Cheese making, like bread baking, is an art as well as a science. There are hundreds of different categories and varieties of cheese, but here we focus on fresh cheese, meaning it can be eaten immediately after making it without any aging, ripening, or curing. Think of it as cheese in its youngest, purest form.
Though it doesn’t sound appetizing, cheese is curdled milk. Milk is made up of water and milk solids, which include proteins, butterfat, and lactose. When you cause the proteins in milk to coagulate, or curdle, they produce curds. With the help of heat, time, and sometimes pressure, these curds release liquid, or whey, and become firmer and firmer. And that’s your cheese.
In the most straightforward cheese recipes, such as for ricotta and paneer, the milk is coagulated simply by adding an acid in the form of vinegar, lemon juice, or buttermilk. In other cheeses, a bacterial starter culture may be used (similar to a sourdough starter), as well as rennet, a set of enzymes produced from the stomach lining of a ruminant animal.
Every little detail in cheese making counts. To ensure success, stick to specified timelines and temperatures, and use an accurate thermometer. The timing and amount of stirring is also critical. You don’t want to stir, or even disturb, the pot of milk while it coagulates because doing so can keep the curds from properly forming and cause loss of milk fat, which you want to stay in the curd. After the milk has set, how much you stir can affect how quickly curds release whey—if whey is released too quickly, the curds can release their milk fat as well. This is particularly problematic if making a smooth, creamy cheese, since the milk fat is key to creating desirable texture.
Use the freshest milk possible, but don’t use ultra-pasteurized or ultra-heat-treated (UHT) milk. Whereas pasteurized milk has been heated to 145 degrees to kill off harmful bacteria, ultra-pasteurized or UHT milk has been heated to even higher temperatures, which not only kills all enzymes and bacteria, bad and good, but also affects the protein structure. This makes it difficult for curds to form.
1A TO MAKE PANEER Bring milk to boil, stirring. Whisk in buttermilk, turn off heat, and let stand undisturbed for 1 minute. Pour mixture through cheesecloth-lined colander and let drain.
2A Pull edges of cheesecloth together to form pouch, twist edges together, and squeeze out as much liquid as possible.
3A Place cheese pouch between plates and weight down top plate. Let sit until cheese is firm and set. Unwrap cheese.
1B TO MAKE RICOTTA Heat milk and salt to 185 degrees, stirring. Remove from heat and whisk in lemon juice and vinegar until curdled. Let sit undisturbed until mixture fully separates into curds and whey
2B Pour mixture through cheesecloth-lined colander. Let sit, undisturbed, until whey has drained from edges of cheese but center is still very moist.
3B Quickly but gently transfer cheese to bowl, retaining as much whey in center of cheese as possible. Stir until smooth.