Like fine wine, good cheese has a reputation as something that requires expert skills and special equipment to make. It’s the kind of thing there are four-year degree programs for; not something you would attempt after work one night.
While it’s true that most cheeses, especially fancy ones like camembert and gouda, have rightfully earned that reputation, professional cheesemakers don’t typically concern themselves with the one type of cheese that has been made since Neolithic times—which, not coincidentally, happens to be the easiest cheese in the world to make: farmer’s cheese.
What we call farmer’s cheese here in North America has had different names in different regions of the globe over time. Ever eat saag paneer in an Indian restaurant? You may have mistaken it for tofu, but those firm white cubes on top of the spinach were actually the pressed curds of goat milk cheese, known in India as paneer. In the African country of Benin, the same substance is called waagashi. In Latin countries, farmers call it queso fresco or queso blanco, but it’s the same stuff—enchiladas are among its many uses in Mexican cuisine. Fromage blanc in France, quark in Germany, and cottage cheese in America are all variations on the same cheese. The only differences among them are moisture content and the foods they are associated with.
How to Make Farmer’s Cheese
First, you don’t have to be a farmer to make this cheese. Fresh, raw milk straight from the barn is an ideal ingredient, but almost any type of milk from the grocery store will do. Goat, sheep, cow—any variety will work, and each lends its own characteristic flavor to the final product. The only thing to avoid is ultra-pasteurized milk, as it does not curdle properly.
Most cheeses are curdled with rennet, which is typically derived from the intestines of baby cows, but farmer’s cheese relies on something that’s a little less brutal to obtain: lemons. Actually, any number of acidic substances may be used, but lemon juice and white vinegar are the most common. The cheese will absorb a hint of flavor from either, so some cheesemakers opt for citric acid, which has a more subdued flavor, as a curdling agent. Citric acid can be found in many grocery stores in the canning section or purchased online.
Here are the simple steps to making farmer’s cheese. One gallon of milk will yield approximately one pound of cheese.
- Heat the milk in a heavy-bottomed pot, using a low setting on the stove to avoid scalding the milk. Stir the milk occasionally as it heats.
- Turn off the stove when the temperature reaches approximately 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit. You can use a cheesemaking thermometer to track the temperature (a canning thermometer is basically the same thing), or you can watch carefully for the first signs of boiling (which occurs just above 200 degrees) and then turn off the heat.
- Slowly add the curdling agent (lemon juice, vinegar, or citric acid) and watch for the milk to curdle. Stir very gently as you add the curdling agent and white clumps (the curds) will soon form, leaving a cloudy, yellowish fluid in the pot, known as whey. Many cheese recipes call for a specific amount of curdling agent—the juice of one large lemon, a quarter cup of vinegar, or one teaspoon of citric acid per gallon of milk is typical for farmer’s cheese—but the exact amount needed varies considerably based on the unique properties of each batch of milk (especially with non-homogenized, farm-fresh milk). It’s advantageous to use the least amount of acid possible to avoid an excessively tangy flavor. As soon as the curds form, stop adding the curdling agent. Let the pot sit for about 20 minutes for a complete separation between the curds and whey.
- Line a colander with cheesecloth and pour the curds and whey through it over a sink. Whey has dozens of uses, from baking bread to giving your pets a milky treat, so place a bowl beneath the colander if you want to save it.
At this point, the curds will be soft and spreadable—perfect for mixing with salt and herbs and spreading on crackers. (The herbs you harvested at the end of this summer and dried would be perfect.) 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 it to a wooden spoon suspended on the edges of a large pot or pitcher to continue draining the whey. After a couple 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 colander and place them in the refrigerator overnight with a weight on top (like a large can of tomato sauce) and a bowl beneath to catch the whey as it seeps out. Because farmer’s cheese is not aged, it is best consumed when fresh. It may be stored in a refrigerator for a week to 10 days.
This article is brought to you by Humboldt Creamery