Cheese Making Crash Course, the first year of lessons
For about a year now I have been making cheese. At first there were many failures. However, slowly over time, I figured out how to get past the mistakes. This is a run-down of a years worth of trials and tribulations.
Firstly, it’s all about the milk. The milk will dictate how good the cheese will be on the other side, and how easy it will be to get there. Never buy something with ultra/extra homogenization as it will be impossible to make cheese or butter with. Obviously, it is best to start with store bought milk because finding a source of raw milk can be a chore, and you don’t want to waste ‘good’ milk
There are two types of milk that are generally easy to obtain, cow and goats milk. There is the easy way to obtain either, and the hard way. The easy way is to go to the store, where cows milk is extremely easy to find. Goats is somewhat difficult to find from a store, but not impossible.
Raw milk (or pasteurized but not homogenized) is superior in every way to store bought milk, in respect to cheese making. It is going to take you some time to find a source for raw milk. Generally, you have to find a farmer through word of mouth. Laws vary from state-to-state, so it takes some time to locate a source. For example, in California you apparently have to be the owner of the cow in some way.
The price for a gallon of milk in-the-raw is usually about five dollars, or an ounce of silver for 4 gallons, depending on who you are dealing with. I have seen raw milk in specialty stores as high as $12 a gallon.
- Store bought cows milk is easy to obtain, but the homogenization makes it difficult to get a good quality cheese out of it. Calcium Chloride usually helps with this difficulty, but it can be done without it if you are very careful.
- Goats milk from the store is also usually homogenized. However, it is slightly easier to get a curd out of homogenized goat than cows milk.
- Raw cows milk is sometimes easier to obtain in volume.
- Raw goats milk will usually produce a curd easier than cows milk. However, some people do not like the taste for some reason. Some will like it more (myself included) it is very distinct.
We are all on a budget, so the money we can spend is limited by the possibility of success. Time is also a factor. There is also the need vs want aspect to consider. This list goes from the most essential, to the least essential, with an eye for budget considered.
1.) A thermometer is essential. I cannot tell you how many failures I went through trying to avoid spending three measly dollars on a thermometer. The thermometer must have good sensitivity around 90-130 deg F (30-55 deg C). If you are just starting out a candy thermometer might work, maybe.
Eventually, I ended up buying one of those digital thermometers that beeps at a specified temperature. However, it is best to put this investment of some ten-twenty dollars in capital equipment off until it is needed. If you leave the pot, and the temp goes to high things might not turn out optimal. The temperature is key in making most cheeses. Believe me, I tried everything to avoid buying a thermometer, but the temperature is very important.
2.) A muslin cloth is a pretty cheap thing, but is usually only sold at speciality stores. A muslin cloth is about the price of a couple of rolls of paper towels, but unlike the paper towels it can be re-used after a wash in clean water. Do not put a muslin cloth through the laundry. I tried everything. I used a trimmed/cut cotton t-shirt, that I had to repeatedly wash in clean water because detergent is not good for cheese. I used paper towels. I tried hand-towels!
If you try to use an old t-shirt, plan on washing it in a massive amount of water or throwing it out. The cheese will often stick to the fabric and not come off. Also, you can’t wash the t-shirt in the laundry because detergent in your cheese is not good. Don’t use a towel, as it will separate into the brick of cheese and leave lint in the cheese. However, if you wrap the cheese brick in paper towels, a hand/normal towel it’s okay. This is because the paper towel will peel off, and the towel will absorb the moisture/whey without depositing lint on the cheese.
3.) Obviously, any pot that can hold 1 gallon of milk will do. However, a gallon of milk makes roughly a fist of cheese. This is a horrible amount of effort for just a fist of cheese. The reason I previously mentioned the ‘ounce of silver for 4 gallons of milk’ is that a typical brick of cheese is made from 4-8 gallons of milk, and sometimes people don’t want cash. Once you have made a few batches successfully, and feel comfortable that you are not going to botch things, a good 5+ gallon (20+ quart/20+ liter) pot is going to make thing worthwhile.
4.) A colander is obvious. It’s not always necessary, but it can make life real easy. The usual task is lining the colander with the muslin cloth and pouring the curd into the cloth while the whey drains off.
5.) A cheese press is for the pros. I don’t even own one yet. You can normally get away with weights, plates, and all sorts of other tricks to ‘press’ the cheese. I will be buying/building one when I move on to the more advanced cheeses.
6.) A lot of recipes call for ‘cutting the curd’ in to 1” squares. At 1-gallon this can be done with any normal kitchen knife. However, at 4+ gallons a stick/knife that is longer may be required.
7.) It is important to have a ladle with holes, to drain curds from whey. You can probably get around this with a normal spoon/ladle. The annoyance will compel you to purchase a slotted spoon.
8.) A mortar and pestle helps with grinding up dried tablets and various spices. Some rennet (see below) comes in dried tablets. These tablets must be ground finely before mixing into the heated milk. A good, really sweet stone mortar and pestle may run as much as 50 bucks. However, the back end of a kitchen knife is sufficient to grind it up properly.
There are some pretty special ingredients and some not-so special ingredients. Getting familiar with them is going to happen sooner or later. Not every one is needed for every type of cheese. Also, many of the difficult cheeses have extremely specialized ingredients. So I’ve left out the ones I have not figured out yet.
Rennet, sometimes called coagulant. It’s function is to separate the protein from the whey/lactose. There are two major varieties, vegetable and calf. There are both available in dry and liquid versions. Dry varieties can store in freezers for years. Liquid is preferable, but lasts maybe 6 months in a refrigerator. Generally, regulations require that rennet be standardized to the amount of milk it will work on. Rennet is an enzyme that curdles the milk so as to separate the cheese curds from it. Very few cheeses do not call for rennet. Expect a handful of this stuff to effect some 25 to 300 gallons of milk.
Calcium Chloride is useful when attempting things with store bought milk. However, it is not a cure all. For example, I don’t know if it helps with mozzarella. I just refuse to use it. However, it would have been really handy if I had not been so stubborn in the beginning. It can be purchased in liquid or solid form, and should be generally used in small quantities. Also, both liquid and solid forms have really long shelf lives. It’s basically a salt that aids rennet in coagulation of store bought homogenized milk. However, it is necessary in some recipes even with raw milk.
Citric Acid is key in making mozzarella (read more below). Powdered citric acid is far superior to the alternatives; vinegar, lime juice, and lactic acid powder.
Cheese salts/cultures come in two types Mesophilic and Thermophilic. Depending on what you’re doing these types of cultures may not even be necessary. Mesophilic grow in colder (generally what you would consider room-temperature), and thermophilic grow in warmer temperatures closer to bath water. I tried my best to intentionally remain ignorant of the difference and uses for as long as possible. We are talking about bacteria that are used to generate the flavor in cheeses here, so the knowledge of exactly what is going on is very subtle. Mesophilic bacterial are generally for wait-a-day and grow-at room-temp type cheeses. While thermophilic bacterial are for heat it to 95F/35C and wait-a-hour type cheeses. My personal opinion is screw subtlety and below I’ll explain in my ‘Hacked Parmesan’ recipe. A good piece of knowledge is that any regular ‘kefir/yogurt’ starter package from a speciality store is a mesophilic bacteria if it sits at room tepm, and a thermophilic if it sits in a heater (by the instructions). Also, most Italian cheese starter kits come with thermophilic packets.
Salt/Brine is useful in various circumstances. There is normal table salt, and it’s so damn cheap that you can buy a truckload for a Benjamin. Who wants to do that? There are some other considerations. Table salt comes in iodized and non-iodized forms. This is because if you have zero iodine in your diet you form huge goitres, but if you have to much you have an increased risk of cancer. If there is a radiation source nearby then iodine inhibits it’s carcinogenic effect. I could go on, but there is table salt (iodized or not), sea salt, sea water, brine, and a few others. The whole point of a brine, or salt bath is to get a cheese ready for aging or curing. If you’re a newb like me, just pour a ton of salt into some water and give it a try, just make the water as-or-more salty than sea water. Occasionally, some cheeses need a specific brine in the bathwater prior to the cure, but hey….
Cheese wax, what a scam man. I could be wrong, but this is for selling your cheese and good luck with that. It appears to make things last a whole lot longer with the aging stuff. However, the real purpose appears to be sales. Don’t trust my opinion here, but the wax is completely not necessary for home use because the feds will slam your ass in jail if you try to sell your cheese. However, if you want to make your cheese last for years and give it to an ‘in-county-in-state’ relative it could be pretty cool.
Annatto a dye for making cheese look good. I refuse to buy this stuff, because it has nothing to do with taste. It imparts the normal yellow color to cheddars and other cheeses.
Sugar a sweet tip is that if you feel you are short on your sharpness with a particular cheese salt, simply add a pinch of sugar. It will accelerate the production of bacteria. I’ve heard that one can make a cheddar sharp as a razor. However, that might be an industry secret cat-out-of-the-bag.
ONE HOUR MOZZARELLA FOR INCOMPETENTS
Mozzarella in 30 Minutes is Impossible
Mozzarella is a ‘fresh’ cheese meaning that aging is not required, and it does not take days to produce… usually. There are recipes that claim that mozzarella can be made in 30 minutes floating around out there on the interweblinks. However, those recipes are for suckers like me. I have yet to figure out how to do it that fast. I’m pretty sure I can get it down to 45 minutes if I cut some corners, but 30 minutes is for the pros. The most obvious reason to start trying to learn how to make cheese with mozzarella is that it does not have one of those steps that says ‘wait a day’ or ‘wait 3 weeks’. Some cheeses need to be aged. Albeit quality demands that these cheeses be aged, but our budgets and time demand that we make things in a timely and courteous manner for our meals. Here is the 30 minute mozzarella recipe modified for people who might be as incompetent as myself. I call it the… 1 hour mozzarella for incompetents recipe.
*adjust recipe per amount of milk
1.) Dump in a ¼ ounce tsp of citric acid powder into 1 gallon of milk and mix (no hurry, any point up to 90F)
2.) Get 1 gallon of milk to 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
3.) Dump in the ‘right’ amount of rennet for 1-gallon (do some research). Briskly stir the stuff in, like you want it. Don’t mind the crazies that tell you how to stir it in, or only to use a wooden spoon. Just make sure you don’t just drop the tablet in… it needs to be ground up first. Liquid rennet is superior because it does not need to be finely ground in this step.
4.) Set aside for 30 minutes to 12 hours (it really does not matter, I did it for 2 days once and got a good result).
5.) Do the 1” criss-cut and heat to 120-130F. (I’ve found that the criss-cut is actually a short-cut that is not entirely necessary if you are willing to heat the mass over the course of 3 hours adjusting time up roughly an hour for each gallon.
6.) Massage the whey out. This step is the most difficult to describe. The goal is to get all of the whey out of the curds. I typically pour the pot sideways gently squeezing the juice out of the curd mass. I don’t care how you do it, gently squeeze, wrangle, and slap that thing into a big dough ball! This part is nasty and careful, and is best done on a cutting board sloped into a sink. Maybe you need slotted spoons, a colanders, and whatever. The goal is to get a hunk of semi squeezed cheese. The start should be some kind of soft curt, the end result is an actual slap-able mass. Just figure it all out for yourself.
7.) If you want you can freeze it here, but thaw it to room temp before the next step.
8.) Add salt to taste, like salting eggs this is a very sensitive. Garlic, jalapeños, and other spices can be added at this step, but too much salt will ruin a good thing.
9.) Get someone with temperature-insensitive hands to stretch and mold the mozzarella. A fist/gallon is maybe 30 secs in a microwave. This step is the one that kills most mozzarella, it takes patience and hard hands. The idea is to somewhat melt the mass in a microwave. The old school method is to use boiling saltwater (and skip the previous step). However, a microwave makes thing a lot easier.
10.) After the mass is stretchable, store in cold water for up to 8 hours, or serve immediately for best results.
Rebel Parmesan the Corporate Way
Normally, Parmesan is produced using thermophilic cultures. This recipe will result in parmesan much like the kind in the store bought shaker, but much better tasting. Obviously, it is not real parmesan, but neither is the kind in the shaker you are buying. The real kind is still the best, and the store bought kind is still cheaper. However, this is a way to cheat the rules. It’s a true cheat because mesophilic cultures are not supposed to be used to create parmesan. Oddly, you should expect to yield about two/three knuckles of cheese from a gallon of milk. Time is not pressing here, but this is the only recipe where time has no matter. Each step has no real time dependency. It’s extremely hard to mess it up when you know how to do it.The reason this recipe is a cheat because normal parmesan is produced exclusively using thermophilic cultures.
1.) Dump a normal kefir starter package into a gallon of milk. Any mesophilic starter package will do, as long as it is not intended for a yogurt warmer (thermophilic). In fact, because of time the quantity of milk really does not matter. Set the container aside at room temp for a day….
2.) Wait 12-36 hours for a kefir/yogurt like substance to result. Usually, you will have to wait some half day longer than normally expected for the kefir/yogurt/whatever, as you want the bacteria to fully develop. The process is highly temp-time driven, but there is a fine line between fully developed and spoiled. TRUST YOUR NOSE!!!! IF YOU THINK IT HAS PASSED TRY AGAIN!!!!!!!!!!!!
3.) Dump the yogurt-kefir into a muslin cloth. The substance should look almost exactly like yogurt. Hang the muslin cloth like a bag. Usually from a cupboard door. The whey should drain out over the course of a day or three. We are in no hurry!
4.) When the muslin cloth is capable of separating from the mass, this is the time to move. If the mass does not separate from the muslin cloth, it might be appropriate to throw it out or try a new strategy. We want a somewhat dry lug/brick. Larger volumes (2+ gallons) might have a separable mass but a squishy center. The mass should feel solid enough to toss lightly at a minimum. The goal is to get about half/quarter of a fist per gallon here, so moisture must be forced out.
5.) Pressing might be completely unnecessary. However, if there is a squishy center or the mass does not feel solid, then give it a day press. The goal is more to dry it out, so if you do not own a press do what you can to absorb/dry/squeeze the moisture out of the thing. Use weights, paper towels, plates, etc.
6.) Take the solid hunk and leave it in saltwater/brine for a day. Make sure the water tastes saltier than seawater. It’s okay to leave it in the brine for 1 day or 1 week if you’re crazy. You may choose to cut the hunk up before brining. This makes things pretty simple.
7.) Remove the pieces from the brine. Let dry for 1-15 days. It is okay to let them dry on a plate in-between paper towels, or even a hand-towel. These chunks should look/feel like little nodules by now.
8.) Once the hunks do not appear to be moist or produce oil, break them up into finger sized chunks and store in a jar in a refrigerator. If the hunks of cheese are playable something is horribly wrong. The chunks should break like chalk and store for more than a year without spoilage in refrigeration. If a hunk gets a dark color on it, it is spoiled and it’s whole jar is. DO NOT GRIND PRIOR TO STORAGE.
9.) To serve grind up a small hunk, easier said than done. It will taste extremely similar to store bought parmesan, but better. Although, it is better than store-bought, it’s just not as good as the real parmesan.