The saga of homemade brown cheese
Yes, you can make brunost at home. But should you?
Christy Olsen Field
Taste of Norway Editor
Brunost, and its goat milk version gjetost, is one of Norway’s best-known cheeses. Invented in 1863 by Ann Hov, a farmer in Gudbrandsdalen, brunost’s fudgy texture and distinctive caramelized flavor is a taste of home for many Norwegians and Norwegian Americans. It’s one of my very favorite Norwegian foods.
Brunost is not actually a true cheese, rather it is whey that is reduced on the stove and caramelized, with a bit of cream added to it.
When I read that brunost can be made at home, I thought it would be a fun project for a winter day.
I should also mention here that I embrace a good culinary challenge. It’s fun for me to make things from scratch that people typically buy, because I truly believe that most things taste best when made with love in your own kitchen.
My oven churns out cookies, cakes, and breads on a regular basis. I make yogurt in my Instant Pot. I lovingly tend to my ramen broth for 12 hours to coax out the flavors and texture I want. I’ve made ricotta cheese before, and dulce de leche (milk caramel sauce from Argentina), so how hard could it be to make brunost?
I started with the brunost recipe in North Wild Kitchen, the terrific cookbook written by food blogger and previous contributor to The Norwegian American Nevada Berg. This is my favorite Norwegian cookbook, and I especially love Berg’s streamlined recipes.
I followed Berg’s recipe closely, gently heating 3 quarts milk and 1 quart buttermilk. The curds separated from the whey, which I strained out through cheesecloth. The resulting curds are farmer’s cheese (a fresh and mild white cheese, essentially ricotta), and are so delicious when sprinkled with salt.
But our focus here is the whey, the remaining liquid.
The whey simmered away on the stove for four hours, reducing by quite a bit. It was getting late in the evening and the mixture was just a hint of brown, but I was ready to call it a night.
“I’m sure this will firm up overnight in the fridge,” I thought. I poured in a half cup of cream, stirred it for a few minutes, and scraped it into my buttered Pyrex container.
It didn’t work. The next morning, it was a soupy mixture of dairy that was never, ever going to be cheese.
For my second attempt, I used the same recipe. After separating the curds from the whey, I brought the whey to a simmer in my 8-quart stockpot, and was determined to get to actual brown.
It took about an hour longer than my first batch to get to the color I was looking for. It thickened up (though admittedly still not like caramel), but it seemed promising and at least looked like the picture in North Wild Kitchen. After letting it sit for a couple hours, I wedged out a small piece for a taste. It was crumbly, with an off-putting grainy texture. It tasted nothing like brunost. And there was no way that it could be sliced with my brunosthøvelen (Norwegian cheese slicer for brown cheese).
Clearly this wasn’t working, so I took to Google for more recipes for homemade brown cheese. I read several Norwegian blogs, but they basically said the same thing: Boil down the whey until caramelized, and let cool. Not helpful.
I expanded my search to cheesemaking blogs in English. Whey is a byproduct of making cheese and yogurt, so people are often looking for new ways to use up an abundance of whey. Brunost was enthusiastically recommended, but in my search, there was no consensus on what brunost actually looked like, or how to use it.
Recommendations included using it in an Alfredo sauce for pasta, and even “grated and used sparingly as a pizza topping.”
To each their own, but I believe brunost’s highest calling is to be served in thin slices atop a good slice of bread or tucked into a heart-shaped waffle. I also like it in a good savory sauce, but there was no way I was grating it over pizza.
Feeling demoralized but determined to figure it out, I headed back to Fred Meyer to get another round of dairy products.
“Any fun plans today?” said the checker.
“Ah, not really. I’m trying to make Norwegian brown cheese at home,” I replied with a shrug, trying to not show my desperation.
“Oh, that’s cool. My grandma makes her own brown cheese every Christmas,” he said cheerfully.
I looked at him incredulously. Why would anyone want to do this?
“Well, good luck,” he said.
For my third attempt, I use four quarts of milk with 5 tablespoons of distilled white vinegar for coagulation instead of buttermilk. I heated up the milk on the stove while I served dinner to my kids.
Would it surprise you to hear that the milk completely boiled over and made a huge mess? Just my luck.
I texted my friend (and former Norwegian American Weekly editor) Kelsey Larson. “I’m making homemade brunost for my article AND IT IS NOT GOING WELL,” I wrote.
“Wow! You’re amazing to even attempt that!” she replied.
I was beginning to think that this project was showing my culinary hubris.
I heated the milk to 175°F on the stovetop, stirred in the vinegar, and waited for a few minutes. The whey seemed too opaque to me after I strained out the curds, so I did another round of coagulation with an additional two tablespoons of vinegar and strained it again. I also switched to my wide sauté pan to encourage quicker evaporation.
After about two and a half hours, the whey started to caramelize, much better than before. I did a happy dance in the kitchen as I stirred it constantly with my rubber spatula. It looked like peanut butter. I scraped the final product into a buttered 12-ounce glass container, and set it in a bowl of ice water, since I read that rapid chilling could help with the grittiness.
Buoyed by this success, I decided to make one more batch, but this time with half cow’s milk and half goat’s milk to make gjetost.
After another two and a half hours, the goat milk mixture was ready for the final step. I stirred it with confidence, scraped it into the buttered mold, and let it sit in an ice bath in the fridge overnight to set.
The next morning, I was gleeful! This was my moment! It looked like brunost. And smelled like brunost.
I stuck the knife into the first one. It came out in chunks that I sort of squished together. The texture was still grainy, and utterly unsliceable, but tasted a lot like brunost.
Undeterred, I tried to unmold the gjetost version from its glass bowl, and it would not budge. I could not wedge a knife into that solid mass, and it looked like my bowl might be sacrificed in this project too. I threw up my hands and declared defeat.
So can you make your own brunost at home? Yes. Should you? Well, I’ll let you make the decision. As for me, I am leaving this up to the pros at Tine.
P.S. Have you made brown cheese at home? Have you cracked the code on the grainy texture? I’d love to hear from you. Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Homemade Brown Cheese)
By Christy Olsen Field
Yield: About 10 ounces, or just over 1 cup
4 qts. whole milk
5 tbsps. distilled white vinegar
½ cup whipping cream
Cheesecloth (available in most grocery stores in the canning section)
In a large pot, heat up the milk to a gentle simmer, about 175°F. Add in the vinegar, and give a good stir. Let simmer for a couple minutes. Line a colander with cheesecloth, and place over a large bowl.
In your widest sauté pan, bring the whey to a simmer. Stir occasionally. You might hear some loud pops with the whey, so don’t be alarmed.
Butter a mold, such as a small glass jar or bowl.
The whey will reduce significantly in volume, by 75%, and begin to turn brown. Stir constantly with a spatula as the mixture turns into a fudgy, dark caramel mass, similar to peanut butter.
Keep stirring, and then scrape the mixture into the buttered mold. Place in a shallow ice bath, and let sit for a few hours to set.
By Christy Olsen Field
Yield: About 10 ounces, or just over 1 cup
8 oz. brunost, such as Ski Queen (available at well-stocked grocery stores in the specialty cheese section)
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup whipping cream
1 tsp. sugar
Editor’s note: I was delighted to get an email from our reader Nancy Hill, who wrote:
“I’m wondering if there is a way to track down a recipe? I was having a walk down memory lane and recalled a time when my mom had boiled a can of sweetened condensed milk, or maybe it was evaporated milk. I thought it was called prim, but it could have been brunost. Mom, who is 92, thought that it was her mom’s sister who had made it. The can of milk was boiled for a very long time. Then cooled in the can before opening the can for removal. Any help would be greatly appreciated.”
Boiling a can of sweetened condensed milk is an easy way to make dulce de leche, but it would lack the tanginess of brunost. That said, I found this wonderful recipe for prim, which is spreadable brown cheese.
This recipe is from Tine, Norway’s major dairy collective and cheese producer.
Slice the cheese into small pieces. In a small saucepan, combine the buttermilk, cream, and sugar and bring to a simmer. Whisk in the cheese pieces until melted, and let simmer for about 30 minutes.
Prepare a bowl of ice water. Place the saucepan in the ice water bath, stirring the prim so it doesn’t get grainy in the cooling process.
Store in a lidded jar in the fridge.
This article originally appeared in the January 24, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.