Yogurt and Yogurt Cheese

Ever notice how sometimes you’ll learn about something for the first time, and then suddenly it’s EVERYWHERE? You might have never heard of it before, but now your grandma’s bringing it up at the dinner table, there’s a guest speaker about it on NPR, and someone’s posting about it on facebook. All in the same day. And this is not because it’s made big news or even that it’s coming back into style, it’s just suddenly…there. Weird, right?

This experience is known as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.

It was my birthday last week. Among other wonderful gifts (an ice cream maker, a kitchen brulee torch, and an adorable self-straining teapot for loose tea), I was given a copy of The Home Creamery by Kathy Farrell-Kingsley, which is all about basic dairy manipulation. I also received Lost Arts by Lynn Alley, which I’d ordered for myself online.

While flipping through these books, I kept running into casual mentions of yogurt cheese. Yogurt CHEESE? Really? I mean, I make yogurt all the time. And I love cheese. But until that moment they were two very separate dairy experiences; never destined to meet. Suddenly, everywhere I turned, there was a mention of yogurt cheese (Baader-Meinhof, indeed). I had to know more.

So I looked it up. Turns out you can make a highly tasty (and healthy) cheese by simply hanging yogurt in a cheesecloth bag until the whey drips out of it. And it seems everybody knew this but me.

Yogurt, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the world’s great gifts to man. I’ll put it on anything. I’ll put it IN anything. The fact that it’s good for me is like icing on the cake. Er…yogurt on the cake?
Needless to say the discovery that I can now use it in place of any cream cheese, sour cream, or ricotta…well, it’s very exciting.

Makin’ Yogurt: Yogurt is a dairy product made by introducing bacteria (lactobacillus bulgaricus and streptococcus thermophilus) into milk. Fermentation of lactose produces lactic acid, which acts on milk proteins (thickening the yogurt and providing its characteristic tang). This process can be controlled and aided by manipulation of temperature, assuring that the “good” bacteria get a sturdy hold and have the opportunity to thrive while the “bad” bacteria are pasteurized out.

MILK: I use non-fat milk, as it makes a light, tangy yogurt without too much fuss (also because I save higher-fat milks for making “real cheese”). Any quantity of milk will do; I generally make about a quart at a time. This amount fits perfectly into my Pyrex storage bowls (which fit perfectly in the yogurt “machine”). Also, that’s about how much room we have for yogurt in our over-packed fridge.

The process of making yogurt is fairly simple, and can be done a number of ways. It’s good to experiment and find the method that best suits your kitchen’s time/space availability. I “incubate” my yogurt in a handy little yogurt maker, though instead of using the little jars that come with the product, I keep the yogurt in a quart-sized Pyrex storage bowl (sans lid). I put the dome on the incubator, set for 12 hours, push the “on” button, and walk away.

To make the yogurt, all I do is heat the milk to around 90/100 degrees, whisk in a scoop of store-bought active-culture yogurt (I like Nancy’s unflavored non-fat yogurt best), then stuff it in the incubator. If you don’t have a yogurt maker, I’ve heard of success keeping it in the oven on “warm” or with just the pilot light on, or in sealed jars in an insulated cooler filled with warm water. Note: some recipes will call for a pasteurization phase before adding the culture, but this is only necessary when using raw or otherwise biologically questionable milk. If the milk has already been pasteurized (which is standard when selling milk in the United States – even in CA it is hard to find raw milk for sale), you do not have to do so again.

Makin’ Cheese: this is very simple. Line a colander with 3-4 layers of standard cheesecloth (or any clean cloth that will drain; I’ve had success with thin dish towels or linen/muslin – just make sure they have been washed and do not have sizing/bacteria/dust on them). Place the colander above a bowl or pot to catch the whey, and scoop the finished yogurt into the cheesecloth. Allow the whey to drain out of the curd, flavor/salt as desired, pack the finished cheese into a container (or shape it into balls,logs,etc), and you’re done.

Depending on the desired consistency of the cheese (and the patience of the cheese maker), this process can take anywhere from 3 to 48 hours. For an easy one-day cheese, gather the corners of the cheesecloth together tightly around the yogurt, and hang the whole thing from a chopstick/wooden spoon/sink faucet/roommate’s workout bench (what? it was the right height). The additional pressing of the curds by the cloth while it hangs will force the liquid out more quickly (some gentle squeezing is OK if you’re in a hurry, but watch out for yogurt spewing through the cheesecloth if you squeeze too hard).

The finished cheese will be the consistency of soft farm cheese, ricotta, or a thick cream cheese, but will be noticeably more tangy (like yogurt). It can be used in dips, fillings for pasta, or even cheesecakes. It is delicious spread on bread or toast. It tastes remarkably rich, despite being a non-fat cheese.

Other ideas for yogurt cheese?

*Make a tzatziki spread with garlic, shredded cucumber, salt, and pepper. Serve on crackers, crostini, or pita bread.

*Crumble over pizza or into a quiche. It won’t melt, but will provide little lumps of creamy, soft texture.

*Sweeten with fruit compote or jam as a sweet spread for your morning bagel.

*Lasagna. Tortellini. Ravoili. Just sayin’.

*Add salt, and crumble it into a spinach salad in place of feta.

*Serve at breakfast with homemade granola, or as a dessert with fresh fruit and a drizzle of honey.

I like to shape the cheese into little hand-rolled balls and store them in olive oil (like a fresh mozzarella). With a little added lemon juice/zest, garlic, and fresh chopped herbs, it is hard to believe that this cheese is nothing more than dressed-up strained yogurt. Serve these at a party with toasted slices of baguette – they get coated with the herbs, salt, and lemon, and spread beautifully onto crostini.
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