Vespa's recipes have appeared in "Midwest Living" and "Taste of Home" magazines. She is a recipe tester for "Cook's Illustrated."
Homemade Cream Cheese Recipe
I'll never forget my first taste of real homemade cream cheese. We had waited in line for twenty minutes at a bakery in Brooklyn, New York, just to buy a bagel and cream cheese. Of course, the bagel was off-the-charts delicious. But what stuck in my mind was the tangy, cheesy flavor of the cream cheese. It definitely wasn't Philadelphia. Later, I learned that the bakery made its own cream cheese. Make your own cream cheese? It sounded too complicated for me.
Fast-forward several decades to me living in a South American country where bagels are impossible to find and cream cheese is difficult to come by and very expensive. Necessity is the mother of invention, or so they say. Now I can tell you that cream cheese is actually the easiest of all cheeses to make at home, so easy even a child can make it.
There are many recipes on the internet for "cream cheese" made with yogurt or vinegar. Don't get me wrong, those recipes also make delicious concoctions. Yogurt cheese is actually called "labneh" and is common in the Middle East. Milk cut with vinegar is Italian ricotta. Delicious, but not the same flavor or texture as real cream cheese.
To make real cream cheese at home, you'll need rennet and buttermilk or mesophilic cheese cultures. "Mesophilic" is a bacteria that can be cultured at a moderate temperature or, in this case, at room temperature. You'll also need cheesecloth or, in a pinch, a thin tea towel. You can find rennet and buttermilk in most modern grocery stores. If not, order them online. Amazon or Cultures For Health carry these products. Believe me, it's worth your while if you're serious about making tangy, unforgettable cream cheese at home.
- 1 quart or 4 cups whole milk, *not ultra-pasteurized
- 1/8 teaspoon mesophilic culture, or 1/4 cup buttermilk
- 2 drops or 1/4 tablet rennet, dissolved in 1/4 cup water
- 1 teaspoon sea salt, (optional)
- Heat milk to 70-75 F, or let it sit on the countertop until it reaches room temperature. Make sure to use a glass or stainless steel container.
- Sprinkle mesophilic culture over the surface of the milk and allow it to dissolve for 2-3 minutes. Stir gently until it is well incorporated into the milk.
- Pour the diluted rennet into the milk. Using an up and down stirring motion, gently stir the rennet into the milk. Don't stir for longer than 20 seconds.
- Cover the pot and allow to sit, undisturbed, for 10-16 hours at 70-75 F, or until milk looks like yogurt. You'll see some of the whey separating from the curds. The culturing time will be closer to 10 hours if your kitchen is warmer. If your kitchen is cooler, it will take the cheese longer to culture.
- Carefully ladle the curds into a colander lined with cheesecloth. Allow to drain for at least 12 hours, until the cheese is thickened. Save the whey for another use. Salt the cream cheese with 1 teaspoon of salt, if desired. Whip with an electric mixer for extra fluffy cream cheese. Refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.
- Yield: Approximately one pound of cream cheese, although yield will vary depending on culture temperature, milk quality, etc.
What Is Rennet?
Rennet is rich in enzymes. It causes milk to curdle so the whey and curds can be separated. Rennet is traditionally obtained from the intestines of a baby calf or goat. However, you can also purchase vegetable rennet, made from plants such as nettle. Either type of rennet will produce delicious cheese.
What Can I Do With Whey?
Don't throw away the whey you drain off the cream cheese. Save it for your family or for your plants. Whey is rich in protein and can be consumed in smoothies. Pour it into ice cube trays and freeze it for just that purpose. You can also save whey to make ricotta cheese. Or use whey instead of buttermilk for extra fluffy pancakes!
You can feed the whey to acid-loving plants in your garden. Dilute it with equal portions of water and pour it on grown tomato plants. Since whey is full of potassium and phosphorous, your plants will love it.
Flavored Cream Cheese
Once you've drained the cream cheese, you can salt it and add a variety of other ingredients for extra flavor. These are some of my favorites.
- Vanilla extract and brown sugar
- Vanilla bean and honey
- Cinnamon and honey
- Chopped chives & dill (my favorite savory cream cheese)
- Minced or grated veggies
- Fruit preserves
- Sweet pickle relish
- Black pepper
- Maple syrup, walnuts and figs
For French-style cream cheese, use a combination of half-and-half or heavy cream and milk, such as 2 cups heavy cream + 2 cups whole milk.
Note: As seen in this video, the rennet can be omitted if at least half of the milk is substituted for heavy cream.