If you are thinking of starting to make your own cheese, then you will need to be familiar with the tools of the trade. This excerpt from Gianaclis Caldwell’s latest book, Mastering Basic Cheesemaking, explains the functions of the tools a beginner cheesemaker needs in order to make their fromage foray.
A stainless steel screw press with pressure gauge.
Photo by Gianaclis Caldwell
Very few cheese types need the extreme pressure that a mechanical press provides. Most cheeses can be made by using other weights, such as water jugs or barbells. A cheese only needs as much weight as it takes to press the rind closed and tighten the paste (as the interior of the cheese is called) to the desired texture. If the curd is salted before it goes into the press, as with cheddar and some other cheese types, then the tremendous force of a mechanical press is required in order to get the curd to knit back together. Similarly, curd that is very dry by the end of the process, such as with Parmesan-type cheeses, will likely need a mechanical press. Small screw-type presses that will make about a five-pound wheel of cheese can be purchased from a cheesemaking supply company. They are relatively expensive.
A ratcheting strap press can be made for under $10.00 and will work with any straight-sided cheese form and follower. Pictured here with a large tomme form capable of making an 8 lb (4 kg) cheese.
Photo by Gianaclis Caldwell
Mats and Racks
Mats and racks are needed to set draining and drying cheeses on. They allow for air circulation around the cheese and let any dripping moisture fall away from the cheese. Cheese mats are made of food-grade plastic and look almost identical to plastic cross-stitch mats (available in craft stores). In fact, I know several commercial cheesemakers that use these craft store mats with no problem. Plastic sushi mats are another nice option. Stainless steel or coated cooling racks (also known as baker’s racks) are great to place underneath the plastic cheese mats to help increase drainage and airflow.
A cheese air drying (top right) and others aging vacuum sealed in Canadian cheesemaker Ian Treuer’s home aging unit. For more visit Much To Do About Cheese.
Photo by Ian Treuer
Trays and Tubs
During draining and pressing, you may need a tray to collect or divert the whey that is pressed out of the cheese form so that it does not pool around the base of the cheese. A glass baking dish, sink drainboard, or a tray will all work fine for the job. For some cheeses that we will make later, you will need a good-sized plastic food tub with a lid to hold the cheese during brine salting or drying. If you don’t mind working with a bit of harmless mold, cheeses can be aged in a plastic tub or a bag to create a natural rind and more distinctive flavor. The tub will help keep the humidity high enough around the cheese so that it doesn’t dry out. This method of aging requires quite a bit more vigilance and work on your part than when the cheeses are aged in a vacuum-sealed bag. We’ll cover the techniques for aging in more detail in chapter 8.
Vacuum Sealing Equipment
A vacuum sealer is handy for storing and aging cheese. Any home-quality vacuum sealer can be used as long as the bags that fit it are large enough to hold your cheese wheels. If possible, choose a sealer that will put a double seal on the bag, or seal it double in two steps. For small wheels, I like to use the resealable zipper-lock type vacuum bags and the handheld vacuum pump that works with them. They have the advantage of being reusable, but the size choices are more limited.
Cheese professional and home cheesemaker Gisela Claassen vacuum seals her original bourbon cheddar.
Photo by Arne Claassen
Cheeses can be aged at home in the refrigerator or in a wine/beverage cooler. Refrigerator temperatures range from 40 degrees (4.4 degrees C) to just above freezing at 33 degrees (0.5 degrees C). Even within the unit, the temperature can vary. All cheeses will age, as long as they aren’t freezing, but generally do best between 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 degrees C) and 55 degrees (12 degrees C). Wine/beverage coolers are designed to keep things at a very cheese-aging-friendly temperature, so if you can get one of these units, your cheeses will thank you. If not, go ahead and use whatever fridge you can — it will still work!
Preparing Cheesemaking Tools
The equipment preparation for all cheeses is similar, so we’ll cover it just once. I won’t include this very repetitive process in the recipes, but you should follow it every time you make cheese. When I work in our licensed creamery, I use a lot of hot water, a lot of cleaning solutions, and a lot of elbow grease. I also wear scrubs, a hair cover, gloves, and boots that are only used in the creamery. When I make cheese in our home kitchen, I am pretty relaxed by comparison. Cheesemaking equipment should be very clean, of course, but I don’t keep a sink filled with bleach and water ready to rinse and re-sanitize all of the tools and my hands.
A thorough hand washing and vigorous scrubbing with dish soap of all of your equipment will remove almost 100 percent of any dirt, residue, or microbes of concern. After each cheesemaking session and wash-up, be sure to allow everything to air dry thoroughly. Bacteria need moisture to grow, so keeping equipment dry between uses is a great way to prevent contamination. An automatic dishwasher can be used to clean equipment instead of hand washing it. Before use, it is a good idea to rewash anything that has not been used and washed in some time, say a week or so. If you are going to use it right away, you don’t have to let it air dry. You can sanitize your equipment just before use if desired. For the home cheese kitchen, my favorite sanitizer is boiling hot water. You can fill or partially fill your main cheese pot with water, bring it to a boil, then dip all of your tools into the water. Pour a bit of the water over a tray and lay your tools on this tray. Use the same hot water to rinse your already-clean forms and cheesecloth as well. If you are going to use them immediately, they don’t need to air dry.