Natural Cheesemaking: Fromage de Chevre and Creme Fraiche

We have been making a lot of cheese lately – both fresh, cultured cheeses and fresh renneted cheeses (we have no cheese cave to age them).  For years I have wanted to be more serious about dairying, but when I looked at cheesemaking books, I felt intimidated and unhappy about all the additives and delicate laboratory cultures that every recipe calls for.  I tried buying some of the cultures, and found that I was really bad at keeping them alive and functional.

I finally discovered the cheesemaking resource I had been hoping to find all along – David Asher’s The Art of Natural Cheesemaking answered one of my burning questions:  how exactly did humans begin making awesome cheese for centuries without packets of laboratory-strain cultures, mold powders, lipase powder, and citric acid?

They used the cultures found in raw milk, simple equipment, rennet and salt!  The climate, the methods, and the character of the milk made the diversity of amazing traditional cheeses.

Using kefir, which has the same diverse microbial profile of raw milk, you can make incredibly various-tasting cheeses.  Changing the culturing temperature encourages different populations of bacteria and yeasts in the kefir culture, which result in vastly different flavors and characters of the milk.  To simplify things, I realized that just adding a few spoonfuls of fresh, active kefir is enough for just one generation of culturing, and saves the bother of straining the grains out of every batch.  Here is a simple recipe for Creme Fraiche, or sour cream, that yields a thick, flavorful sour cream and takes less than a minute of your time to make:

 

Super-Easy, Super-Tasty Creme Fraiche

1 clean pint-sized mason jar

1 pint of cream

1 teaspoon of kefir  (Specifically this is home-made kefir made with kefir grains, not what is sold in the store as “kefir” and has a completely different microbial profile)

  1.  Pour cream, cold from the fridge, into the jar, leaving just a little space at the top.  Stir in the teaspoon of kefir, cap the jar and let it set out on your counter at room temperature over-night.
  2. In the morning, tip the jar and see if it is thickened into the consistency of sour cream or thick yogurt.  If not, let it set out a little longer to finish culturing.  As soon as you notice that it has thickened, put it back in the refrigerator.  It is great on baked potatoes, stirred into soup, with fresh berries, oatmeal, or mixed with finely chopped onion or herbs for a creamy dip.  Yes, it really is that easy!  Pour cream into jar – add spoonful of culture – forget about it for hours – refrigerate.

Notes:  This makes perfect creme fraiche in the summer, when it is hot.  In the winter I let it culture on the counter for up to 3 days before it will set.  In the summer time, just overnight will usually be enough.  The culture is temperature-sensitive.  The hotter it is, the faster it works (to a point, of course).  The temperature also affects the flavor.  I culture the cream cold out of the fridge to encourage the mesophilic, or cool-loving microbes from the kefir culture, because they make a more gentle, creamy-tasting sour cream.  The thermophilic cultures, or heat-loving cultures, can get a little funky-tasting and out-of-control sometimes  (a jar lid hit me in the nose once when I was opening it from a particularly warm batch of sour cream!).

 

milk cultures

Another dairy endeavour I’ve been experimenting with is to break away from the direct-set packets for Chevre, .  They are SO easy and convenient – I just add them to goat’s milk, leave it out overnight, and strain it in the morning, no problem.  They’re almost addictive they are so easy, but I am uncomfortable with the quality of rennet that is used.  I’ve used them for years because it seemed so much easier to me than measuring out rennet and maintaining a laboratory culture in sterile conditions (such a headache!).

However, I’m finding it’s really quite easy to make great-tasting Chevre with kefir and this organic, pure, and all-natural calf rennet from WalcoRen.  I have been really happy with this rennet.  I’ve tried several other kinds, and this one does seem to have better flavor results.  Using kefir culture instead of the direct-set packets results in a slightly different-tasting cheese, but I am starting to prefer the kefir-cultured cheese as the flavor is more complex.

All-Natural Chevre

1 gallon good goat’s milk

2 Tablespoons fresh kefir

1/8-1/16 tablet of WalcoRen

1/8 cup cool, unchlorinated water

  1.  This recipe has a seasonal approach:  Here in Florida in the summer, which lasts for most of the year, I start with cold goat’s milk from the fridge.  On the rare cold winter’s day, I will start with fresh-from-the-goat still warm milk.  This is an attempt to find the ideal, mythical (in Florida) 72 F room temperature and making up for the local climate being either really, really hot, or freezing cold.  It also encourages the mesophilic microbial populations in the kefir culture.  If your kitchen is cold, you can warm the milk up to 72 F, but if your kitchen is generally over 72 F (like mine) start with cold-from-the-fridge milk.  I know the directions on the direct-set packets call for heating up the milk to something like 85 F, but I have always found this approach to result in dry, crumbly Chevre because the curd looses too much whey too quickly.
  2. So, starting with cold-from-the-fridge milk, add the 2 Tablespoons of fresh kefir.  I usually do this in the morning, so it has a whole day to culture.
  3. Dissolve the rennet in the water, and pour it in.  Cap the jar tightly so it won’t leak, and turn it upside down a few times to mix it well.
  4. Leave the jar out at room temperature to set.  You can tell if it has set by tipping the jar and seeing if it is still liquid milk, or if it pulls away from the side of the jar like yogurt.  I usually leave mine out until it has obviously set and is turning a little cloudy from the whey.  It seems to strain better at this stage than if it is still just like yogurt.  It takes roughly 24 hours, although again, it depends on the temperature.  I usually get back to my Chevre the following morning.
  5. As soon as it has set, put it in the fridge and chill it again.  Once it is nicely chilled, I boil a piece of cheesecloth, and once it is boiled, run it in cold water to cool it completely.  If it is still hot, the cheese curd will stick to it and become glue-like and unremoveable.  I have ruined several cheesecloths until I realized this!
  6. Line a colander set over a bowl with the boiled, cooled cheesecloth, and pour the Chevre in.  Tie up the ends of the cloth and hang it up over a bowl to slowly drain off the whey for 8-12 hours.
  7.  You can tell when the cheese is finished draining off the whey because it will have stopped dripping for the most part, and if you open up the cheesecloth, it has a proper goat cheese-like consistency.  If it has not finished draining, it will look too soft from having too much whey still.  If you leave it too long, it can taste funky (still edible, usually, except in extreme cases)
  8. Scrape the cheese into a clean bowl and sprinkle generously with salt.  You can taste it as you salt it to make sure you get the amount right.  I like to use fine sea salt, such as Redmond salt for salting, because it dissolves quickly and salts the cheese evenly.  Now you can store the cheese in several ways – you can mold it into a ball or other shape and wrap it in parchment paper, pack it into a clean glass jar, or if I am freezing it to keep it long-term, I usually pack it into a sandwich-sized plastic bag, label it with the contents and the date and put it in the freezer.  If you are freezing the cheese to preserve it, don’t salt it until it is defrosted and ready to eat.  It stores best in the freezer unsalted.
  9. Lastly, wash the cheese cloth well in cool water.  It can be put through the laundry and boiled again.  Make sure no bits of cheese are stuck to it before you put it through a laundry cycle with hot water, or you will again have glue-like milk proteins stuck all over the cheesecloth.  I recommend these cloths as cheesecloths – they easily hold a gallon’s worth of cheese to strain, have a great fibre for straining, are practical to wash and use for a long, long time, and are made from organic cotton!  They are much more practical and long-lasting than butter muslin or cheesecloth that I have tried.

 

Now you can enjoy your Chevre!  It is great with crushed garlic, cracked pepper, or herbs.  You’ll be amazed at how much goat cheese a gallon of milk yields!  When I see goat cheese prices at the store, I am shocked at how much just 4 ounces costs.  I haven’t weighed each batch, but it is about 1 lb of cheese per gallon.

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