Blessed are the Cheesemakers

“What’d he say?”
“I think it was “Blessed are the cheesemakers”.”
“Aha, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?”
“Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”

(With apologies to Monty Python)

This just in from the field:
OK, I love the queso fresco–nice and salty and sorta crumbly but still chewy, doesn’t melt fast. Feta (my heretofore fav, I’m part Greek, after all) is salty, crumbly, doesn’t melt hardly at all, but not chewy. So, Big E, can you give us a cheese tutorial, with some of the basics and what we can substitute in a pinch?

That was from our pals up north, who got to try fresh Queso Fresco for the first time during our gig in Walker, MN. So, of course, the answer is, Yep!

Now, I ain’t a cheese expert by any sense of the word, but I do know of some that I’ll share with y’all after covering some basics. The real bottom line of cheesemaking is taking water out of milk, and doing various things with the results – That’s it, in a nutshell. Think you can handle that? Sure, I knew ya could…

First and foremost, yes, you can make great cheese at home. Once you do, you may decide to stick with one genre for a good while before moving on: Just as cheesemakers often specialize in a single variety, so might you!

That said, we can make some general divisions to make things easier. Dividing cheese into soft, semi-hard, or hard, and is probably simplest. Soft cheeses that come to mind are ricotta, brie, or Camembert. Semi-soft examples would include queso fresco, or Dorset. Hard cheeses are what you buy most of in the store, everything from cheddar to parmigiano. Here again, the answer to the unasked question is yes, you can make all of those at home if you wish, and you’re going to find that what you can make is superior to what you can buy in most stores.

Uncooked cheeses are the easiest to start with for my mind; Queso Blanco or Fresco are examples of that genre. They are heated, but only mildly compared to the temperatures used for many other styles. Cream cheese or ricotta are also excellent choices.

The really nice thing about making a queso variety or ricotta is the fact that it’s so simple, trained weasels could do it. Ready to learn? Here it is:
1. Buy good, whole milk.
2. Heat the milk
3. Add acid
4. Drain
5. Eat

That simple enough for ya? Want to see that again, but with pictures? Go back to this post here and dig in!

Now in deference to accuracy, ricotta ain’t made from milk, it’s made from left over whey. So, in fact, you could make queso and then make ricotta with the leftovers from that, which would be most cool wouldn’t it?

My one caveat for home cheesemaking is this: Buy the best milk you can find. Use only whole milk. Get it as unprocessed as you can find and are comfortable with. Branch out and try goat or sheep’s milk if you can find it. Avoid anything that says ‘Ultra-Pasteurized,’ it will not work. Google local dairies, and make a field trip out of it.

Now, as I said, I ain’t no expert, so as far as specific recipes, this is where I get off. I’m making more than soft cheese now, but I know just enough to be dangerous, so it’s time to steer you to the experts. Besides, once you’re bitten, you’re gonna want some stuff so that you can expand your study and practice; from real cheesecloth to rennet to specific cultures, you’ll want to load up, so…

There are many, many cheesemaking suppliers out there. I’ve found Leeners to be among the best, well equipped and friendly, with great selection and prices. The New England Cheesemaking Supply Co. gets a nod as well; they’re friendly, funny and love to get the customer involved. There are links for both to the right of this monologue, so dive right in.

Finally, you’ll probably want at least one book on the subject for your library. I’ve looked through a bunch, and if I had to choose just one, it would be this: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cheese Making, by James Leverentz. As goofy as some of these titles are, this is a great book for beginners and semi-experienced folks alike.

Cheese On!

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