We have had a couple of soft and easy stories this week – it is time to get back to serious kitchen basics. I sincerely hope that you and I never have to make the choice between making our own rennet or doing without cheese, but just in case the worst scenario happens, today we will learn how to do just that.
‘Rennet’ is the coagulating agent added to milk in the first stage of making cheese. Numerous substances will perform this function, including some vegetable materials (nettle rennet is here), but the most important is made from the stomach of a calf.
The marvelous Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery (1870’s) gives some detailed instructions for the preparation and use of rennet.
Rennet. - Rennet is the name given to the prepared inner membrane of a calf's, pig's, hare's, fowl's, or turkey's stomach, which is used for turning milk. It may frequently be bought ready dried of the butcher, and then may be kept a long time, if hung in a cool place, and covered to preserve it from dust. When wanted for use, a little piece about two inches square should be soaked in a quarter of a pint of hot water for four hours, and the liquor thus obtained should be stirred into lukewarm milk.
Rennet varies so much in strength that it is not easy to say how much will be required. Ordinarily, a table-spoonful of the liquor in which the dried rennet has been soaked will turn two quarts of milk. For people living in towns the easiest way of procuring rennet is to buy a bottle of the liquor, which is sold by almost all chemists ready for use. Rennet, however, may be prepared at home, as follows : - Take the stomachs of two or more freshly- killed calves. Cleanse them thoroughly from all impurities, and rub them inside and out with salt. Pack them closely in a stone jar, strew salt between and over them, and cover them up.
A month or more before they are to be used let them drain a few hours, and dry them by stretching them on sticks. Some farmers prepare the rennet as follows : - Empty the stomach of a freshly-killed calf, and carefully preserve the coagulated milk it contains. Wash it carefully, and put the milk into it again with some salt. Tie the openings of the stomach with string to prevent the contents escaping, and place it in an earthenware jar with half a pint of brandy mixed with six ounces of water. Cover the jar closely, place it in a cool situation, and let it remain for one month. At the end of that time filter the liquor through un-sized paper, and preserve it in small well- stoppered bottles. Half a tea-spoonful of this fluid will coagulate a pint of milk.
Rennet (other ways). - For the preparation of rennet there are many recipes ; the following will be found one of the best: - Take a calf's stomach-bag or maw, wash it clean, salt it thoroughly inside and out, and let it lie for two or three days. Hang it up to drain for another two or three days, then re-salt it, and put it into a jar covered with paper, pricked with pinholes. It may be used in a few days, but keeping improves it. When prepared for use, a handful of sweetbriar leaves, of dog-rose leaves, and of bramble-leaves, together with three or four handfuls of salt, are boiled in a gallon of water for a quarter of an hour, and when quite cold the salted maw is added, together with a lemon
stuck round with a quarter of an ounce of cloves. There must be enough salt to admit of some remaining always at the bottom undisturbed, and the steep must be scummed as often as is necessary. “In Essex they practice another plan, which is to take the fourth or last ventricle of a calf, commonly called the bag, and opening it, they take out the curd, picking it well of hairs, which are mixed plentifully with it ; then they wash it and put it into the bag again, with a good quantity of salt, and keep it in a well-glazed earthen vessel till they use it, as follows : - If they first make cheese in the beginning of the spring, they boil salt and water together till the water is saturated with salt, and will dissolve no more, and steep the bag, having been first prepared as before, in it; but when they have made cheese (by rennet previously prepared) they steep it altogether in whey well salted by boiling salt in it, and sometimes, to give it a high flavour, they boil spices with it. The aromatics are matters of fancy, and may either be used or omitted; some only prepare a quart of rennet from one stomach, and others a gallon, but the stronger the rennet the less will be required to the milk."
Gallino Rennet. - A rennet may be made from the rough skin which lines the gizzards of fowls or turkeys, and the curd obtained by its means is more delicate than that made from calf's rennet. The skin should be well-washed, salted, and covered to protect it from dust, and hung in a cool place to dry. A little piece soaked in a cupful of boiling water for eight hours produces the rennet.
Now, should you have a mind, there is no excuse for you to avoid making your own cheese truly from scratch.
When we first came to Australia (from Italy) and ricotta was not available, my father remembered that when he was a boy some Sicilians made ricotta with the sap of a fig tree. We tried it and it does work. Cut a small branch/pull leaves off the stem and you will have a white coloured sap which will curdle the milk.
I have written a post about making ricotta on my blog, 'All Things Sicilian and More'. In it I also mention how some early Italian settlers dealt with making ricotta.
Hi Marisa! I had heard that fig sap worked - it is good to hear a personal anecdote about it. I remember the first time I ever had baked ricotta was at your home. We share some great food memories, dont we?
This is awesome! I'm an extreme kitchen do-it-yourselfer! I couldn't find anyone who explained it as well as you! I've dabbed in making cheese at home, but was sorely disappointed to learn that my rennet was full of colorants, preservatives, and thickeners. The point of making homemade cheese was to have something natural. Now I can truly have all natural homemade cheese! Thank-you!
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