While a few courageous kitchen enthusiasts have always been militant about eliminating the middleman from their culinary escapades—who needs a butcher when you have a sharp knife?—most home cooks still cede the vast majority of their pantry preparations to the experts. Even accomplished amateurs, who would never dream of buying canned stock, often shy away from making their own mayonnaise or rolling their own lasagna dough.
But as foodies in the age of Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver are discovering, eating without the aid of factory-based food processors and producers isn’t just possible—it’s surprisingly simple. There are all sorts of foodstuffs that even the clumsiest cook can make from scratch, including a wide range of dairy staples.
“People are becoming more aware they can do it,” says Chris Owen, owner of the award-winning Spinning Spider Creamery, who annually leads a goat-cheese making workshop for the Organic Growers School. “Every year, I wonder if we need to change this class, but people love it. It takes the mystery away.”
Making cheese—and its many lactic offshoots, including yogurt, buttermilk and ricotta—is a bit like playing the guitar. Although mastery requires endless hours of practice and at least a smidgen of inbred genius, most anyone can grasp the basics in a single session.
Owen taught herself to make goat cheese after she started buying up goats to provide milk for her sons, who couldn’t tolerate cow’s milk. Before long, the family had more milk than they could drink. A few goats later, they had more milk than they could cram into their barn refrigerator. Owen had to do something with the surplus.
But Owen’s first cheeses, made according to recipes from her well-thumbed copy of Goats Produce Too!, didn’t have the lackluster flavor of food born of necessity. Her product had the clean, tangy taste of the best domestic chevres, she says. And so she set about transforming her family farm into a commercial operation, securing the right permits to sell her herbed fresh cheese to a public that turned out to be starved for great goat cheese.
“I didn’t even visit any other dairies because I was so darn busy milking goats,” says Owen.
Goat cheese first found an American foothold during the rosy-colored dawn of California cuisine, after a crunchy Sonoma County native apprenticed with a renowned French dairy scientist. Laura Chenel translated her lessons with Jean-Claude Le Jaouen into a steady paycheck and then a cult following, when, in 1981, Alice Waters placed a weekly order for 50 pounds of chevre. The purchase launched a revolution, and incited a realm of culinary clichés—beet-and-goat-cheese salads, goat-cheese stuffed figs and goat-cheese crostinis were all made possible by Chenel’s pioneering dairying.
Since Chenel puzzled out fresh goat cheese, the market has been swamped by artisnial chevres, some selling for upward of $40 a pound. But goat cheese remains a back-to-the-land classic, with many of Owen’s disciples incorporating its manufacture into their self-sufficiency master plans. “We’re slowly edging toward self-sustaining,” sighed one student in her most recent class.
Most of Owen’s cheese-making students plan to milk their own goats—or borrow a friend’s animal for the occasion—so she devotes a good chunk of her class to goat care and milking techniques. But for those who aren’t goat-endowed, buying goat’s milk is just fine. Pasteurized goat milk is available at most groceries, and a bit of sleuthing may turn up a raw-milk source.
“Just because it’s raw, don’t assume it’s good,” Owen warns those who opt to shop the black market. “Yes, the good bacteria should fight off the bad bacteria, but it doesn’t always work that way.”
Raw milk’s health issues aside, sometimes it’s just distasteful. “Goats’ milk is really sensitive to odors,” Owen explains. “If you’re getting goat milk that tastes goaty, go to the source and find out why. How old is it? What were the conditions of the barn?”
Some problems may be beyond the milker’s control, she adds: “Early spring milk can do some strange things to your cheese,” she says.
Whether you use pasteurized or raw milk, the first step toward cheese is heating it. To make chevre, the milk is warmed in a double boiler to 80 degrees, which Owen recommends measuring with a long digital thermometer. When it comes to cheese, precision is paramount.
“I’m a stickler for documentation,” Owen says. “Even on a home scale, if you get an exceptional batch of gouda, you want to be able to replicate it.”
And yes, there is goat-milk gouda. “I’ll have people say ‘I didn’t know you could do a cheddar from goat’,” Owen says. “The reality is you could do cheddar from a water buffalo.”
Not every cow-cheese style is a perfect fit for goat’s milk: Unlike cow’s milk, goat’s milk stays together: The cream doesn’t rise to the top. That complicates mozzarella making, for instance, but hasn’t prevented farmstead cheese producers like Owen from successfully experimenting with all sorts of complex and aged varieties.
Owen concedes that the wheels of cheese she ages wrapped in Hickory Nut Gap lard are probably a mite tricky for inexperienced cheese makers. Hard cheesing is definitely a scientific enterprise, she says.
“When I was first making hard cheeses, I had no idea of pH,” Owen says. “The cheese was OK, but it wasn’t great. Then I got an understanding of chemistry. And instead of being more precise with my timing or measuring a level teaspoon, I could rely on science. Now if I want to make sure I get a certain flavor profile, I want a certain pH.”
Flavor is introduced with the lactobacillus, the lively bacterium that makes bread rise, beer brew and kimchi ferment. There are two types used in goat-cheese making, both of which have fancy Latin names. Suffice to say, buttermilk is an example of one type and yogurt an example of the other. Chevre is made with the buttermilk kind of bacteria.
Cheese makers can use buttermilk as their lactobacillus, or order bottled bacteria online. Either way, once the bacterium is added to the warm milk, the concoction must sit quietly for a few hours.
“Now the bacteria is colonizing, and it’s happy, happy, happy,” Owen explains. “Now I can add rennet.”
Rennet is an enzyme compound extracted from cow stomachs. Since Owen has so many vegetarian customers, she uses a substitute made from mushrooms, which works just fine. After a quick stir, the chevre-in-progress is left to sit overnight. “Chevre is a slow, slow set,” Owen concedes.
Once the stuff looks very much like fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt, it’s ready to ladle into a muslin bag for draining. “Be gentle with the curd,” Owen warns. Cheese makers can ignore the thin layer of whey canvassing the firm curd, or cherish it—“There’s a huge amount of nutrition in there,” Owen says. “You can soak grains in it, you can drink it, you can bathe in it. When we started cheese making in the house, there was whey everywhere. It drove my husband crazy.”
Owen suggests draining the cheese for about eight hours, after which time it ought to be ready to freeze or enjoy. But that’s the cheese maker’s call.
“This is the whole thing about local cheese,” Owen says. “It’s your cheese. It’s not rocket science. It’s whatever you want it to be.”
Chevre: A recipe
This is a basic recipe suggested by Owen. Remember, keep your hands and utensils clean! “If something goes wrong, analyze your sanitation,” Owen advises.
5 qts. goat milk
1/2 c. cultured buttermilk
2 tablespoons diluted rennet (3 drops liquid rennet in 1/3 c. water)
Warm milk to 80 degrees. Stir in buttermilk and mix well. Let sit a few hours. Add diluted rennet. Stir at least one minute. Let set at room temperature for 8-12 hours. Curd is ready to drain when it looks like thick yogurt. There may be a thin layer of whey floating on the top.
Ladle curd into muslin bag and allow to drain for 6-8 hours, or until it’s the consistency you’d like.
Freeze, unseasoned, in Ziploc bags.