In this section, you will learn that the magic of cheesemaking is not so much in the ingredient list, as it is in the cheesemaking techniques that you will learn to master. Almost all cheeses contain the same five ingredients (with some exceptions): milk, culture, salt, coagulant, and calcium chloride. Yet the magic of cheese is that these ingredients can be transformed into infinite possibilities. Here, we will bring you the basic cheesemaking techniques and a little bit of science behind what is going on in the cheesemaking process. You will learn the common steps to making uncommonly good cheese.
Preparing Your Workspace
There are several things to keep in mind when preparing your kitchen for cheesemaking. Foremost, is cleanliness. Cheesemaking is a war of bacteria: good versus bad. The good bacteria generate flavor, aroma, and texture, but the bad bacteria can negatively impact these factors as well. Some bacteria can even pose a danger to your health. It is a good idea to be mindful of cleanliness at every step of the cheesemaking process.
You will want to start with a clean kitchen. Wash down your countertops, sweep and wash the floors, and close the windows. Save your bread-baking, sauerkraut-making, and other fermenting for another day (or another part of the house): you don’t want to introduce any yeasts, bacteria, or molds into your milk that could affect flavor. Wash your hands well and put your hair up. You don’t want to be a source of contamination either! Banish your dogs and cats to another part of the house.
You’ll want to give cheesemaking your full attention; however, if you’re like me, you may also have a drive to multitask in the kitchen. Be especially mindful, if you are working on more than one project at a time, to set timers to remind yourself to attend to your cheesemaking.
Preparing Your Equipment
After your space is prepared, you will need to prepare your equipment as well. Anything that touches your cheese will need to be cleaned and sanitized. This includes your pots, thermometer, ladle, measuring cups, colander, cheesecloth, cheese mold, etc. Be sure to read your recipe thoroughly and note all equipment that will need to be cleaned and sanitized.
Make sure your equipment is clean before you sanitize it. If your equipment is not yet clean, simply wash with unscented soap and water, and allow to air dry. You may hand wash or machine wash, depending on your preference.
Next, you will need to sanitize your equipment. Do this immediately before cheesemaking (not, for example, the day beforehand). There are several options:
- Heat will sanitize. Heat-proof equipment can be placed in a 250ᵒF/120ᵒC oven for 20 minutes. Alternatively, equipment can be immersed in boiling water for 5 minutes or run through a sanitizing dish wash cycle. This method uses no chemicals, though at the same time, it requires time, and it requires your equipment to be heat-proof as well.
- Bleach is also a sanitizer. Add 1 tsp bleach per gallon of water and use this to rinse your equipment. Allow to air dry. This is a faster method, though it requires the use of chemicals. If too much bleach is used, it may affect the flavor of your cheese.
- Commercially available sanitizer (often used by beer- and wine-makers) is a third option (look for brands such as Star San, or Saniclean).
To use, dilute 1 Tbsp sanitizer in 1 gallon of water and use this to rinse your equipment (or prepare according to package directions). It should have a contact time of between 30 seconds to 2 minutes (consult the instructions for recommended minimum contact time). It does not need to be washed off. These products may foam, but the foam won’t affect the flavor. This is a fast and less toxic alternative to using bleach, although you may need to visit a specialty store to find this type of sanitizer.
There is one last step you may need to consider when preparing your equipment. After regular use, milk may start to deposit calcium on your equipment. This leaves a whitish residue called milkstone. After sanitizing, you may do an optional acid wash to remove any milkstone that may have built up. Look for “milkstone remover” at your cheesemaking store. Add 1 tsp of the acid solution to 1 gallon of water and soak your equipment for 10 minutes in this solution.
Once your equipment has been cleaned and sanitized, you may place it on a clean towel on the counter to await use (or keep it in the sanitizing bucket until you are ready to use if you are using a sanitizer like Star San or an equivalent).
Warm the Milk
In this step, you will need to bring your milk to the ideal temperature for your starter culture. Different types of starter cultures (for example, mesophilic vs. thermophilic) have different temperature requirements. You will want to warm your milk gently and slowly to the ideal temperature.
If you are making a small batch (one gallon or less), you may heat your milk directly on the burner at a medium-low setting. Be sure to stir the milk as it heats, as you will want to minimize uneven heat distribution (more on stirring in a bit).
A second option is to use a hot water bath. You can use this method for any cheese, but it is especially advisable for larger batches of cheesemaking (over four gallons). To use, insert a smaller pot inside a larger pot, and fill the outer pot with water (using the inner pot helps to correctly determine the amount of water to add to the water bath). Next, remove the inner pot, and heat the water in the larger pot until it is about ten degrees warmer than your target culturing temperature. Now you can turn off the burner, place your milk in the hot water bath, and wait for the milk to warm up. You will want to gently stir the milk periodically to distribute the heat.
A note on stirring: the best utensil for stirring is a perforated skimmer. Draw the skimmer up and down gently without breaking the surface of the milk. This will keep air from becoming incorporated into the milk, and will gently redistribute the milk particles. You don’t want to stir your cheese as you would a normal pot of soup: vigorously in a circular motion. Treat your milk gently.
Once your milk has reached its target temperature, you will sprinkle your direct set starter culture over the top of the surface of the milk. Your recipe will then call for you to wait a few minutes before you do anything. This allows the culture time to rehydrate, absorb liquid, and will keep it from clumping up.
Once you are ready to stir the culture, you will again do so with a gentle up-and-down motion of the skimmer. This will draw the culture into your milk and distribute it evenly.