Simple cheese making
Simple cheese making is easy! You don’t need a load of equipment and so long as you stick to the basic rule of cleanliness, you cannot go far wrong.
It should go without saying that rigorous cleanliness of the cheese making area, the utensils and everything coming in contact with thee milk, the cheese in all its stages of production and ourselves, is of utmost importance.
Commercial cheese makers do so in a dairy, a room with washable walls and floor, tables that are easily treated and cleaned and wear clothing that is not only cleaned, protective and usually boiled but is specifically designed for use in cheese making. No other persons use the dairy, and no one can enter without the correct precautions. If the cheese maker is ill, no cheese is made.
This is an important point. If you feel unwell, do not make cheese, you could contaminate it and this could easily make others poorly too.
But we make cheese in kitchens used by lots of people. Some of them have entered the room having been working in the garden, or other dirty places, pets enter and are usually fed in the kitchen, washing usually happens of items such as pots, pans and clothes. There are usually rubbish bins in the kitchen and towels for pot drying and hand drying hanging on hooks. The kitchen is not the cleanest place in the house.
When we make cheese, which is basically a highly sustaining medium for fungi and bacteria, any microbe we don’t want in I will grow just as happily as the ones we do want. It is really important that cheese making sessions are done in the cleanest place you can muster. Everything should be sterilised either using boiling water or an appropriate sterilising fluid. Try to buy a lab coat for making cheese, or at least wear an apron. Make sure your hair is out of the way and that your hands, arms, face and hair are clean. Your utensils should be sterile – all of them, and the pots you are making cheese with should be sterile too.
Try not to handle anything. Don’t go poking your fingers in the milk and do not stand over it, breathing into it too.
The amount you make is important
In a dairy, the cheese usually made is mostly large, cheddars are about 40 cm by 40 cm tube like cheeses, but the size of the cheese we can make in the kitchen has an impact on cleanliness at the maturing stage. Smaller cheeses have comparatively larger surface areas in comparison to its bulk, and therefore a cheese we make in the kitchen is more likely to become infected than a large one made in a dairy. It is important to mature your cheeses in the cleanest places possible – I use a plastic box that is well ventilated, and cleaned daily with vinegar (more on how to do this later), and keep your maturing to the shortest time possible.
Making cheese with acid
Milk is naturally alkaline. One of the effects of this is to keep the protein casein, with which we make most of our cheese, from sticking together in lumps. If you add acid, this effect is taken away and you end up with small clumps of cheese called curds. Casein naturally wants to clump together. The nature of these curds is like small pieces of dried up glue. The efficiency and yield of curd formation depends on temperature and so cheeses made using acid are usually heated to quite a high temperature.
Making cheese with acid does not need very strong chemicals. As soon as the milk reaches pH 4.6, that is to become mildly acidic, the curds form, and this is very easy with most fruit juices or vinegars. On the whole it is lemon juice that is used to make cheese – particularly where the cheese is to be sweetened, such as a cheese cake. Ordinary malt vinegar is frequently used, especially for paneer, though white vinegar is frequently used instead to maintain a whiter colour.
Some cheeses use citric acid or tartaric acid because they do not impart any particular flavour to the cheese.
Bacterial acidification – fermented cheese
In a way this is an alternative method of cheese production, but scientifically speaking, it is still acid that is actually causing the curd formation. Microbes naturally found in milk digest the sugar portion of the milk and in the process produce lactic acid. These cheeses are often called lactic cheeses (there is a recipe in this book). As the acid builds up, the cheese is formed. This simple process is completed by filtering the solids, wash out the whey, and you have cheese. There is a method of cheese making using a yoghurt type bacterial and fungal mix called Kefir, which basically acidifies the milk over many days until it curdles.
Making cheese with rennet
Making cheese using acid gives you, at best, a crumbly cheese even if hard pressed, but it will never give you the smoothness of curd you get using the rennet method. As we mentioned earlier, the casein protein in milk will naturally cling together to form curds, and this continues until the whole thing is set. Using the enzyme rennet breaks down some other barriers to curd formation, making the cheese set more quickly and more efficiently. It is a multi-stage process
Ripening the milk
This is essentially allowing a bacterial starter to increase the acidity of the cheese, and also get well on the way to produce the final flavour and consistency. The starter continues to work through the life of the cheese, increasing the flavour and consistency of the cheese. Initially, however, a modest increase in acidity provided by the starter will help the rennet work more efficiently.
Starters can be bought and added to the milk as soon as it has warmed. It is often a powder, but you can also – in certain circumstances, use live natural yoghurt.
Starters come in a number of types, and are usually categorized according to their optimum temperature use. Some starters are better at around 33C – 35C and are called Mesophillic cultures. Others are more active at 40C – 42C and are called Thermophilic cultures. Mesophillic cultures are usually used for soft cheeses and Thermophilic used in some hard cheeses though this is not a completely hard and fast rule. On the whole we use mesophillic starters – and these will do for the majority of cheese making processes. Thermophillic starters are used to make a range of cheeses that are frequently heated to 40 C, swiss cheeses and many Italian cheeses.
The starter is responsible for the creaminess of your cheese, but also the acidity and the texture of the cheese. In a way, the starter and the ripening process is the most important part of the process, the secondary characteristics of cheese, the texture firmness and colour, all are produced by the action of the starter and other cultures.
Making your own culture
Culture is alive, a mix of various bacteria and milk that is constantly fed and grown by new additions of milk. Some dairies have had a culture going for many decades and their ingredients are top secret. Many people make cheese using the kefir method of growing the culture – called kefir, and using it to develop in milk until it splits, making the cheese curds.
In the home I get really worried that you can keep on growing a culture for many generations and keep it free from other microbes, some of which could be harmful. Consequently I suggest you only keep kefir (and any other starter) for about 3 generations of growing by feeding with milk, and then buy some fresh. This way you are always sure of a product relatively free from harmful bacteria and fungi.
Buying a ready-made starter
There are a number of starters that you simply buy in sachet form. They are freeze dried and last for ages. They do not need inoculating and are added directly to the milk before you rennet the mixture. You can buy starters for all kinds of cheese and if you want to try your hand at Brie and Camembert then you need Penicillium candidum which is added to the starter or washed on to the outside of the cheese when it is ripening. The hard white crust on the cheese is the Penicillium candidum that matures it from the outside inwards. Commercial Brie and Camembert manufacturers walk around the shelves of ripening cheeses with a spray of Penicillium candidum that washes over them. I am fairly sure this is not really necessary at home.
Penicillium roqueforti is used, and can be bought in sachets, to create blue cheeses. If you are going to make something like Cheddar and need a similar consistency and quality time and again, then you need to make sure you have the starter right. And you are probably favourite in buying a commercially available product. MA400 is the basic all round starter that you can use for most types of cheese. It usually comes in sachets and you add it to a little milk to then inoculate your cheese. You can also buy it in the form that is simply sprinkled into the milk, stirred up and then left to do its job. MA400 is mesophilic and consequently does not need to be over heated. You can buy specific starters for making different cheeses. Emmenthal starter is thermophilic and is a culture of Propionbacteria shermanii, which is responsible for the holes and specific flavour of this hard cheese.
Making up the starter
Starters are individual products and have their own special requirements. Some will come with rennet included so you will have to read the label! Making up an incubational starter is easy. All you need is the starter and some sterile containers, I find a yoghurt maker is ideal. Heat up some milk to nearly boiling for around ten minutes. In fact, it doesn’t really matter of you boil it. Transfer to the sterile container (don’t forget to sterilise the lid) and allow it to cool to room temperature. Add the specified starter (read the label!) and let it work at room temperature for 24 hours. It should then resemble thick, lumpy, clean smelling yoghurt. It should have a definite acidic aroma. A sachet of starter probably has enough starter for 250 litres of milk. Having made your starter solution, pop the slurry into a sterile ice cube tray and freeze it. Every time you make cheese, simply add two ice cubes to the milk at the ripening stage
The addition of rennet is steeped in mystery, in particular because you only need a few drops to make a cheese. A whole bucket of milk can be turned into cheese with only a few of drops of rennet! This is usually done at a specific temperature and takes around an hour to complete.
Rennet is an enzyme, found in the stomach of young mammals, and animal rennet is still available these days. However, you can buy vegetarian rennet which works just as well.
At around 33C, rennet does its job in 30 – 60 minutes, and you need to check if you have curds. Twisting a sterile knife into the curd will make it split and whey will quickly fill the gap created. Curds are then usually cut into cubes to allow more whey to escape and often ‘cooked’ to higher temperatures – though not usually more than 38C, both to remove more whey and change the nature of the curds.
Draining, cutting, salting
Usually started in a cheesecloth, draining removes most of the whey, which is the liquid portion of milk and contains sugar. The problem with sugar is that it is food for microbes, and will soon go off, tainting the flavour of the cheese. The rest of the process is about getting as much whey out of the cheese as possible. Salting the cheese actually preserves, but also draws out more whey by osmosis. On the whole, cheeses are pressed only really for two purposes – to remove more whey by pressure and to give the cheese a shape. You do not make a hard cheese by pressing it per se, this is more rather created by the starter you use and the length of time the cheese is allowed to evaporate and mature.
You usually start the draining process by lining a colander with a cheesecloth and spooning the curds into it, leaving as much of the whey behind as you can. The colander can be covered and left on the draining board of the kitchen sink, making sure you do mot contaminate the curds with kitchen chemicals, soap etc.
Then further draining can be achieved by tying the four corners of the cheesecloth and hanging it over a pan or the sink. This is usually left overnight, and you do remove quite a lot of whey.
Generally, as we have said, pressing does not turn a cheese into a hard cheese. This is achieved by a combination of starter and the way thee curds are treated. However, pressing always gives the cheese a good shape and helps dry it. It makes the cheese easily to handle when salting, too.
You can buy a cheese press to do the job but it isn’t actually necessary. Where the final shape isn’t really important you can simply use two chopping boards with a pan of water on the top. This is particularly used in the making of paneer and haloumi.
When you want a shape too, this trick is really useful. You can use a cake tin, with a spring form clasp, so the base of the tin comes away. Put the outer ring on a cutting board and then the cheese in a cheesecloth, then the base – the tin needs to be upside down. Then a big jug of water goes on the lid and this then presses the cheese and forms a shape.
Cheese is matured for some time, often months, in a clean atmosphere. There are special precautions needed for home produced cheese in a kitchen, which we will go into in the relevant place. Maturation allows the starter bacteria to reach its potential of flavour and consistency, and the majority of whey is finally removed by evaporation.
Equipment used in cheese making
Of course, like everything, there is a long list of things to buy for cheese making. But actually you don’t really need it all. Cheese making is at least 5000 years old, and they didn’t have lots of prehistoric kit!
First of all you need a big pan, capable of holding a gallon of milk. A heavy bottomed pan is best, so your heating doesn’t burn the milk.
Cheese making equipment from Amazon
A good thermometer is important so you can accurately set the temperature of the various stages of cheese production. I find a probe thermometer best, that is easily cleanable.
That’s it really, in terms of must buy items!
Cheesecloth is a good thing to buy, for separating curds from whey, but you can use a sterilised cotton pillow or shirt if needs be. You need to ensure small strands of cotton do not get into the cheese, which form a site of possible infection.
Cheese presses are not cheap, and for most cheese I use a couple of cutting boards, or a cake tin with a floating bottom. However, this is not good for some cheeses that need heavier pressing. For all the cheeses in this book you need not buy a press.
A maturing box is a useful thing, but you can use a plastic box with holes in the lid, and cheese mats, for standing cheese while it drains can be replaces with sterile chopsticks, or just a plate.