Sunday, October 31, 2010

Say Cheeeese!

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to head out to a farm a few miles outside Portland to attend a cheese making class. After my not quite so successful attempt to make mozzarella (see Blessed are the Cheesemakers, Oct. 10), I figured I could use a little help in this area.

The last time I tried to make cheese, I had gotten a recipe off the internet for "30-Minute Mozzarella" which, if you recall, took me a good 3-4 hours to make. This class was on how to make regular mozzarella which seems to take just about the same amount of time. The main difference between them, ingredient wise, is that the longer recipe does not call for citric acid. It's just milk and rennet. And, in the end, it came out much better!

My friend Emily decided to come with me and so, bright and early on a rainy Saturday morning with lattes in hand, we drove to the farm, located just south of Oregon City near the town of Colton. As we neared the farm, we were greeted by a couple of cows lazing under the pine trees, along with chickens, turkeys and ducks kept in pens and, somewhere behind the house, we could hear the squealing of pigs. Entering the house, we found ourselves in a large living/dining area. On one side of the room, an older woman sat at an old fashioned spinning wheel, hand spinning spools of wool. We were welcomed by our hostess, Stacie, and ushered into the large kitchen where the rest of the group waited. 

On the stove were two pots of raw cow's milk (taken from Jersey cows, it had a slightly higher fat content than average), each containing approximately two gallons. The first one already had the rennet added - veal rennet, to be exact - and was nearly done setting. The second pot was only milk and would have vegetable rennet added later. This pot was still in the first step, which is to heat the milk to 90° and let it sit for 30 minutes. 

The next step is to add rennet. We were using liquid rennet in the class, the rennet I have at home is in tablet form which requires crushing. The rennet should always be diluted at a ratio of 1 t rennet to 1 c water. (Always take care that the water you use is non-chlorinated! Chlorine will kill the bacteria that are needed to make the cheese.) In this case we had about two gallons of milk and were adding 1/2 t of rennet in a 1/2 c of water. Emily volunteered to do this step. Slowly pouring in the rennet with her left hand, she moved a wooden spoon in an up and down motion around the pot. This is one of the places where I messed up my first batch. DO NOT STIR THE MILK!  Stirring the milk is what kept my curds from setting right the first time. It is also important to use a wooden spoon. Never use stainless steel as it will also inhibit bacterial growth.

Once the rennet has been added, allow the milk to sit for an hour. By this time, the first pot had sat for an hour and finished setting. It had the appearance of yogurt and jiggled when lightly shook. There was a very thin film of whey over the top. Using a long knife, we cut the curd horizontally and vertically, making squares of about a half inch. Cutting the curd has an immediate effect and the whey begins to "bleed" out. Let the cheese sit for 20 minutes. 

After the cheese has sat for a bit, the curds will have continued to solidify as they separate from the whey. Gently stir the curds and reheat them until they are at 100°. As you stir, break apart any large chunks, the curds should be more or less uniform in size. Once heated, turn off the heat and let the cheese sit for 5 minutes, allowing the curds to sink. Pour off the whey and reserve for breadmaking or for making ricotta. Drain the curds well, using a large colander and place back in the pot. Run about 2-3" of 105° water in the sink and place the pot in the water. Cover and let sit for 20 minutes. By this time, more whey will have bled out of the curds. Drain off the whey and flip the cheese over in the pot, returning the pan to the water bath. Do this about five times, each time letting the cheese sit for 20 minutes and then draining and flipping the curds. Add hot water to the bath as necessary to keep the temperature near 105°. Eventually, the cheese should take on a shiny appearance. At this point, remove the curds from the pot and place on a cutting board. It is best to place a cookie sheet underneath to catch the whey that will continue to drip. Cut the curds into 8 wedges (or less if you are making a smaller batch) and allow the curds to rest for a few minutes.

While the curds are resting, it is time to prepare the hot and cold baths. For the hot bath, fill a pot with about 6 quarts of distilled non-chlorinated water and heat it to 170°. For the cold bath, dissolve 1/3 c of non-iodized sea salt in 2 quarts of ice water.

Take a wedge of cheese and immerse it into the hot bath for a minute or so until it softens. Gently massage and stretch the cheese, immersing it back into the hot water as necessary. It is wise to use rubber gloves for this step. Soaking the cheese in the hot water will not harm the cheese but over working it will. Be careful not to squeeze it or pull it too hard, as this will cause the cheese to become tough and rubbery. This was another step that I did incorrectly the last time I made cheese and again with the first wad of cheese that I worked with in class. Eventually I got the touch down, gently kneading the mozzarella into balls about 2" in diameter. The cheese is done when it stretches without tearing and becomes shiny. As soon as it's done, submerge the cheese into the ice water. It is important to cool the cheese as quickly as possible.

Once cooled, the cheese can be stored in the salt water for several months, though it is important to remember that the cheese will become saltier the longer it sits in the brine. When storing the cheese, you may also wish to place it in olive oil (the oil will solidify when chilled but will be fine when returned to room temperature), or use fresh herbs to flavor the cheese while it sits in the brine.

In addition to making cheese, we also had the opportunity to make butter by hand, using an old hand-cranked butter churning jar. Emily did most of the work there, being the tenacious sort that she is! It took Emily about 30-40 minutes to churn the cream into butter. Stacie told us she never uses the jar, preferring the quicker method of placing the cream in the food processor for 30 seconds or so. After taking a turn at the hand cranking for less than 10 minutes, I can't say as I blame her! The finished butter would then be salted (or not) and placed in a sealed jar and stored for a while to allow the cultures to ferment. We tasted the fresh butter and, while it was good, it was very mild and lacked the sharp tang that good aged butter has.

My thanks to Stacie for sharing her knowledge and experience with us. All in all, it was a very profitable day and I learned enough to get myself well on the way to making my own cheese on a regular basis. While it is an admittedly long process, taking several hours, most of that time is spent waiting. It's an easy task when you have other things around the house to tend to while the cheese sits. The reward is worth every minute invested!

My next cheese adventure will be to learn how to make ricotta from the leftover whey. I'm also looking to experiment with other soft cheeses like cottage cheese and Neufchatel. Rest assured, gentle reader, I will keep you informed of my pilgrimage into this culinary holy land. Praise Cheeses!


  1. I've been longing for the cheesemaking kits from the Urban Farm store to make my first attempt. This looks wonderful. I can't wait to see your ricotta as well.

    PS.. that's a mighty fine looking chicken in your profile pick? What kind is she? I'm looking to add a few more in the spring.

  2. Sarah -
    I highly recommend just doing it - go get your cheese-making kit and try it! I "longed" for a while before I made my first batch. Don't be afraid, go for it!
    The chicken in the picture is a Buff Orpington. Her name is Buffy. We also have a Golden Laced Wyandott named Willow.
    Thanks for your comment! Cheers!