Homemade Queso Fresco

By: Tim Fetter, CEC, Executive Chef at Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, Pittsburgh, PA

 

Cheese…..Who doesn’t like a great handmade cheese? Do you ever wonder what goes into making cheeses?

In February of last year, at the PASA (Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture) Farming for the Future Conference, a group of Parkhurst Chefs that make up the Local Advisory Board were able to take a few classes on various sustainable practices. One of them was about cheese making and it was taught by Dave Potter from Dairy Connection (www.dairyconnection.com), which is a great provider of cheese making supplies. Dave explained a number of cheese making processes and also showed us a quick version of Queso Fresco, which is a somewhat simple fresh cheese.

It just so happened that right around that time, we were working on a new station concept at Highmark, known as Tortilla Fresca, which is a taqueria-style station with highly customizable Latin options such as freshly-made Soft Tacos, Burritos, Salads, etc. When I returned to work, I figured I would give the Queso Fresco a try and it turned out to be extremely successful.

So here is the recipe and I hope you give it a try!

Yield:  around 1- 1.5 lbs of cheese per gallon of milk used

  • 2 gallons of milk (I have used cow’s and goat’s milk)
  • ¼ teaspoon mesophilic DVI culture
  • ¼ teaspoon calf lipase powder
  • ½ teaspoon liquid rennet, mixed with ½ cup water
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • Flavorings to taste
Heating the milk to 90 degrees

Heat the milk to 90 degrees and add the cultures and lipase, stir and let stand for 1 hour. A steam table or canner works well for holding at a constant temperature, but it can be done on the stove-top with a little more supervision. For this batch, I used a stock pot and a steam table. Next, add the rennet and stir again, cover, and let stand for another hour, still at 90 degrees.

The beginning of the cutting process

At this point, it should be set up enough to be able to cut into curds. Use a slicer or a long pastry knife and cut in different directions so that the curds are about ¼ inch pieces, and let stand for about 10 minutes. Cutting is simple and is not an exact process. Picture the face of a clock in your stock pot and cut in the direction from 12 to 6, then 9 to 3, then 10 to 4, then 2 to 8; each time cutting parallel lines across the width of the pot. If you did not cut them enough with a knife, you can gently stir with a large whisk to finish them off.

Curds after cutting

Next, gently stir the curds and slowly heat to 110 degrees (over about 20 minute), and let stand for 10 minutes. By this point the curds should resemble what you would see in cottage cheese.

Curds after the whey (liquid) is drained
Curds after being transferred to a cheese bag

Drain the whey (the liquid) from the curds and pour the curds into a cheese bag or a cheesecloth lined strainer. After most of the liquid is drained, put the curds in a bowl or back into the pot, and add the salt and whatever flavorings you would like, if any. For this batch I used some fresh jalapenos and red pepper flakes. Other successful combinations have been cilantro and garlic, chipotle pepper, sun-dried tomato, roasted garlic and chive, etc.

Flavored cheese in lined cheese molds before pressing
Flavored cheese in lined cheese molds after pressing

Taste for seasoning, then put into cheesecloth lined cheese molds or back into the cheese bag and press with something heavy, like two #10 cans or gallons of milk or something weighing around 15 to 20 lbs. under refrigeration. With these kinds of molds, I have found that I can put something like a yogurt tub that is just smaller than the top of the mold and put a tray on top of the tubs with the weights. Remove the weights and refrigerate overnight.

Homemade Queso Fresco ready to enjoy!

It is now ready to enjoy, or wrap it tightly and it can be used for up to one week. As you can see, it crumbles very nicely and is great on top of beans and rice or in tacos and burritos. If you prefer a drier cheese, simply press it longer with more weight.

The great thing about this cheese is that you are able to use it almost instantly. You can also save the whey to make your own ricotta. Have fun with it and try different flavor combinations, although using it plain is pretty good, too. This is a great introduction to making cheese and I hope that it can lead to trying other cheeses that require aging, smoking, etc.

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