Cheese is one of the world’s great foods, and a staggering number of varieties are made with different degrees of firmness and pungency. Oddly, despite all this sophistication, cheese is quite accessible to the home hobbyist. All you need, at a minimum, is a sanitary kitchen, milk and, usually, rennet. Rennet comes from the stomachs of calves, though, so some cheesemakers prefer not to use it.

Yogurt and Kefir Cheeses

Cheese is basically just milk that’s had its proteins coagulated into curds – that’s what rennet does – and then had the excess moisture, or whey, drained away. The simplest forms of rennet-free cheese start with yogurt or kefir, which already consists of fine curds suspended in whey. Regular and non-dairy versions both work, so this is suitable for vegetarians or vegans as well.

To make this fresh, spreadable cheese, often called labneh (its Arabic name), all you need is a colander and some cheesecloth or a jelly bag. Line the colander with the fabric and fill it with yogurt. Thick Greek-style yogurt is best, but thinner kefir or regular yogurt will work as well. Let the yogurt drain over a bowl for 6 to 12 hours, or until it stops dripping. The result will be a soft, tangy, spreadable cheese, perfect for mixing with fresh herbs and spices.

For a firmer cheese, add salt to the mixture – some recipes call for it; others don’t – and leave the cheese to drain overnight in your fridge. Some cooks use a plate or other weight on top to help it drain. The next day, form the cheese into balls, either plain or with seasonings, and let them dry uncovered in the fridge for 12 hours or so. Once they’re dry, transfer them to a jar or container, cover them with olive oil and store them in the refrigerator. They’ll keep for a couple of weeks.

Cheeses Started With Acidic Ingredients

A second approach to cheese without rennet uses acidity to create the curds. Both lemon juice and vinegar will work, especially for soft, fresh cheeses. However, citric acid and tartaric acid are used in serious recipes; as powders, they’re more concentrated, easier to measure and therefore more reliable to work with.

These are usually soft cheeses like queso blanco or ricotta, because acidity doesn’t make firm curds like rennet does, but not always. Paneer, a firm, fresh, Indian cheese that can be cooked without melting, is made this way.

Rennet Substitute

The most straightforward and versatile way to produce cheese without rennet is obviously to use a rennet substitute, usually described as “vegetable rennet” or “vegetarian rennet.” One form of this is made by manipulating specialized yeasts to grow a copy of rennet’s active ingredient, an enzyme called chymosin. More traditional versions use nettles or certain types of thistle to coagulate the milk.

Any list of vegetarian cheese usually consists mainly of products made with one or another of these. You can buy them from any cheese-making supply shop, but if you’re all in on the DIY mentality, you can make vegetarian rennet by foraging your own nettles or thistles. If you do, remember that both plants are notably inhospitable to invaders. Gloves and long sleeves are your friends.

If you’re vegan as opposed to lacto-ovo vegetarian, these forms of rennet will work with a number of non-dairy milk alternatives as well. There are vegan cheese-making communities you can turn to for detailed information, and some conventional cheese-making supply houses have good resources for vegans as well.

About the Author

Fred Decker

Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.