Cheese on the Cheap: Making your own is frugal and fun

From the individually wrapped slices in the dairy case to the rarest French Camembert at the local wine shop, the sheer variety makes it easy to forget cheese’s humble beginnings. Cheese-making began as just a way to keep milk around longer, before the advent of refrigeration and other methods of preservation. And if you don’t mind spending a little time in the kitchen, it can still be made relatively easily and inexpensively at home.

Left to its own devices for a day or two, raw milk will turn into a basic cheese with only the assistance of the handy bacteria present in the air. Bacteria often get a bad rap in the supersanitized modern world, but these little guys are what make cheese, well, cheese. The bacteria increases the acidity of the milk by “eating” the lactose and producing lactic acid, which helps the milk to curdle and start on its way to cheesy goodness. You can also buy specific starter bacteria and introduce it yourself. Once those hungry bacteria produce lactic acid, an enzyme called rennet can be brought into the process. Rennet (available in animal or vegetable forms), the acid and milk proteins interact and cause the milk to coagulate, which eventually creates curds. The curds can then be cut to any desired size and then pressed into a dizzying variety of shapes and consistencies.

Leery of messing around with bacteria and enzymes, or just have a short attention span? Try the “acid plus heat” method in which milk is heated, then an acid, like vinegar, is added into the mix, causing the curds to separate out. Strain the mixture and that’s it, the easiest cheese-making method possible; ricotta is one of the most well-known cheeses made this way.

After these basic processes are completed, the resulting cheeses can be eaten fresh or massaged further by aging, salting, adding herbs or even various molds to create different flavors.

Like anything else, cheese is only as good as what goes into it. According to local cheesemaker extraordinaire Merryl Winstein, who offers classes in the lactic art at her home in Webster Groves, any milk pasteurized at more than 160 degrees won’t coagulate well and needs calcium chloride added to the mix to help out the rennet; if the milk has been pasteurized at more than 170 degrees, it won’t hardly yield cheese at all. Winstein advised using raw cow or goat milk for best results. She also recommended using coarse salt with no additives and no iodine if you decide to salt your creations.

Matt Sorrell is a Richmond Heights-based freelance writer and amateur cheese aficionado.

Merryl Winstein teaches classes if you’d like to learn more about cheese-making; visit cheesemakingclass.com for details. Winstein also sells cheese-making supplies and raises dairy goats, whose milk, when available, is ideal for making cheese. Raw cow milk can be purchased from Greenwood Farms in Newburg, which delivers regularly to St. Louis: 800.253.6574, greenwoodfarms.com.