100 Techniques

Technique #76: Learn to Make Cheese From Scratch

Making fresh cheese at home is easy once you've learned the science behind it. Let's walk you through it.

Published Aug. 17, 2023.

This is Technique #76 from our 100 Techniques Every Home Cook Can Master.

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Cheese making, like bread baking, is an art as well as a science. There are hundreds of different categories and varieties of cheese, but here we focus on fresh cheese, meaning it can be eaten immediately after making it without any aging, ripening, or curing.

Think of it as cheese in its youngest, purest form.

Fresh Cheese Comes from Milk

Though it doesn’t sound appetizing, cheese is curdled milk. Milk is made up of water and milk solids, which include proteins, butterfat, and lactose. When you cause the proteins in milk to coagulate, or curdle, they produce curds. 

With the help of heat, time, and sometimes pressure, these curds release liquid, or whey, and become firmer and firmer. And that’s your cheese.

All You Need is Acid

In the most straightforward cheese recipes, such as for ricotta and paneer, the milk is coagulated simply by adding an acid in the form of vinegar, lemon juice, or buttermilk. In other cheeses, a bacterial starter culture may be used (similar to a sourdough starter), as well as rennet, a set of enzymes produced from the stomach lining of a ruminant animal.

Every little detail in cheese making counts. To ensure success, stick to specified timelines and temperatures, and use an accurate thermometer. The timing and amount of stirring is also critical.

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What Milk to Use

Use the freshest milk possible, but don’t use ultra-pasteurized or ultra–heat–treated (UHT) milk. Whereas pasteurized milk has been heated to 145 degrees to kill off harmful bacteria, ultra-pasteurized or UHT milk has been heated to even higher temperatures, which not only kills all enzymes and bacteria, bad and good, but also affects the protein structure. This makes it difficult for curds to form.

Don’t Disturb It

You don’t want to stir, or even disturb, the pot of milk while it coagulates because doing so can keep the curds from properly forming and cause loss of milk fat, which you want to stay in the curd. 

After the milk has set, how much you stir can affect how quickly curds release whey—if whey is released too quickly, the curds can release their milk fat as well. This is particularly problematic if making a smooth, creamy cheese, since the milk fat is key to creating desirable texture.

Step by Step: How to Make Paneer

Now that you know the science behind fresh cheese making, follow these simple steps for homemade paneer.

Step 1: Bring Milk to a Boil, Add Buttermilk, and Strain

Bring milk to boil, stirring. Whisk in buttermilk, turn off heat, and let stand undisturbed for 1 minute. Pour mixture through cheese-cloth-lined colander and let drain.

Step 2: Give it a Squeeze

Pull edges of cheesecloth together to form pouch, twist edges together, and squeeze out as much liquid as possible.

Step 3: Weigh it Down, Then Unwrap

Place cheese pouch between plates and weight down top plate. Let sit until cheese is firm and set. Unwrap cheese.

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Step by Step: How to Make Ricotta

Though just as simple as homemade paneer, ricotta uses lemon juice for the acid. Follow these steps to make your own at home.

Step 1: Heat Milk and Salt, Add Lemon Juice, and Let Sit

Heat milk and salt to 185 degrees, stirring. Remove from heat and whisk in lemon juice and vinegar until curdled. Let sit undisturbed until mixture fully separates into curds and whey.

Step 2: Pour Through Cheesecloth

Pour mixture through cheesecloth-lined colander. Let sit, undisturbed, until whey has drained from edges of cheese but center is still very moist.

Step 3: Stir Until Smooth

Quickly but gently transfer cheese to bowl, retaining as much whey in center of cheese as possible. Stir until smooth.

Watch Cook's Illustrated's Becky Hays demonstrate how to make homemade ricotta.

Recipes That Use This Technique

Want to put your newfound knowledge of cheese making to us? Try it with these recipes.


Saag Paneer (Indian-Style Spinach with Fresh Cheese)

The cheese in this richly flavored Indian spinach dish can be made easily using milk, buttermilk, and salt.
Get the Recipe

Homemade Ricotta Cheese

Want to make your own ricotta? It’s quick and easy.
Get the Recipe

Corn Ricotta Toast with Pickled Corn and Cherry Tomatoes

Up your toast game with the help of homemade ricotta and pickled corn.
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Fusilli with Ricotta and Spinach

To successfully combine ricotta and spinach outside pasta (instead of stuffed into it), you need to know when to add the cheese.
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Naan Flatbread with Spiced-Yogurt Paneer

This simple, cheesy flatbread is topped with a spiced yogurt sauce and bits of paneer, perfect for kids to make for lunch or a snack.
Get the Recipe

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