Feta cheese is traditionally made with sheep and goat milk.
It is still much easier to find high quality, local cow's milk at your supermarket than goat or sheep milk. This is because the yield of goat and sheep milk is much lower than cow milk, so the price per gallon is much higher and less lucrative sold as liquid milk. Most goat and sheep dairy farmers transform their milk into value-added products such as yogurt and cheese, in order to make a better profit.
So how do you make rich, whole cow's milk into a feta with a firm and creamy body? It all begins with a starter.
The Starter Cultures for Feta
Fresh buttermilk is complete with the cultures required to give your feta a tangy flavor and lactic body. At the store, double check that your buttermilk is complete with live, active cultures. For the extra curious, below are the cultures that should be included.
CULTURE INCLUDES: lactose, (LL) lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis, (LLC) lactococcus lactis subsp. cremoris, (LLD) lactococcus lactis subsp. biovar diacetylactis, (LMC) leuconostoc mesenteroides subsp. cremoris.
Recommended wine pairings for feta: Lemony Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay
1.5 gallons whole cow milk, pasteurized (NOT ultra-pasteurized)
1/8 teaspoon double strength rennet, diluted in 1/4 cup cool, unchlorinated water. You can increase the amount of rennet used by 1/8 teaspoon if you’d like a firmer curd. But don’t go overboard: the curd will be too chewy.
1/2 cup buttermilk
24 oz Kosher Salt (NO IODINE! This halts positive fermentation!)
1/2 teaspoon calcium chloride for brine, (Available at New England Cheese Making Supply)
1 12-oz bottle of olive oil
2 gallon sized stainless steel pot
1 slotted spoon
1 baking rack
1 baking sheet
1 large colander with feet
Cheese cloth (Available at New England Cheese Making Supply)
Thermometer (ideally digital for accuracy)
1. Heat the milk to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Add the buttermilk. Let sit for 60 minutes.
2. Add rennet diluted in 1/4 cup cool, unchlorinated water. Stir for 1 minute, using both circular, and up and down motions.
3. Let the curd set until it is pulling away from the sides and has a layer of clear whey resting on the top. The final test is the “clean break.” This means placing your finger in the curd and lifting it out until it forms a clean break. This will take up to three hours depending on the rennet strength and the milk quality.
4. Now, you are ready to cut the curd! Use a long, thin, sharp knife and cut the curd into 1/2 inch cubes over 5 minutes. In order to cut the curd both horizontally and vertically, place the spoon gently underneath and lift the strips of curd up to cut horizontally. Slowly and gently stir the curd pieces for 20 minutes so they contract slightly. The longer you stir at this point, the firmer the final cheese will be. Allow the cheese to settle at the bottom of the pot for 10 minutes.
5. Sanitize the cheese cloth by dipping it in boiling water. Place the colander into another pot or receptacle if you'd like to keep the whey (some recipe ideas here). Line the colander with the sanitized cheese cloth. Ladle the curd with the slotted spoon.
6. Tie up the curd filled cheese cloth into a sack and hang it over the sink. Allow the curd to drain over night. After the curd has been draining for the first two hours, shake the sides of the cheese cloth so that excess moisture is released. If your kitchen is cooler than 68 degrees Fahrenheit, the draining process could take closer to 24 hours instead of 12 hours.
7. Cut the drained curd into 1 pound slices. The curd needs to be a little firmer for the brining process.
8. Now, prepare a saturated brine: 1.25 pounds salt to 1/4 gallon water (aka 1 quart). Then add another 1/4 gallon water on top of the mixture. There should be a layer of salt at the bottom. I added 1/2 teaspoon calcium chloride to the brine mixture to make sure that the brine didn’t pull any calcium out of my cheese. Place the drained curds in the brine for 8 hours.
9. Remove cheese from brine and lay on a cheese mat, or a rack lined with cheese cloth to air cure for 3 days. Lay a piece of sanitized cheese cloth over the top of the cheeses as well to prevent contamination. The cheese will be at its most delicate stage at this process, so handle them carefully. They have essentially absorbed the salt water and need the chance to dry off and firm up. Flip the little guys as frequently as possible. This brine treatment will stabilize the feta.
10. Marinate the cheese in order to give the extra virgin olive oil a chance to create a more velvety final texture of the cheese that can be infused with garlic, rosemary, thyme, peppercorns, and organic lemon rind. Make sure the cheese is fully submerged in the olive oil in order to prevent spoilage. This is my favorite way to preserve and simultaneously ripen the cheese. Allow the cheese to ripen in this mixture for 12 to 24 hours before refrigeration. Then let it marinate in the fridge for 1 week before using. You can hold this cheese for 2 more weeks.
Brine storage option: You can store the feta in an 8% brine solution (6 to 8oz of kosher salt to 3 quarts water). You can store this for up to 30 days at 38 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit.