If I’m going to go to the effort of making something myself, it must be either better than what I can buy in the shops, or cheaper. The big winners, like bread, bacon, and jam score on both of those points. But cheese? Not so much. Unless you own a cow, or a goat, buying the gallons of milk you need to make a medium sized hard-cheese, add the fact that it might take up to several months to mature, just isn’t going to be worth it.
But sometimes logic can’t trump blind hope, and I really want to make cheese in a cow-less city apartment. I want a recipe that is economical, better than what I can buy, and suitable for the easily distracted. A tall order, it would seem, but after a quick search and a flick though some old books, I found three likely candidates: labneh, ricotta, and paneer.
My paneer was underwhelming, but the other two cheeses were a roaring success. There was very little hands-on effort, no funky ingredients, and the finished product was better and cheaper than store bought. For extra punk points, I blended my Labneh with wild garlic (ramsons) to make a wild garlic soft cheese. Both cheeses were in fact so easy, I didn’t even need to turn on the stove.
Labneh Recipe: Wild garlic soft cheese
This cheese is ludicrously easy. I made a huge pile of it at once and mixed some with wild garlic, some with cranberries, and some I left plain. It is a hugely impressive addition to lunch when you feel like being a bit fancy. Next time I’m going to try it with pistachios, preserved lemon, and honey drizzled over.
All you have to do is take ten percent fat greek yoghurt and tip it into a colander which you have lined with a cheesecloth. Add a little salt to taste. The quantities are up to you; I used a whole kilo of yoghurt and that gave me a lot of cheese. Allow the liquid to drip into a bowl underneath overnight. The next morning, unwrap the cheese and mash in any flavourings. Alternatively, you could form the cheese into balls and roll them in your ingredients.
Done! Be aware that if you use wild garlic like I did, the flavour will develop in the cheese over time, so what started off pleasantly garlicky could be overpowering after a couple of hours. Err on the side of caution with the ramsons then, unless you plan to eat it all straight away.
This is one step up from the labneh, as we are using an acid and heat to coagulate the solids in the milk, and then fishing them out of the whey. Although slightly more involved than the labneh, it has the advantage of being finished in five minutes. It is cheaper than buying ricotta — just — but for me it has the advantage that I can make it as and when I need it, and I can make exactly as much as I need. It is also, in my opinion, better, with a soft and creamy texture, while commercial ricotta is often a bit dry and gritty.
I adapted this recipe from the Serious Eats recipe, which while borderline genius, had two weaknesses. Firstly, that faffing around with two cups of milk at a time is pointless, unless you want to stuff the world’s smallest cannelloni, for a mouse with a poor appetite, and secondly, I don’t think that straining it through the cloth is a good idea. What happened to me was that my cloth actually absorbed most of my ricotta, and it was a boring and messy job trying to scrape the curds of the cheesecloth. It’s also one of those recipes where the less you muck about with it, the better it will be. Resist the temptation to poke and stir it, or the lovely curds which have formed will disintegrate back into the whey.
Mix one litre of milk with a teaspoon of salt and four tablespoons of distilled white vinegar in a microwaveable bowl. Then blast it on high for two minutes. Using an instant-read thermometer, I measured different points in the bowl to see how hot it was getting. You can swirl it around a bit to even out the temperature, but try not to break the curds. I was aiming for around 70-80°C. I whacked it back in the microwave and heated it up a bit more until it seemed properly hot. By now I had some beautiful floating islands of curd which were easy to simply spoon out.
However, when I looked at my yield, it still seemed a bit pitiful. I splashed in a bit more vinegar, and heated the remaining whey again. This time, the curds were much more ephemeral and needed draining, but this way I doubled my yield. I still didn’t put it though cloth though, i just let it settle in a bowl, and using the back of a spoon to hold back the curds, poured off the excess whey that had collected.
All the experimentation left me with a lot of whey. I used it in pancake mix, and the pancakes turned out wonderfully as the acid left in the whey reacted with the baking powder to create light and airy pancakes. Next time I’m going to try making Irish soda bread with it.
So, cheese making at home is not going to save you a ton of cash. But if you’re the kind of person who likes to potter about in the kitchen, making your own labneh and ricotta is a fascinating kitchen chemistry experiment.