Use summer to teach that learning can be delicious

“Daddy, how is cheese made?”

It’s the sort of question that during the day-to-day school year grind I’d probably answer with something short, sweet and designed to shut him up.

Because in the rush of lunch duty, school, homework, activities, dinner, that silly thing I call a job… who has time to turn perfectly reasonable questions into fun and informative science experiments?

That’s what summer is for!

And the kitchen and grocery store have some great opportunities for fun and easy learning. Nothing too hard or too dull or too long. Plus, you get to eat the results!

Some of my favorites:

  • Head down the grocer’s international aisle and let your kid grab something neither of you has ever heard of. Take it home, Google it and learn where it’s from, what it’s used for, etc. Then use it!
  • Grab a bottle of soda and a pack of Mentos mints. Now get online and check out instructions (and explanations) for how to make a soda volcano!
  • No time or space for a vegetable garden? Put some dirt in a glass jar and press some vegetable seeds into it (up against the glass). The kids can care for them and watch as the roots develop.
  • Make butter! Seriously. There are many ways, but the easiest is to dump some heavy cream (about 1 cup is a good start) in a jar with a tight lid. Now get the kids to shake. And shake. And shake some more. The cream will transform first into whipped cream, then it will separate into liquid and fat — technically buttermilk and butterfat. Pour off the liquid, season the solids with salt, then smear on bread. The best butter you will ever taste.
  • Teach how crystals forms. Make rock candy! There are tons of instructions online. This is a great one.

And then there is my favorite — make cheese! The kids will be amazed by watching the cheese curds literally form in front of them. So-called farmer’s cheese (a soft cheese with a mild, milky flavor) is the best choice.

Head to the grocer and grab a half gallon of whole milk (don’t get ulta pasteurized — or UHT — milk, as it doesn’t work as well). You’ll also need a lemon (or about 3 tablespoons of lemon juice) and salt.

Pour the milk into a large saucepan and set over medium heat. Bring almost to a boil, then immediately remove from the heat. Season with a hefty pinch of salt, then stir in the lemon juice.

Let it rest. Within minutes, the milk will look grainy and clumpy. This is the fat and protein separating from the whey (liquid). Set a fine mesh strainer over a large bowl. If you don’t have a fine mesh strainer, use a regular strainer, but line it with cheesecloth.

Carefully pour the milk mixture into the strainer, then refrigerate while the liquid drains out. If you want it to go faster, just stir it gently every once in a while. Otherwise, the longer you leave it, the thicker the cheese.

When you’re ready to try your creation, transfer it to a bowl and season as you like. We did black pepper and thyme, then drizzled it with honey and served it with crackers.

My son loved the taste. And he got his question answered in a way he’ll never forget.

J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He blogs about the trials and tribulations of his son’s lunches at His upcoming cookbook, Beating the Lunch Box Blues, will be the first to be released by Rachael’s new publishing venture, Rachael Ray Books. Hirsch’s previous books include High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking and Venturesome Vegan Cooking. He lives in New Hampshire with his son, wife, and too many cats.

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