Of Curds (and Whey)

Serious Cheese

Say cheese! We recommend, review, and eat a lot of cheese.

As an American kid the phrase "curds and whey" entered my vocabulary at a bizarrely early age, though I had no idea what it meant. If cheese was a slick square-shaped orange sheet wrapped in clear plastic, then curds and whey must certainly have been some strange agrarian relic of a bygone era. So I was really shocked to learn, from Mr. Wizard of all people, that curds and whey was simply a stodgier term for a very normal food: cottage cheese.

I have always been fond of cottage cheese, an admittedly simple food whose milky sweet taste almost plays second billing to its texture: chunky curds bathed in rich, smooth whey. And even though it pains me to admit it, I can say without irony or apology that there aren't too many food pairs better than cottage cheese and cantaloupe. So when this month's Saveur magazine published a recipe for Ayib Be Gomen (Ethiopian Collard Greens and Cottage Cheese), I felt I had to revisit this versatile staple of the supermarket dairy case.

Cottage cheese is a great cooking cheese, so I was happy to see it profiled in Saveur. However, the blurb they published glosses over a whole host of cottage cheese variations, conflating it with pot cheese, farmer cheese and several other fresh white cheeses. In fact there are some important differences between cottage, pot and farm cheese, chief among them how much liquid (or whey) remains. Of the three, cottage cheese has the highest whey content, followed by pot cheese and then farmer cheese, which is quite dry and crumbly. Though the cheeses resemble one another in taste, the moisture content of course has significant impact on the texture of the cheese, and it also determines how well the cheese fares in different recipes.

The Saveur recipe calls for straining the liquid out of the cottage cheese, a technique that effectively turns it into pot or farmer cheese (depending on how much moisture is lost). I imagine the editors chose to write the recipe this way because cottage cheese is much easier to find than the others. But if they'd mentioned pot or farmers cheese as the preferable alternatives, they certainly could've saved some readers' time and effort. (You're welcome.)

It is interesting to note, too, that farmer cheese is relatively low in lactose, since most of the lactose is in the whey, and most of the whey has been removed. (This is also why anti-lactites fare much better with a well-aged dry cheese, than a younger, more moist cheese.)

Friendship makes one of the more readily available farmer cheeses. My local health food store carries a nice one from Pennsylvania Amish country. It's also relatively easy to make at home. And again, since farmer cheese is simply cottage cheese that's been drained of most of its whey, you can also use this recipe to make homemade cottage cheese and pot cheese as well.

What are your favorite ways to use these cheeses? Ravioli? Blintzes? Salads? Now's your chance to let your inner Miss Muffet shine and cop to your love of curds and whey.