I engage in a lot of high-risk activities. Not doing drugs or jumping off cliffs so much, but fermentation, pottery, and gardening, the sorts of hobbies that have a high failure rate that you just have to accept as part of the game. Cheesemaking is like that, and even now, many years into my journey, I occasionally end up with some blown cheese, or one that doesn’t develop the way it should, or one that I bust open after six long months of aging, only to find it tastes like old vomit. Sometimes the cause is preventable, like environmental factors; and sometimes it’s not, like the milk or the rennet or the cultures being off.
That’s why chèvre (fresh goat cheese) is a perfect first cheese for fledgling cheesemakers. If you can get to a Trader Joe’s, you can get the milk. The culture is widely available, and it almost always works. The results are highly malleable, and the whole process doesn’t take long. It’s mostly hands off. Need I go on?
Photo: Amanda Blum
If your inner nerd needs success to stay motivated, this soft goats’ milk cheese is the Richard Simmons of the curd world, offering endless encouragement. Use Gavin Weber’s recipe; Gavin has yet to fail me.
Gavin Webber’s Chevre
Ingredients:1 gallon goats’ milk, likely to be obtained as 4 quarts of Summerhill Goat’s Milk at Trader Joe’s. This milk cannot be ultra-pasteurized. 1 packet of chèvre culture from New England Cheesemaking2 drops calcium chloride, dissolved in 1 tablespoon distilled water2 drops rennet, dissolved in 1 tablespoon distilled water1% salt by weight
Equipment (Check out our buying guide for equipment recommendations):6-quart or larger stockpotMeasuring spoonsThermometerCheeseclothStainless steel colanderBroom with a long handle, or another stick-like object from which to hang your bag of curds
Set up your environment
As with all things cheese, cleanliness is next to curdliness. Make sure the pot, the counter, all the utensils you’ll need and use—from the measuring spoons to the thermometer—the faucet, and sink are all freshly clean and sanitized with either white vinegar or a sanitizing solution. Keep your spray bottle of vinegar and clean towels nearby.
Once you start, you don’t want to wash dishes or anything else in the kitchen, as it can contaminate your cheese from the droplets. If you have ferments going, you’ll want to cover them or relocate them so they don’t contaminate your cheese. You want a sterile environment.
Heat the milk
We’re only going to heat the milk to 77℉, so we don’t need to use a double boiler here, just a big enough stainless pot with your thermometer attached. Thermometers are tricky buggers, so if yours does not stay put when clipped to the pot, use a little folded up paper on the outside of the pot to stabilize it. Make sure the thermometer is not touching the bottom of the pot; the tip should be about an inch above the bottom. Think about where you’ll rest your spoon, and make sure that is also sanitized.
Shake the milk bottles well to homogenize the fat in the milk, then dump the milk into the pot. Set the pot over medium-low heat, because it won’t take much to get to 77℉, and stir.
Add cultures and ripen
Once you’ve reached 77℉, turn off the heat but do not move the pot. Open the packet of culture and make sure it’s not clumpy—it should act like grains of salt, moving freely. Sprinkle the entire packet over the top of the milk, then cover the pot and walk away for five minutes. This is called “rehydrating,” and it allows the culture to absorb milk; when we stir the culture in, it won’t clump and will mix in thoroughly.
After five minutes, take the lid off, and stir the milk in a lazy-eight pattern for an entire minute. This will incorporate the cultures. Check the temperature of the milk; we want to ensure it’s within a few degrees of 77℉. If it’s over 80℉, take it off the burner immediately. If it’s below 72℉, reheat it to 77℉.
Once it’s at temperature, add the calcium chloride solution to the milk while stirring. Keep stirring for one whole minute, using the lazy-eight motion. Then, still stirring, add in the rennet and stir for one entire minute, but no more. When you stop stirring, hold your spoon still in the milk to calm it down. Cover the milk, and then leave it alone, where it is, for 24 hours.
During this time, two things happen: The first is that the rennet “sets” the cheese. In the future, this is how you’ll firm up the cheese to cut the curds, but in this case, it will be a soft set, so we can just proceed to chèvre. The second thing it does is give the culture time to ripen the taste of the milk; this process is called “ripening.”
Drain the curds
Photo: Amanda Blum
When it’s time to revisit the cheese after ripening, set up your colander, with sanitized cheesecloth generously draped over it, and place it over a big pot or the sink. We won’t be keeping the whey, but you’ll need someplace for it to go.
Take the pot over to the colander, and use your slotted spoon to gently scoop the curds and whey into the colander. When you’re done, let the entire thing sit for 30 minutes, so it can drain.
When you return, you’re going to gather the corners of the cheesecloth with very clean hands, and tie them off. Hang that bag from anyplace you can–most of us just use a clean broom handle, suspended by shelves or books or whatever you have, so the bundle of cheese is suspended in the air over a pot. Leave it like this for six or seven hours, or overnight, which is what I do.
Finish the cheese
Weigh the cheese, and take that number and multiple it by 0.01. Whatever that number is, weigh it out in non-iodized salt. Scrape all the cheese from the cheesecloth into a mixing bowl and stir in the salt.
Cover the bowl and place it in the fridge overnight to firm up. From here, you can eat it, as is, add other elements to it to flavor the chèvre, or roll the chèvre in something to give it flavor.
Chèvre can be cooked into savory items like ravioli, made into goat cheese croutons, or melted onto vegetables. Your first bite of your first cheese should be on toast, unadorned, so have a loaf of crusty bread at the ready. Now you’re a risk taker, too.