Read an Excerpt
Cheese Making Basics: Equipment, Ingredients, Processes, and Techniques
Though there are more than two thousand varieties of cheese hailing from ethnic cultures around the world, on the most basic level cheeses all rely on the same components: milk, starters (whether naturally occurring bacteria or starter cultures), coagulants (such as rennet), and salt.
The process always begins with milk. Then either natural bacteria start to work on the milk, or a starter culture is added. These act on the milk sugar (lactose), converting it to lactic acid. A coagulant is then added to this hospitable environment, causing the milk protein casein to curdle, or coagulate, forming a solid mass of curds. From there, the curds are cut into a specific size, depending on the style of cheese being made. Then they are stirred, drained, and salted; molded or pressed; and, finally, ripened or aged. Voilà: cheese, in all its variety.
In my beginning cheese making class, we start with simple fresh cheeses as the first step in demystifying how cheese happens. Queso blanco (page 38), for example, is a very simple cheese made with whole cow’s milk and coagulated with vinegar. The milk is heated to a specific temperature, then the acid (vinegar) is added and stirred to distribute. Like magic, curds begin to appear from the depths of the white liquid. Suddenly, with only a little stirring, there are fluffy curds floating in clear, yellowish whey. Drain the curds and toss them with salt, and you’ve got cheese. Queso blanco is not complex in terms of flavor, but its simplicity demonstrates the fundamental action that takes place in transforming milk into cheese. Not all cheeses are formed as easily, but by following the steps and stages presented in this book, you’ll gain a rounded understanding of how cheeses of varying degrees of complexity stem from this common foundation.
Building Your Skills: The Habits of Successful Cheese Making
This book is structured to let you develop your skills progressively. We’ll start with the easiest fresh cheeses and add complexity from there. If you are a beginner, I encourage you to start at the beginning and build your skills as you go, because the key to successful cheese making is to start with small, manageable steps. With each success, you’ll want to make more cheese. As you develop your skills and gain an understanding of and level of comfort with the cheese making process, you will build your repertoire on a solid foundation. Be patient. You may be successful the first time you make a cheese, but then again, you may not be. It takes time to master the skills; however, even mistakes can be delicious!
Here are some practices and habits of mind that will help you succeed, whatever your level of cheese making experience.
1. Make Small Batches
Regardless of which cheese you are attempting, make an amount that you have the equipment to handle and the room to ripen, and that you can store and consume within a couple of weeks of its readiness. By making small batches, you have the opportunity to make and taste a variety of cheeses rather than a larger amount of only one. The cheese making recipes presented in this book are geared for small batches, using mostly 1 or 2 gallons of milk. As a general rule, 1 gallon of milk yields 1 pound of firm or hard cheese and up to 2 pounds of fresh cheese. Note that all the yields for the cheeses are approximate.
As I worked on this book, I often had a dozen different cheeses ripening in my cheese refrigerator “cave” at any given time. I worked in small batches, and because the cheeses were aged for different amounts of time, at least one of them was always ready to taste and enjoy. This may be too complicated an undertaking for beginners, but for me it was a perfect arrangement.
2. Set Your Expectations
Before you jump in to make any given cheese for the first time, familiarize yourself with what that cheese looks like and, better still, what it smells and tastes like. It’s important to have a frame of reference for the cheese you are trying to create before you make it, and with such a wealth of information available, both from reference works like this one and from your own senses as you taste and smell a sample, there’s no need to work in the dark. Taking a photograph of the sample cheese before you taste it will guide your endeavors.
3. Plan and Prepare
Wouldn’t you love to make cheese once a week or twice a month and have that to share with family or friends? Once you become proficient, you can make not just one but two or three cheeses in the same session, especially if they are cheeses of the same style. That’s an efficient use of your time, and it allows you to make enough cheese for your own use and some to age or share. Here are some basic steps to help you manage the project and be successful, whether you are making one cheese or several:
■ Plan ahead. Some cheeses can be ready in an hour, while some need a 6-month lead time and lots of attention. Determine a realistic scope of work.
■ Have your work space, equipment, and tools prepped and sanitary before you begin.
■ Keep a notebook to record your thoughts and observations. This is a great catchment system for valuable information that you can apply to subsequent cheese making sessions or use in problem solving. Detailed checklists, worksheets, guides, and observation forms are available for download on this book’s companion website at artisancheesemakingathome.com.
4. Keep It Safe and Sanitary
When using your kitchen to make any food, but perhaps especially cheese, it is imperative to ensure your space is safe to work in (no clutter or pets around) and is sanitary. While bacteria is part of cheese making, it needs to be the right kind! Don’t try to cook anything else while making cheese. This can lead to cross contamination and also distract your attention from the cheese.
Before you begin:
■ Sanitize your work station with a commercial cleaner or a bleach-water sanitizing solution of 2 tablespoons household bleach dissolved in 1 gallon of water.
■ Keep a roll of paper towels within reach and a small trash receptacle next to it.
■ Sanitize your cheese making pots, equipment, and utensils before and after using. To sanitize properly, wash with hot soapy water, rinse with water, then rinse again with 2 tablespoons household bleach dissolved in 1 gallon of water. Allow to air-dry on a rack set on a sheet pan rather than in your dish drainer to minimize contact with bacteria.
■ Consider using dedicated plastic buckets as your sanitary curd-draining “sinks.”
■ Keep two clean cotton kitchen towels handy, one for laying out your working tools on and one for drying your hands.
■ Do not wear any fragrance while making cheese, as it masks your ability to use your sense of smell to guide the process.
■ Wash your hands thoroughly before starting and after handling any nonsterile items.
Equipment and Supplies
When you’re getting started, you can take much of your basic equipment from your existing kitchen arsenal of pots, colanders, measuring cups, measuring spoons, whisks, rubber spatulas, ladles, and slotted spoons. Once you are totally immersed in making cheese in your own kitchen, you may want to put pots aside that are dedicated to this function. Think of cheese making in the same way you would canning. Equipment set aside for that purpose is always easier to keep stored, clean, and collected.
Before making any cheese in the book, first read the recipe carefully and collect and sanitize all needed equipment. I have noted in the body of each formula which specialty equipment is needed, but will count on your having the following foundational supplies in your kitchen. If you are using specialty equipment or dedicated utensils and make cheese often, store them in a lidded box to protect them from dust and keep them ready for your next session.
The basic equipment and supplies you’ll need for nearly all the cheeses in this book include:
■ Butter muslin (4 to 6 yards) and cheesecloth (4 to 6 yards)
■ Colander or strainer (made of plastic or another nonreactive material) for draining curds
■ Curd cutting knife or 10-inch cake decorating spatula
■ Cutting boards or cheese boards: food-grade boards to fit draining trays
■ Disposable vinyl or food-service gloves
■ Draining bowl or bucket: a large, nonreactive, food-grade vessel for catching up to 2 gallons of whey
■ Cheese mats (plastic): to drain molded curds
■ Draining rack: nonreactive material, to sit inside draining tray
■ Draining trays: food-grade plastic trays or rimmed quarter-sheet or half-sheet baking pans
■ Flexible wire stainless steel whisk with a long handle
■ Flexible blade rubber spatulas
■ Instant-read kitchen or dairy thermometers
■ Ladle or skimmer (stainless steel or other nonreactive material) for removing curds from whey
■ Molding and shaping devices (see below)
■ Paper towels
■ Ripening boxes: food-grade storage boxes with lids
■ Spoons: large nonreactive metal, wood, or plastic spoons for stirring; one slotted and one not
■ Stainless steel pots: a 6-quart pot for working with 1 gallon of milk; a 10-quart pot for working with 2 gallons; a 12-quart pot for making a water bath for indirect heating
■ Stainless steel measuring spoons that include the very important ⅛ teaspoon
■ Wrapping materials: resealable bags, plastic wrap, and aluminum foil
■ Weights: such as foil-wrapped bricks, heavy skillets, or empty milk containers filled with water (see page 22)
For a number of the formulas, you will also need the following:
■ An atomizer or fine spray bottle: used for spraying mold solution on surface-ripened cheeses
■ A cheese press (see page 21): 2-gallon capacity
■ Cheese wax (see page 28)
■ Heat-resistant waterproof gloves of rubber or neoprene: used for handling hot curds for stretched-curd cheeses
■ Hygrometer: a tool for measuring relative humidity; very helpful for monitoring the environment in which cheeses ripen
■ pH strips or pH meter: used to measure the acidity of curds in some recipes, especially stretched-curd cheeses
■ Specialty wrapping materials: cheese paper
Makes 12 ounces
Milks Pasteurized heavy cream, powdered skim milk
Start to Finish Less than 1 day
Originating in Italy, mascarpone is a mild and creamy fresh cheese with a consistency similar to soft butter or thick crème fraîche and a fat content between 70 and 75 percent. You may know it as the key ingredient in the decadent Italian dessert tiramisu. This recipe hails from Allison Hooper, award-winning cheese maker and co-owner of the notable Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery (see page 35). The overnight process is virtually effortless, and the resulting cheese may very well be the best mascarpone I’ve ever tasted.
2 cups pasteurized heavy cream without thickeners
1/3 cup powdered skim milk
1 lemon, cut in half
1. Read through the recipe and review any terms and techniques you aren’t familiar with (see chapter 1). Assemble your equipment, supplies, and ingredients, including a dairy or kitchen thermometer; clean and sterilize your equipment as needed and lay it out on clean kitchen towels.
2. In a nonreactive, heavy 2-quart saucepan with a lid, whisk together the cream and powdered milk. Place over low heat and slowly bring to 180°F, stirring constantly to prevent scorching. It should take about 40 minutes to come to temperature. Turn off the heat.
3. Slowly squeeze the juice from half of the lemon into the cream. Switch to a metal spoon and keep stirring; do not use a whisk, as that will inhibit the curd formation. Watch carefully to see if the cream starts to coagulate. You will not see a clean break between curds and whey. Rather, the cream will coat the spoon and you will start to see some flecks of solids in the cream.
4. Add the juice from the remaining lemon half and stir with the spoon to incorporate. Cover the pan and cool the cream in the refrigerator for 8 hours or overnight.
5. When the cream is firm to the touch, transfer it to a bowl or colander lined with clean, damp butter muslin. Draw the ends together and twist into a ball to squeeze out the excess moisture. This last step will make the mascarpone thick.
6. This cheese is now ready to eat. It has a very short shelf life, so refrigerate what you don’t eat immediately and use it within 2 days.