this will take just a minute or so. It will look like cooked egg whites suspended in a slightly thick yellowish liquid. Remove from the heat and stir in a large pinch of salt if you like.

Carefully pour the mixture through the cloth and strainer so that the curds collect in the bottom and the whey drains off. Gather up the corners of the cloth and twist the top to start shaping the curds into a ball. Run the bundle under cold water until you can handle it. Keep twisting and squeezing out the whey until the bundle feels firm and dry. Don’t worry about handling it roughly; it can take it.

Tie the string around the top to hold it tight, then tie the string around the handle of a long spoon or a stick to suspend the cheese back over the pot to drain. Let it rest, undisturbed, until cool and set, about 90 minutes. Remove the cloth and serve immediately or wrap in plastic and refrigerate for up to 3 days. Or freeze the cheese for up to 3 months.

Fresh Cottage Cheese

From “How to Cook Everything” by Mark Bittman

Follow the instructions for Fresh Cheese, the Easy Way (above) through paragraph 4. After you pour the curds and whey through the cheesecloth, simply leave the curds loose in the strainer until they’ve drained the amount of moisture you desire, anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes. Then scoop the curds into a container and store in the refrigerator.

Fresh Ricotta

From “How to Cook Everything” by Mark Bittman

1/2 gallon milk

1 pint buttermilk


Follow the instructions for Fresh Cheese, the Easy Way, through paragraph 3, except reduce the amount of buttermilk to one pint. The mixture will look like thickened buttermilk. In paragraph 4, after you pour it through the cheesecloth, simply leave the ricotta in the strainer until it has reached the texture you like, anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes. Then scoop the ricotta into a container and store in the refrigerator.