Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Homemade Curd Cheese (Skuta), Step-by-Step

This is the simplest approach I have found to making curd cheese, otherwise known as farmer cheese, bakers cheese or (if you are Slovenian) as skuta.

For some background on this homestyle delicacy, see my previous post. I arrived at this simple recipe after reviewing many sources on the Internet.  Later on, I discovered another recipe, virtually identical, in Janez Bogataj's The Food and Cooking of Slovenia (2008.)

These recipes appear under a variety of labels.  Curd cheese and farmer cheese seem to have given way to Indian paneer or Italian ricotta in popularity. But they are all variations on a theme: simple, unripened cheeses, in which an acid is used to separate curds from whey.

The recipe below can easily turn into paneer, if enough moisture is pressed out. Technically, it is not really ricotta, although it makes a decent substitute.  Ricotta means "re-cooked" and is based on the whey that is left after making a rennet-based cheese.

This is an approach more than a recipe.  You can experiment and adjust.  The only absolute no-no is ultra-pasteurized milk, because it won't work.

A helpful and amusing comparison of the various approaches to making this style of cheese can be found on Serious Eats, in a Food Lab article, here.  (Yes, the writer refers to his cheese as Five Minute Ricotta and then admits in the small print that it's not really the same thing!)

Ready?  As the Serious Eats article says, it's simple: Heat milk, add acid, drain, enjoy!

Homemade Curd Cheese

8 cups (or use 2 litres) fresh milk (see note)
2-4 T. fresh lemon juice or white vinegar (I have used both)

colander or strainer

Note:  Any variety of fresh cow's milk should work, as long as it is not ultra-pasteurized. Check the label to be sure.  I use organic milk.

Before you begin: Rinse two layers of cheesecloth in cold water and line a colander or strainer. (In the old days, when salt was sold in a cloth bag, my grandmother used that instead.) Place strainer in large bowl.

Pour milk into a large nonreactive pot or kettle.  Heat slowly, stirring occasionally, until milk is just below the boiling point.  Be careful that bottom doesn't burn.

Turn off heat.  Drizzle 2 tablespoons of lemon juice or vinegar into the milk and stir gently until the curds form. (The curds are the white lumps. The whey is the greenish-yellow liquid.) If curds do not appear, turn the heat back on and slowly drizzle in more lemon juice or vinegar until the curds and whey separate.

After curds form, let the mixture sit undisturbed for 10 minutes.

Ladle the mixture into the lined colander and allow the whey to drain into the bowl, pouring off as needed.  (Save the whey for another use, like bread-making.)

Here we come to a choice point.  How to drain the curds.

The easiest and simplest approach is to let the curds drain for 5 minutes in the colander, remove, and use immediately or refrigerate.  This results in a soft texture that probably resembles cottage cheese or ricotta.  (I have never done it this way because I am not setting out to make five minute ricotta!)

I recommend the more traditional route: Draw the corners of the cheesecloth together, squeeze to remove even more whey, and tie the cheesecloth with twine (or simply tie up the ends of the cheesecloth) to make a firm package of cheese.  You can drain it by simply letting the cheese rest in the colander.  Or you can suspend it from a kitchen faucet or from a spoon placed over a pail. Some sources (like that Slovenian cookbook) suggesting rinsing the curds in cold water before draining.

How long to drain?

The Slovenian cookbook suggests several hours of draining, before unwrapping and refrigerating.  This will give you a semi-solid mass that can be crumbled and used for cooking.  It has a mild, fresh, slightly sweet taste that is perfect for desserts.  It is also ideal for making simple appetizer spreads, like Pumpkin Oil Cheese Spread or a new one I just discovered: Curd Cheese with Onion, or Koroška skuta s čebulo. (Recipe follows.)

Here is the optional final step: Shaping and pressing, which creates the equivalent of paneer.

After an initial draining, twist and squeeze the cheesecloth-wrapped curds into a round, flat cake.  Set it on a rimmed plate.  Top with another plate, and place a heavy weight (like a large can) on top.  Leave in the refrigerator overnight.

When you unwrap the next day, you will find a nice, firm round of white cheese.  When cut into slices, it resembles fresh mozarella and can be used in the same way.  For a delicious appetizer, slice the round of cheese and drizzle with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and fresh basil leaves.

Are you wondering about the absence of salt?

The salt is omitted in many, if not most, of the traditional recipes for curd cheese and paneer. Others, like that Five Minute Ricotta recipe, do add a little.  But even if you are not trying to cut down on sodium, you are better off leaving out the salt, until you figure out what to do with the finished product.  If the cheese will end up in a sweet dessert, the salt is unnecessary.

That's the beauty of this recipe.  You are fully in control of what goes into it.  It's just milk. Raw or organic, homogenized or not.  Full fat, low fat, or fat free.   Just make sure it's not ultra-pasterized.

And do stick to cow's milk. I got the bright idea of trying to make a salt-free goat cheese, but I couldn't get the milk to curdle properly. So I rescued it by making a sort of grainy yogurt, which I then drained in a coffee filter to make yogurt goat cheese.  It was good, but way too time-consuming.

Below are photos of the cheese-making process, start to finish.

Stay tuned for more recipes using this tasty home-style cheese.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Fresh Curd Cheese: An Easy, Delicious Salt-Free Staple

Curd cheese. Farmer cheese.  Baker's cheese.  Pot cheese. Hoop cheese.

Ring a bell?

If any of these are familiar ingredients in your kitchen, there is a good chance that your roots are Eastern European or Jewish.  If not, you probably grew up on the East Coast or in parts of the Midwest where people from these communities lived.

When I was growing up in Cleveland and Chicago, a product called "dry curd cottage cheese" was carried by most grocery stores, right alongside the familiar creamy variety. My mother, like most people, used this dry, mild cottage cheese for baking.  Most often, she used it to make the sweet filling for cheese blintzes.  (She never did let on that this was a Slovenian dish as well as a Jewish one!)

As a child, I was fascinated by the taste of dry curd cottage cheese.  I always managed to sneak a little sample, before my mother put it through the food mill and added sugar, vanilla, and eggs.  It was dry, tart and almost aggressively bland.  An empty canvas, waiting to be transformed.

Somewhere along the way, dry curd cottage cheese seems to have disappeared. Sometimes I could find  something similar: firm rectangular blocks of Friendship farmer cheese, shaped like cream cheese but with the taste more like dry curd cottage cheese. But eventually, even farmer cheese became harder to find, especially after we moved to California.

Most often, if I needed to make a cheese filling for either a sweet or savoury dish, I ended up substituting regular cottage cheese or (as the years went on) Italian ricotta.  But it wasn't quite the same.

During my just-completed year of Slovenian cooking, I discovered even more dishes that called for curd cheese fillings.  An elaborate dessert called prekmusrka gibanica or strudel pie.  Savoury dumplings like štruklji and žlifkrofi.  Ajdovi krapi or buckwheat turnovers.  And even a nice cheese spread with pumpkin seed oil.  At first, I just used ricotta, and it was fine.

But I was thrilled to find a wonderful local source of farmer cheese in a shop right around the corner. It is called Farmers Cheese, Russian style, made by Belfiore Cheese Company in Berkeley.  It comes in rectangular tubs.  This cheese has a delicious tang and is a little moister than the dry curd cottage cheese or the block-style farmer cheese I used to be able to find.  It became my baking cheese of choice for ethnic dishes.

Since I now had a fine local source, it would never have occurred to me to consider making my own curd cheese if I hadn't taken on the challenge of salt-free cooking.

It was all because of Sodium Girl (of course!) who had written a funny but informative blog post about paneer, the Indian cheese that shows up as firm white cubes in any number of delicious vegetarian dishes.  She had become a big fan of paneer because, unlike almost all other cheeses, it is usually prepared without added salt.  She also noted that it is easy to make at home and included a link to a simple recipe. (Take a look at her full post, Paneer is Here.)

So that got me combing the Internet for paneer recipes.  And I quickly learned that paneer is one of a family of simple, uncured homestyle cheeses. Remember Little Miss Muffet who sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey?  Well, these cheeses are the curds minus the whey.

Farmer cheese and pot cheese.  Russian tvorog and Indian paneer.  Mexican quesco fresco and Slovenian skuta.  Every culture seems to have a version.  They are variations on a theme. They all begin the same way.  Milk is heated, and then an acid (usually lemon juice or vinegar) is stirred in, to separate the curds and whey.  In other words, the milk curdles.  The curds are drained and either left as dry crumbles or pressed into a firmer cake or block.

Sometimes a cultured milk product, like yogurt or buttermilk, is added along with the vinegar or lemon juice.  There are various degrees of sitting, heating, and pressing involved.  Some recipes do call for a little salt at the beginning, but most seem to wait until the cheese is in its final form before adding.

Salt-free cheese.  It seemed too good to be true. I had assumed that any farmer cheese or curd cheese I bought would have at least some added salt.   Besides, I was intrigued. So I set out to make my own.

As it turns out, I was wrong to assume that commercially-made farmer cheese and curd cheese always contain added salt. Belfiore, my local brand, does not.  But I'm glad I didn't discover this until recently, or I might not have set off on my cheese-making adventures.

Here is an interesting article about the history, disappearance and re-emergence of farmer cheese, with a nice mention of my two favorite brands:  New York-based Friendship and Berkeley's own Belfiore.

Ready to try making curd cheese yourself?  Take a look at the next post for a step-by-step recipe.