Don't you just love when novices write posts on ‘how to' do something? And you're sitting there, on the other side of the computer screen, like “Who the heck are you to tell me how to do anything? You don't even know what you're doing!?”
Well. Lucky for you. Because this is one of those posts.
I'd like to think that my naivety in cheese making can be of great benefit to you. After all, if you were an expert cheese maker you certainly wouldn't be reading a beginning cheese making post. So, in defense of my post, I'm hoping it can offer you some basics TO a novice FROM a novice. After all, who can understand you better in your confusion than I?
No one. That was rhetorical question.
As much as I'd like to talk about the pressing of Parmesan or draining of Colby in this post, alas, that must wait. There are a few things we need to get squared away in our cheese kit before we get to that point. And, just for the record, if you're not a patient person in the kitchen, cheese making may not be for you.
This is a time consuming and painstakingly slow process.
If that ain't for you, quit now. Because I guarantee you that when you're waiting up at 2 a.m. to remove your cheddar from the press (because you, quite obviously, screwed up the timing the day before) you'll be cursing me for encouraging you to do it. And we surely don't want that, now do we?
Now. Now. Where to start.
Okay. First get THIS BOOK. That'll really help.
Questions To Ponder Prior to Cheese Making
1. Where will you get your milk? After all, your cheese will only be as good as the milk that you've used to make it. We've been blessed to use up our own cow's milk on making the cheese, which has been great because I've screwed up plenty of batches. And even though it makes me super frustrated, I know there's always more milk to come! That being said, securing a source for (ideally) organic, primarily grass-fed milk is not always easy – so do your homework! Find a dairy close to you perhaps. Or secure a wonderful source from a cow-share. By all means, store-bought raw OR pasteurized milk WILL work (ultra-pasteurized won't) if that's all you have access to. I use raw milk for all of my cheese making.
2. Cow milk or goat milk? Or sheeps milk? Or camels milk? Or…
I'll leave this decision entirely up to you. Just note that certain milk is required for certain cheeses. We use cow. Obviously.
3. What sort of cheese do you want to make?
What sort of cheese is your favorite? Is there one in particular you're hoping to make? I knew that I wanted to be able to make Parmesan and Cheddar – two of our favorites! Lucky for me they are made of cow's milk. There's a billion different types of cheeses out there and narrowing down to a few that you'd like to make and eat is beneficial – it keeps you from splattering out in all directions once you get started. I'd say: pick five cheeses and get really good at making those. Then expand.
Choosing your cheeses is also important because cheeses use a variety of cultures – most of which are only available online. So plan ahead and get the ones you need! Nothing worse than getting started and realizing you don't have what you need at hand!
Basic Equipment Required
1. Stainless steel pot: Reserve this for cheese making exclusively, if possible. This helps to avoid any cross contamination in the cheese – it's sensitive! Keep it clean, man. Oh, also, I find that having a water canner (or a second large pot) is perfect to use as a double boiler for the milk. Many recipes call for the milk to be heated up over a hot water bath so that the milk doesn't come into direct contact with the heat.
I use my water canner as the base with the canning rack flipped over inside – it creates the perfect little shelf to set my steel pot on.
2. Stainless steel skimmer: I almost didn't buy this when I started because I was “sure” that I could find one of my utensils that would work. Boy, oh boy. Am I ever glad I got it! I use this every single time I make cheese and I don't think it would be possible without it! Okay fine. It would probably be possible but it would be much more difficult. And frankly, we don't always need to make things harder on ourselves, now do we?
3. Thermometer: An absolute necessity (there are fancier models but the one I'm linking to is the one I use!). Cheese making is a fairly exact science so heating certain cultures to the correct temperature is essential for success.
Yes, I know people made cheese before they had thermometers. But they also probably ruined A LOT of batches in the process. Thankfully, we don't have to guess. Sweet, sweet technology.
4. Curd knife: Lots of folks use curd cutters and if you're doing very large batches, I would recommend that. But for me and my 2-4 gallon batches, a long knife works just fine for cutting curds. It's not as exact, but that's alright.
5. Measuring spoons and liquid measuring cups: Again, measurements in cheese aren't something that's good to guess on. Too much rennet leads to bitter cheese. Too much culture leads to an array of problems. Just get the danged spoons and follow the rules, you rebel.
6. Cheese press: Yes, I'm sure there's a way to make a DIY cheese press. And perhaps they work really well. But to save myself the heartache (since I make cheese every other day, I needed one that would work!) I bought this great, inexpensive press. It works great except for the fact that I'd like to do a bigger batch and use up more of my extra milk each time I make cheese. I need to either purchase a second press or a large press. This press will hold a two pound block which is pretty standard. However, there are some larger presses out there if you're goin' for the big daddy.
7. Colander: One specific for cheese making is best. Again, stray bacteria and odd bits can reek havoc on a cheese that you've oh-so-delicately-and-precicely made. Cross contamination is the last thing we want! So get a stainless steel colander and reserve it for cheese making.
8. Cheesecloth: The good stuff, baby. I think I need to start buying this in bulk! I use a sheet each time I press a cheese and each time I strain a cheese. I also bandage wrap a lot of my cheddars which uses tallow and cheesecloth. Point being: you don't want to run out! Trust me – you'll want to have this on hand.
9. Labels: Okay fine. This isn't essential. But as much as I'd like to tell myself that I'll remember the type of cheese hidden under that wax and the month it will be ready to eat, I can't. It's impossible. So, I've started labeling. My memory just ain't what it used to be…
10. Cheese cave: This is a tough one, again, because it's totally dependent on what type of cheese you want to make. Most cheeses need to be aged at 50-55 degree temperature with 80-85% humidity. There are a million and one ways that people have found to do this (tupperwares with wet rags in refrigerator drawers, for example), but I found a system that works really well for me and takes the guess-work out of the aging process. I found a used wine cooler on Craigslist for $70 – lucky for us, white wine likes to be chilled at the exact same temperature that cheese likes to age! So these little coolers are perfect for cheese. They're also small so they're easy to fit into a kitchen. In order to keep the humidity up, I stole a humidifier from my husband (he had previously used it in his cigar humidor). This little unit lets me control the humidity exactly which really helps to promote the optimal aging environment for my cheeses. The only problem I've found is that I've run out of space! Which means I'll have to get another cooler. Some of these cheeses ages for a year (or more!) so they'll spend lots of days in the cheese cave, taking up more than their fair share of space no doubt.
If you don't have the money to get a cheese cave set up – that's okay! Search around the ‘ol world wide web and see what others are doing. There's lots of adaptations and creative ideas for creating the right environment.
Cheese Making Supplies
This list will be customizable, based on which cheese you'll be making. I make fairly basic cheese, such as Colby, Pepperjack, Cheddar, Parmesan, Mozzerella, Feta, etc. and these are the supplies that I've used and have on hand.
1. Rennet: This is what causes the milk to coagulate. Some soft cheeses don't use rennet, but almost all other cheeses do. I choose to use an animal rennet, though some vegetable rennets are available.
2. Calcium chloride: Not necessary when using raw milk, but used with pasteurized and homogenized milk to increase the number of available calcium ions and to help firm up curds.
3. Cheese salt: Iodine in table salt will kill certain bacterias in the cheese that are required for aging. Non-iodized salt is a must.
4. Mesophilic culture (available HERE): Meso means “middle” and is used for cheeses that aren't heated above 102 degrees. Meso II and 4001 are the cultures I use the most.
5. Thermophilic culture (available HERE): Thermophilic cultures are heat loving cultures and are used for cheeses that are heated above 104 degrees.
6. Lipase: Most often used in processed cow's milk to help replace the “tang” that comes in some cheeses. It's a natural enzyme that is found in raw cows milk.
In case you're doubting still, you should know my opinion: raw cows milk is the best danged stuff on the planet. Cheese making has made me appreciate that all the more!
7. Annatto: A natural food coloring used to give certain cheese their signature orange-hue (think cheddar). Not necessary, but I think it's fun to help differentiate the cheeses.
8. Filtered water: Yes, it's important. Because whatever is in your water source you're going to be adding to your cheese – including bacteria. I use a Berkey water filter to ensure that any water I add into the cheese is as clean as it can be. Unless you happen to live next to a glacial spring with fresh water. That'd be pretty cool.
There are 5 major steps to cheese making:
1. Preparation: This involves heating up the milk to a certain temperature to prepare it for the culture. In order for certain cultures to work, they need to be at a particular temperature. The temperature in this step will depend on your particular recipe.
2. Ripening: This is where the “fermentation” takes place. After the milk is heated, a culture is added in and is then allowed to ripen the milk for (usually) about one hour (though some cheeses ripen up to twelve!). Again, the particulars of this step will depend on your recipe. Just note, this is where the culture ripens the milk into the cheese it will become!
3. Coagulation and cooking: After the milk has been allowed to ripen, a small amount of rennet will be added to the milk. It will then sit undisturbed for a set amount of time (usually around 30-45 minutes). After the milk has coagulated, it will easily be cut into cubes with a knife or cutter. This will seperate the milk into curds and whey. Yes, like in the Little Miss Muffett song. But focus will you! After the curds are cut, they rest, and then are cooked to a certain temperature for a certain amount of time set by the recipe. This is the most labor intensive part of cheese making in that it usually requires an hour or so of stirring and cooking the curds.
4. Drying: After the cooking, the curds are pressed or drained according to the recipe. The purpose is to remove the extra whey from the curds. The remaining whey in the curds will determine the moisture content of the finished cheese.
5. Ripening and aging: This is the period of time, anywhere from a day to years, that the cheese is allowed to mature. Some cheeses are left to mold which develops a rind and flavor. Other cheeses are waxed. It's quite a diverse world – the cheese world. Each style is so unique!… and moldy…
See? It's not so bad when you break it down, now is it?
I know it seems like a lot. And in a way, it is. Cheese making, like any new skill, requires practice, patience, failed-attempts, and enjoying to master. Once you've worked through your first few cheeses, you'll have an idea of what to expect and what you're looking for in the curd, which is very helpful.
The second time I made cheese felt 100% better than the first time.
Sort of like the second time I milked a cow. (Ya'll remember how that went, don't you?).
Stay tuned (someday) for Part Deux – much more cheese making is ahead of us, my friends!