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Ingredients

What Exactly Is Farmer's Cheese?

Farmer's cheese can be found in many supermarkets. What is it? How do you use it?
By Published Oct. 22, 2021

My grandfather, whose parents immigrated to Canada from a Polish shtetl, loved farmer’s cheese. It was always on the table at breakfast in his house, next to the cereal and grapefruit halves my grandparents also liked to eat.

After my grandparents died, I forgot about farmer’s cheese until I saw a whole refrigerated section devoted to it at a local Slavic grocery. I took a tub home. It was bright, tangy, and surprisingly lean-tasting, falling somewhere in between a labne and a dry ricotta. But what exactly was it?

To find out, I talked to Dean Sommer, cheese technologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Center for Dairy Research. Sommer explained that what I was eating was one of two styles of soft, fresh farmer’s cheese.

  • European-Style Farmer’s Cheese. Also called twaróg, tvorog, or syr, among other names. Found in almost every Slavic, Baltic, and Germanic country.
  • American-Style Farmer’s Cheese. This is basically cottage cheese that has been pressed to remove water. 

(There’s also a third kind of farmer’s cheese, Wisconsin-/Amish-style Farmer’s Cheese, but it’s firm and more similar to a reduced-fat Monterey Jack.)

European- and American-style farmer’s cheeses are similar in many ways. They’re both simple cheeses that are easy to make at home—many cooks did and still do. They’re also acid-set cheeses, meaning that they’re made when milk is soured to a point where it can coagulate, using either vinegar or a cultured product such as yogurt or buttermilk. The main difference between them is how the coagulated milk is processed. 

With European-style farmer’s cheese, the coagulated milk is simply ladled into a sack and drained, yielding a creamy, spreadable finished texture. With American-style farmer’s cheese, it’s cut into curds, drained, and pressed, creating a firmer, drier texture. But they’re both refreshingly bright and tart.

The simplest way to eat either is to treat them like plain yogurt, eaten with a little jam, honey, or fruit. Or you can spread the farmer’s cheese on toast, with either more jam or savory accompaniments such as green onions or tomatoes.

European-style farmer’s cheese is traditionally used in a host of other applications, both sweet and savory, cooked and uncooked. Uses vary regionally, but some commonalities remain. It’s critical to making different types of cheesecake—käsekuchen in Germany and sernik in Poland, biezpienmaize in Latvia and varškės pyragas in Lithuania. It’s often used as a filling (either on its own, or mixed with potato) for pierogi and vareniki. And it’s mixed with chives and radish to make a savory Polish spread called gzik. 

No matter how you use these two fresh cheeses, they’re delicious—and worth seeking out.

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