Queso Fresco cheese. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

By Daniel Neman St. Louis Post-Dispatch (TNS)

Sure, you could craft your own block of cheddar cheese, create some Havarti or whip up a batch of gorgonzola.

But why would you want to?

Most cheeses require rennet, an enzyme found in the stomach of cows (and sheep and goats). Rennet is what gives cheese its texture, but it also adds a few steps to the cheese-making process — and why bother when you can just buy cheese at a store?

But there are a few cheeses that need no rennet and require practically no labor at all. That’s my kind of cheese, at least when I want to make it myself.

Ricotta, queso fresco, farmer’s cheese and buttermilk cheese are all fast and easy to make, delivering a large amount of satisfaction for very little effort. Each is fairly simple in flavor — rennet also adds complexity — but they are also wonderfully rewarding.

They are all made the same way, with the same ingredients: milk or cream, acid (vinegar or lemon juice) and salt. Once you’ve mastered one, you’ve mastered them all, although they are so easy there really isn’t anything to master.

They taste different, though, because of the proportions used. Different textures come from aging.

Some cheeses, such as cheddars, will be aged for as long as four or five years. Fresh cheeses can age all the way up to one hour.

It is not aging that is taking place, anyway. With fresh cheese, you have to drain the whey out of the curds. The longer it drains, the firmer the cheese will be. Up to, as we said, an hour or so.

It is the part about separating the whey from the curds that makes fresh cheese (and is also responsible for feeding nursery-rhyme arachnophobes). First, you get milk nice and hot. Then you add some vinegar or lemon juice, which curdles the milk.

That is, it divides the milk into curds (lumpy white things) and whey (a thin, chalk-colored liquid). The curds make the cheese. In fresh cheeses, they are drained of as much whey as possible and then pressed into shape, either manually or just by letting gravity do its work inside a cheesecloth.

The one fresh cheese I made that does not have a shape is ricotta. If you’ve never had homemade ricotta, you may be amazed at how heavenly it can be.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that is because the version I made used 2 cups of heavy cream to go with the quart of milk — and it was the best, and certainly the most expensive, milk I could find.

All of that richness is going to make a truly stellar ricotta, especially when it is curdled with a high-quality white wine vinegar. Most people use lemon juice to make their ricotta, but Ina Garten uses vinegar, and her recipes have earned my trust.

This ricotta is so delicious, but what can you do with it? Ricotta is vital in lasagna and stuffed shells, of course, but in those it will get drowned out by the heavier flavors of pasta, tomatoes and garlic.

So you can mix it into scrambled eggs or bake it into a cake. You can use it on top of pizza or use it to make tomato sauces rich and creamy. You can serve it with strawberries or any kind of fruit, spread it on bruschetta with a few drops of olive oil or smear it on crackers by itself or with just a bit of jam. Delicious.

Buttermilk fresh cheese was the most firm of the cheeses I made. Because it is made with buttermilk, it also has the most distinctive flavor — the smooth, soft tang that only buttermilk can deliver.

This cheese stands out among the others also because of the way it is made. Like all fresh cheeses, it is made from dairy, acid and salt. But the acid comes from a dairy product, the buttermilk, which is mixed in with whole milk. For that reason, the taste is perhaps more full than other fresh cheeses.

Buttermilk fresh cheese also takes particularly well to the addition of flavorings, such as dried herbs, vanilla or cracked pepper. I added lemon zest to mine, which was a delightful choice.

The simplest of the cheeses to make is farmer’s cheese, which is cheesemaking stripped to its barest essentials. You simply heat milk and salt, add vinegar, strain the curds and whey through cheesecloth, press it into a disk and then refrigerate.

The taste is pleasant, but bland. So I spiced mine up just a little bit with chopped chives, but other herbs will do. Or there is plenty to enjoy about plain, unadorned farmer’s cheese. If you keep some of the whey in it, you can spread it like cream cheese; if you make it dry and crumbly you can use as a much better (to my taste) substitute for cottage cheese.

Queso fresco is a popular Mexican and Latin American cheese; you can find it in any number of dishes from south of the border. It’s dry and crumbly, but what makes queso fresco really stand out is the salt. This cheese packs a wallop of good, briny flavor.

I couldn’t stop eating it by itself, though that is not typically the way it is consumed. Try it on tacos, enchiladas or tostados. Try it on eggs. Try it inside a rolled, warm corn tortilla, and then toast the tortilla on both sides in a pan until the edges turn crispy.

Or maybe best of all, try it in a salad with watermelon and mint or basil. But only if you can stop yourself from just eating it plain.

———

RICOTTA CHEESE

Yield: About 2 cups (8 servings)

4 cups whole milk

2 cups heavy cream

1 teaspoon kosher salt

3 tablespoons good white wine vinegar

Note: For best results, use the best milk you can find.

1. Set a large sieve over a deep bowl. Dampen 2 layers of cheesecloth with water and line the sieve with the cheesecloth.

2. Pour the milk and cream into a stainless-steel or enameled pot. Stir in the salt. Bring to a full boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat and stir in the vinegar. Allow the mixture to stand for 1 minute until it curdles. It will separate into thick parts (the curds) and milky parts (the whey).

3. Pour the mixture into the prepared sieve and allow it to drain into the bowl for 20 to 25 minutes, occasionally discarding the liquid that collects in the bowl. The longer you let the mixture drain, the thicker it will be. Transfer the ricotta to a bowl, discarding the cheesecloth and any remaining whey. Use immediately or cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 4 or 5 days.

Per serving: 342 calories; 29 g fat; 17 g saturated fat; 86 mg cholesterol; 15 g protein; 7 g carbohydrate; 7 g sugar; no fiber; 357 mg sodium; 182 mg calcium

Recipe by Ina Garten, via the Food Network

BUTTERMILK FRESH CHEESE

Yield: 4 servings

1 quart whole milk

1 1/2 cups buttermilk (whole or low-fat)

2 teaspoons coarse salt

Optional flavors: 1 teaspoon lemon zest, 1 teaspoon dried or fresh herbs (such as tarragon), 1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper

1. Line a colander or sieve with 3 layers or cheesecloth. Place in sink or set over a deep bowl.

2. Combine milk, buttermilk and salt in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add any of the optional flavors, if desired. Heat over medium-high heat until mixture separates into white curds and translucent whey (low-fat buttermilk will separate at about 180 degrees, whole buttermilk will separate at about 212 degrees). If using whole buttermilk, remove from heat for 3 minutes.

3. Ladle the contents of the saucepan into the prepared colander. Let drain 1 to 2 minutes. Lift the 4 corners of the cheesecloth and gather them together. Gently twist the gathered cloth over the cheese and press out any excess whey.

4. Unwrap immediately and serve warm or let stand in cheesecloth until room temperature. For firmer cheese, refrigerate until cool, about 10 minutes, then remove cheesecloth, tent with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 2 days. Serve at room temperature.

Per serving: 314 calories; 16 g fat; 8 g saturated fat; 44 mg cholesterol; 28 g protein; 14 g carbohydrate; 14 g sugar; no fiber; 1,327 mg sodium; 356 mg calcium

Recipe from “Simple, Fresh, Southern: Knockout Dishes With Down-Home Flavor” by Matt and Ted Lee.

FARMER’S CHEESE

Yield: About 3 cups

1/2 gallon whole milk, see note

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup white vinegar

Note: Do not use ultra-pasteurized milk, which will have a long expiration date, perhaps 30 to 90 days from when you bought it.

1. In a heavy-bottomed large pot, bring the milk and salt to a slow boil. Keep the heat at medium or medium-low, to avoid scorching the milk.

2. When small, foamy bubbles begin to form on the surface, but it is not yet at a rolling boil, turn off the heat. It should be about 190 degrees.

3. Add the vinegar and stir the milk; curds will immediately begin to form. Let sit for 15 minutes. If desired, add additional flavors such as fresh herbs.

4. Place a colander over a large bowl or pot. Drape a dampened cheesecloth or dampened dish towel over the colander, and strain the mixture. Lift the cheesecloth and wrap it around the curds, twisting and squeezing to remove as much liquid as possible. The resulting curds will be dry and crumbly. If you want a creamier texture, mix a little of the reserved whey back into the curds.

5. To shape the cheese, keep it wrapped in cheesecloth and form it into a mound on a plate. Set another plate on top and press the curds into a flat disc that is 1 to 2 inches tall. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour before removing cheesecloth. Farmer’s cheese will keep up to a week in the refrigerator. Use it as a spread, in recipes or as you would use cream cheese or cottage cheese.

Per (2 tablespoon) serving: 38 calories; 2 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 6 mg cholesterol; 2 g protein; 3 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; no fiber; 44 mg sodium; 69 mg calcium

Adapted from thespruce.com

QUESO FRESCO

Yield: 8 servings

1/2 gallon whole milk

1/3 cup distilled white vinegar

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

1. Line a colander with cheesecloth and place in sink or over a large bowl.

2. On medium heat, bring milk to 170 degrees, stirring constantly to avoid scorching. When it reaches the desired temperature, remove from heat and add white and apple cider vinegars. Stir a couple of times and let sit undisturbed for 30 to 45 minutes.

3. If curds are large, break them up gently with a knife. Ladle curds into prepared colander. Allow to drain for 30 minutes. Add salt and stir lightly.

4. Gather up edges of the cheesecloth and tie with kitchen twine or a twist tie. Hang from sink faucet and allow to drip for 30 minutes.

5. Remove the cheesecloth and gently mold into a flat disk about 1 inch tall. Return to the colander for 30 minutes. Then refrigerate until ready for use.

6. Serve on tacos and enchiladas, in egg dishes, in salads (especially with watermelon and mint or basil), topped with flaky salt or placed in a warm corn tortilla, which is then toasted on both sides until crispy.

Per serving: 280 calories; 14 g fat; 7 g saturated fat; 37 mg cholesterol; 26 g protein; 11 g carbohydrate; 11 g sugar; no fiber; 100 mg sodium; 286 mg calcium

Recipe by Analida Braegger via ethnicspoon.com

———
©2019 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Visit the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at www.stltoday.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
———