Thursday, July 17, 2008

Cottage Cheese Making

This looks like a scoop, but it's a large lump.

With worldwide dairy prices going up, the price of cheese has been rocketing upward. In Japan, cottage cheese, at about ¥250 ($2.40) for about a cup, was expensive before prices went up. Now, it's gone from expensive to "obscene" as the price fluctuates between ¥330 ($3.11) and ¥380 ($3.60). If you're not a fan of cottage cheese, this isn't bad news. If you love it (and I do), this is really frustrating. I can't allow myself to pay that much for something which I can eat in two sittings tops. If it's a main protein component, I can eat the whole thing in one go. That makes it much more expensive than a quantity of chicken which will last me through three main dishes.

For quite some time, I've been thinking of making homemade ricotta cheese because it's another thing which is obscenely expensive in Japan. In the past, I've substituted cottage cheese for ricotta in lasagna, but now that the former has gone insanely expensive, I felt it was time to act on making my own ricotta.

Little did I know that cottage cheese and ricotta go hand in hand. First you make one and then you can make the other from its byproduct. The basic recipe for cottage cheese is the same as the Indian cheese called paneer. This recipe is very simple. You boil milk, add an acidic compound (lemon juice or vinegar), let it sit, then drain off the liquids (whey).

Little Miss Moffet would be very hungry about now. My curds are on the left and the whey is on the right.

I followed the instructions from this recipe. The only difference was that I used a dash of salt. I boiled a liter of 4.4% fat milk (which only costs ¥180) and added the juice from half a lemon (which costs ¥25). The whey looks very yellow because of the lemon juice. I used both a metal strainer and a cotton cloth to strain the curds because I didn't want the whey to be contaminated by any stray cheese particles. Since the whey will be used for ricotta and any curds that get in the whey will make hard beads in the ricotta, I felt some precautions were necessary.

I didn't squeeze the cheese as much as the paneer recipe suggests since I'm looking for cottage cheese, though I probably squeezed it more than necessary. This made for very firm curds that did not have whey separating from them as is often the case in store-bought cottage cheese.

The cottage cheese lump broken into more recognizable curds.

The important question is, how did it taste? Being impatient, I tasted it while it was still fresh and moderately warm. As was mentioned in the paneer recipe, it tasted like it's components - milk and lemon juice. I needed to salt it up to make it come close to what I buy in the store (and it was much better with salt). It was missing the small bit of "bite" I associate with cottage cheese and I'm guessing that's because I used lemon instead of vinegar. Also, I used ESL (extended shelf life) milk because that's what the store had. The problem with ESL milk is that it's already been boiled into oblivion before it is purchased and it has a distinct aftertaste. In the warm, fresh cottage cheese, this aftertaste was very present. Next time, I'm going to try it with much better milk and vinegar and see how it goes.

After letting it sit overnight in the refrigerator, I broke up the curds and salted it a bit more. The lemon taste had mellowed considerably and the ESL milk aftertaste had muted a bit. It is definitely better the next day and I'm sure it will be even better yet with a different type of milk. The preferable milk is farm fresh and unpasteurized, but that's pretty much out of the question for me as I believe such milk cannot be sold in Japan.

Even if this is as good as it gets, it's certainly good enough to choose making my own cottage cheese over paying outrageous prices. I especially feel it's worthwhile if the cottage cheese is to be used in cooking or flavored in some other fashion. However, I'm still going to eat what I made as a plain main component of lunch. The final cost analysis has this method cutting the price of cottage cheese in half.

As for the other half of this process, that is, making ricotta, that was a complete failure. Despite the fact that I saved the whey and allowed it to sit overnight as instructed, it did not form curds upon reboiling. The whole kitchen smelled like cheese, but the whey never formed any foam on top (or on the bottom) as it was supposed to and I simply had to toss the liquid out. I'm going to give this another try next time I make cottage cheese because I'm blaming the ESL milk for this problem.


Wombat said...

Just out of curiosity, did the homemade process come out to be cheaper than the store-bought? I ask because out here, I'd end up spending that $3.20 (if not $3.50) simply on the milk, so unless this makes a ton of cottage cheese, I don't imagine it'd be worth it. Unless the cheese were supremely better than that found in the store, anyway.

That said, I'm still going to try it ;) Do you think a higher fat content milk would result in a better cheese? I tend to buy 2%, but could probably pick up whole milk if it'd be significantly better. I'll have to try making it before your next attempt so that I can gloat if I get ricotta out of it too (which would definitely make it worthwhile, as ricotta's upwards of $5/pint) :)

Orchid64 said...

The homemade stuff cost about ¥200 yen for a somewhat greater amount than I can buy for ¥360. It's not better than store bought, but I think it would be if I bought milk that wasn't so badly treated with heat. Next time, I'm going to taste test the milk first and ask myself how it'd be in a concentrated form.

I think this would be incredibly good economically if the whey had produced ricotta (which is super expensive and sold in tiny portions).

I think using low fat milk would make low fat cottage cheese and that'd carry with with it all the accompanying changes in taste and texture. My cottage cheese was really quite fatty and I could easily do with some lower fat milk for the next batch.

I finished off the stuff I made yesterday with tomatoes and avocados mixed in it for lunch. It was indistinguishable from the commercial deal when mixed with these fruits.

By the way, I used 1 liter of milk to make my portion. That's about 1/4 of a gallon. I'm guessing you'd be spending about $4 for an entire gallon which could yield 4x the amount I made. I don't know what cottage cheese costs in the U.S., but I'm guessing it'd not be too bad.

As an idle thought, I'm thinking of making actual paneer with this at some point for some Indian dishes. I've seen recipes and given up on them because I couldn't get paneer. Now, I see it's easy to just make.

badmoodmike said...

Too bad that I can't ship you some farm-fresh milk. I doubt it would survive the trip even if fedexed. We have a place in Yellow Springs called Young's Jersey Dairy and they sell the finest full-fat unpasteurized milk I've ever had. I don't drink it often because it is so high-calorie...I only drink skim milk and water...but it is a nice treat every once and a while. They make some of the best ice cream in the universe with it.

Here are some current prices to compare from our local Kroger:
T-Bone Steak: $7.99/lb
Dozen XL Eggs, Grade A: 4 for $5
Breyer's Ice Cream, 56 oz.: $2.27
Cheerios, 18oz box: 2 for $5
24oz Cheese (Cheddar or Jack block): $5.39
Tropicana 64oz Orange Juice: $2.99
Liquid Tide Laundry Soap, 32 loads: $5.88
Center Cut Pork Chops: $2.99/lb
Baby Back Ribs: $3.99/lb
Ground Round $2.39/lb
Bacon, 1 lb: 2 for $5
Sockeye Salmon: $8.99/lb
Tyson Chicken Leg Quarters: $.99/lb
Yellowfin Tuna Steaks: $6.99/lb
Advil 135ct Liquigels: $10.99
Cucumbers: 10/$10
Lettuce: 10lb for $10
Organic Milk, 64oz: $2.99
Peaches/Plums/Nectarines: 3/$5
Cherries: $3.99/lb
Cantaloupe: 2/$4
Tomatoes: $1.99/lb
Zucchini/Yellow Squash: $.99/lb
Kroger Peanut Butter: 10/$10
Kroger Bottled Water, 6 pack 16.9oz: 10/$10
Coke/Pepsi/RC, 2 litre: 10/$10

Gasoline is at $3.97/gal and milk is $2.99/gal for 2% and skim.

Orchid64 said...

First of all, I want to thank you for providing the price list, Mike. It's actually very useful and interesting to me. I'm out of touch with such things in the U.S. While things are still cheaper in the U.S., they're not quite as cheap as I thought. One of these days, I'd like to take your list and do an item by item comparison for prices in Japan. A few things of note right now though are that bacon is $8 a pound here at Costco and peaches are the items that are closest in price (though I believe we have much smaller peaches). They're 4 for $5 at their cheapest for smallish ones.

Ah, farm fresh milk...there's a concept I miss. It is too bad that it can't be send, but such are the sacrifices of life abroad!

Thanks so very much for your comment!

1tess said...

I LOVE cottage cheese!!! I've made ricotta, but never cottage cheese. Maybe that comes first? I noticed when I made the ricotta, the whey continued to curdle quite a bit. hmmm????
Don't be so quick to toss the whey! It still has nutrients and some flavor! Use it for liquid in soups or stocks. Use it for baking.
Although I don't use shelf stable milk (I can even get non-ultra-pasturised milk!!), I think it might affect your efforts.
You might try adding a bit of yogurt to your recipe for more flavor rather than the vinegar. You could let it culture overnight or just add the yogurt as part of the milk. Use yogurt you like the taste of, though. Or if you can get labne or kefir with a taste you like....
There are online sources of cultures to innoculate your cheese. I've never tried them. But I had a sourdough starter years ago from one such place that was very nice. Sorry I can't remember which company it was from....