Wild Vegetable Rennet

“Blessed be the cheese makers, for they shall inherit the earth!”
Life of Brian.

Want to make your own cottage cheese or cream cheese?

Although you can’t forage milk, without upsetting your local farmer, you can stick to your foraging principles by making wild rennet. What is rennet? Rennet is the liquid you add to milk to ‘ret’ it – simply put it triggers the process of separating the curds (lumps) from the whey (liquid).

You can make rennet from quite a few wild plants. It is slower acting that shop-bought rennet and usually needs to be left overnight to curdle the milk. The best plants are nettle, sorrel and thistle. In Cornwall, they make a cheese called yarg, which traditionally was set with nettle rennet and wrapped in nettle leaves to mature. All thistles in the Compositae family will work, e.g. purple thistles (especially the giant ones), globe artichoke and cardoons. Other plants to try for wild rennet include fumitory, unripe fig sap, or yellow (Lady’s) bedstraw.

Sorrel rennet

Sorrel is what I usually use as I can always find a lot of it at most times of the year and you can use any of the varieties. I run the sorrel leaves through my hand juicer and add 5 teaspoons of sorrel juice per litre of milk. Leave it overnight in a warm place for it to curdle. Then strain it through a muslin cloth or nylon bag until it stops dripping. Keep the whey for cooking. Take the curds and season with salt and pepper to taste. Then pot, and put in the fridge. Add chopped chives, or finely chopped wild garlic leaves, for a seasonal twist.

You can also make a simple sour cream by adding a teaspoon of finely chopped sorrel leaves to a cup of milk.

sorrel-leaves

Be careful not to add too much sorrel rennet. Too much can make the cheese too acidic or cause indigestion. Experiment in small batches until you find the strength you like.

Cardoon rennet

Cardoons contain an enzyme called cynarase which will set fresh sheep’s milk in about an hour. The stamens – bright purple threads – are gathered in Spring and dried. A warm tea (never too hot for the enzymes) is made by adding a small amount of warm water to the thistle heads and pulverising in a food processor. As it mushes up add a little more warm water to keep it moving. Strain off the resulting brown liquid to use as the rennet. Cardoon sheep’s cheeses have an exquisite flavour and creaminess.

No food processor?

Pulverise your dried cardoon or thistle heads in a pestle and mortar. Keep in an airtight tin. To make rennet, put 6 heaped spoons of powdered thistle back into the pestle and mortar, and add just enough warm water to cover it. Then repeat the following two steps, 5 times over: Soak for 5 minutes, pound for 5 minutes more adding a little more warm water after each pounding. At the end of this, you will get a dark brown liquid – the rennet. Strain it off and add it to the milk. This amount should turn about 5 litres of milk.

Quick thistle rennet

Pick a bunch of thistle flowers when they’ve finished blooming and gone brown but before they produce thistledown. Tie the stalks together and hang them, head down, in a warm place to dry. Don’t cut the stems off! When dry, hang the bunch into your milk and leave it until the milk separates.

This thistle has run to down. Pick them before the down appears.

Nettle rennet

Salted nettle rennet will make a semi-hard cheese like feta or gouda.
Brandnetel GroteMethod: Nettles are always best used young before they go to seed. Fill a large saucepan 3/4 full of nettles (Urtica dioica) and just cover with water. The volumes should be about 1:1 (So for 1 kilo of nettles you need about 1 litre of water.) Bring to the boil and simmer gently for 30 minutes, then add 1 heaped tablespoon of salt and stir to dissolve. Strain off the nettles and keep the liquid – your nettle rennet – in a jam jar until you are ready to use it.
Use around 60-100 ml for 1 litre of warm milk, 130-150 ml for 2 litres, 190-200 ml for 3 litres and 250ml for 4 litres. However, remember that the strength of your rennet can vary and the efficacy will also depend on the thickness and fat content of the milk. You will have to experiment!
You can also put a large handful of chopped fresh or a small handful of dried nettle into a muslin bag and infuse it in warm milk. Keep the milk just below body temperature 35 C (95 F) until the milk rets. This is a slower process.
In Cornwall, they make a cheese called yarg, which is wrapped in nettle leaves to mature. If you want to try wrapping your cheese, freeze the nettle leaves first to avoid the stings!

Lady’s Bedstraw (Curdwort) rennet

Cheese made with Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum) rennet has a lovely yellow colour and is the texture of marscapone.
This was once the yellow of Cheshire cheese although nowadays they dye it with annatto. For Cheshire cheese it was mixed with calf rennet for a harder texture. It is a slow setting rennet and can take 12 hours. It varies!
Galium verumMethod 1: Chop and lightly bruise your Lady’s Bedstraw stalks and leaves with a rolling pin, then infuse in warm milk (just below body temperature 35 C (95 F) until the milk curdles. A handful should curdle a litre. It is easiest to put the plant parts in a mesh bag and stir it around occassionally rather than trying to strain off the plant with the whey.
Method 2: Chop and bruise your Lady’s Bedstraw stalks. Put in a saucepan and just cover with water. Simmer for 30 minutes. Strain. Try using around 125 ml for 1 litre of warm milk.

(Cheat’s tip: If you have a disaster with vegetable rennet and a batch doesn’t curdle, you can always add a little apple cider vinegar or lemon juice to rescue it!)
If you want a particular cheese recipe just DM me on Twitter @monicawilde

25 Comments

  1. Thankyou so very much for this information. People like you give others the courage to step out and do more for themselves rather than relying on the poisons from grocery stores. Yay!!! And again “Thankyou” so much for providing this information. You are truly blessed.

  2. Thank you for sharing all this. I tried my first nettle experiment. It didnt produce mozzarela as intended but instead I got very nice creamy soft cheese that I can spread on bread. Lovely. I will try all the rest natural rennet now.

    • Thank’s for letting me know how you got on. Keep experimenting with different quantities. You may find nettles work stronger in the spring when they are at their juiciest! Do let me know if you work out some fab recipes! Best wishes. Mo.

  3. warrenjamesanderson

    Youshould be able to make it from soya milk a comment fromwarren james anderson

    • Not sure if soya milk has the same enzymes as animal milk. Will look into it. Curdled soy milk is tofu, so it will react with some sort of “rennet”.

      • tofu is coagulated at much higher temperatures (with nigari or magnesium sulphate for example). rennet has no effect on soy proteins. i sometimes wonder if a low temperature setting agent might exist for soy and indeed that is what brought me here. unfortunately to coagulate soy you need to bring it to a tempertature which kills any cultures – much like like paneer or queso fresco. maybe i’ll find something someday. can i buy dried thistle flowers anywhere?

        • For dried thistle flowers you could try a herbalist but most will mainly stock milk thistle seed and blessed thistle seed. Alternatively a florist?

  4. Any luck with using ground ivy, mallow or yarrow yet? I’m a permaculture designer, so I’m always looking for additional functions for plants. The nettle experiments are great news. While I’m not experienced in making cheeses, I’d like to pass on any good information regarding cheese-making with as many vegetable rennet sources as I can find. Thanks.

    • Hi Phil. I haven’t had time yet to experiment with them. Was living in a caravan for 2 1/2 years with limited space! Now I’ve moved into the house we’ve built, there’ll be a lot more food experimentation 🙂

    • Io ho provato con le ortiche ma. Non ha funzionato!
      a volte uso latte di fico ma rende amaro il formaggio,per questo preferisco il caglio di vitello!
      Davide dall italia.

      • Spiacenti l’esperimento con ortica non ha funzionato. Caglio vegetale è più mite rispetto caglio di vitello, ma non si può scegliere un vitello da una siepe! 🙂

  5. Thanks for posting… I’d never heard of veggie rennet other than lemon juice and vinegar. Think I’ll try it out with wood sorrel.

    • Gently with the sorrel as it can make it a bit acidic if too much is used. I’ve not tried wood sorrel only common sorrel before. Thistle is by far the best.

    • Possibly. Try it out by grinding but in a pestle and mortar with a little warm water (like with my instructions for the thistle seed). Do let me know if it works out!

      The history of the bedstraws with cheese goes back quite a way. The genus name Galium is derived from gala, the Greek word for milk. Goosegrass (Galium aparine) was said to be used to sieve curds and whey – it’s ability to stick to itself making it a perfect primitive sieve for Greek shepherds. One of the common names is ‘milk sweet’. Apparently all the Galiums can be used for rennet to some degree.

      Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum) flowers were the most popular for natural rennet and to colour cheeses such as Double Gloucester.

    • You need to learn about them. Study the flower arrangement, the leaves, and all the details about them. The easiest way is to go on a course. See http://www.foragers-association.org for a teacher near you. Alternatively learn to read keys and buy some good reference books. I always tell my students that if you can tell the difference between a cabbage and a lettuce you have the mental power!

  6. Hi Monica! I am in the middle of trying to make feta cheese using raw cows milk and a nettle rennet, so far it is not working! Making another stronger brew of nettle rennet right now to see if I can bring some curds on…please let me know if you have any thoughts. I want something to come of this fine milk!! 🙂 Thank you, Holly

  7. loulourella

    Hi Monica, I’m collecting spear thistle for rennet and am a bit stuck on the quantities you described. When you say to pulverise the “thistle heads”, are you talking about the stamens only, or the whole flower? Then what sort of heaped spoon do you mean – table or tea? Thanks so much for this post!

    • The white undeveloped seeds at the base of the dying purple petals is the part I use. I use about a dessertspoon, make a liquid, then add the liquid a teaspoon at a time. Too many variables to be accurate!

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