Cheese making basics

by Elizabeth Beavis
Now that we have lots of milk again, its time to make cheese!  At first Bella gave us about 12 L a day, but now Romeo is taking as much as he wants, we get about 2 L for Benny and a little extra for ourselves.  If we want more, we have to lock up Romeo overnight, more about share milking another day, I want to explain a bit about cheese, so just pretend I'm still getting lots of milk!  I use about 1 L a day to make either yoghurt or cream cheese, and we have a kefir smoothie every morning, but when we have more than 6 L in the fridge ..... its time to make cheese!



Before we got Bella we didn’t know anything about making cheese, so we bought a few cheese making books and went to a cheese making course.  We were pretty confident about making the cheese, but maturing and storing the cheese was more of a challenge, with some early attempts ending up covered in fluorescent moulds.  Finally we used our vacuum sealer to pack some of later cheeses, which seemed to work.  We also converted a bar fridge into a cheese-maturing fridge, which I will explain in more detail in a later post.


The difficult thing about cheese making is that it takes so long to mature, you don’t know if you've made a good cheese until 6-12 months after you made it.  We got a little disheartened and stopped making the cheeses after we had some much trouble with the crazy coloured moulds, but then after a few months when we tried the first one, we realised that it wasn't too bad.  We used raw milk for all our cheese, so it contained all the natural bacteria in the milk, which gives it a very strong flavour.  Its too strong to eat on crackers, so what I do is grate each block of cheese and put it in a bag in the freezer.  It is then perfect for sprinkling onto omelettes, pasta, pizza, salads etc. 


The funny thing was that, at first, we tried to make lots of different kinds of cheese, gouda, colby, cheddar, parmesan etc, and then when we ate them we found that they all tasted the same!  This is mainly because of our lack of process control, we don’t measure the pH and we are not at all accurate with temperature, stirring speed/time or curd size, so in the end everything comes out very similar.  Now that we know that it doesn't really matter what recipe we use, we are aiming to just find a really simple recipe so that we can make after work.


Broadly speaking, there are two types of cheese, those that use rennet and those that do not.  Rennet is a mixture of enzymes used to coagulate the milk, which causes it to split into curds and whey.  Rennet is used to make most hard cheeses, whereas soft cheeses can be coagulated by either adding an acid (lemon juice or citric acid) or letting the lactic acid forming bacteria grow and acidify the milk naturally.  I use the latter method to make cream cheese, I just add cheese culture and let it ferment for 24 hours at around 30°C.  Hard cheese is better for using up large volumes of milk and keeps for longer.


When making hard cheese, the first step is to heat the milk to the required temperature.  Most cheese making books recommend pasteurisation (heating to 70 °C to kill all the natural bacteria in the milk) and then cooling to the cheese making temperature, but we use our milk raw to preserve all the natural bacteria and enzymes, so we just heat it to cheese making temperature – 32 – 37 °C depending on the recipe. 


The next step is to add the cheese culture or starter.  Again this will depend on the recipe.  Commercial cheese makers would have a huge variety of cultures available, some make specially for the cheeses that they produce.  Home cheese-makers usually use mesophilic (medium temperature) or thermophilic (high temperature) cultures.  Recipes that call for the milk to be heated above 40 °C usually use the thermophilic culture.  After a tiny amount of culture is added to the warm milk, it can be left to ferment for a few minutes up to an hour.


The milk is then ready for the rennet to be added.  The usual rate is 2 mL of rennet for 10 L of milk, and the rennet is always diluted in 10 times the amount of cold water so that it will be evenly distributed in the milk.  The best technique is to start stirring the milk quite vigorously and then add the rennet, and keep stirring for between 1 and 3 minutes.  As discussed above, the rennet will then cause the milk to form a solid curd after standing for 30 min to 1 hours.


Once the curd has formed, its time to cut the curd.  Depending on the cheese, this may be into very small pieces to force out all the whey, or quite large pieces to keep the cheese soft.  For parmesan the curd is cut into rice-sized pieces, for brie, its more like 2 cm cubes.  Then commences the stirring and the heating.  This is to force even more whey from the curd, so very dry hard cheeses are heated and stirred more than soft cheeses.  For example, parmesan is heated to around 47 degC and stirred constantly for several hours, whereas one of my feta recipes says not to stir or heat the curd at all, just let it sit in the whey for an hour.  
When the curd is ready, it needs to be scooped out into a mould.  We have a few different sized moulds, they are just plastic tubes, with holes, and "followers", which a plastics discs cut to fit inside the tubes.  Usually the mould is lined with cheese cloth.  Some cheeses have some other steps at this stage - gouda requires the curd to be pressed in the mould in the pot of whey, and cheddar is cut and salt added before putting the curd in the mould.  At this stage the cheese may be pressed using a cheese press, or left to drain naturally.  A hard cheese requires more pressing to force out all the whey.  Pete made me a lovely cheese press from booker rod, wing nuts and springs, and it doubles as a frame to hang the cream cheese as well!
The cheese is usually turned a few times in the mould and then pressed overnight or for several hours anyway.  Then its ready to be salted or floated in brine for several hours and finally finally its time to age the cheese, either by waxing, wrapping or vacuum sealing the cheese.  And now you wait several months to find out how you cheese tastes :)

 Did that help?  Or just confuse you further?  Any questions?  Any favourite cheeses to make or eat?

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