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Cheesed Off

Buying Food Without Questionable Ingredients Is Hard, Making Cheese Isn't

Paige Shuttleworth

By Michelle Gienow | Posted 3/12/2008

I'm funny about my food: I like it to be made out of, you know, food. But, you might reasonably ask, isn't that what the stuff we eat is made out of? Well, yes and no; more and more often the answer is no. Take sour cream. The kind I normally buy, Daisy Brand, has precisely one ingredient: cultured cream. This is as it should be. The other day in Wegmans, though, the house-brand sour cream was on sale, and I was going to buy a couple until I looked at the ingredients list: cultured nonfat milk, cream, modified corn starch, sodium phosphate, carob bean gum, carrageenan, enzymes.

And this was the regular, full-fat stuff, too, not that disgusting product known oxymoronically as "fat-free sour cream." So, interestingly, when buying sour cream, you can buy actual soured (i.e., cultured, similarly to yogurt) cream, or you can buy a conglomeration of industrially produced ingredients.

Maybe you like corn and seaweed (the source of carrageenan) in your sour cream, but my grocery-shopping requirements are simple: When I look at a list of ingredients, I want it to be brief and I want to be able to pronounce everything in it. As our food chain becomes ever more industrialized, ingredients lists are getting longer, even for straightforward traditional foods like sour cream. In response, I have shortened our shopping list to consist of whole foods--that is, food that is identifiably food, like a banana or flour or an egg--and a few favored packaged foods that I've researched enough to feel OK about feeding to my two young'uns.

That said, I can cook up to six separate meals a day in order to keep both the adult and under-6 members of our family happy, and I seriously heart any product that renders this Sisyphean task easier. In this house we are big into the boxed Trader Joe's organic mac and cheese (wheat, milk, salt, microbial enzymes, whey, plus some vitamins), which I bolster by throwing in some actual cheese and frozen peas. It's a meal I can prepare quickly, on total autopilot, with a howling toddler clamped to one leg.

Until recently I'd been using the same brand of shredded cheese for a couple of years (milk, salt, enzymes). One recent evening I was idly stirring the cheese into the mac when a glance at the bag revealed a new ingredient: natamycin. Having recently used it to fight an eye infection, I recognized this new ingredient as an antibiotic.

My first reaction was to be seriously pissed off--we spend the big bucks on pasture-raised milk and meat in part to avoid food-borne antibiotics. Just behind that thought, however, was this one: Jesus Christ, do I have to make my own CHEESE now?

Some quick internet research showed me that natamycin is actually not an antibiotic but an antimycotic--an anti-fungal agent effective on mold and yeast. (Charmingly, it is also called a bio-pesticide). Site after official government site assured me that natamycin is natural and safe to ingest, but pardon me if I just don't want to eat something that's also an ingredient in broiler chicken feed and vaginal creams.

Unfortunately, natamycin is everywhere: almost universally so in shredded cheese, increasingly used to coat brick cheese. Even pricey organic and imported cheeses contain it. Perhaps you saw me as I made the rounds of various local grocery stores, peering at cheese packages and muttering to myself. Cheese is the mainstay of my 5-year-old's diet, and I had a heck of a time finding any whose ingredients list did not include the n-word. So, I went home and made some cheese already.

I know, I know, not long ago I would have thought the same thing: cheese-making freak. It's like home ec taken way too far. But I like making things, and cooking up my own cheese turned out to be insanely easy. I even had all the ingredients at home, though I lacked the rennet and cultures artisanal cheese-makers employ, so I sort of cheated and used vinegar to set the curd.

For my first attempt at cheese-making I chose a beginner's recipe for basic ricotta, which called for combining a gallon of fresh raw milk with 1/3 cup of vinegar (lemon juice works, too) in a big pot. I then slowly heated it to exactly 180 degrees, turned off the heat, covered the pot, and let it sit overnight. The next morning I lifted the lid, and voilà! Cheese was achieved. I put the curds in a cheesecloth-lined colander and rested a plate on top to help press out the whey. When the dripping stopped I had a very large bowl of homemade ricotta. (Get the complete ricotta recipe below.)

I used it as filling for an extremely tasty lasagna. As soon as my mail-order rennet and cultures arrive I plan on making my own mozzarella, but for this lasagna I used shredded house-brand mozzarella from Whole Foods. According to Cathy Strange, head cheese buyer for Whole Foods, the company deems natamycin an "unacceptable ingredient." And there I was beginning to think I was the only one who felt that way.


You'll need:

  • Large, heavy pot (nonreactive; enamel or stainless steel is best)
  • Thermometer (any kind of cooking thermometer; I use a candy thermometer)
  • Cheesecloth (sold in grocery stores in the kitchen gadget aisle)
  • One gallon of the best-quality whole milk you can find (It must be regular pasteurized milk; ultrapasteurized or UHT milk wonít curdle.)
  • 5 tablespoons white vinegar (or lemon juice)

Salt to taste (This ranges from none, if you are going to use this for sweet dessert ricotta, to as salty as you like it. I start with 1/4 teaspoon for a ricotta that is good for eating straight or using as pasta filling.)

Pour the milk into the pot. Heat slowly over medium heat, stirring occasionally and watching for tiny bubbles to begin forming on the surface; the idea is to scald the milk, which means heating it to just before the boiling point but not actually boiling it. When the bubbles start forming, itís time to put the thermometer in and monitor the temperature closely, because 180 degrees is key. When you hit 180, pull the pot off the heat and gradually add vinegar while stirring gently for about a minute. Then add the salt, if youíre adding salt, cover the pot, and leave it to sit unmolested for at least two hours or as long as over night.

Moisten a piece of cheesecloth and wring it out, then use it to line a colander. Place colander in sink or over another pot. Use a slotted spoon to scoop out the ricotta curds from the pot (the leftover cloudy liquid is the whey). Press gently on the curds to get out the excess whey and leave them to drain; how long depends on if you desire a moist, creamy ricotta or a dry, crumbly ricotta (the latter can take several hours of draining). I prefer a creamy texture and large curds so I donít press much and only drain for about 30 minutes. (Large-curd ricotta also allows you to skip the cheesecloth if your colander has relatively fine holes.) If you want small curds and/or a really dry ricotta, bundle the curds up in the cheesecloth and squeeze gently several times during draining. The more you press the ricotta, the smaller the curds will be.

Refrigerate in an air-tight container for up to a week, that is if you can stop yourself from eating it straight from the pot.

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