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Salt, Vat, Acid, Heat: Making 4 of the World's Greatest Cheeses at Home

It started with paneer. Paneer's not easy to find throughout most of the US, so I've been making it from scratch for years. Then I tried making queso fresco for some tacos one night and noticed that both recipes are almost identical. Then it got obsessive.

I began hunting down other cheeses that were basically acid and milk. Mozzarella wasn't quite it, but cream cheese was! That recipe came together after attempting a cheesecake for a friend's birthday. The ricotta? Just a result of tasting my cream cheese recipe before I was finished whipping it to high hell.

The real beauty of these types of cheese is that you don’t need any special milk to do it. Cow, goat, buffalo, raw, pasteurized, whole or skim will all work (just be sure to avoid "ultra-pasteurized" because the extreme processing will make it nearly impossible to form curds).

This next part gets real nerdy...

There are two proteins in milk that make cheese what it is: casein and albumin. The key to making a firm, fresh cheese is to target the albumin. Albumin acts just like an egg white (coincidentally also known as albumen). It's liquid at room temp, but solid when heated to a certain point, and doesn’t go back to a liquid state once it’s heated.

So, if you heat milk at a lower temperature, say 90°F (32°C), the casein protein will coagulate but your albumin won't — great for custard, bad for cheese. If you heat milk to 190°F (88°C), you’re allowing both proteins to denature, giving you a higher yield of firmer, more flavorful cheese. SCIENCE.

Once you get your milk up to temperature, just pick your acid of choice — I prefer fresh squeezed lemon, but you can also use distilled white vinegar, white wine vinegar, fermented whey, or whatever else you've got kicking around (maybe not balsamic) — just slowly add it to your heated milk and watch your cheese form.

Whichever acid you choose, homemade cheese is massively more flavorful than storebought cheese and with only an hour or so, you can easily make enough cheese for a week or more. If you're looking to take your first steps into cheesemaking with low effort, low risk, and high reward... give these recipes a try!