Cream cheese is the best first introduction to cheese-making. Cream cheese introduces you to rennet and bacterial culture, the ingredients that coagulate cheese and give it flavor, and the ripening, or maturation, process. Before you start, sterilize a long spoon, regular spoon, stockpot and colander by boiling them for 10 minutes and letting them air dry. One gallon of whole milk and 1 pint of heavy cream makes 1 1/2 to 2 pints of cream cheese.


Milk

Milk and cream quality directly correlates with cheese quality. In a perfect cheese-making world, home cheese-makers everywhere would have access to fresh, unpasteurized milk all the time. Instead, use whole pasteurized cow’s milk and cream. You can use any type of milk except Ultra-High Temperature, or UHT. However, skim and reduced-fat milk makes a dry cream cheese. Slowly heat the milk and cream to 86 degrees Fahrenheit in a stainless-steel pot.


Coagulant and Ripening Ingredients

Rennet separates curds from whey and coagulates them. Buttermilk culture, integral to cream-cheese ripening and flavor, comprises beneficial bacteria like lactobacillus, the culture used in yogurt production. Calcium chloride, an optional ingredient, augments curd coagulation, producing a consistency that holds its shape. Mix in 1/4 teaspoon of calcium chloride; let the milk settle for a couple of minutes. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of buttermilk culture on the surface of the milk and let it stand for 5 minutes. Next, stir in 4 drops of single-strength animal or vegetable rennet.


Ripening

Coagulation and ripening take place over the 12-to-18-hour span following the addition of rennet and culture. You know the milk has fully coagulated when the curd mass, which floats on top, pulls away from the sides of the pot. You also see 2- to 3-inch-wide pools of whey interspersed on top the curd mass. Ripening differentiates the flavor of cheese from the flavor of milk. Powered by lactobacillus and rennet, ripening, or maturation, develops cream cheese’s flavor. After you add the rennet, cover the pot with a couple of layers of cheesecloth and let it ripen for 12 to 18 hours in a room no warmer than 68 degrees Fahrenheit.


Straining

Straining separates the curd from whey, and hanging removes excess moisture from the cream cheese. After the curd coagulates, spoon it into a colander lined with a couple layers of cheesecloth; set the colander over a bowl if you want to reserve the whey. Drain the curd for 2 hours.


Hanging

Instead of pressing the curd in a mold with weight, as happens to hard and semi-soft cheeses, gravity presses cream-cheese curd and drives the moisture from it. After straining the cream cheese, tie the corners of the cheesecloth together with kitchen twine. Hang the cheesecloth-wrapped cheese over a pot and let it drain until it reaches the desired consistency: About 10 to 15 hours for soft cream cheese and 15 to 20 hours for firm cream cheese. Unwrap the cheesecloth every few hours and stir the curd, adding a pinch of salt during the final stir.


Storing

Scrape the cheese from the cheesecloth and into an airtight container. Keep homemade cream cheese five days in the fridge.