Make Your Own Cream Cheese
Nothing will make you appreciate the craft exhibited in your local cheese case more than learning how to make a batch at home. Do-it-yourself cream cheese is a great place to start. The method is surprisingly easy and you’ll also experience firsthand how starter bacteria develop flavor during the process. Best of all, the results will blow away any foil-wrapped cream cheese you’ve ever tasted.
The ingredients for cream cheese are simple: whole milk, cream, culture, rennet, and salt. Bacterial cultures ferment lactose, a sugar found in milk, and create an environment where enzymes in rennet can curdle the milk. The resulting curd is then separated from whey by draining it through cheesecloth. Finally, salt adds flavor and preservation.
CLEANING: Thoroughly wash and rinse your equipment with boiling water to sterilize the pieces. Contamination with undesirable bacteria will ruin your cheese.
CULTURING AND RIPENING: Combine the cream and milk in the saucepan. Attach the thermometer and heat the milk mixture over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until it reaches 72ºF. Transfer the milk mixture to the bowl. Add the mesophilic culture and stir.
COAGULATION: Prepare rennet by diluting 2 drops liquid rennet in 1 tablespoon of bottled water, or by crushing 1/4 of a dry rennet tablet with the back of a spoon and then dissolving it completely in 2 tablespoons of bottled water. Add rennet to the milk mixture and stir well with a spoon for 1 minute.
FERMENTATION: Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place it in a warm location (about 70ºF) for 12 to 16 hours (overnight in an oven with the oven light on works well). Try not to disturb the cheese while it is ripening or it may not set well. The mixture will be thick like yogurt when done.
FORMING THE CHEESE: Empty the contents of the bowl into a cheesecloth-lined colander or sieve, set over a larger bowl. Allow to drain at room temperature (68–74ºF) for 6 hours or until draining stops. Empty the liquid accumulating in the bowl from time to time so that it does not prevent the cheese from draining properly. Discard the liquid and transfer the cheese from the colander to a clean bowl. Using very clean hands or a spoon, knead the salt into the cheese until it is evenly distributed. Store the cheese in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. The flavor will continue to improve over the first few days.
Adding bacteria to perfectly good milk may seem counterintuitive, but rest assured: these bacteria are harmless. In fact, the byproducts of the bacteria living, multiplying, and dying are responsible for many of the flavors we enjoy in cheese. As you make this cheese, taste a few samples intermittently with a very clean spoon, to note how flavors develop over twenty-four hours of fermentation. You can create a little flavor laboratory right in your kitchen.
It cannot be overstated: good cheese comes from good ingredients. Use the best milk and cream you can find. The other stuff—mesophilic culture, liquid rennet, and butter muslin cheesecloth—may be found at homebrewing stores that carry cheesemaking supplies or online (see the Marketplace section, p. 108). You may also substitute one tablespoon of buttermilk for the mesophilic culture (the resulting cheese will have a buttery flavor). If you can’t find liquid rennet, use dry rennet tablets, often found in the dessert section of a well-stocked market (look for the Junket brand). Likewise, four to six layers of standard, loose-mesh cheesecloth may be used instead of the harder-to-find muslin.
Written by David Bleckman
David is an obsessed home cheesemaker who lives in Portland, Ore. He is currently writing a book that explains the science behind the art of making cheese at home. Learn more about him at joyofcheesemaking.com.
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