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Guide to Home Cheese Making

 

 Photo by iStock/Getty Images Plus/fotek

My wife, Ricki, and I first got involved with cheese making
out of necessity. Over the years, though, our involvement
with this ancient culinary craft has grown from necessity
to avocation, and has finally become a full-time
vocation (we now own and operate a cheese-making
supplies company). And believe it or not, that process has
been a real adventure.

Our story began when we purchased several milk goats, each
of which produced a generous gallon a day. At first we
tried drinking the milk as quickly as our does manufactured
it. Couldn’t be done. Next we tried our hand at making
yogurt. But, as with milk, one can consume only so
much
yogurt before it spoils — so our chickens
inherited the surplus, which they gobbled until we feared
they’d begin laying curdled eggs. And that was
when we decided to try making cheese — a craft about
which we knew absolutely nothing!

Guide to Home Cheese Making

Since our local bookstores weren’t exactly bulging with
tomes on home cheese making, I retreated to the University of
Massachusetts Library and invested endless hours in
searching out old recipes (primarily of 1800’s vintage). As
a result of this research, I finally gained enough
knowledge and confidence to actually give cheese making a
go.

For our premier attempt, we employed a homemade
bricks-and-orange-juice-cans press in an effort to turn out
a few pounds of feta (a brine-cured goat’s-milk cheese of
Greek origin). The homespun press did get the job done, but
only barely, and it soon became apparent that if
Ricki and I were going to continue pursuing our new
hobby-of-necessity, we’d have to purchase some specialized
equipment.

After drawing a blank in our search for a domestic
cheese-making supplies house, we wrote to the embassies of
just about every country in the world that I thought might
have an industry producing small-scale cheese-making
equipment. During the course of that search, we opened a
correspondence with the Wheeler family, who, from their
farm in the south of England, produce and market a
beautiful, handcrafted cheese press. Eventually, Ricki and
I made a pilgrimage to the Wheeler farm.

During our stay, Mrs. Wheeler thoroughly indoctrinated us
in the craft of home cheese making, giving special attention to
the hard English varieties. (One evening, she served us a
tasty homemade cheddar she called “Lilly cheese.” We
assumed it was a local variety peculiar to Dunchideock . .
. until she took us out to the barn after dinner and
introduced us to Lilly, her Jersey cow.)

Upon returning home from England, we purchased our own
Jersey milk cow, Nelly, who turned out to be good company
for our goats and provided us with ample amounts of the raw
material that would allow us to begin making a greater
variety of cheeses.

Through trial and error, we eventually perfected recipes
for making a number of delicious cheeses at home — with
a minimum of hassles and at the lowest possible
cost — and eventually went on to found the New England
Cheesemaking Supply Company. In the following discussion,
I’d like to share some of what we’ve learned about the
craft of cheese making over the years, in the hope that
you, too, might become enthused about this ancient culinary
art.

First, though, a bit of background.

Home Cheese Making: Milk Requirements

Any milk used for cheese making must be fresh and of the
highest quality. It shouldn’t be mastitic (that is, drawn
from an animal with inflamed udders), nor should it contain
the residues of antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides, or
sanitizers.

Do you own a dairy goat or cow? If so, special precautions
are in order: Raw milk contains a variety of natural
bacteria. Consequently, if you intend to make a raw-milk
cheese that’s aged less than 60 days, you must be
absolutely certain that the milk contains no pathogens
(disease-causing organisms). Due to the high acid content
of raw-milk cheeses, varieties that are aged more
than 60 days are generally free of pathogens. If there’s
any doubt as to the quality of your raw milk, it should be
pasteurized before use.

Pasteurization is a process in which the raw milk is heated
in a double boiler (or in a home pasteurizer) to 163 degrees Fahrenheit,
kept at this temperature for 30 seconds, then cooled as
quickly as possible to below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The pasteurized milk
should then be refrigerated until you’re ready to use it
for cheese making.

But don’t depend entirely on pasteurization to provide you
with wholesome milk. Rather, begin taking precautions at
milking time by maintaining strictly sanitary conditions.
Be especially careful to avoid gross contamination. If a
cow or goat should put a foot in the milk pail, for
instance, the entire bucket would become contaminated. (In
case of such an event, if you can’t afford to dump the
contaminated milk, strain it through a milk filter and then
pasteurize it.)

Milk should be collected only in containers that can be
easily cleaned and sterilized. Stainless steel is best,
though enameled and glass containers are satisfactory.
Avoid using cast-iron or aluminum pails, since they’re
difficult to clean and can introduce metallic salts into
the milk.

If you must purchase your milk from the store, attempt to
find an unhomogenized brand. The process of homogenization
breaks down milk’s butterfat, which prevents the cream from
rising to the top, thereby rendering it useless for making
hard cheeses (the homogenized fat globules are too small to
produce a proper curd). Homogenized milk can be
used, however, for making soft cheeses.

Getting A-culture-ated

Cheese making requires the efforts of two dairy animals-the
cow or goat from which the milk is drawn, and a microscopic
bacterium that lives in milk, consumes milk sugar
(lactose), and produces the lactic acid that enhances
flavor and gives cheese its natural resistance to spoilage.
Today, these specialized bacteria are bred in dairy labs
and marketed in freeze-dried packets.

There are two primary types of cheese starter cultures:
thermophilic and mesophilic. Thermophilic, from
the Greek, means a lover of heat. It follows, then, that a
thermophilic starter culture is used in making cheeses that
are processed at high temperatures — ranging from
105 degrees to 132 degrees Fahrenheit. This includes the Swiss cheeses,
plus such Italian varieties as mozzarella, Parmesan,
Romano, and several others.

Mesophilic refers to a lover of moderate
temperatures. Mesophilic dairy bacteria thrive in
temperatures ranging from 70 degrees to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, and are
used in making such hard and semihard cheeses as cheddar,
Colby, blue, Muenster, and others.

The majority of cheeses made at home — and both of the
varieties we’ll be discussing in a moment — use
mesophilic starters. Fortunately, the process of culturing
(growing) this variety of bacteria is no more complicated
than making yogurt.

To prepare a mesophilic starter culture, you’ll need a
half-gallon canning jar with a lid (or two one-quart jars
with lids). Sterilize both the container and its
cap by immersing them in boiling water for at least five
minutes. After removing the jar from the sterilizing bath
and allowing it to cool, begin the culturing process by
filling it to within half an inch of the top with skim milk
(mesophilic bacteria don’t need cream in order to survive
and prosper). Now screw the lid tightly onto the jar and
lower the container into a pot of water that’s deep enough
to cover the top of the jar by at least a quarter of an
inch. Place the uncovered pot on a stovetop burner and
bring it to a slow boil. After 30 minutes, remove
the jar from the boiling water and allow it to cool to room
temperature (which may take several hours).

Heat-treating the milk in this fashion kills any harmful
living organisms and provides a hospitable environment for
the starter-culture bacteria.

When the milk has cooled to room temperature (72 degrees Fahrenheit is
perfect, but don’t risk contaminating the milk at this
point by dipping in a thermometer), add a packet of starter
culture: Remove the lid from the jar, pour in the powdered
bacteria, then quickly replace the lid. After
swirling the jar around a bit to dissolve the powder, store
the milk in a spot where it will remain at or near room
temperature. After 15 to 24 hours, the bacteria will have
created so much acid that the milk protein and butterfat
will have coagulated into a semisolid curd, thickening the
milk to a yogurt-like consistency.

Once the starter culture has coagulated (don’t rush it),
refrigerate it immediately and use it within a week . . .
or pour it into sterilized ice cube trays and freeze it in
the coldest part (usually the rear) of your freezer. Later,
you can remove the cubes from the trays, place them in
heavy, airtight plastic bags, and return the bags to the
freezer. A starter culture can be kept for 30 to 60 days
this way, with the cubes providing convenient one-ounce
portions of culture that can be thawed for use in cheese
making, or — sourdough-like — employed to start
another culture. (One cube of frozen dairy culture
equals one packet of powdered starter.)

The Rundown on Rennet

Whole milk consists mostly of water, with smaller
proportions of sugar, protein, butterfat, and minerals. One
of the primary goals of the cheese making process is to
remove much of that water, thereby concentrating
the protein and butterfat into a delicious, easily
preserved form.

To do this, cheese makers employ rennet. Rennet
was discovered in prehistoric times, when glass and plastic
jugs weren’t nearly as easy to come by as they are today.
Back then, the best milk containers folks could come up
with were animal stomachs. Just about any old stomach would
do. But, as people soon discovered, if fresh milk was
stored in the stomach of a young mammal for any
length of time, strange things began to happen . . . the
milk separated itself into a white curd and a greenish
watery liquid. This discovery was to cheese making what the
invention of the wheel was to transportation.

Modern science has developed a method for extracting
rennin (the active enzyme) from calf stomachs,
which is then refined and marketed in liquid and tablet
form. If liquid rennet is protected from direct sunlight
and kept refrigerated (but not allowed to freeze), it will
remain effective for up to a year. Rennet tablets, if stored in a cool place (they can be refrigerated
or frozen), will hold their strength for
several years. (If you’re a vegetarian, you’ll be
happy to know about vegetable rennet, which also comes in
liquid and tablet forms and has about the same strength and
properties as calf rennet.)

Now, with an understanding of rennet and starter cultures
under our belts, we’re finally ready for some cheese making.

Cheese Recipe No. 1: Lactic Cheese

It’s best for novice cheese makers to start with the soft
cheeses, since they’re by far the easiest and quickest to
make. One of my favorite soft varieties is lactic
cheese
(also known as bag cheese, farmer’s cheese, and
acid-curd cheese). This is a soft, spreadable dairy treat
that’s a perfect replacement for cream cheese in such
dishes as cheesecake and dips-or which can be mixed with
herbs to create a delicious cheese spread.

To make a batch of lactic cheese, you’ll need a large
stainless-steel (or enameled or glass — but never
cast-iron or aluminum) pot, a dairy thermometer, a
colander, some cheesecloth, a gallon of milk (either raw
from a cow or goat, or homogenized from the grocery store),
some mesophilic starter culture, and cheese rennet.

Begin by pouring the entire gallon of fresh milk into the
pot. Now heat the milk to 72 degrees Fahrenheit by placing the pot in a
basin filled with heated water.

While the milk is warming, measure out 1/3 cup of
mesophilic starter culture, stirring it with a sterile
spoon to remove any lumps. When the milk has warmed to room
temperature, add the culture . Now dilute one drop
of liquid rennet in two tablespoons of cool water, add it
to the pot of milk, and stir gently for several minutes.

With the mixing completed, cover the pot and store it at
70 degrees to 72 degrees Fahrenheit (room temperature) overnight. After 15
to 24 hours, the milk will have coagulated into a white
curd with (usually, but not always) a clearish
liquid — whey — floating on the surface.

After lining your colander with fine-weave cotton
cheesecloth, place it in the kitchen sink and gently pour
in the pot of curds and whey. If the curd is so
thin that it flows right through the cheesecloth and
colander and down the drain — you lose. But don’t give
up just yet; such a disaster simply means that you need to
add more rennet (perhaps two drops rather than one) to the
milk next time around. If the curd stays in the
cheesecloth, you’re in business. Gather up the four corners
of the cheesecloth and tie them together to form a crude
bag, then hang the bag in a convenient spot (over a sink or
other catch basin) and allow the curd to drain for four to
six hours.

After draining, remove the cheese (which the curd has now
become) from the bag and place it in a bowl so that you can
conveniently mix in herbs, salt, and honey to taste. (In
summer, Ricki and I like to add parsley, dill leaves, fresh
crushed garlic, and a dash each of salt and freshly ground
black pepper to make a delicious cheese spread.) If, when
you go to mix salt or herbs into the cheese, it feels like
a rubber ball, it’s an indication that you need to use less
rennet next time. Your finished lactic cheese should now be
refrigerated, and will keep for up to two weeks.

Many of the problems associated with making lactic cheese
result from contamination. While you don’t have to keep
your kitchen hospital-sterile in order to successfully make
this dairy food, you do have to keep your
cheese-making equipment very clean. Additionally,
if you attempt to make lactic cheese during the hottest
part of summer (when temperatures are running above
90 degrees Fahrenheit), you’ll be risking coliform bacillus
contamination, which can lead to a very unpleasant stomach
upset. Of course, if your house stays cool — in the 70s — and
you pay close attention to cleanliness, there should be
nothing to worry about, even during the dog days.

Cheese Recipe No. 2: Caerphilly

A n excellent hard cheese for the beginning cheese
maker is Caerphilly — a mild, white, crumbly cheese of
Welsh origin (sometimes referred to as children’s cheese)
that requires only three weeks of aging. (Most hard cheeses
must be aged from three to six months before
they’re ready to eat, which is a heck of along time to wait
to find out if a pioneering cheese-making attempt was
successful.)

There are 11 steps involved in making any hard cheese,
including Caerphilly: [1] ripening, [2] renneting, [3]
cutting the curd, [4] cooking the curd, [5] draining, [6]
salting, [7] molding, [8] pressing, [9] drying, [10]
waxing, and [11] aging. But it’s not as difficult as all
those steps might make it sound, so let’s get with it.

Step 1 — Ripening the milk: Pour two
gallons of whole milk (cow’s or goat’s, unhomogenized) into
a stainless-steel pot and warm it to 90 degrees Fahrenheit in a basin
filled with heated water. (Since you’ll need to maintain
the milk at 90 degrees for some time, a dairy thermometer that
attaches to the side of the pot is required for this step.)

Now stir six ounces of mesophilic starter culture in a
glass measuring cup until all lumps are dissolved, add the
smoothed culture to the warmed milk, and stir gently but
thoroughly. With that done, cover the pot and allow the
milk to ripen at 90 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes. (Ripening refers
to the process of the bacteria converting milk sugar into
lactic acid, which will aid in coagulation when the time
comes.)

Step 2 — Renneting: Add 1/2 teaspoon
of liquid rennet to 2 tablespoons of cool water, then take
the lid off the pot and add the diluted rennet to the
heated milk and blend gently for one minute, using an
up-and-down stirring motion. Now “top-stir” the milk for
three more minutes, using a spoon or ladle to disturb only
the upper quarter inch of milk. (This is to keep the cream
from rising to the surface. Consequently, if you’re using
goat’s milk, you can skip the top stirring, since
goat’s-milk cream won’t rise anyhow.)

Next, cover the pot again and allow it to sit undisturbed
at 90 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 minutes, after which time the milk
should have congealed into a white, semisolid curd. To
determine whether or not the curd is ready for cutting,
insert a clean finger at a 45 degree angle, then slowly lift
up. If the curd breaks cleanly around your finger, it’s
ready for cutting. If, however, the test shows that the
curd is not yet ready to be cut, allow it to sit until it
is (another five minutes or so should do it) — and add
a bit more rennet the next time you try the recipe.

Step 3 — Cutting: For this operation,
you’ll need a long-bladed knife and a flat, slotted ladle.
Begin by using the knife to cut the curd into 1/2 inch-thick
vertical slices. Now rotate the pot around a quarter turn
and cut again, working perpendicular to the first series of
cuts. The third step requires a bit more finesse: Insert
the blade of the ladle a half inch down into the curd and
move it slowly back and forth until you’ve cut through the
entire curd on something approaching a horizontal plane.
Now go down another half inch and do the same thing, then
down another half inch, and so on until you reach the
bottom of the pot.

Step 4 — Cooking the curd: Warm the
pot of cut curds to 92 degrees Fahrenheit by placing it in a basin of
heated water, taking the pot out and replacing it in the
water as necessary to hold the temperature for 40 minutes.
In order to keep the curd squares from matting together
while cooking, stir them gently and frequently. (This
process helps to eliminate water by drawing the liquid whey
from the curd pieces, which will gradually become smaller
and firmer.)

Step 5 — Draining: At the completion
of the cooking period, remove the pot from the warming bath
and allow the curd to rest for several minutes before
carefully pouring off the whey. After this initial
draining, dump the curds — which will probably now look
more like one big glob than separate pieces — out onto
a clean chopping board or a similar surface, and cut into
inch-thick slices. Turn the sliced curds over twice, at
five-minute intervals, to facilitate further draining of
the whey.

Step 6 — Salting: Use your hands to
break the curd slices into bits approximately the size of a
quarter. Do this immediately after draining, before the
curd has a chance to cool. Next, place the curd bits into a
bowl and gently stir in two tablespoons of salt (you can
use less salt if you wish). If you want to add herbs, now
is the time to do it.

Step 7 — Molding: Sterilize a cheese
mold and a section of cheesecloth in boiling water. The
mold should be a container made of stainless steel or
food-grade plastic and capable of holding at least two
pounds of curds. (Avoid using coffee cans as molds, since
many such containers are seamed together with solder that
contains lead.) The cheesecloth should be of pure cotton in
a medium to fine weave and cut to fit the mold.

Place the mold in a spot, such as a sink, where it can
drain without causing a mess, then line it with cheesecloth
and pour in the curds. Use your fist to press the curds
firmly down into the mold, then pull the cheesecloth up
tight around the sides to eliminate bunching and wrinkles.

Step 8 — Pressing: Any good specialty
cheese mold will come with a follower — a
device that fits snugly into the mold and applies uniform
downward pressure on the curd when a weight is placed on
its top. (One of the advantages of Caerphilly is that it
doesn’t require a great deal of pressure for pressing, as
other hard cheeses do, and thus it eliminates the need for
a cheese press.)

With the curds firmly fist-packed into the mold, fold one
layer of the cheesecloth over the top of the curds,
smoothing out any wrinkles. Now place the follower on top
of the curds. And, finally, weight the follower with a
pint-size canning jar filled with water.

After 10 minutes of pressing, remove the curd (which is now
officially cheese!) from the mold, gently unwrap the
cheesecloth covering, and turn the lump upside down. Now
rewrap the cheese in the cheesecloth and return it to the
mold. After making certain that what was originally the top
of the cheese is now the bottom, replace the follower and
the weight. Repeat this flip-flopping procedure twice more,
at 10-minute intervals, then leave the cheese undisturbed,
under pressure, for 16 hours.

Step 9 — Drying: After the final
pressing, remove the cheese from the mold and gently unwrap
the cheesecloth covering. Now place the cheese on a clean
surface at room temperature to dry. During this phase, turn
the cheese several times each day, until it feels dry to
the touch . . . which could take anywhere from one to three
days, depending on the weather.

Step 10 — Waxing: When your cheese is
dry, it can be waxed to keep it from drying out
too much, and to help retard the growth of mold.
(It’s best to use specialty cheese wax, which doesn’t crack
as easily as paraffin.) Find an old pan that’s sound but
dispensable, and melt the wax, very carefully, over low
heat. (The safest method is to use a double boiler.)

The waxing will go easily if you cool the cheese in a
refrigerator for several hours prior to beginning, then
paint the wax on with a natural-bristle paintbrush (don’t
use nylon, which can dissolve in molten wax). Paint the top
and sides first, wait 30 seconds or so for the wax to cool
and solidify, then turn the cheese over and paint its
bottom.

Now’s the time to date your cheese. (While there are
specialty cheese labels for this purpose, just about any
self-adhering label that will stick to wax will do the
trick.)

Step 11 — Aging: Store your waxed
cheese on a clean shelf in a slightly damp environment at
between 35 degrees and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. (Most basements or root
cellars meet these requirements — but if yours doesn’t,
play it safe and age your cheese in the refrigerator.)
During the first week of aging, the cheese should be turned
frequently — top to bottom — to keep moisture from
collecting on its under surface. (If you neglect the
turning, your hard-earned cheese could decompose on the
bottom.)

As with any new recipe, making these and other cheeses will
become easier (and the results better) with each attempt.
Give it a try, and I feel certain that you’ll soon come to
agree with Ricki and me (and our friend Mrs. Wheeler over
there in Dunchideock) that cheese making is one ancient
culinary craft that’s well worth preserving.

Published on Mar 20, 2019

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