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How to make a simple fresh acid-set cheese at home

What to do when the yogurt and kefir mix separate into two halves.

Sometimes your yogurt mix can separate into two halves - curds and whey. This might sound like a complete failure. However, this has also happened long ago. Our ancestors found a way to convert yogurt failures into fresh acid-set cheese.

Cheese is a dairy food derived from milk and made when using a variety of technologies and, depending on the particular cheese, it can be consumed fresh or matured. Cheeses can be classified according to a variety of features including ripening characteristics, special processing techniques, or method of coagulation. During cheese production, the milk is usually acidified and, unlike yogurt, adding the rennet or other coagulant like lemon juice, white vinegar, or citric acid completes coagulation.

The exceptions are two types of cheeses, and they are called ‘’whey cheeses,’’ like ricotta, where the whey is the main component and ‘’fresh acid-set cheese’’ also known as ‘’Sour milk cheese’’ when acidified, most frequently using lactic acid cultures.

Although every type of cheese has its own recipe, we will concentrate on the type of cheese that you can make at home easily – fresh acid-set cheese. This type of cheese has been made since Neolithic times and is recognised under different names around the globe for example ‘paneer’ in India, ‘Fromage blanc’ in France, ‘quark’ in Germany, and ‘cottage cheese’ in the UK and the USA and many more. The only differences among them are moisture content and the foods they are associated with.

There are many ways to make cheese but the first question you might have is how to acidify the milk. One way is to use lemon juice or vinegar right into the milk to get to the correct acidity. This process (called direct acidification) leads to cheese like mascarpone. The other way to acidify the milk is to add cultures or living bacteria. Given time, warmth, and lack of competitor bacteria, these cultures will eat up the lactose in the milk, turning it into lactic acid. Unlike yogurt or milk kefir made with a freeze-dried starter, you simply need to allow separation of the milk in two halves – curds and whey and this can happen if you simply do not stop the yogurt mix after it is set and patiently await the separation.

Do I need rennet you may ask, well it is not always convenient to have coagulation at a very acid level and long incubation time, because some cheeses require coagulation earlier. This is where rennet comes in. Rennet is a coagulating agent, which acts on the milk protein casein, causing separation of the milk into solid curds and liquid whey. However, for fresh acid set cheese, you can use lemon juice or white vinegar. Any number of acidic substances may be used, but lemon juice and white vinegar are the most common as the cheese will absorb some flavour.

In general, the rennet, lemon juice, white vinegar, and citric acid work faster. The lactic acid bacteria require more time until the right level of acidification is achieved and it requires two periods of incubation - to make the mother culture first (requires 12 to 24 hours) and then as you add the mother culture to the new batch of milk to incubate again until separation to make the actual cheese. You can choose which way to use to replace the mother culture with a coagulating agent of your choice.

Now follow all five steps to make fresh acid-set cheese from scratch or follow only the last two steps below in case you have separated yogurt or kefir during incubation.

1. Prepare the milk for making cheese. Again, the first step will be boiling for 15 minutes or a bit longer. The amount of the milk in this recipe will be 1 gallon of milk, but consider that the end product cheese will be ½ to 1/3 of the volume of the milk as this depends on the milk used and whey produced. Cool it down to lukewarm.

2. Add a spoon or two of your mother cultures (ready yogurt from the first batch) or acidify the milk directly adding gradually and carefully some lemon juice, white vinegar, citric acid or rennet. The amount could vary from a few drops to a teaspoon of citric acid. It will be wise to use the least amount of acid possible to avoid an excessively tangy flavour. As soon as the curds form, stop adding the curdling agent. Then mix the coagulant (if you use one) into the liquid milk and wait until a gel forms.

3. The next step is to now cut the curd down into smaller cubes. You can do this with a knife or even with a whisk. The size to which you cut the curds will dramatically affect the amount of moisture retained in your final cheese; the smaller the initial pieces, the drier (and more ageable) the cheese will be. And vice versa.

4. You can then simply strain out the whey and leave the curds only.

5. At this point, the curds will be soft and spreadable – perfect for mixing with salt and herbs and spreading on crackers. Or, place the curds in a bowl with a bit of whey (do not stir or fold in) and you have cottage cheese. For a drier, firmer cheese, tie the cheesecloth with the curds inside to continue draining the whey. After a couple of hours, the curds will have the crumbly texture of queso fresco. If you want a really firm farmer’s cheese, like paneer, leave the cheesecloth full of curds in the strainer and place them in the refrigerator overnight with a weight on top.

As you can see, it is very easy to make acid-fresh cheese at home. If your yogurt or kefir mix separate, simply remove the whey, add herbs and salt if you prefer and enjoy your fresh acid set cheese.

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