The Complete Idiot's Guide to Cheese Making: Create Delicious Artisan Cheeses at Home
In the back-to-the-farm, know-your-food’s-roots movement of late, cheese making fits the zeitgeist perfectly. The thought of a “home creamery” for city folks seems like a setup for ridicule, but the joy of producing a fresh cheese can make all the jokes worth it.
At its most basic, cheese making requires nothing more than milk or cream, a pot, and some vinegar or lemon juice. Those will produce a fine ricotta, queso blanco, or mascarpone. Moving from those to cream cheese or mozzarella requires a few more ingredients, but no special equipment, and recipes for these abound on the web (not all of them trustworthy).
It’s when a cook wants to try such firm cheeses as Cheddar, Monterey Jack, and Swiss that things get more complicated, and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cheese Making can get you through—though not if you’re a complete idiot.
If you can get past the style of the Complete Idiot books, with their cutesy, abundant sidebars and fuzzy photos, and you commit to reading the book through from the start, you will learn to make cheese. Jumping into a recipe without reading the first chapters, though, will lead to sure frustration, as Leverentz notes in the introduction. This is not a cookbook of cheese recipes; it’s a guide that expects readers to work their way up from yogurt to Baby Swiss.
Leverentz starts with an explanation of cheese terms and categories, ingredients, and equipment. His long discussion of milk and cultures (really long; again, if you’re not planning to make more than ricotta and mozzarella, this isn’t the book for you) will help cooks get their cheese right from the start. And although he does explain how to use powdered milk for cheese (something you should do only in sheer desperation), he also makes clear that this is a book about whole-milk cheese. No fat-free, salt-free, lactose-free fake cheese here.
Reassuring notes will also take away some of the fear of expensive equipment, noting, for example, that a very basic cheese press will be just fine—though the book also recommends buying a small refrigerator and external thermostat to use as a cheese cave.
If a reader impatient to get to the cheese makes it through 50 pages of details and one yogurt recipe, he will have, Leverentz says, “enough information to be dangerous.” Ready to jump in to the easy cheeses? Hold on: Leverentz expects a practice run with a cheesecloth bag: Fill it with dry beans and practice hanging it. Then it’s on to paneer, queso blanco, mascarpone, and, finally, mozzarella and ricotta made from the mozzarella whey.
Leverentz’s mozzarella recipe does a good job of walking through the steps, though a few photos would provide a bit more comfort to new cheesemakers. Also, his recipe requires a microwave; cooks who prefer to see what they’re doing on the stove will be out of luck.
After making mozzarella, the next chapter, with recipes for crème fraiche, Neufchatel, chevre and fromage blanc, will seem like a step backward with its easy recipes. Note that the recipe for crème fraiche calls for a quart of light cream; unfortunately, the index gives no listing at all for cream, and nowhere does the book seem to offer any advice about what might be substituted here, as light cream can be tough to find in some parts of the country.
For real cheeseheads, the fun comes next, when, after more study of terms and processes, a recipe for cottage cheese will guide cooks through some of the basics of curd processing. Using just a gallon of milk, cottage cheese provides an inexpensive way to test newfound skills. From there, it’s on to such hard cheeses as cheddar, Jack, Havarti, feta, provolone, and Baby Swiss.
Throughout the final chapters, calm instructions and plenty of tips will make cheese making, an art as well as a science, feel as controlled as possible. It’s simple, but it definitely isn’t easy.
Reviewer Sharon Kebschull Barrett is a food writer and the author of Desserts From an Herb Garden and Morning Glories (St. Martin’s Press). She is also the owner of Dessert First, a custom bakehouse.