RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—If you're trying to live a plastic-free life, no place can be more frustrating that your local cheese counter. Pretty much without fail, cheese comes packed in plastic. Though many specialty cheese shops still use plain butcher paper to wrap purchases, at my local supermarkets, I can buy one brand of grated cheese in a glass jar in the pasta section, cream cheese in cardboard and foil (probably plastic-coated foil), and probably a few individual-size soft aged cheeses such as Brie and Limburger in foil. Other than that, the cheese is pretty much encased in plastic.
But not at the deli counter. While the big blocks come in plastic, the take-home packaging has not yet been applied to individual orders. If you know that plastic packaging is standard issue, you may be able to avoid it: They may have plain butcher paper in stock next door at the fish or meat department, and if you ask nicely, when the workers aren’t busy they may be willing to help you out. And who knows? If enough of us ask for paper instead of plastic, the stores may just start offering the choice to everyone. "Would you like that in plastic or paper, M’am?"
Making your own homemade cheese is another option, and while making a hard cheese such as cheddar or Swiss is a big project, making soft cheeses like ricotta or yogurt cheese (good for dips or spreads, and even a good substitute for mayonnaise) is fast and easy. Neither requires non-recyclable plastic wrappers, and the end results are way tastier than the stuff from the supermarket. Plus, you can use organic ingredients (it can be hard to find truly organic cheeses at any store). Ricotta and paneer are more versatile cheeses than simple yogurt cheese, but you can try them all using these homemade cheese recipes.
To make yogurt cheese, you simply empty a pint of organic yogurt—either store-bought or homemade yogurt—into a fine sieve or a cheesecloth-lined colander placed over a bowl. Let the whey drain out of the yogurt for as little as eight hours or as much as a few days, until your yogurt reaches a consistency that you like. The longer the yogurt drains, the thicker the cheese will be.
At its most basic, cheese is nothing more than the curdled proteins and fats from milk that have been separated from the whey (the watery leftovers). The process usually involves enzymes or some sort of acid, such as vinegar or lemon juice. To make ricotta, you add some vinegar or lemon juice to milk, and that's pretty much it.
Start with regular milk, either whole milk, whole milk plus cream (for a really decadent dessert filling), or even skim milk. You'll get roughly the same yield—about ¼ of your starting volume—from any milk you use, since ricotta is mostly protein and the protein content of milk doesn’t change much when you take out the fat. Skim milk ricotta is a bit dryer in texture, while cream-enriched ricotta is, well, creamier. They both taste great. I usually make mine from fresh, raw, whole milk in glass bottles. But if your only organic choice is the store-bought stuff, go ahead and get it. I made ricotta from a half gallon of Stonyfield Farm ultra-pasteurized whole milk from my local supermarket, and it actually made almost twice as much ricotta as my fresh whole milk did, and it had a lovely, soft texture.
You can even use milk that has started to curdle on its own—a thrifty way to use up old milk that you paid good money for (traditional recipes often used milk that had started to curdle)—or you can get exotic and use goat's milk, which should start to come in season in a few weeks. Another choice is to use the leftover whey from making yogurt cheese. Just don't try to reuse leftover whey from making ricotta or paneer (another cheese we'll get to in a bit). That whey contains mostly natural milk sugars and no proteins, which are needed to make ricotta; it can, however, be used in soups or to cook rice, or just drunk cold. If none of that sounds appealing, use it to water your plants or add it to a dry compost pile.
Published on: March 23, 2011