Sure, you could craft your own block of cheddar cheese, create some Havarti or whip up a batch of gorgonzola.
But why would you want to?
Most cheeses require rennet, an enzyme found in the stomach of cows (and sheep and goats). Rennet is what gives cheese its texture, but it also adds a few steps to the cheese-making process — and why bother when you can just buy cheese at a store?
But there are a few cheeses that need no rennet and require practically no labor at all. That’s my kind of cheese, at least when I want to make it myself.
Ricotta, queso fresco, farmer’s cheese and buttermilk cheese are all fast and easy to make, delivering a large amount of satisfaction for very little effort. Each is fairly simple in flavor — rennet also adds complexity — but they are also wonderfully rewarding.
They are all made the same way, with the same ingredients: milk or cream, acid (vinegar or lemon juice) and salt. Once you’ve mastered one, you’ve mastered them all, although they are so easy there really isn’t anything to master.
They taste different, though, because of the proportions used. Different textures come from aging.
Some cheeses, such as cheddars, will be aged for as long as four or five years. Fresh cheeses can age all the way up to one hour.
It is not aging that is taking place, anyway. With fresh cheese, you have to drain the whey out of the curds. The longer it drains, the firmer the cheese will be. Up to, as we said, an hour or so.
It is the part about separating the whey from the curds that makes fresh cheese (and is also responsible for feeding nursery-rhyme arachnophobes). First, you get milk nice and hot. Then you add some vinegar or lemon juice, which curdles the milk.
That is, it divides the milk into curds (lumpy white things) and whey (a thin, chalk-colored liquid). The curds make the cheese. In fresh cheeses, they are drained of as much whey as possible and then pressed into shape, either manually or just by letting gravity do its work inside a cheesecloth.
The one fresh cheese I made that does not have a shape is ricotta. If you’ve never had homemade ricotta, you may be amazed at how heavenly it can be.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that is because the version I made used 2 cups of heavy cream to go with the quart of milk — and it was the best, and certainly the most expensive, milk I could find.
All of that richness is going to make a truly stellar ricotta, especially when it is curdled with a high-quality white wine vinegar. Most people use lemon juice to make their ricotta, but Ina Garten uses vinegar, and her recipes have earned my trust.
This ricotta is so delicious, but what can you do with it? Ricotta is vital in lasagna and stuffed shells, of course, but in those it will get drowned out by the heavier flavors of pasta, tomatoes and garlic.
So you can mix it into scrambled eggs or bake it into a cake. You can use it on top of pizza or use it to make tomato sauces rich and creamy. You can serve it with strawberries or any kind of fruit, spread it on bruschetta with a few drops of olive oil or smear it on crackers by itself or with just a bit of jam. Delicious.
Buttermilk fresh cheese was the most firm of the cheeses I made. Because it is made with buttermilk, it also has the most distinctive flavor — the smooth, soft tang that only buttermilk can deliver.
This cheese stands out among the others also because of the way it is made. Like all fresh cheeses, it is made from dairy, acid and salt. But the acid comes from a dairy product, the buttermilk, which is mixed in with whole milk. For that reason, the taste is perhaps more full than other fresh cheeses.
Buttermilk fresh cheese also takes particularly well to the addition of flavorings, such as dried herbs, vanilla or cracked pepper. I added lemon zest to mine, which was a delightful choice.
The simplest of the cheeses to make is farmer’s cheese, which is cheesemaking stripped to its barest essentials. You simply heat milk and salt, add vinegar, strain the curds and whey through cheesecloth, press it into a disk and then refrigerate.
The taste is pleasant, but bland. So I spiced mine up just a little bit with chopped chives, but other herbs will do. Or there is plenty to enjoy about plain, unadorned farmer’s cheese. If you keep some of the whey in it, you can spread it like cream cheese; if you make it dry and crumbly you can use as a much better (to my taste) substitute for cottage cheese.
Queso fresco is a popular Mexican and Latin American cheese; you can find it in any number of dishes from south of the border. It’s dry and crumbly, but what makes queso fresco really stand out is the salt. This cheese packs a wallop of good, briny flavor.
I couldn’t stop eating it by itself, though that is not typically the way it is consumed. Try it on tacos, enchiladas or tostados. Try it on eggs. Try it inside a rolled, warm corn tortilla, and then toast the tortilla on both sides in a pan until the edges turn crispy.
Or maybe best of all, try it in a salad with watermelon and mint or basil. But only if you can stop yourself from just eating it plain.