I learned something potentially dangerous this weekend: cheese, especially fresh (not aged) cheese, is surprisingly quick and easy to make.
A group of people in my area who are concerned about the environment has been hosting a series of "lost arts" workshops on topics like making sauerkraut and baking bread. This weekend's cheese-and-yogurt-making workshop was the first I attended. In less than two hours, the women demonstrating the techniques produced a ball of fresh mozzarella, a batch of ricotta, and the first stage of what, after 8 hours of sitting, would turn into yogurt.
Making yogurt is probably the simplest of the three. All it requires is some milk, a covered container, a microwave or stove and an oven with a pilot light or oven light. Oh, yeah, and some yogurt. Like money, it takes yogurt to make yogurt. A teaspoon of plain yogurt, store-bought or homemade, contains enough active cultures to start the process (if you use store-bought, though, make sure the container indicates that it has active cultures).
But first you need to bring the milk just to the boiling point, either in a microwave or on a stove. The woman conducting this portion of the workshop told us that milk of any fat content (including skim) will make yogurt, but the less fat it has the tangier it will be. Once the milk begins to boil, you take it off the heat and allow it to cool to about the temperature you would want a baby's bottle, approximately 110 degrees. You stir in a teaspoon of yogurt per quart of milk, then place the mixture in a covered container and put it in a cool oven with the light on, so that it is away from drafts and remains at a consistent, slightly warm temperature. In about 7 or 8 hours, you'll have a batch of plain yogurt. If you save a teaspoonful and repeat the process every day or so, you'll have a lot fewer little plastic containers to contend with. Of course, you can also buy a yogurt maker but, after seeing how simple it is to make without one, it doesn't seem necessary.
Nearly as simple, and a lot quicker, is making mozzarella. The whole process, from heating the milk to forming the cheese into a ball, takes about a half an hour. It requires no special equipment and only a couple of ingredients you probably don't have in the pantry, like citric acid and rennet. In Italy, where mozzarella originated, it is usually made from buffalo milk. Most Americans don't have access to buffalo milk, though, so cow's milk can be substituted (however, it must not be ultra-pasteurized, because that process changes the protein and won't lead to the desired result). The liquid mixture (milk plus 2–3 other ingredients) is heated on the stove, where it separates into custardy curds and liquid whey, or casein and albuminous protein, respectively. The curds are then kneaded together and formed into a ball. The result is like the fresh mozzarella you can buy in a store—it doesn't melt like the aged mozzarella used on pizzas, but it would be perfect sliced with good tomatoes and basil, drizzled with olive oil.
The whey, a yellowish liquid, can be eaten while sitting on a tuffet, or reserved to make ricotta—the only time-consuming part of which is allowing the cheese to drain in a cheesecloth for several hours. We skipped this step in the workshop, and the result was still delicious, although slightly chewy compared to the creamy texture of store-bought ricotta. I don't know if this was because of the ingredients we used or some other variable—some experimentation is probably in order, which I just might do if I'm feeling ambitious (and bored) this winter.
The site www.cheesemaking.com has complete instructions, with photos, for making mozzarella, ricotta, yogurt and aged cheeses.