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Start Making Cheese at Home


Never cry over sour milk. Just make it into cottage cheese.”
Old saying
Whether your milk comes from a cow, goat, sheep, water buffalo, camel, or yak—and they’re all used in cheese making—it contains five components: water, lactose (milk sugar), fat, protein (whey and casein), and minerals. The goal in making cheese from any type of milk is to expel water and condense the solids.
Each cheese will have its own water, acid, and salt content, which influence its ripening and final aroma, texture, and flavor. Cheddar cheese, for example, starts with a moisture content of 87 percent and the cheese maker must squeeze out enough water (or liquid whey) to reduce that down to 36 percent. Cottage cheese, on the other hand, retains more whey. (See the table below)

1. Heat fresh milk.
2. Add starter culture (bacteria) to acidify the milk.
3. Let the acidified milk thicken, or set.
4. Add rennet (an enzyme) to solidify the proteins and to separate the liquid whey.
5. Cut the curds.
6. Heat and stir the curds, which expel water.
7. Drain the liquid whey. Curd particles will stick together, or knit.
8. Press the curds to remove even more liquid. Apply weight to the cheese to give it its final shape and to remove still more liquid.
9. Add salt by sprinkling or rubbing it onto the cheese or submerging the cheese in salt brine, which draws out more water.
10. Age the cheese to enhance its flavor and complexity (optional).

Before you start on a recipe, you need to know how to handle the main ingredient: the milk. You also have to decide what kind of milk to use. Some recipes specify, but if you want to change it up a bit once you’ve mastered a recipe, here’s what you’ll need to know.

A dairy thermometer ensures that milk reaches the correct temperature.

Unless the recipe calls for heating directly on the stove, use a double boiler or a water bath. A water bath is a sink full of water that is 10 degrees warmer than the target temperature of your milk. If the milk is too hot, remove the pot from the sink. If it’s too cool, add hot water to the sink. Indirect heating allows for more even heat distribution and prevents scorching.

Recipes in this book are based on pasteurized whole milk. If you are using raw unpasteurized milk (clean and tested), reduce the amounts of starter and rennet by half.

As its name suggests, your starter culture begins the process of changing lactose (milk sugar) into lactic acid. This equalizes the pH so that the milk protein will form curds when rennet is added. Starter culture contains active lactic acid–producing bacteria, which acidify the milk, usually during the next thirty to sixty minutes. The increase in acidity must proceed at the right rate, and the level of milk acidity must not be too high or too low when you add rennet. Clabbered (over-acidified) milk will not yield a clean break (when the curd is ready, a knife can cleanly separate it).

There are two types of starter cultures: mesophilic and thermophilic.
Mesophilic culture is used to make low-temperature cheese. (Soft cheeses and some hard cheeses cook at low temperatures.) It grows best when the temperature of the heated milk is 80 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit. At temperatures lower than 70 degrees Fahrenheit or higher than 86 degrees Fahrenheit, the bacteria don’t work well. Temperatures above 104 degrees Fahrenheit destroy the bacteria.

Unless a recipe specifies goat’s or sheep’s milk, the recipes in this book are based on the use of whole cow’s milk. But once you’ve mastered a recipe using cow’s milk, you may want to substitute one kind of milk for another. If you do, keep these things in mind:
Goat’s milk is more acidic than cow’s milk (it has a lower pH). You will need to reduce the amount of rennet by about a quarter. If a recipe calls for 1 teaspoon rennet, for example, use ¾ teaspoon instead. The reverse is true if you are substituting cow’s milk for goat’s milk.
Sheep’s milk has more milk solids than either cow’s or goat’s milk. Reduce the rennet by a quarter and plan on a higher yield.

Mesophilic and thermophilic cultures come prepackaged, but you can also make your own (see Making Your Own Starter” on the opposite page). However, unless you plan to make cheese several times a week, you probably don’t need a mother culture.
Direct-set culture saves time, is simple to use, and reduces possible milk contamination. There are direct-set cultures for all types of cheese, sold as a freeze-dried powder by cheese-making suppliers (see Resources, page 173). They can stay in your freezer unopened for up to two years. (Note: If you are buying direct-set starter in bulk, use these guidelines: 1/8 teaspoon per 1 gallon of milk, ¼ teaspoon per 2 to 5 gallons of milk, and ½ teaspoon per 5 to 10 gallons of milk.)

Starter bacteria’s role in cheese making is to fight harmful bacteria that want to spoil your milk. The lactocci and lactobacilli you add at this early stage are friendly bacteria, not the unfriendly pathogenic variety. As a society, we seem to be obsessed with germs, but life—and cheese making—would be unthinkable without beneficial microbes. As cheese maker and business owner Rory Chase says, “If our bodies were voting republics, we’d be ruled by bacteria.” He and his business partner Peter Destler co-own the Amazing Real Live Food Co., which enhances its products with life-sustaining probiotics.

Milk color is determined by carotenes (natural pigments) and can vary depending on the animal and what it’s eating. Goat’s and sheep’s milk, for example, are naturally white because they lack carotenes. Cheese makers often use safe nontoxic vegetable dyes to give their cheeses a rich yellow caste. The most popular vegetable dye is annatto, an extract from the seeds of Bixa orellana, a shrub native to Central and South America. In years past, carrot juice, saffron, and marigold petals were added for color. All of the following additives are available from cheese-making suppliers:
Annatto. This is sold as a liquid and must be diluted before using. Two drops per gallon of milk in ¼ cup of water is usually enough. Add it before adding the rennet as it can weaken coagulation. Mix it thoroughly into the warm milk. Its color won’t show until after you drain the curds.

Calcium Chloride. Adding calcium chloride to pasteurized and homogenized milk restores calcium lost during the milk’s heat treatment. Cheese makers also add it to compensate for seasonal variations in the milk. Use ¼ teaspoon calcium chloride per gallon of milk. Dilute the calcium chloride in ¼ cup of unchlorinated water, and add the mixture to the heated milk. After adding rennet, let the milk set 3 to 5 minutes longer than usual before cutting the curds.
Lipase powder. This is an enzyme used to produce extra acid. If your recipe calls for it, dissolve the powder in ¼ cup of cool water and let it sit for twenty minutes before adding it to your heated milk.

Making Your Own Starter
A mother culture is a homegrown starter that you can store and keep using indefinitely to make more batches. Follow these directions to make a mother culture using direct-set culture.
To make your first batch of mesophilic starter:
1. Boil a clean 1-quart canning jar and its lid in water for five minutes.
2. Remove and cool. Fill the jar with fresh skim milk, leaving ½ inch at the top. Screw the lid on tightly.
3. Place the jar in a deep pot so that the water covers the top of the lid.
4. Bring the pot of water to a boil, and continue at a slow boil for thirty minutes.

5. Remove the jar, and let the milk cool to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. (You will need a dairy thermometer to test temperature.)
6. Pour ¼ teaspoon freeze-dried mesophilic culture into the cooled sterilized milk. Cover the jar with the lid, and swirl to dissolve the powder.
7. Set the jar where it can be kept at 75 degrees Fahrenheit for about eighteen hours as the milk ripens.
8. The finished culture should have the consistency of yogurt (or buttermilk, if you’re using goat’s milk) and separate cleanly from the sides of the jar.
9. Chill the culture in the fridge right away. It will keep unopened for up to two weeks. To freeze your mother culture, sterilize plastic ice cube trays. Fill the trays, cover them with plastic wrap, and freeze them. Be sure to label the frozen cubes “mesophilic” with the date. They’ll be good for up to three months. Each cube measures 1 ounce and can be thawed to make cheese or another batch of culture.

To make a thermophilic starter, follow steps 1 through 4 above, and then:
1. Remove the jar from the water and let the milk cool to 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Pour ¼ teaspoon freeze-dried thermophilic culture into the cooled sterilized milk. Cover the jar with the lid, and swirl to dissolve the powder.

3. Set the jar in a pot of water heated to 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and keep it at that temperature for four to six hours. The milk should look like yogurt and separate cleanly from the sides of the jar. Follow step 9 above.
Troubleshooting Your Mother Culture
If your starter won’t coagulate, it may be because the room temperature is too low, the bacteria you added wasn’t active, the residue of detergent or bleach on utensils interfered with bacterial action, or you didn’t add enough powdered culture.
Bubbles in your finished starter mean bad news. Either your equipment or the skim milk wasn’t sterile. Toss it out and start over.