Whey easy

Make homemade cheese with just milk and lemons

Shopping list
• One gallon cow’s milk
• 3 large lemons
• Cheese cloth

Little Miss Muffet/ Sat on a tuffet/ Eating her curds and whey …

When you heard this nursery rhyme, you may not have realized that Miss Muffet was eating a form of unfinished cheese. The making of curds and whey is the first step in cheesemaking, an exciting, rewarding and interesting process that you can actually easily do in your own kitchen.

Milk is composed of about 87 percent water, whereas finished cheese is roughly between 27 and 51 percent water. Making cheese starts by coagulating milk’s solids and simultaneously separating them from the water. The formed solids are known as curds, while the water and substances that have not coagulated are the whey. (Cottage cheese is a good example of curds mixed in with some of the liquidy whey.)

To make this process occur, an agent that causes coagulation must be introduced. Natural acids found in citrus fruits and/or vinegar are often used. Occasionally certain bacterial starter-cultures are introduced, but most common for cheesemaking is rennet—an enzyme that causes coagulation in warm milk. Vegetarians who consume milk and/or milk products typically avoid cheeses made with rennet since the enzyme comes from the lining of the stomach of animals. No matter which of these methods is employed, not much is needed to cause the separation of curds and whey.

There are lots of factors that go into the making of most of the 900 or so types of cheeses in the world, but for a beginning cheesemaker, the basic first steps are all that’s needed to make some of the more simple ones, like ricotta or fresh mozzarella.

I chose to make paneer, a soft, fresh, versatile East Indian cheese that is mild in taste and can absorb the flavors of other ingredients. The consistency is similar to firm tofu. The recipe I used came from Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll (Storey Publishing)—an excellent resource, with 75 different cheese recipes you can make at home—and yields about 1 1/2 to two pounds of cheese. (From the same book, there’s also a good recipe for chenna, which is basically paneer with herbs kneaded in, and then fried lightly in olive oil.)

Paneer can be prepared in less than four hours, with only about a half-hour of active time in the kitchen. The only ingredients are one gallon of cow’s milk and a 1/2 cup of lemon juice (freshly squeezed). You’ll also need a big pot, a colander and some cheesecloth.

The quality of milk that you use will always affect the taste of the cheese. I used Straus Family Creamery Organic whole milk for my batch, but any kind will work. You’ll need three large lemons to get the 1/2 cup of lemon juice (1).

Bring the milk to a (gentle) rolling boil, stirring often to prevent scorching (2). Once the gentle boil begins, reduce the heat to low and, before the foam subsides, drizzle in the lemon juice. Cook for 10 to 15 seconds on low. Remove from stove, and continue to stir gently until large curds form. Once you can see that there is clear separation of the curds and whey, stop stirring and let the pot sit for 10 minutes.

When the curds settle to the bottom of the pot, it is time to drain. Ladle the curds into a colander that is lined with your cheesecloth. I place my colander into a bowl to catch the extra whey. Once you have placed all the curds into the cheesecloth, tie the corners of the cloth together (3). Then rinse your curd-filled cheesecloth under a stream of warm water for 15 seconds to rinse off any remaining coagulating agent. Gently twist the top of the cheesecloth to squeeze out extra whey.

Now you may either hang the cheesecloth for two to three hours, or return it to the colander and place some form of five-pound weight on top of it (I use my cast-iron skillet) to press the whey out for two hours. Afterward, the cheese is ready to eat, be added to recipes, or stored for another time in the refrigerator (4). It is best used within the week, if not the same day.