First Cheese

OK, it’s not the first cheese I’ve ever made, but I haven’t made any for about a year now. So, it’s the first time I’ve been cheesy in Clinton.

OK, it’s probably not a first for that, either.

Before the two people I told I’d show how to make it start yelling, let me say that I wanted to trial the veggie rennet first and not embarrass myself with a soup of tiny curds swimming in whey. I wanted to be sure I could make a clean break.

Yeah, that’s actually the official term for when the curds (technically, one big mass of curd) separate dramatically from the whey, so that when you stick a (clean!) finger down into the curd and pull up, it breaks cleanly over your finger. Then you take a knife and cut the curd into chunks, pour the whole mess into a cloth-lined colander, and drain off the whey.

Voila! Cheese!

I guess it’s a little more complicated than that–but not much. The night before the cheese happens, I sterilize a stockpot and the utensils I’ll use (a whisk and a 1/4 cup measure) by running a couple inches of water in the bottom of the pot, throwing the utensils in, clapping the lid on, and setting it on the stove to boil for a couple of minutes.

Turn off the heat, take off the lid (watch out for steam!), remove the utensils to a clean towel and pour out the water. Then pour in a gallon of milk (if raw, shake to mix in the cream–or skim it off to put in your coffee–yum!) and whisk in a 1/4 cup of plain yogurt with live cultures (lactobacillus acidophilus, etc.). Put the lid on, and let the milk sit out overnight to allow the yogurt cultures time to digest the lactose in the milk.

In the morning, dissolve 1/4 tablet of rennet in a teaspoon of water, and whisk that into the cultured milk. Then put the lid on and let sit undisturbed until you get a clean break as described above.

Then wash your hands and arms, take a clean knife, and slice that curd into sections and then at a 90 degree angle to that. Turn on the heat and reach your arms down into the pot, lifting the curds gently from the bottom as the liquid heats up. How warm you heat the curds will determine how much they contract, and how hard they’ll become.

If you don’t have a milk thermometer (and I don’t), this will be a subjective and experimental process. Warming it to the point where you suddenly think you might need to use the bathroom=soft, spreadable cheese. Heating it more makes the curds harder and more likely to crumble–which is fine if you want a harder cheese. Heating it until you scald your skin=dumb. Don’t hurt yourself.

This morning, I warmed the milk slowly and gently before I added the rennet, and that worked, too. But I heated it a little warmer than I meant to because a) my arms weren’t submerged in the pot, so I wasn’t fully aware of how warm it was getting, and b) I was on a conference call and wasn’t paying attention. Whoops.

Once I sliced the curd, I lined a colander with a clean linen kitchen towel (cheesecloth is pretty well useless for draining cheese because the holes are too big and the curds tend to stick in them) and poured the curds and whey into the lined receptacle.

"Cutting the cheese" is fun for kids--from an earlier cheese-making adventure

As the whey drained off (I kept a little–it works well as a fermentation culture), I gathered the corners of the towel to pull the curds together, and then cinched the top of the towel with a loop of clothesline and hung the draining curds from the faucet.

Once the curd was well drained, I dumped it out of the towel and into a bowl and used a fork to break it up and add a little salt and some herbs. Then I packed it into containers and refrigerated.

Curds--gathered and drained

Because I warmed the curds a little more than I’d planned, I ended up with a cheese that tends to crumble a little rather than spread smoothly. I could put that into a press to squeeze the curds together into a slice-able cheese, but instead I’m just going to eat it.

This is obviously a very basic cheese, and you could dress it up differently or press and age it if you wanted–there are lots of great sites and kits and advice online for doing all of those things. I suppose if I had no decent cheese available to me (and a little more time on my hands), I would get a little deeper into technique, but really I just want something simple and tasty to eat with the bread I’ve been baking a couple times a week!

My son also likes the softer version of this cheese (minus the herbs) whisked with a little more yogurt and used as a sauce on pasta (homemade mac n’ cheese). I add a little nutritional yeast to the mix for a deeper flavor.

A note about the milk–I’ve always used raw milk to make cheese–both goat’s and cow’s. The standard caution about raw milk applies: source from a farmer you know–ideally right from the farm (which is the only way it’s legal in many states), so you can see the place is clean and the animals well cared for.

I’ve been told you can use store bought pasteurized, homogenized milk to make cheese, but all sources I’ve read say ultra-pasteurized milk won’t work.

Happy cheesemaking!



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