For some of us, cooking is more than a way to sustain yourself and your family. There are those of us, inspired by watching way too much Food Network, who enjoy playing with food the way some enjoy playing with clay or paint. Some of us who get lost in an 8×8 kitchen as if it were the world’s deepest jungle. For people like us, there is sheer delight to be found in making something that can otherwise be a super-market mystery: Yogurt and cheese.

So, as a complete beginner in the world of cheese-making, I embarked on a pre-cheese exploration, an attempt to see if I could handle milk to produce something edible. You see, making most dairy products is an experiment in controlled spoilage, an attempt to produce non-pathological bacteria to pleasing result. The same is true of beer-making, and fermentation in general of any sort. This can be tricky – especially since milk, unlike beer or wine, can produce pathogens that will make you quite sick. There’s not much you can contaminate beer or wine with that will hurt you – it will just taste awful. Milk, on the other hand, is a different story.

The first step to determining whether you and milk can be friends in the kitchen is to make yogurt. There are tons of recipes and complicated ways to go about this, and I chose to use a process that included only things I already had in my house, things I expect any of us can find in our kitchen: A thermometer that will read up to 185 degrees farenheit. A pot, a glass bowl (or other bowl that will withstand some heat), a crock pot, and a couple of clean and empty pickle jars with lids. As far as ingredients, a half gallon of milk and 8 ounces of live-culture yogurt are the only two things you’ll need.

In fact, the glass bowl isn’t even really necessary – it just takes out one less complication, as by setting up a double boiler you have to worry a lot less about burning the milk. Either way, the process becomes simple: Heat the milk to 185 degrees (f), either by setting up a double boiler with your bowl and pot, or by heating the milk directly in the pot, stirring frequently and preventing a boil or burning. Let the milk cool to about 100 degrees (f), and add the eight ounces of live-culture yogurt. Divide the milk between the jars, and set in your crockpot on low for about twelve hours (check the temperature – mine held steady at 128 degrees farenheit, and this seemed to work beautifully). Make sure your crockpot has enough water to rise to just below the lids of the jars, and your yogurt will be handily done with about 20 minutes of actual hands-on work.

The hardest part is generally the waiting. Developing bacteria, as any lab scientist can tell you, takes time. The set-up and the take-down are simple, it’s only nature that lends the complicated bits. Yet, I have to relate, even my first batch of yogurt did not turn out as planned.

Temperature is the key here – the bacteria in yogurt loves the heat, but too much slows the production by killing most of what you’re trying to grow. Patience can be hard to master, but it’s necessary – if the milk is not cool enough, or your crock pot too hot, the bacteria slumps and you end up with spoiled milk in the morning. And not the good kind.

From this, you get two quarts of yogurt – a delicious place to stop, but why when you’re on such a roll? Labneh is a traditional turkish cheese that couldn’t be easier to make. Take a quart of that fresh yogurt, add a teaspoon of salt, and wrap it in a cheesecloth or a square of fine linen. Knot the top, and hang it from your faucet in the sink. Let the liquid (whey) drip into a bowl below as you let it hang for another twelve hours. Just like that, you have a half pound of soft cheese, a tart and tangy cream-cheese like product. And that liquid in the bowl? Substitute it for milk in your baking, and lend a distinctive tangy flavor to your breads.

Or, you could use the whey to make ricotta – but that’s the next step in our beginning cheesemaking course.

It’s a lot of invested time (24 hours to acquire a quart of yogurt and a half-pound of cheese is quite a lot, when you can get the same from the corner store in ten minutes), but the results are spectacular; home-made anything tastes better than store-bought, and these things are no exception. The secondary benefit is definitely cost – a half gallon of milk today costs $1.99. A quart of yogurt for $1 and a half pound of cheese for $1 is nothing to sneer at.

1. The Art of Cheesemaking – YouTube
2. The Art of Natural Cheesemaking: Using Traditional, Non-Industrial …

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