At some point early in the summer, no doubt after tossing together a tomato, feta and olive salad or a watermelon-feta-basil breakfast or after marinating a block of feta to serve with chilled rosé, I realized I was buying the cheese on a weekly basis. Nothing lights up my DIY imagination more than the opportunity to make something at home that I buy that often. I set off on a feta adventure.
Just about every global cuisine features some type of fresh cheese made with commonly available milk, whether from a cow, goat, sheep, llama or camel. Consider ricotta, chevre, farmer’s cheese, quark and fromage blanc, all of which fall into that category. Soft, brined, bright white feta is another of the farmstead cheeses that require no fancy equipment and little intervention. This is a cheese traditionally made by the dairy farmer when there were many other farm chores to finish in a day. It was stirred now and then, kept warm and then cut into curds and hung to drain. Such simple steps have been used for centuries.
Homemade feta tastes so much fresher and smoother than what you’ll find floating in a grocery store tub, which is why by the end of summer, I found myself making it so often. It’s creamy, melty and tangy — and as salty, or not, as I want it to be.
Feta is defined by its salt content, its texture — shot through with small holes — and its slightly granular finish. Traditionalists might balk at my approach. Rightfully, feta should be made with sheep’s milk, or a combination of sheep’s and goat’s milk. I couldn’t find sheep’s milk locally, so I opted to try the method two ways: with cow’s milk and again with goat’s milk. I liked both versions but found that the goat feta was a little more tangy and held together better, even when I cut the curd into cubes. The version made with cow’s milk was both crumbly and tender at once, and less likely to retain its shape when cubed. I don’t hold the cheese in a wet brine, opting for a salting directly on the surface.
The key is that, as with all home cheesemaking, the best results start with the best main ingredient available. Look for whole milk that is pasteurized but not homogenized, often sold in glass bottles. Many Washington area grocery stores carry fresh goat’s milk; South Mountain Creamery in Middletown, Md., offers goat’s milk to its home-delivery and farmers market clients. The fresher the milk, the tastier the cheese, so check those expiration dates, too.
Two ingredients not typically found in a home pantry are required. Rennet forms the curd. It comes as a tablet or a liquid, either animal- or vegetable-based, and can be refrigerated for about six months. Rennet must be diluted with filtered water before being added to the milk.
Powdered mesophilic cultures, sold in packets, are reasonably priced. The accompanying feta cheese recipe uses only half a packet, so there can be at least one more batch in your future. Cultures are available at beermaking and winemaking supply stores and online, and can be stored in the freezer for up to a year.
Making feta takes a few minutes here and there over the course of an evening. I start after dinner, when all I need to do is heat the milk. The culturing takes a couple of idle hours. Then I cut the curd into cubes and pile them in a cheesecloth bundle to hang and drain overnight; that bit of hands-on work takes another few minutes. In the morning, the cheese is ready to be salted, and, after it has rested for a few hours in the refrigerator, I’m crumbling it over something at dinner.
When I can bear to use it in a recipe — rather than dousing it with olive oil and spreading it thickly on bread — I’ll make a phyllo torte with layers of autumn vegetables, crunchy hazelnuts and creamy, tangy feta. The rich, vegetarian-friendly buffet dish is one of my favorites on our holiday sideboard.
Embrace your inner cheesemaker once again, and serve homemade feta this week. Plan to pair it with watermelon and tomatoes. Weatherwise, at least, we’ve got a few more weeks of summer to savor.
Barrow is the author of “Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving” (W.W. Norton, 2014). She blogs at www.mrswheelbarrow.com. She will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat: live.washingtonpost.com.