I have been doing a lot of research lately in cheese making – specifically cheese making without the use of commercial rennet.
Why? Two reasons: 1. In my quest for self-sufficiency, and since I will not be slaughtering a baby cow, goat or sheep anytime soon (traditional rennet is made from the stomach of a calf, kid or lamb), I need to find an alternative way to make cheese. We love cheese. 2. Did you know that much of the rennet used commercially today is microbial – made from genetically modified bacteria which produce chymosin (the active enzyme in rennet)! Oh no, GMO!
Why do we need rennet for cheese making? Rennet is an enzyme that coagulates warmed milk, making the curds. Of course, any warm milk over time will coagulate on it’s own, but that’s when it has already turned sour. Rennet coagulates milk when it is still sweet. You can make a soft cheese using acid (vinegar or lemon juice), but the rennet coagulates the milk faster and produces a firmer curd.
I have discovered that it is, indeed, fairly easy to make rennet yourself from several different plants. Apparently there are a lot of plants and plant parts that can be used to curdle your milk, including: purple thistle, stinging nettle, melon, fig, and safflower. However, since I have both purple thistle and nettle available to me, my investigation concentrated on just these two rennet substitutes.
In my last post I included a picture of a purple thistle that is growing on our future homestead. I did a bit of research and it looks like this may be a Bull Thistle, or cirsium vulgare, and that the Bull Thistle can, indeed, be considered for cheese making! Yes! Also, the purple thistle head from an artichoke works – and we planted artichokes this year! But, purple thistle rennet can only be used with goat’s or sheep’s milk. It makes Cow’s milk bitter – especially if aged.
I also found out that stinging nettle can also be used in place of rennet, but the nettle can be used in cow’s milk, as it has a different enzyme reaction than the thistle does, although it may still develop an off flavor if aged. Nettle rennet can be used to make a semi-hard cheese like feta or gouda.
Instructions for making vegetable rennet from purple thistle
1. Pick the thistle flower head when it has turned brown, but harvest it before the plant produces the thistle down, in which case it is too late.
2. Dry the flower heads well, pick off the stamens (the purple threads) and store them in a clean, dry jar with a tight lid.
3. When ready to make rennet, grind up the dried stamens with either a mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder until you have 5 tablespoons of powder.
4. Add warm water (not too hot, you don’t want to destroy the enzymes) to the pulverized stamens and let sit for about 10 minutes. The water will turn a murky brown.
5. Strain off the liquid. This is now thistle flower rennet.
6. The rennet can now be added to warmed milk to curdle it and begin the cheese making process.
Instructions for making vegetable rennet from salted nettle
1. Use nettles before they go to seed. Once seeds have formed, they are too mature.
2. Fill a large saucepan big enought to hold about 2 pounds of nettles for 4 cups of water. Bring to light boil and simmer for about 30 minutes.
3. Add 1 heaping tablespoon of salt and stir to dissolve. This helps to draw out the enzyme locked in the nettle leaves.
4. Strain plant material from the liquid. This is now nettle rennet. Use 1 cup of nettle rennet liquid to about 1 gallon of milk.
When using the nettle rennet, the amount of salt used in further cheese making (after curds have formed) should be reduced because of the amount of salt added during extraction of the rennet.
Now I can’t wait to get my purple thistle to bloom so I can make my own vegetable rennet! Next year I hope to have some artichokes (I think our plants were too young this year) and I will try making cheese with some of the chokes I let flower. In future posts I’ll let you know how it all turns out!
You should check out the following sites for more information – it’s where I got most of mine!
If you make your own cheese using vegetable rennet and have a post about it, please let me know! I would love to add a link to your post in the list above!
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