Traditional cheesemaking is a complex hobby, by and large. Fresh cheeses, however, can be easier. That's especially true if you already make yogurt or related cultured-milk products, such as kefir. Kefir is already acidified and lightly curdled, so taking it that one step further and turning it into cheese requires little time and effort.
A Quick Kefir Primer
Like yogurt or commercial buttermilk, kefir is made by culturing fresh milk. Home kefir-makers typically use kefir grains, complex colonies of lactic bacteria and yeasts that form pale, curd-like clumps. The grains are self-perpetuating, growing in volume with each use, so enthusiasts can usually spare a spoonful as a starter kit for newcomers. Unlike yogurt, kefir doesn't require a special incubator. It's cultured at ambient room temperature, working best in the mid-80s Fahrenheit. Just drop the grains into a quart of milk, leave them overnight, and you'll have kefir the next day.
Soft Kefir Cheese
If you've ever made soft cheese -- known as labneh in the Middle East -- from yogurt, you already know how to make it from kefir. The finished kefir is similar to yogurt but thinner, with its fine curds awash in flavorful whey. Making cheese is a simple matter of draining the surplus whey. Line a colander with a jelly bag or several layers of cheesecloth, and place it over a large bowl to catch the whey. Strain the kefir grains from the kefir, if you haven't already done so, then pour the kefir into the cloth-lined colander. Lift the corners of the cloth and tie them with string, to make a bag. Hang the bag from a rack in your refrigerator, with the bowl beneath it to catch the whey as it drips out. After at least 6 to 8 hours, the kefir will form a soft, spreadable fresh cheese.
If your refrigerator has glass shelves rather than racks, leave the wrapped kefir in its colander to drain.
A Few Variations
The new kefir cheese has a clean, fresh, slightly tangy milk flavor. Left to ripen in the refrigerator for another day, it becomes tangier and more complex. You can also stir in flavorful ingredients such as chopped herbs, roll it in spices, or experiment with other add-ins such as chopped figs and bright, floral honey. For a longer-.lasting cheese, shape the drained kefir into small balls and salt them lightly with sea salt or pickling salt. After a day in the refrigerator they'll become firm, and can be stored in olive oil for later use.
One Step Further
If you'd like to create a still-firmer cheese, one that can be crumbled or grated, you'll need to press additional whey from the soft curds. Start by preparing soft kefir cheese, leaving it in the fridge for up to 24 hours or until it stops dripping. Cover the bag with a plate or flat pot lid, large enough to cover the curds but small enough to fit inside the edges of the colander. Set canned goods or a heavy saucepan on the lid, to apply gentle pressure. When whey stops dripping again, replace the weight with something heavier. After another 24 hours, unwrap the cheese. Wrap the cheese loosely in wax paper and then a plastic bag, and refrigerate or freeze it for later use.
Don't discard the whey, which is high in protein and low in fat. Use it in shakes and smoothies, or as a liquid ingredient in cooking or baking.