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Does cheese seem like a mystical ingredient that takes some sort of wizardry to produce?
Good news – it’s not that complicated. Cottage cheese is an excellent place to start, and you can make a batch appear before your very eyes with just three ingredients, and not a magic wand in sight.
You’ll be surprised to discover what a breeze it can be to manifest fresh, fluffy clouds of curds in your own kitchen.
Compared to other varieties and formats, fresh cheese is quick and easy to make at home – especially cottage cheese!
Why is it so fast to make? Let’s dig a little deeper into some basic cheesemaking…
There are two main ways to coagulate the milk for cheese production. Coagulation, the process of separating the curds and the whey, is achieved by using added enzymes or acids.
Many cheeses are produced with enzymes, traditionally rennet, to separate the solids (curds) from the liquids (whey) in the milk.
Enzymatic coagulation gradually separates the solids from the liquids in the milk over a long period of time at a low heat setting. Depending on the cheese you’re making, the process may take hours.
Instead of using enzymes like rennet derived from animals, quick cottage cheese can be produced by heating milk to a higher temperature, and mixing a strongly acidic liquid like vinegar or citrus juice into the milk.
This process is much faster, and requires just 30 minutes of down time to allow the curds and whey to separate, about 20 minutes to drain, and some time to chill in the refrigerator.
And unlike aged varieties that need anywhere from a few weeks to a few years to ripen, cottage cheese is ready the day you make it, and should be consumed fresh within a week!
Let’s talk more about the milk you’ll be using to make the cottage cheese.
Make sure you reach for a gallon at the grocery store that isn’t labeled “ultra-pasteurized.” Although milk with a longer shelf life is a plus if you’re pairing it with a family-size box of cereal, it’s not recommended for cheesemaking.
The extended heating period used to process ultra-pasteurized milk destabilizes the proteins – which means they won’t be able to properly form curds.
Solid, well-formed curds are essential in the land of homemade cottage cheese.
Once you’ve stepped foot into that world, the fun part is figuring out all the ways to devour your finished product. You’ll have a little time to daydream while it separates, drains, and chills.
I love a bowlful topped with freshly sliced kiwi, strawberries, and granola, but you can sneak this milky ingredient into many different recipes.
Looking to lighten up dessert? It’s the secret ingredient in this airy cheesecake.
If a savory dish is what you desire, partner it with feta in this Italian-inspired chicken sausage and veggie pasta bake.
It also works like a charm in khachapuri – a hearty Georgian cheese bread.
We have even more recipe ideas for you below, so keep reading!
Now, it’s time to take the cheesemaking bull by the horns and master it, step by step.
You may not need a magic wand or fancy spell to make cottage cheese, but you’re certainly welcome to wave your thermometer over the pot and shout something funny.
How to Make Your Own Cottage Cheese
And here we are!
All you need are three simple ingredients to make this fresh, homemade cottage cheese. It’s light, fluffy, and endlessly enjoyable.
I suggest you review each step carefully before diving in, so there are zero surprises while you’re standing over the stove.
Cooking By the Numbers…
Step 1 – Gather and Measure Ingredients
To begin, set out all of the tools and equipment you will need:
- Large heavy-bottomed saucepot with lid
- Heatproof whisk or spatula
- Slotted spoon
- Strainer or colander
- Large mixing bowl
- Airtight container with lid
After gathering your tools, measure the following ingredients:
- 1 gallon whole milk
- 3/4 cup white vinegar
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
- 1/4-1/2 cup heavy cream (optional)
A gallon of milk will yield about 2 cups of cottage cheese, or 4 servings.
You could also use the same quantity of freshly squeezed lemon juice instead of vinegar.
The salt adds flavor and serves as the only mild preservative in this recipe, as opposed to store-bought cottage cheese which may contain chemical additives like potassium sorbate.
Keep the heavy cream covered in the fridge since it won’t be added until you’re ready to serve the cottage cheese. This is an optional addition that adds a creamy touch to the finished product.
Step 2 – Heat the Milk
Place a heavy-bottomed saucepot that can hold a full gallon of milk on the stove, with room to spare. I opted to use a 5-quart stock pot. Pour the milk into the pot and turn the heat to medium.
Stirring frequently to make sure the milk doesn’t scorch on the bottom of the pan, cook until small bubbles begin to form on the surface and the temperature is between 170 and 175°F. This will take about 10 to 12 minutes.
Immediately remove the pot from the heat once the milk comes to temperature. If you remove it before it reaches 175°F it may not curdle, but you want to avoid overheating it as well.
Step 3 – Add the Vinegar and Rest
While slowly pouring in a thin stream, immediately stir in the vinegar. Continue gently stirring for about 1 to 2 minutes until you begin to see the whey separate from the curds.
Place a lid on the pot and allow it to rest at room temperature, completely undisturbed, for 30 minutes.
Step 4 – Drain
Working next to the sink, line a large colander or fine mesh strainer with a few layers of cheesecloth. Place the strainer over a large bowl.
The bowl will catch the remaining whey as the curds drain, which you can reserve for another use if you like the flavor.
If your colander or strainer has feet and can stand on its own, you can drain the cottage cheese directly into the sink instead if you prefer to discard the whey.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the curds to the cloth and leave them to drain until the dripping stops. This will take about 20 to 25 minutes.
Step 5 – Rinse, Salt, and Break up the Curds
Turn on the faucet so you can rinse the curds under a steady stream of cold water.
Gathering the corners, lift the cheesecloth containing the drained curds out of the colander. Twist the cloth at the top to form a tight ball, using one hand to hold the twisted top of the cloth and the other to hold the collected curds at the bottom.
Rinse the ball of curds under the cold running water, gently squeezing and kneading them until cooled completely, for about 3 to 5 minutes.
Thoroughly rinsing the curds washes out any residual lactic acid developed by the vinegar, resulting in a mild flavor that isn’t too acidic.
Tightly squeeze the ball one last time to remove any excess water.
Dump the curds into a large mixing bowl. Stir in the salt, breaking up the curds to your desired size as you stir. Salt can be added to taste, if you prefer to use less.
Step 6 – Chill and Serve
Transfer the cottage cheese to an airtight container with a lid and chill for a minimum of 1 hour.
For an extra rich and creamy consistency when you’re ready to serve, stir in the heavy cream, or add 1 to 2 tablespoons of cream per half-cup serving.
You can also use half-and-half or milk for a lower fat option, or skip the added dairy if you prefer.
Store any leftovers in the fridge for up to 1 week. Serve chilled, or use it in recipes. Here are a few more suggestions to get you started:
- Add cottage cheese to your pancake batter
- Swap it with the mozzarella in your baked ziti
- Blend it into smoothies
- Whip it and fold in cut fruit, jam, and cream for a mousse-like dessert
- Add it to chicken salad
No Whey. Whey!
I’m going to be frank – whether or not you decide to use the whey is totally up to you.
And you can still be Garth, even if you opt to discard this totally amazing, excellent ingredient.
When you’re ready to separate the curds from the whey, you’ve reached a pinnacle of cheesemaking:
Discard or keep that tangy liquid?
Whey is actually a treasured source of nutrition that’s packed with protein, but gallons and gallons of it are commonly tossed out as a byproduct of cheesemaking.
Keep in mind that ours is separated from the curds with vinegar, so while the flavor may be too pungent to cheerfully sip through a straw, adding a dash to a homemade salad dressing or soup is a great way to boost the protein content while adding a touch of tanginess.
According to the “Oxford Companion to Food,” “Almost a third of the proteins in milk are left in the whey, as well as all the sugar.” For more fun facts, you can find this comprehensive compendium of all things food on Amazon.
No matter which whey you decide to go, all roads lead down a path of deliciousness!
Will you find a new home for your whey? Share your creative repurposing ideas in the comments below!
If cheesemaking seems like a cinch once you’ve got this one under your belt, tackle these how-to guides next:
- How to Buy and Prepare Brie for a Holiday Party
- How to Cook Chicken in the Electric Pressure Cooker
- How to Use Each Side of a Box Grater
Photos by Fanny Slater, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published on September 7, 2014. Last updated on August 23, 2022. With additional writing and editing by Nikki Cervone and Allison Sidhu.
About Fanny Slater
Fanny Slater is a home-taught food enthusiast based in Wilmington, North Carolina who won the “Rachael Ray Show” Great American Cookbook Competition in 2014, and published her cookbook “Orange, Lavender & Figs” in 2016. Fanny is a food and beverage writer, recipe developer, and social media influencer. She was a co-host on the Food Network series “Kitchen Sink,” was featured on Cooking Channel’s longtime popular series “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” and continues to appear regularly on the “Rachael Ray Show.”