If you're trying to live a plastic-free life, no place can be more frustrating that your local cheese counter. Pretty much without fail, cheese comes packed in plastic. Though many specialty cheese shops still use plain butcher paper to wrap purchases, at my local supermarkets, I can buy one brand of grated cheese in a glass jar in the pasta section, cream cheese in cardboard and foil (probably plastic-coated foil), and probably a few individual-sized soft aged cheeses such as Brie and Limburger in foil. Other than that, the cheese is pretty much encased in plastic.
But not at the deli counter. While the big blocks come in plastic, the take-home packaging has not yet been applied to individual orders. If you know that plastic packaging is standard issue, you may be able to avoid it: They may have plain butcher paper in stock next door at the fish or meat department, and if you ask nicely, when the workers aren’t busy they may be willing to help you out. And who knows? If enough of us ask for paper instead of plastic, the stores may just start offering the choice to everyone. "Would you like that in plastic or paper, M’am?"
Making your own homemade cheese is another option, and while making a hard cheese such as cheddar or Swiss is a big project, making soft cheeses like ricotta or yogurt cheese (good for dips or spreads, and even a good substitute for mayonnaise) is fast and easy. Neither requires non-recyclable plastic wrappers, and the end results are way tastier than the stuff from the supermarket. Plus, you can use organic ingredients (it can be hard to find truly organic cheeses at any store). Ricotta and paneer are more versatile cheeses than simple yogurt cheese, but you can try them all using these homemade cheese recipes.
To make yogurt cheese, you simply empty a pint of organic yogurt — either store-bought or homemade yogurt — into a fine sieve or a cheesecloth-lined colander placed over a bowl. Let the whey drain out of the yogurt for as little as eight hours or as much as a few days, until your yogurt reaches a consistency that you like. The longer the yogurt drains, the thicker the cheese will be.
At its most basic, cheese is nothing more than the curdled proteins and fats from milk that have been separated from the whey (the watery leftovers). The process usually involves enzymes or some sort of acid, such as vinegar or lemon juice. To make ricotta, you add some vinegar or lemon juice to milk, and that's pretty much it.
Start with regular milk, either whole milk, whole milk plus cream (for a really decadent dessert filling), or even skim milk. You'll get roughly the same yield — about ¼ of your starting volume — from any milk you use, since ricotta is mostly protein and the protein content of milk doesn’t change much when you take out the fat. Skim milk ricotta is a bit dryer in texture, while cream-enriched ricotta is, well, creamier. They both taste great. I usually make mine from fresh, raw, whole milk in glass bottles. But if your only organic choice is the store-bought stuff, go ahead and get it. I made ricotta from a half gallon of Stonyfield Farm ultra-pasteurized whole milk from my local supermarket, and it actually made almost twice as much ricotta as my fresh whole milk did, and it had a lovely, soft texture.
You can even use milk that has started to curdle on its own — a thrifty way to use up old milk that you paid good money for (traditional recipes often used milk that had started to curdle) — or you can get exotic and use goat's milk, which should start to come in season in a few weeks. Another choice is to use the leftover whey from making yogurt cheese. Just don't try to reuse leftover whey from making ricotta or paneer (another cheese we'll get to in a bit). That whey contains mostly natural milk sugars and no proteins, which are needed to make ricotta; it can, however, be used in soups or to cook rice, or just drunk cold. If none of that sounds appealing, use it to water your plants or add it to a dry compost pile.
- 1/2 gallon organic milk
- 3 tablespoons vinegar or lemon/lime juice
- 1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
Put the milk in a large stainless or enamel pot with a heavy bottom and heat it slowly until it almost boils.
Turn off the stove, stir in the vinegar or juice, cover, and let it sit undisturbed for an hour or two.
Line a colander with a clean tea towel or bandanna (if I won't be using my ricotta right away, I simmer my straining cloth in a saucepan of water for a couple of minutes before spreading it in the colander because an extra-sterile cloth makes the cheese last longer).
Place colander over a bowl, and pour the curdled milk into the colander and let it drain for up to an hour. If you'd rather not wait, you can gather the cloth around the curds and twist the top to gently squeeze out the whey.
Use your fresh ricotta right away or refrigerate it in a tightly closed jar for up to a week. Ricotta doesn't freeze well.
Makes about 1 pint (2 cups)
If you salt your ricotta and continue to drain it for a few days in the refrigerator, you can turn it into firm and crumbly, feta-like cheese called salata. Make the cheese the same way you would fresh ricotta. But after the curds have been sufficiently drained, twist the cloth firmly around the curds and put it in the colander, tucking the twisted end under the lump. Put a weight on top of the lump — something that fits inside the colander, such as a bowl with something heavy inside it — and place the colander in something to catch the drips. Refrigerate for 3 or 4 days. Unwrap and enjoy the cheese right away or store it in the fridge in an airtight container for up to a week.
The Indian version of these types of cheese is called paneer. It is bit firmer and chewier than ricotta and is similar to Queso Fresco or a very dry cottage cheese, the main difference being that paneer is usually unsalted (so leave out the salt if you want authentic paneer, leave it in if you want something similar to cottage cheese). It's just as easy to make as ricotta. In fact, the ingredients and method are the same with one difference: When the milk is almost boiling, leave the pot on the burner, turn the heat down to medium, and add the vinegar or juice. Stir gently until there are large curds floating in clear yellow-green liquid. If this doesn’t happen within 2 to 3 minutes, add another tablespoon of vinegar or juice and keep stirring. Once your curds are set, remove the pot from the heat and pour the contents into the lined colander. Squeeze as much whey out of the curds as possible by gathering and twisting the cloth. Use your paneer right away if you don’t mind some crumbling, or leave it wrapped in cloth and put it in the fridge to firm up for 2 or 3 hours. Once firm, you can cut it into nice ½-inch cubes that will keep for up to a week in the fridge, or longer in the freezer.