Cheese is made primarily from milk, but there are other cheesemaking ingredients, such as bacteria, molds, coagulant, etc. that you will want to add in order to transform your milk into its highest form. The list below describes the different ingredients you may want to source to start your cheesemaking journey.
The better the milk, the better the cheese. Ideally, cheese is made with fresh milk from a healthy grass-fed cow (or pastured sheep or goat) who lives on a small farm in clean conditions and has spent plenty of time outdoors in the sun. The ideal milk has been low-temp pasteurized (if pasteurized at all), and is not homogenized. That would be ideal.
But not all of us have access to farm-fresh milk, and most of us cheesemakers will be buying our milk off the grocery shelf. In that case, the most important thing to look for is milk that has not been ultra-pasteurized. Milk that has been ultra-pasteurized has been heated to a very high temperature, and it will not form good cheese curd. As long as you have milk that has not been ultra-pasteurized, you can make cheese.
You will also want to look for whole milk, unless otherwise indicated by the recipe. Milk fat contributes to delicious cheese, and it will give you higher yields than skim milk. Also look for milk that has not been homogenized. Non-homogenized milk (or cream-top or cream-line milk) will coagulate better and give a higher yield.
Some good places to look for quality milk may be at a co-op or natural foods store. You can also search craigslist or farmer’s markets to find small producers of milk. You may find that even if you can’t taste a difference in the flavor of the milk from different sources, the resulting cheese will be of a different quality. When faced with the choice between two otherwise identical sources of milk at the store, you may want to try the local brand rather than the store brand, as even that seems to make a difference in the resulting cheese flavor.
Whichever milk you choose, try to find the freshest milk possible. Check the expiration dates at the store and dig around until you find the freshest milk. Then make your cheese that day (or as soon as possible). The fresher your milk, the tastier your resulting cheese will be.
A note on raw milk: if you choose to use raw milk, be sure of its freshness and proper handling. As long as you are not selling your cheese, you can use raw milk in any recipe that you wish. Raw milk has flavor-forming bacteria in it that is not present in pasteurized milk, and some cheesemakers consider it sacrilege to work with anything else. Personally, I feel comfortable using quality raw milk in hard cheeses that are aged for several months, though I use pasteurized milk for the high-moisture, high-pH cheeses (such as washed rind or mold-ripened).
Salt should be free of iodine or any anti-caking agents. When you look at the ingredients on the box, all it should say is “salt.” If you are staring at a wall of salt options at the grocery store and don’t know which one to choose, start with the kosher salt, as it is most likely to be unadulterated. You can also look for pickling salt if you are making a brine for your cheese, as it has the advantage of dissolving more quickly in cold water.
Starter cultures are freeze-dried, powdered bacteria that are added to the milk when making cheese. These beneficial bacteria feed on the milk sugars, producing flavor and acidity. They are used in almost all cheeses. Look for “DS” or direct-set cultures which do not require the creation of a mother culture. Cultures can be either mesophilic (warm-loving, between 70-115ᵒF/21-46ᵒC) or thermophilic (heat-loving, above 115ᵒF/46ᵒC) bacteria. Whichever culture you choose will help determine what temperature you heat your milk to.
Some cultures will produce flavor faster than others and are more suitable for fresh cheeses. Others will not fully break down all of the milk sugars, leaving fuel for bacteria during the aging process. Your vendor of starter cultures should have a description for each culture, describing the types of cheese that are best made with each one. These are the three cheese cultures recommended for use in recipes in this tutorial:
- Flora Danica, a mesophilic culture, is appropriate for fresh cheeses, and those not aged for very long
- MA 4000 is a mesophilic culture, also known as the farmstead culture, which is quite versatile and can be used for many types of aged cheeses. It may be labeled as either MA 4001 or MA 4002.
- Thermo C is a thermophilic culture used for Italian and farmstead cheeses.
The most economical way to buy starter cultures is to buy in a large multi-dose pack and then divide for single use at home. Be aware, however, that the more times you open the container of starter culture, the more likely you are to introduce moisture or bacteria into the culture.
When using raw milk for cheese, you use about half the recommended amount of starter culture as called for in a recipe. Raw milk has beneficial bacteria already present in the milk that will aid in making cheese.