So what is cheese exactly?
Basically, cheese is milk that has been acidified until it separates into curds (milk solids) and whey. There are two ways to achieve this.
- adding an acid such as vinegar or lemon juice to hot milk
- using a bacterial culture to acidify the milk and then adding rennet to separate the milk.
The most basic cheeses are the acid cheeses such as the ricotta. The high temperature allows the vinegar to quickly coagulate the milk, the whey is drained off, and you have cheese. The benefits of making these acid cheeses are several:
- They are quick and easy to do, so if you have lots of extra milk but not extra time to do much with it, you can have cheese without much work.
- Usually, the yield of cheese from the milk is fairly high.
- During the winter months, when there are higher levels of milk solids in the milk, it is easy to simply add more acid to ensure that all the solids are separated from the whey.
On the other hand, these cheeses are very limited in diversity of flavor and consistency. The acid cheeses will help you to understand the basic chemistry of cheese making, but once you’ve made them a few times, you’ll want to branch out to the rennet coagulated (cultured) cheese.
All cultured cheeses are made with the same ingredients: milk, bacterial culture, and rennet. What creates the variety of cheese from a soft chevre to an aged cheddar is not the ingredients, but how the ingredients are used. Temperature and time play a very important part in making cultured cheeses.
We’ll start with the bacterial culture. The cheese making bacteria turn the lactose in the milk into lactic acid. Different bacteria work optimally at different temperatures and there are two types of culture: mesophilic (moderate temperature loving) and thermophilic (hot temperature loving). Mesophilic cultures produce chevre, feta, cheddar, Gouda, Colby among others. Thermophilic cultures are used for Parmesan, Romano, other Italian cheeses and Swiss cheeses.
There are two forms of cheese culture which you can use. The most readily available are in your grocery store: buttermilk (mesophilic culture) and yogurt (thermophilic culture). The benefit to using buttermilk or yogurt is that you can run to the store and buy a container and be all ready to make cheese. On the other hand, results can be less consistent, and there is the possibility of contamination especially if you culture your own buttermilk or yogurt. The other option is to buy a Direct Set culture. This is a freeze dried bacterial culture which will retain its potency for over a year if stored in the freezer.
The benefits to the Direct Set cultures are as follows:
- They consist of high quality cheese making bacteria giving a better chance for consistent and flavorful results.
- You do not make a culture from it which you then use in the cheese. It is a ready made culture. This eliminates the possibility of contamination.
- A little bit goes a long way.
Direct Set cultures can be purchased through goat supply and cheese making supply companies. However, for people who are interested, I suggest purchasing the cultures from a wholesale cheese making supply company called Dairy Connection.
Let me point out again that pasteurization of the milk ensures that only the added bacteria are present in the milk during cheese making. When using raw milk, the cheese making bacteria have to compete with naturally occurring bacteria, and the result can be not just unpleasant, but possibly unsafe. Don’t take a chance that your hard work will be ruined by failing to pasteurize your milk.
Once the bacteria have been given time to act (at a temperature and for a time specified by the individual recipe), rennet is added to coagulate the milk. Do not use Junket rennet available in grocery stores. It does not have the strength for cheese making. Rennet can be purchased through goat supply or cheese making companies as a liquid or as tablets. It can be a vegetable or an animal derivative. Although there does not seem to be much difference between the vegetable and animal rennet, the liquid rennet is much easier to measure, and I prefer it to the tablets. Rennet must be added in the correct amount. If you don’t add enough, the milk won’t set. If you use too much, the cheese will be bitter.
Here again, time and temperature play an important role. Rennet works best in milk with a higher acid content. If you add the rennet before the culture has had time to acidify the milk, the resulting curds will be weak and unworkable. If you wait too long to add the rennet, you may end up with a very sour cheese. Pay close attention to the times and temperatures indicated in your recipe. Have a good thermometer. But remember that people have been making cheese for thousands of years without modern equipment. Pay attention to the directions, but don’t obsess about them and don’t feel that cheese making is too complicated to try. You can turn that milk into cheese, and with a little attention to directions, it will be a very good cheese.
Begin at the Beginning…
Begin at the beginning with proper handling of the milk. This means that as soon as the milk is brought in from the barn, it must be filtered and pasteurized. Pasteurization ensures two things:
- Elimination of unwanted bacteria. Obviously, the main bacteria we wish destroyed are pathogens which can make people sick. However, pasteurization also eliminates other bacteria which, although not harmful, can interfere with the cheese making process. When making cheese, you will introduce special bacteria to ripen the milk, and you do not want competition with naturally occurring bacteria which can produce off-flavors and otherwise interfere with consistent results.
- Elimination of unpleasant “goaty” flavor. The fats in goat milk are much more delicate than those in cow milk. They have a tendency to quickly acquire a “goaty” taste which many Americans find unappealing. Pasteurization stabilizes these fats and prevents them from turning “goaty” even if you wait a few days to use the milk for cheese.
Home pasteurization is easy, effective and fast. Simply bring your milk in from the barn and filter it directly into a stainless steel pot such as those available in the kitchen section of Fred Meyer. Put your pot on the stovetop and turn the burner on high. Unless your milk is from a very recent freshener, you should not have any trouble with the milk burning. Place a thermometer in the milk and heat until the thermometer registers 165°F. The milk need only stay at this temperature for 15 seconds.
Now the milk is pasteurized. That’s all there is to it.
Pasteurization in this fashion DOES NOT affect the nutritional content of the milk. According to David P. Brown, Senior Extension Associate at Cornell University, home pasteurization only eliminates Vitamin C in the milk. Since milk is a poor source of Vitamin C in any case, this loss is of little consequence. Learn more about the health benefits of pasteurization.
Of course, you do want to cool the milk as quickly as possible. As the milk temperature drops, airborne bacteria can be reintroduced. I cover my pot with a paper towel and put it in a cooler of cold water. I then pack refreezable ice packs around the pot. When the milk is cooled to around 40°F, I pour it into jars and refrigerate it.
Goat’s Milk Yogurt:
- Bring 1 qt of milk to a rolling boil and allow to boil for 5 minutes. When the milk first boils, turn off the heat and stir down the foam, then return to low heat. This way the milk won’t boil over.
- Add 1/3 cup powdered milk if desired for a thicker consistency.
- Cool to 115°F.
- Place 1 T yogurt starter into a 1 qt container and stir until smooth. Yogurt starter can be obtained as a freeze dried starter, or you can simply save 1 T from a store bought container of yogurt. Just be sure your brand of yogurt has live cultures – this will be indicated on the container.
- Add 1 T cooled milk and stir well.
- Slowly pour the rest of the milk into the container, stirring constantly.
- Cover the container and put it in a warm place or cover with a heating pad and a towel. If you are not using an insulated container, you must be sure to keep the milk warm. You can purchase well insulated yogurt containers or electric yogurt makers at Caprine Supply.
- Do not put your yogurt container on a surface that vibrates (such as the top of the refrigerator). The yogurt must rest undisturbed for about 7 hours. The longer the yogurt sets, the more sour it becomes.
- If you are using fresh goat milk, please note that yogurt will not set up properly if you are using milk from a newly freshened goat. Be sure to use milk from a goat that has milked through the winter or from a goat that kidded several months earlier.
- Save 1 T from your yogurt to use as the starter for the next batch. Eventually, you will notice that the yogurt has a more sour taste. When you no longer like the flavor, begin the next batch of yogurt with a fresh starter.
- Heat 1 gallon of milk to 206°F (this recipe can be halved or doubled).
- Stir in ¼ cup white vinegar (cider vinegar can be used but the white vinegar gives a milder tasting result).
- Stir gently for a couple minutes – you will see curds forming. Milk from late in the lactation cycle contains more milk solids and can make more cheese, but it needs more vinegar to separate out the curds.
- Add vinegar 1 T at a time until the whey is a clear green.
- Drain the curd into a cheesecloth lined colander for 1 minute.
- Place the curds in a bowl and mix in 3 T butter and ½ tsp baking soda.
- Refrigerate until ready for use.
This cheese is very easy and fast to make and can be used in place of tofu in recipes or just eaten plain.
- Heat 1 gallon milk to 185°F.
- Add ¼ cup white vinegar (if the milk does not separate into curds and a clear green liquid, slowly add more vinegar, 1 T at a time until the whey is a clear green – more vinegar is needed during the winter months for fresh milk since there are more milk solids in winter produced milk).
- Allow to sit in pot for 15 minutes.
- Gently ladle curds into a cheesecloth lined colander.
- Hang to drain for several hours.
- Remove from cheesecloth and cut into cubes.
- Salt to taste.
When you are ready to start making cultured cheeses, you’ll have to collect some supplies. You will need the following:
- Thermometer (must register at least 80°F – 170°F).
- Culture (direct set or buttermilk).
- Rennet (available from goat supply catalogs).
- Cheesecloth (also available from goat supply catalogs)
DO NOT buy cheesecloth at the grocery store unless you absolutely can’t wait. Proper cheesecloth has a denser weave and can be washed and reused. Grocery store cheesecloth is much looser and curds will escape and clog the cloth.
- Stainless steel pot (seamless – available at Fred Meyer).
- Long, stainless steel knife (a bread knife works well).
- A good recipe book (“Goats Produce, Too!” by Mary Jane Toth has the best goat cheese recipes).
(If you do not have your own dairy goats, you can use milk from the grocery store. Do not waste your money on organic milk. Organic milk is often ultra-pasteurized which means that it is heated under pressure to a very high temperature. This affects the proteins in the milk and makes them unable to form a curd).
The easiest cultured cheese to try is also one of the most popular of gourmet cheeses – chevre. It has the added benefit of being useful in many different types of recipes and can be flavored in many different ways for serving on a cheese platter as well.
Begin with 1 gallon of goat milk (this recipe can be doubled without problems). Warm the milk to 80°F. Remove ¼ cup of warm milk from the pot. Stir 1/8 tsp mesophilic direct set culture into the ¼ cup of milk. Pour this mix back into the pot. Stir well. If you are using buttermilk, stir ½ cup of buttermilk directly into the pot.
Add 4 drops of liquid rennet to 1/3 c cool water. Mix well. Take 2 Tbsp of this diluted rennet and add it to the milk pot.
Stir well for a minute or two, then cover and let the milk sit at room temperature for about 8-12 hours. Room temperature in Alaska might be a bit too cold, however, so be sure, if your kitchen is cool, to insulate your milk pot with towels. The milk needs to stay around 80°F for the culture to work.
After the resting period, your milk should look like thick yogurt. There is often a layer of greenish whey floating on top.
Line a colander with one layer of cheesecloth and place the colander over a large pot. Gently ladle the curds into the cheesecloth. DO NOT pour the curds into the colander. The curds are very delicate and will lose their surface tension if you do not handle them gently. This means that the curds will clog the cheesecloth and, although you can still end up with chevre, the cheesecloth will need to be frequently scraped to allow the whey to drain. In short, it becomes very messy, and you lose quite a bit of cheese in the process.
When all the curds have been ladled into the cheesecloth, twist the ends of the cloth together and hang the chevre to drain. Be sure to save the whey as it can be substituted for water in baking recipes. After the chevre has stopped draining, about 8 hours, wrap it in plastic and refrigerate or freeze it. If you refrigerate it, change the wrapping after about 8 hrs, as more whey will drain from the cheese. This cheese freezes marvelously with no discernable change in the texture or taste.
Chevre can be used in many recipes as a substitute for cream cheese. It can also be seasoned for eating with bread or crackers. My favorite recipe follows, but remember that you can add whatever herbs or spices take your fancy. Just don’t forget the salt. Refer to “Goats Produce, Too!“ for a number of excellent chevre recipes.
Garlic and Onion Chevre:
- 1lb chevre
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- ½ tsp garlic powder
- ½ tsp onion powder
- Coarse ground black pepper
Mix together the cheese, salt, garlic and onion powders. Form into a ball. Sprinkle the outside of the ball with the pepper. The cheese will firm up and the flavors will come out more after a day in the refrigerator.
Now that you have tried out the chevre, you are ready to move on to the next step in cheese making by stirring the cheese curds to expel whey and firm up the final product. In this installment, I’ll explain how to make feta cheese which has all the basic elements of making any of the hard cheeses, yet can be eaten after only a few days of ripening.
Here’s the ingredient list for feta (this recipe can be doubled or halved):
- 1 gallon goat milk
(If you do not have your own dairy goats, you can use cow milk from the grocery store. Do not waste your money on organic milk. Organic milk is often ultra-pasteurized which means that it is heated under pressure to a very high temperature. This affects the proteins in the milk and makes them unable to form a curd).
- 1/8 tsp direct set mesophilic culture (or ¼ cup buttermilk)
- ½ tsp liquid rennet
- ¼ c cool water
- Kosher salt
- Wire whisk
First, warm your milk to 86°F. Remove ¼ cup of milk from the pot and add to it the direct set culture. Stir well, and then return the mix to the milk pot. Or, if using buttermilk, add this directly to the milk. Stir well. Cover the pot, and allow to ripen for 1 hour. Notice that, unlike the chevre, you are allowing acidity to build up during this ripening process before adding the rennet.
Add ½ tsp liquid rennet to ¼ c cool water and add to the milk. Stir gently, but thoroughly. Cover and allow to set for 1 hour.
After this second resting period, the milk should be firm. Take a long knife (a bread knife is fine) and cut all the way to the bottom of the pot in long, slicing movements. You will cut a grid of ½” squares. After making one set of cuts across the pot, turn the pot 90° and make another set of cuts across the pot. The curds are then ½” columns. Now cut on a diagonal to break up the columns into cubes. Do not worry about cutting perfect ½” cubes. The idea is to increase the surface area of the cheese so that whey can be expelled from the curds. However, do not cut the curds into very small pieces, either, as this will result in too much whey being expelled, and the cheese will be excessively dry. Remember to treat the curds gently. Goat milk curds do not have as much surface tension as cow milk curds, and they will break apart if treated roughly.
At this point, you are going to use the wire whisk to stir the curds. Do not whisk the curds as though you were beating eggs. The object is to gently break the curds up. Many recipes will tell you simply to stir with a ladle or a spoon, but you will not get curds of the proper consistency without the wire whisk. Push the whisk to the bottom of the pot and gently bring the curds to the surface. Shake the whisk slightly so that the curds fall through the wire back into the pot. Continue doing this for 10 minutes. If you don’t stir the curds, they will mat on the bottom of the pot and will not lose enough whey to make a firm cheese.
This cheese making technique of stirring the curds will appear in all the more advanced recipes that you try. Colby, Cheddar, Gouda and the other aged cheeses, as well as fresh Cottage cheese, require that the curds be stirred. You will notice as you stir that the curds gradually shrink as they lose their whey. You should end up with a pot of curds that looks like large curd Cottage cheese. Don’t forget to use the whisk, and you will be consistently happy with your results.
After stirring the cheese for 10 minutes, allow the curds to settle for another 5 minutes. Now you do want the curds to mat together at the bottom of the pot since it will make it much easier to drain them in the next step. Line a colander with cheesecloth and place it over a large bowl. You’ll notice in your cheese pot that the whey has risen to the top, and the curds have all sunk to the bottom. Pour off the whey. Then gently lift the curds out of the pot and place them into the colander to drain. Make sure that your hands are clean! Tie the cheesecloth at the corners and hang the cheese to drain for about 6 hours.
Next, slice the ball of curds in half. If you’ve doubled the recipe, you might want to slice the ball into thirds. Place the slices on a clean rack over a dish to catch the whey. Salt both sides of each half of the cheese ball with about 5 T of Kosher salt. Cover the cheese with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 24 hours. After 24 hours, salt all surfaces again and let rest for another 2 hours. Wrap the cheese and place in the refrigerator to age for 5 days.
Here’s something gourmet to try with your feta:
- Cut your feta into 1” blocks.
- Pick out whatever herbs are to your liking, but I use crushed garlic, basil, and oregano.
- Place a layer of cheese cubes on the bottom of a quart jar.
- Add a layer of herbs. Continue to layer the herbs and cheese to within an inch of the top of the jar.
- Fill the jar with a mixture of ½ olive oil and ½ canola oil being sure to completely cover all the cheese and herb layers. Allow to marinate for at least a few days. Use the marinated cheese on salads, pizza, or in quiches. Use the flavored oil for salad dressings or pasta.
- Store in the refrigerator.