It's all about cheese

It's all about cheese

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Making Cheese - The Basics

Cheese came about for the very same reason jams were made: to increase a product's lifespan. Milk, especially without refrigeration, will spoil within days. There is nothing daunting about making cheese; it's no more difficult than making jam or cooking a square meal. The one virtue you need for making cheese is patience. Pretty much everything else allows for tweaking and compromising.

It's a myth that you need a "proper dairy" set-up in order to make cheese. I've been making it for years, and only yesterday I finally ordered a cheese press. You can make a lot of different cheeses by using what you have readily in your kitchen, some cheesecloth (Bed, Bath, and Beyond have a decent quality one, though the cheap ones from the Evil Empire will do in an emergency), plus a good-quality thermometer that ranges from about 75-200 F. Once you go beyond the most simple recipes, you'll need rennet, and perhaps some cultures. More about that later.

The most important aspect about cheesemaking is a clean kitchen, with absolutely no traces of washing-up liquid or any other chemical cleaners. Rinse your pot after you wash it thoroughly to ensure there are no traces. Rinse your ladle if you use one. Boil your cheesecloth before use.

Let's start with the simplest of all: paneer, also known as queso blanco.

In a large pot, slowly heat a gallon of store-bought milk to 180/190F. This is where patience comes in. If you heat it over high heat, the bottom of the pan will scorch, and your cheese will have a slightly or worse burnt flavour. When the milk reaches about 180F, turn it off, then add a quarter cup of apple cider vinegar. You can use any vinegar really, and even lemon juice, but I'm a snob and like apple cider vinegar. In most cases, a quarter cup is enough. Stir the milk to mix the vinegar in well, and you should see curds forming pretty instantly. If you don't, add another glug of vinegar (about a sip's worth), and that should definitely do it. As soon as the milk curdles, move it from the hot stove. Let sit for five to ten minutes. Meantime, line a colander with cheesecloth, then pour the contents of the pot (which now is whey and curds) into it. Be careful about splashing; the stuff is hot. Once you've transferred it all into the cheesecloth, take the four corners of the cloth and knot them together. Then hang either over a pot or above the sink, making sure the cloth doesn't touch the bottom. Let drain for 8-12 hours. You now have a non-melting cheese that takes on pretty much any taste, sort of like tofu. Cut into cubes and add to curry, or add to your favourite Mexican dish.

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