In her own words, Claudia Lucero wants cheesemaking to be “easy, accessible, and empowering for everyone.” Claudia, a California native, lives in Portland, Oregon, and is the founder of Urban Cheesecraft, a thriving company that grew out of her own discovery that cheesemaking sits squarely at the intersection of creativity, science, and community.
When she first moved to Portland, Claudia lived in a small apartment that didn’t have a yard for growing veggies, so she joined a CSA (community-supported agriculture) group through which she received a fresh, diverse box of locally grown goodies every week. Fairly quickly, the beans and cabbage began to roll in by the bushel, so Claudia needed to find some creative things to do with them. After a bit of research on the Internets, she was armed with creative recipes for pickles, jams, and various ferments. Then she started whipping up yogurt and butter, fermenting with whey, and before long—crafting cheese! She started with simpler cheeses like paneer and ricotta, then graduated to goat cheeses and mozzarella, and soon she was creating first-class fromage. She was totally hooked. And so were her friends with whom she generously and enthusiastically shared her delicacies.
Claudia’s friends loved her cheese, and they were inspired to make their own at home. But this was 2008, and even in Portland it was difficult to find ingredients and cheesemaking supplies for the hobbyist. This is where Claudia saw an opportunity. What if she could help people find everything they needed to make cheese, and also teach those people how to make it? She thought, “What if I take my tested recipes, source my favorite ingredients and supplies, and sell everything in a cute little box?” And that’s exactly what she did in 2009 with the essential ingredients, homemade labels, and Sharpies in her living room.
Over time, her company has grown. She’s partnered with big players like Williams-Sonoma, she’s written a book (One-Hour Cheese), and she continues to create new cheese kits, including her recent vegan/Paleo-friendly one. But the mission remains the same: Help people painlessly and fearlessly make quality cheeses at home.
I’ve asked Claudia to share some tips and words of wisdom for all of us who are a little scared of making cheese but are working up the courage to dive in.
Tip #1: Fear Is Not Your Friend
Claudia explained that the biggest challenge people face when they start making cheese is fear. She told me, “It’s amazing how much pressure people put on themselves to be successful, perfect at something the first time. But, when something is a craft, like making cheese, that’s just not going to happen. Put aside your fear and remember that people have been making cheese forever without electricity, without refrigeration. It’s meant to be flexible.” She encourages everyone to get comfortable with failure and experimentation. She emphasizes that even if you fail, you’ll learn a ton in the process.
Tip #2: Kick Things Off with “Fromage Facile”
In Claudia’s book, One-Hour Cheese, there’s a recipe for “Fromage Facile,” a fancy-sounding name for a super-easy cheese made with three simple ingredients: buttermilk, lemon juice, and milk. Claudia explains, “It goes beyond a ricotta, which would normally just be milk and vinegar or milk and lemon juice, but it’s still very simple. The buttermilk adds more depth of flavor.” She describes the texture as being a bit like cream cheese, but similar to chèvre because it’s both creamy and crumbly.
Check out the recipe below and consider giving it a try; it only takes about 20 minutes to make and it’s fun to do with kids because it’s so simple.
Tip #3: All Cheese Needs Acid
Claudia explains that to make cheese, you need acid. For some cheeses you’ll add that acid, while for others the acid is created by the starter bacteria you add. The added acid can be distilled white vinegar, white wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, buttermilk, or lemon juice. Claudia admits to finding white vinegar to be too strong unless you rinse the curds with cool water, which is apparently how lots of paneer is made.
She notes that the acid you pick can impact the cheese’s flavor. With this in mind she tends toward lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, and buttermilk because she likes their flavors, or citric acid because of its lack of flavor and consistent acidity.
Tip #4: All Milk Is Not Created Equal
To make cheese, you also need milk. The most important thing to remember when selecting your milk is that it should not be old or ultra-pasteurized. While ultra-pasteurization extends milk’s shelf life and accommodates lengthy travel time, it doesn’t translate into a quality cheese. According to Claudia, at best, the ultra-pasteurized stuff will give you a loose ricotta. Claudia explains that “the less processed your milk is, the better your cheesemaking experience is going to be.” In a perfect world, this would mean milk from a local dairy that hasn’t traveled from far away; though she also understands local milk isn’t accessible or affordable for everyone.
Tip #5: You’re Gonna Need to Know the Temp
While Claudia is personally quite finicky about her thermometers, she encourages new cheesemakers not to fuss too much, and to just get one that works. She says it can be digital, old-fashioned—it doesn’t matter. Each of her Urban Cheesecraft kits includes a glass thermometer that doesn’t contain mercury. She chose the thermometers in part because they don’t ever have to be recalibrated, a sometimes daunting task for new cheese crafters. If you’re using a digital or meat probe metal thermometer, you will need to recalibrate it often (learn how to recalibrate a thermometer in our earlier tips from Mountain Flower Dairy).
One more tip from Claudia for selecting your thermometer is to choose one that measures every degree, rather than measuring the temperature in 5- or 10-degree increments. To make good cheese, you need precision.
Tip #6: Get the Right Cheesecloth
When it comes to supplies, cheesecloth is key, and Claudia explains that “the cheesecloth they usually sell in grocery stores is a waste of money. It’s gauzy, with huge, huge holes”—holes that are too big to catch curds (and separating those curds from the whey is fundamental in making cheese). You can find the good stuff, which is actually called “butter muslin” or “fine-mesh cheesecloth,” on Claudia’s website or just Google it to find it elsewhere. One more thing, while we’re on the subject: Butter muslin comes in different grades based on the how tight the weave is; Claudia recommends using a minimum of #90. She is quick to add that lots of other makeshift mesh strainers can work too: “A brand-new handkerchief or pillowcase that you boil first, or another piece of cloth with small-enough holes to catch the curds and release the whey.” She advises: “Just be sure to rinse your cloth in cold water right away to get the curds out so that they don’t melt and dry into the holes, and then wash it with your towels in the washing machine.”
Tip #7: Cheesemaking Helps You Care About the World More
Claudia finds that making cheese opens up a new world for people as they begin to think more about where their milk (and everything else they eat and drink) comes from. It inspires people to educate themselves, do research, ask questions of farmers and grocers, delve into food-safety issues, and learn more about the conditions on farms. This awareness also changes how those same people shop, empowering them to ask their grocery stores to stock more local and responsibly harvested foods and drinks. And so, Claudia is changing the world one chunk of homemade cheese at a time. Thanks Claudia!
Want to learn more from Claudia? She’s offering 20% off of anything from the Urban Cheesecraft online shop with coupon code CHEESELAB until 9/30/16. You may want to check out one of Claudia’s Mozzarella kits and her book, or the nifty Deluxe Bundle (best bang for your buck) to get everything you need to start making cheese – just add milk!
Author: Mara Rose
Editor: Maggie Wells & Joy Herbers
Photo: Urban Cheesecraft