Authentic Ethiopian cheeses are not readily in most supermarkets, but it can easily be made at home. One of the most popular cheeses in Ethiopia is called lab or ayib. The cheese is used as an accompaniment to spicy dishes, to help cut the heat. Most Westerners compare lab to either cottage cheese or ricotta, and the process is closest to making either ricotta or Indian paneer. It uses milk, and acidic substance to curdle the milk, and then the whey is drained away. It’s a soft, white cheese that requires no aging. It’s an ideal cheese for beginning cheese makers as it uses simple ingredients, follows easy steps, and allows the maker to have a reward of homemade cheese quickly.
Lab (using citric acid or lemon juice)
1 gallon of whole milk*
1 1/3 cups lemon juice or 4 teaspoons prepared citric acid*
Kosher or flake salt to taste
Bring the milk to a boil over high heat in a large non-reactive pain, stirring constantly with a non-reactive spoon.
Once it reaches a boil, stir in lemon juice or citric acid until thoroughly combined, and turn the heat down to medium. Continue to stir constantly until curds begin to form, or the milk looks sufficiently curdled.
Remove the mixture from the heat. Allow the mixture to sit for one to two hours, or until cool enough to handle. Line a fine sieve, colander or cheese strainer with fine mesh cheese cloth, coffee filters, or butter muslin. Spoon the mixture into the lined sieve, and rinse with cold, non-chlorinated water to help remove or reduce the acidic flavor if desired.
Cover the mixture, and place the sieve over the sink or a bowl to catch the draining whey. Allow the mixture to drain around eight hours or over night. The whey can be discarded or used for other purposes once the cheese is done draining. Move the drained cheese into a non-reactive storage container, and salt to taste.
Store unused cheese in the fridge for up to two weeks, or freeze up to six months. When lab is not being used as a condiment or addition to a dish like Ayib Begomen, it is usually served on its own with spices. Flavorings used to flavor lab cheese served on its own include cumin, garlic, onions, hot pepper powder or paste, berbere, basil, coriander/cilantro, peppermint, or turmeric.
*Use milk that is as minimally processed as possible, as ultra-pasteurized milks are unlikely to form a curd. If curds fail to form, you may need to start with re-hydrated powdered milk and add cream to increase the milk fat.
*Prepared citric acid can be found in most baking or canning sections in stores, or through home brew or cheese making shops.