Making cheese is a full-out effort, and one that teaches you plenty about patience. We received a very generous gift of ten gallons of fresh raw milk on Saturdady, so my learning curve in milk preservation (i.e., making cheese) took a sharp upward turn.
Here’s how it goes. Slowly heat two gallons of milk (we use a large coffee can for our mold, and two gallons of milk produces about a 2-3″ high wheel of cheese) to x°. The “x” varies with the type of cheese you want to end up with, but generally it’s somewhere between 86° F and 105°F. The whole process goes better if you do all the heating steps slowly—generally you won’t want to heat milk any faster than one to two degrees every five minutes.
The next step is to add a bacterial starter if you’re using pasteurized milk; but raw milk already has the friendly little critters needed to make a good cheese so we can zoom ahead to adding the coagulant. Many cheeses use rennet (we use a vegetable version), though some soft cheeses are perfectly happy with lemon juice or vinegar to magically separate the milk into curds and whey (yep, just like Little Miss Muffet and her spider buddy).
Once the milk “sets” (becomes custard-like), the curds are carefully cut into 1/4″ to 1/2″ cubes. Usually this is followed by more slow heating and some gentle stirring. Next the whey, which makes a fabulous soup stock, is drained off and the curds are gathered up into cheese cloth and put in the mold, where more whey will be pressed out, forming the curds into a wheel. Pressing times and weights vary widely. Sometimes a new wheel is soaked in a brine solution (which causes a rind to form) and aged for short while; other cheeses might be waxed and aged for months.
I’m a great fan of making “Guido’s Cheese”, named for an Italian gentleman who moved from his native country to Pennsylvania, only to discover the fine homemade cheeses of his experience were not to be found in his new home. Ever resourceful, Guido contacted a cheese-making supply house, bought some essentials and fiddled around until he made a great hard cheese that ripens in three weeks.
That’s really fast for a hard cheese. Two to six months isn’t unusual. The cheddar we attempted today is of one of the two-to-six month varieties. That’s a long time to wait to find out if all the cheese-making stars were in alignment when you began. If they weren’t, you contribute the result to the forest insects and animals who can, and certainly will, take it in happily. It could be worse, though—some mold cheeses age for years.
Guido’s cheese is turned and rewrapped every few hours in the cheese mold, then sits under about three pounds of weight in the mold for 24 hours; next it floats in a brine for another 24, and it is then patted dry and placed in a paper-towel-lined dish to begin its brief aging process. (For a week it’s turned over three times a day, then once a day for two more weeks. That’s why I like it; you do have to stick around the house for a few days, but mostly you can go about your other business once the first overnight pressing begins. And you know how you did soon enough.)
On the other hand, the cheddar we made today was a full-time, all-day project. More than an hour and a half of heating and stirring, an hour of keeping the curds constantly at 100°, stirring every five minutes with your hands. The pressing routine was complicated—ten minutes at 10 pounds, fifteen minutes at 15, a half-hour at 30, two hours at 40 and finally 24 hours at 50 pounds of pressure. Tomorrow we will rremove it from the mold to dry over the next two to five days; finally we will wax it and store it at 45° to 55° for two to six months. The longer the age, the sharper the cheese.
Here’s the bottom line: you just don’t, and I mean never, cut corners when making cheese. You may as well just dump those two gallons of milk right down the drain. Every degree, every minute, every process is important if you want a really great cheese. All your untensils should be sterilized before you begin, and all your ingredients fresh and lively. No short cuts. This is not fast food.
Every time I make a cheese, I learn something. I now know that I can repair cracks in an aging wheel with a smear of butter. I know what “matting curds” look like, and what to do about them if they appear at the wrong time. I know what to do if a soft cheese doesn’t curdle when it’s supposed to. I’ve developed a pretty good sense of when something has gone terribly wrong and it’s time to throw in the towel. The forest animals are really glad I know this.
But I will never know everything, because the Universal Surprise Factor is always at work. Every gallon of milk is different. The weather changes. The gas stove doesn’t heat exactly the same way day after day. The bacteria may be lazier on one day than another. Temperature, humidity and even light levels can vary wildly as the cheeses age.
That’s just the way life is. We never know when the USF will come into play and today the same thing we’ve done a hundred times before will produce an entirely different result.
That’s why life is such a hoot.