Before my recent visit to Prairie Fruits Farm in Champaign, Illinois, I was merely a goat cheese enthusiast. After a couple of hours of frolicking in an open field with the goats, I decided to become a maker of goat cheese.
The problem was that I had never made “real cheese” in my life. Fortunately, the method for making fresh goat cheese, chèvre style, is quite amateur-friendly. In light of this, the oft-touted rennet-free, culture-free quick method (boiling the milk, causing it to curdle with something acidic such as lime/lemon juice or vinegar, and draining out the whey) doesn’t seem a worthwhile effort. Undoubtedly, it is an easy method which yields fresh and tasty cheese curds from goat’s milk. But that is a far, far cry from the cultured fresh chèvre that we know and love. [In fact, I would go as far as saying that if you want to go the easy route, you'd probably get better-tasting goat cheese out of straining cultured goat's milk yogurt overnight than you would from simply boiling and curdling fresh goat's milk. But that's just me.]
Anyway, here are the step-by-step instructions on how to make real homemade goat cheese.
* If you have access to unpasteurized goat’s milk in your area, by all means get the milk fresh from the farm. This list of places in the United States, as well as a few other countries, where you can find unpasteurized cow and goat’s milk is a good start.
* However, if you don’t have access to farm-fresh milk, your best bet is pasteurized goat’s milk which can be found in some mainstream grocery stores and most health/specialty food stores. Be sure to get whole goat’s milk as it coagulates better and gives you a larger amount of cheese which is also more flavorful.
* I use pasteurized whole goat’s milk, the one that has on the carton an image of a smiling adult goat, wearing a top that resembles what my favorite third grade teacher liked to wear, drinking what appears to be its own milk. There’s no particular reason why I use that brand other than that it’s the only brand that’s available around here.
* You need rennet. There are both animal-derived and vegetable rennets. I went with veal rennet as I’ve been told that animal rennet produces better coagulation. Veal rennet comes in a small plastic drop bottle. (You need only a little itty bitty drop for a gallon-size batch.)
* You need the right cheese culture. Visit your choice of cheese-making supply source (see some suggestions at the bottom of the page) and see what kind of enzyme they recommend for chèvre. I use the combination that contains both (LL) Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis and (LLC) Lactococcus lactis subsp. cremoris which is great for semi-soft and fresh cheeses including chèvre. The culture comes in freeze-dried form which needs to be refrigerated. It’s not expensive and, like rennet, you need only a little bit of it for each batch.
* You need salt. From what I’ve read from various places, people seem to like iodine-free salt. I use my favorite sea salt.
* A piece of good muslin cloth for cheese-making. Regular cheesecloth has holes that are too large for, and won’t be able to hold, the curds. I made my first batch using 5 layers of regular cheesecloth which worked fine. But I’ve learned since then that it’s more economical and less ridiculous to invest in one good piece of reusable muslin cloth.
* A good kitchen thermometer. I use a digital one that looks like a long, slender nail.
* You can also use a cheese mold which comes with holes and works somewhat like a cœur à la crème mold. This is not utterly important, at least in the beginning.
* You need either a pH tester or a box of pH test strips. I bought the latter which serves the purpose at hand quite adequately. I have a feeling, though, that if I ever progress beyond the amateur stage, the pH test strips won’t be sufficient any longer. Once I get into molded cheeses, precision will be even more important and a pH tester will be necessary.
METHOD OF PREPARATION:
*I start out with one gallon of whole goat’s milk, and pretty much follow the instructions on how to make fresh goat cheese chèvre style on Prairie Fruits Farm website.
* If you use store-bought goat’s milk, the milk is already pasteurized. “You don’t want to ever ‘boil’ milk to make cheese,” says Leslie Cooperband of Prairie Fruits Farm who was coaching me in the beginning. All you need to do is bring the milk to room temperature (70°-72°F).
* You add to it the rennet and the culture in the amounts specified in the vendor’s instructions.
* Let the milk incubate at room temperature for 20 hours.
* After 20 hours, you will see that the milk has coagulated and the curd has separated from the whey.
* Test for acidity level of the whey by scooping off some of the clear liquid and, with your pH tool of choice, make sure we have the level of acidity in the 4.5-4.7 range. That means your cheese is ready to be pressed. If the whey is not acidic enough, let the milk incubate a couple of more hours, then check again.
* Pour the entire pot through a cheesecloth-lined strainer. Carefully gather the corners of the cloth and tie them together to form a bag. Let it drip overnight at room temperature. The best way to do this is to tie the bag to your sink faucet and just let the liquid drip into the sink overnight.
* Once that’s done, you’ll end up with about 16-20 ounces of soft fresh goat cheese ready to be used. The consistency of fresh chèvre at this stage is creamy and smooth like cream cheese or mascarpone, although the taste makes it clear that it’s fresh goat cheese.
* This is when you mix in the salt (1/2 teaspoon of sea salt works for me) and whatever flavoring agents that you desire: cracked peppercorns, fresh herbs, honey, citrus zest, etc.
* If you have leftover fresh chèvre, keep it wrapped in a piece of cheesecloth (regular one will do at this point) and refrigerated for up to 10 days. The longer you keep it refrigerated, the drier and the tangier the cheese becomes. I like the taste and texture of my chèvre at 4-5 days after the day it’s made. But this is up to each individual.