Making Cheese at Home #4 Queso Fresco
Queso Fresco means “fresh cheese” in Spanish. It is a cheese used in Mexican cuisine but also found all over Latin America. My research tells me it is often used to crumble on top of dishes, as the Italians use Parmesan or used as the stuffing for quesadilla’s and peppers.
I have to say, I didn’t set out to make this cheese for the finished product; it was more that I wanted to take my cheese making skills to the next level in my self guided learning. This cheese involves cutting the curd – an important stage in the cheese making process that can make or break the final product. If the curd is not set enough and does not provide a clean break, the end product will not be solid enough, and disintegrate (sadly I learnt that lesson first hand).
The other reason to make this cheese was for the pressing. This was the first cheese that required the use of my cheese press, thus making me feel like I was making a ‘real’ cheese.
Finally, this is also a good cheese to practice all of these skills with a relatively quick turn around. The word ‘fresh’ in the name means that it is eaten pretty much straight way without being aged or ripened. For me this is a critical phase of the cheese making process. Before I launch into cheeses that takes months of aging (I am desperate to do this, as those cheeses are the entire reason I wanted to make cheese in the first place) only to find at the end of the six months of ripening my cheese was a failure. The Queso Fresco requires around six hours of pressing and in theory can be eaten straight away. I say in theory, because I did have a sneaky taste straight away, but it definitely benefited from 24 hours of resting in the fridge before eating.
Queso Fresco isn’t really a cheese board type of cheese. It has a subtle flavour, that would be over powered by most other cheeses that appear on a cheese board. For this reason, when I had made my first pressed cheese, I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t show it off to friends. In a quest to use the cheese rather than waste it (four litres of milk yields about 500g of cheese) I started to toast it in my sandwiches for lunch. What a discovery! This is an amazing melting cheese, which has a great melted texture. The heating of the cheese also intensifies the flavour, and it isn’t to oily like some cheeses can be when they are melted.
This next paragraph of this post was meant to describe how Queso Fresco was my new alternative to Mozzarella, for use in dishes that require melted Mozzarella, such as pizza toppings, pasta bakes, toasted sandwiches and pasta. But when I made the cheese for a second time, it didn’t have the same melting properties. Cheese making is not very forgiving and is so variable that it is really difficult to reproduce the same products accurately. On reflection, I remembered that I accidentally overheated the cheese last time I made it, which I think it was gave it the stringy texture when melted. The second batch tasted the same, but the texture was definitely different. So now I have to go back and try this recipe again with the increased temperature, but I am impatient (not a good characteristic for a successful cheese maker) which means I am posting this recipe anyway! I will edit later if I ever manage to recreate the texture of the last cheese I enjoyed so much.
The following recipe is based on Mary Karlin’s recipe from Artisan Cheese Making at Home. I have reduced the quantity of milk, as the cheese has a short shelf life, 500g is more than enough to deal with before it is past it’s best. I have also adapted the cultures and rennet to suit the supplies I am using from the Country Brewer. I have had a few problems with bitter flavoured cheese because of incorrect quantities of rennet. It appears that rennet can be sold at different dilutions, so follow the instructions provided with the rennet you have purchased and not the recipes in books which can differ.
Queso Fresco (makes about 500-650g)
4 Litres of pastuerised, unhomogenised whole cows milk
1/4 teaspoon MA11 made up with 100ml cooled, boiled milk 12-24 hours before
1/8 teaspoon calcium chloride diluted in 30ml cool, non chlorinated water
1ml (just under 1/4 teaspoon) rennet diluted in 30ml cool, non chlorinated water
1 teaspoon cheese salt (salt that is non iodised and without anti-caking agents)
Prepare all equipment for cheese making by sterlising and creating a clean sterile work area. This is really important to prevent cross contamination with undesirable bacteria.
Put the milk in a large non reactive pan and heat over a medium heat until it reaches 32 degrees Celsius. This should take about 20 minutes. Stir the milk occasionally for even heat distribution but also to prevent the bottom from burning.
Once the milk has reached 32C stir in the prepared culture with a whisk. Stir with an up and down motion for 1 minute to ensure the culture is evenly distributed throughout the milk. Cover with a lid and maintain the temperature at 32C for 30 minutes to allow the milk to ripen. I find the milk will maintain the temperature with the lid on without heating for the 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes, add the diluted calcium chloride and stir with the whisk for 1 minute in an up and down motion. Then add the diluted rennet and stir with the whisk for 1 minute in an up and down motion.
Once the rennet and calcium chloride have been combined, ensure the temperature of the milk is still at 32C then cover to allow the milk to coagulate for at least 45 minutes. To help maintain the temperature for longer periods of time I wrap the pan in towels, this is usually an effective way of maintaining the temperature for 45-60 minutes.
After 45 minutes check the curds for a clean break . If the curd is not quite firm enough allow to stand for another 15 minutes and check again. Repeat until you are happy the curds are firm enough. If the curds are too weak the cheese will not work. Cut the curds into half centimetre pieces as described here or in most cheese making books.
Allow the curd to stand for 10 minutes then return the curds to the heat and gently increase the temperature of the curds and whey to 35C. This should take about 20 minutes, but it is quite difficult to raise the temperature of something that slowly, so I usually find it happens much quicker. Stir the curds a couple of times during the heating process to stop them sticking together.
Once the temperature reaches 35C let the curds stand for 5 minutes then ladle off enough whey so that you can see the top of the curds. Line a colander with damp butter muslin (I boil the butter muslin in a pan for a couple of minutes to steralise it before use) and stand over a bowl. Ladle the curds into the muslin to drain.
Allow the curds to drain for 5 minutes then sprinkle with the salt and gently mix with your hands to combine the salt into the curds.
Transfer the muslin and the curds to your 12.5cm cheese mould with pressing plate. Try to pull all creases out of butter muslin so that the surface of the cheese is smooth. Cover the top of the curds with the tails of the muslin. I find I often have a lot of extra muslin, so I have started to only put two edges over the curd, otherwise, if I bunch it all in the top of the mould I end up with a dent in my cheese. Put the pressing plate on top of the muslin, then set up the press as described in the instructions. I have a press from the County Brewer. With their model, each full turn of the nut is 1.5kg of pressure. For this recipe I require 3.5kg of pressure for 6 hours so I set up the press and gave it 2.5 turns.
After the first hour of pressing I turned the cheese and re-set the weight on the press. I find that I have to re-set the weight of the press as the cheese compacts as the pressure releases. After 6 hours pressing this cheese was still quite moist so I flipped it again and pressed it for a further 2 hours to create the desired texture and consistency.
Once pressed, put the cheese in a zip lock bag in the fridge and rest for 24hours before using. Use within 2-3weeks of making.