Cottage cheese just might be the most divisive of dairy products. There is really no equivocating: You either love it or loathe it. If this wasn’t already abundantly clear to me prior to developing this recipe, the fact was brought home when I sought out volunteer tasters among the Test Kitchen ranks. People were either cheerfully disposed to give it a try or visibly repulsed as they shrank from my requests.
As you can guess, I’m affirmatively in the love camp. I began life eating the (somewhat abominable) stuff studded with diced (and none too fresh) pineapple that adorned many a hostile dieter’s plate. I think the fruit, as wretched as it was in hindsight, was what first enticed me—what kid can resist little buried bits of sweetness? As I continued to eat cottage cheese throughout the years and tried better brands, I really began to relish the unique texture. Those irregular curdy lumps, held together by a cytoplasm of creaminess, were unlike any other food I had tasted. I think of cottage cheese as somewhat of a hybrid. As a Greek yogurt fan, I appreciate its similar tartness and creaminess, but the curds give away its essentially cheesy identity.
When I began making cottage cheese—also known as pot cheese or farmer’s cheese—I knew little more than my preferences. I enjoy cheese with a fine curd—I even like the ricotta-like whipped variety. I also detest the slippery, slimy texture that is all too common in many of the commercially available brands. I call it dairy glue, because it looks and taste like Elmer’s. Not that I eat glue . . . anymore.
After reading through a few recipes and cheese-making volumes, I learned that cottage cheese falls into two camps: a short-set method cheese (which takes anywhere from 5 to 8 hours and relies on the enzyme rennet to catalyze curdling of the milk) and a long-set method cheese (an 18- to 24-hour version that uses only starter culture to induce curdling). As I tried out various methods, my apartment became a virtual cottage industry of cottage cheese-making.
I ultimately produced my ideal, small curd cheese with a noticeable (but not overly aggressive) tartness using a short-set method. This is no dieter’s cottage cheese—I go whole cow and use full fat milk for the curds, and then stir in heavy cream cut with some buttermilk after I’ve strained off the whey.
This is a cottage cheese that has enough flavor to stand on its own, but you can also consume with add-ins of fresh or dried fruits and nuts (I like raisins and crushed pecans, but figs, apricots, and the like also make for a nice treat). If you prefer savory cheese, you could add chopped scallions. I also think cottage cheese is a great way to improve your frozen waffles: toast the waffle, and then spread a layer of your favorite jam or preserves, followed by a thick layer of your homemade cottage cheese on top.
Before you begin, an important note on food safety: Be sure that any cheese-making equipment you use is made of a non-porous material (stainless steel, glass, etc). Porous materials such as plastic present a danger because bacteria can propagate and contaminate your cheese. You want to make sure that your equipment is sanitized. The easiest method is to run everything through the high heat/heavy wash/sanitizer mode in your dishwasher.
To produce roughly a pound of cottage cheese curd, I use one gallon of milk, direct-set mesophilic culture, liquid rennet, extra fine cheese cloth, salt, heavy cream, and buttermilk. I prefer to use whole milk, but feel free to substitute low fat or skim, as long as it is not ultra-pasteurized. The heavy cream and buttermilk will transform the dried curd into the familiar creamy, partially liquid result also known as “creamed cottage cheese.” To dilute the rennet, we use distilled, filtered, or purified water. Chlorine can keep rennet from doing its job, and all three of those options are unchlorinated.
Add the gallon of your milk to a Dutch oven or large pot (7-quart capacity is ideal) and heat it slowly until it reaches 86 degrees. Then remove the pot from the burner.
Sprinkle the mesophilic culture over the surface of the milk. This culture is what will catalyze the acidification or souring process in the milk. The bacteria break down the milk sugar (lactose) into lactic acid, which must be present for the milk to curdle. After combining the culture and the milk, add the diluted rennet solution, stir to combine, then cover. Set your covered pot aside and do not disturb lest you interfere with the coagulation process. It should take anywhere from 5 to 8 hours for the milk to coagulate.
When the milk is sufficiently coagulated, it should exhibit what is called “a clean break.” You can test this a few ways. You can gently stick a metal spatula (or a clean finger) into the center of the curd; if it comes out clean, it is ready. Alternatively, you can slide the spatula around the edge of the pot, if the curd cleanly separates from the edge, it is time to proceed with cutting.
Using a knife with a blade long enough to cut down to the bottom of your pot—and being careful not to scratch the inside of the pot—slice parallel lines that are ½-inch apart, then parallel lines at a 90 degree angle to the first set. You’ll now have little cubes of curd. Run your metal spoon around the edge of the pan to gently dislodge the curds. You have cut the curd so that the whey can start to separate. Let the cut curd rest for 10 minutes to aid this process.
Return pot to the stovetop and heat the curd slowly to 110 Fahrenheit. I rely on an instant-read thermometer here, as I don’t want to overheat the curds or heat them too quickly. Stir the curds occasionally to help firm the curd as well as help distribute the heat evenly for a more accurate thermometer read.
As you continue to heat the curd, you will notice more and more liquid whey in the Dutch oven. Once the curd reaches 110 degrees, grab a piece between your fingers and check the texture. You don’t want mushy, jelly-like curd, but rather curd that doesn’t smear when pressed between your thumb and forefinger (or your thumb and a spoon) and that exhibits some resistance. If the curd is sufficiently firm, let it settle to the bottom of the pot beneath the whey (this will take about five minutes), and then proceed. If the curd is still mushy, hold the curd at 110 degrees, continuing to stir occasionally, until the texture is achieved.
Pour the curds and whey into a strainer lined with a double layer of extra fine cheese cloth. I use a colander with handles that elevates it above the sink, but if you don’t have this and are going to strain over the sink, make sure to set the colander over a deep bowl. You don’t want backsplash that could contaminate the cheese; plus, you just might want to save that whey for pizza crusts or bread making. Let the curds drain for 10 minutes.
Tie up the ends of the cheese cloth, and give a gentle squeeze (not an Incredible Hulk squeeze that will compact the curds, mind you) to remove excess liquid. Submerge the bag in a bowl of ice water for a minute to cool the curd.
Remove the curd from the ice water and strain once again for 10 minutes. As before, gather the ends of the cloth and give a gentle squeeze at the bottom to remove excess liquid.
Transfer your curds to a bowl, and separate them with your fingers or a spoon until the particles are ¼- to ½-inch.
Add the salt to your heavy cream and buttermilk, stir, and then pour into your waiting curd and mix. Then transfer the lot to an airtight container and refrigerate for at least two hours.
Before consuming, you’ll need to fluff the cheese a little with a fork or wooden spoon, as you’ll notice it settles into a flat layer. You also may need to adjust the liquid if the curd has absorbed more than you’d like. (Keep in mind though that as your cheese ages, it will begin to release some liquid, so don’t overdo it.)