Neufchatel Cheese

Beginning Cheese Making

Cheese Making for Beginners

While cheese making is theoretically a science, we also need to appreciate that it is an art.  Often cheese-making instructions appear simple, but there are skills and sensitivities which must be developed for successful cheese making.  Because it is beneficial to engage in projects from easy to challenging, I strongly suggest that you master the following projects in sequence before you progress to more difficult cheeses.

As an avid homesteader, I strive to keep the ingredients for these recipes relatively easily obtained from your local supermarket and to use the equipment commonly found in the kitchen. As you become more skilled and knowledgeable, you may well want to purchase more specific ingredients from the web (etc) to refine your procedures and finished products.

Discussion of Ingredients and Equipment

Ingredients:

Milk:
You can use a wide variety of milks, from commercially purchased pasteurized homogenized cow’s milk, TB certified raw cow’s milk, goat’s milk, sheep or even horse’s milk.  All will make cheese, each with its unique flavor.  Cheese from unpasteurized milk makes the best cheese, but should be cured for 2-4 months if there is any doubt about pathogens in the milk.  If you use pasteurized milk, you may need to add a little calcium chloride to firm up the curd because the heat makes the calcium unavailable.  Calcium is required for a good “clean break.”

Cheese can be made from whole milk (3.5%), 2% or from skimmed milk.  However, remember that the richness of flavor of the cheese is related to the amount of butterfat in the milk.  I do not recommend reconstituted powdered milk. It has not produced either a solid clean break, nor a good flavor of cheese.  Let me know if you do.

You should  get  1 to 1.5 pounds of cheese/gallon of milk.

For store-bought milk, because Pasteurization removes calcium from solution, you may need to add a small amount of calcium chloride to aid coagulation and form curd which does not fall apart when you stir it. The desired concentration of CaCl2 is usually specified as 0.02%. This would mean adding 3.6g CaCl2 to 5 gal of pasteurized milk. My measurements indicate that 3.6g of crystals = ~3/4 tsp. Thus 3/4 tsp crystals/5 gal = ~0.02%. You should completely dissolve the CaCl2 in about 1/4 cup water before adding it to the milk. Add it slowly with thorough stirring.  You should be able to purchase CaCl2 at brewer’s supply house.  Also, it is the non-NaCl deicer that is plant-friendly.  [You might be able to use CaSO4 (plaster of Paris) in a highly diluted state, tho it is much less soluble than CaCl2.]

Reconstituted powdered milk: I have not had good luck using powdered milk, but have heard some say that they have successfully used it.  I suggest you make friends with a local dairy person to get bulk milk.  (You will have better luck getting milk from homesteaders than with commercial operators.  Legally, you must purchase it as “pet milk.”

Ultra pasteurized milk: This is common on the shelves in Europe, but I find it VERY unsatisfying in taste, and, in my opinion, this milk is nearly worthless in making basic cheese. The protein strucure is radically altered, and calcium is chelated so that it is unavailable for coagulation. If you have success with ultrapasterized milk, let us know! (You CAN use it to make yogurt and labneh.)

Starter:
Bacteria must be added to acidify the milk so that the rennet will work, and to aid in the curing.  Cultured buttermilk can serve as a mesophilic starter (it likes room temperature), and yogurt can serve as a thermophilic starter (it prefers warmer temperatures).  You can also purchase pure cultures from cheese makers supply houses.  Some recipes call for addition of chemical acids to produce acidify the milk.  I prefer the flavor of cheese made from bacterially acidified milk.  Here is a detailed description of bacterial cheese starters from Peter Moller. Be aware that, especially with buttermilk, you should never add too much starter for too long a time such that the milk has even remotely thickened before you add rennet. With even slightly thickened milk, you will never get a “clean break.”

Rennet:
An enzyme rennin converts milk protein (casein) from a soluble to an insoluble material, causing the milk to gel (forming a clean break).  It will only work well in acidified milk.  The gelling process must be undisturbed to get a clean break.  Rennet is commonly available in supermarkets in the pudding section, or you can purchase liquid rennet from a cheese makers supply house. One tablet of Junket rennet is equivalent to 20 drops of fresh liquid rennet.

If you would like to try it, and have the materials available, I have successfully prepared home made rennet from the abomasum of a suckling kid.

Equipment:

Most decently equipped kitchens have the necessary equipment:

Heavy stainless steel pot with lid:  A non-reactive pot is important because the acidifying milk can dissolve aluminum.  Enamel pots would work as well.  A heavy bottom is important to evenly disperse the heat and prevent scorching.  Scorching affects the flavor and is a cleanup hassle.  The size of the pot should be large enough so that you have at least an inch of head space above the milk.  A cover is needed for the steps when the milk must sit for periods of time.  I bought a high quality five gallon pot like this years ago (expensive).  I have never been sorry.

Measuring cups  You may need measuring cups ranging from 1/4 cup to a quart.  Obviously you can improvise, but accurate measurements improve your success rate.  Measuring spoons are occasionally needed.

Thermometer  Very important is an accurate thermometer which reads in the range between freezing and boiling for water (~32-212 F, or 0 to 100 C).  A candy or meat thermometer can work.  There are several reasons that accurate temperature is important: the texture of the cheese depends a great deal on achieving a temperature to within onedegree.  Also, after milk for yogurt is scalded, itmust be cooled to 130 F for optimum bacteria action.

Whisk  Thorough mixing of starter and rennet is important.  A whisk is the obvioius choice for this step.

“Cheese cloth”:  The purpose of “cheese cloth” is to catch the curd and allow the whey to drain out.  What most people think of as “cheese cloth:” the very wide weave flimsy material is often useless for this purpose.  If your curd is fine, it passes through.  Even if it is large curd, the curd can become enmeshed in the coarse weave.  I use either large plain white cotton handkercheifs, or white non-terry cotton dish towels.  I recommend ignoring what is sold as “cheese cloth…”

Cheese press is required for the hard cheeses.  You can purchase them for a handsome price, or fashion one from materials at home.

Waxing your cheese:  This step is important so that your cheese does not dry out during aging, and to prevent mold from growing on the surface (mold needs air to grow).

Cheese Making, Course Syllabus

Setting Up a Home Made Cheese Press

How to Wax Cheese

Rennet for Making Cheese

Rennet, Home Made, Illustrated

Troubleshooting a Clean Break, Cheese Making

For beginning cheese makers, I strongly recommend that a series of cheese related projects to be mastered before attempting to make ‘basic cheese.’ With a basic cheese, the step which most often presents difficulties is the ability to achieve a clean break. Test for a clean break by plunging a clean finger into the inoculated & renneted milk and lifting. Properly coagulated milk should break cleanly around the finger, and clear whey should fill the gaps produced:

ACHIEVE A CLEAN BREAK: Test for completed action of rennet ("clean break "): Probe a clean finger into the (hopefully) gelled milk and lift. If the gel is firm enough to break cleanly as the finger is lifted, go to next step.
ACHIEVE A CLEAN BREAK: Test for completed action of rennet (“clean break “): Probe a clean finger into the (hopefully) gelled milk and lift. If the gel is firm enough to break cleanly as the finger is lifted, go to next step.

 

Ninety nine percent of the time, the failure to achieve a clean break is because one or two of a few critical requirements have not been met. 

Critical Factors in achieving a “Clean Break”

  • Good quality fresh milk (if it has started to turn or has a high bacterial count, it can interfere with lactic bacteria)
  • Active bacterial starter, correct proportions mixed in thoroughly
    Proper incubation with the starter to slightly acidify the milk.
  • NOT over acidified. This would cause it to slightly clabber (thicken). Even slightly clabbered milk will never yield a clean break.
  • Active rennet, correct proportions, mixed in thoroughly
  • Correct time and temp for coagulation, undisturbed.

Note that there are two different approaches to making cheese with regard to timing of inoculation and adding rennet:

  • Add the starter the night before, let sit at room temperature, and add the rennet the next day. Let sit until a clean break, usually 2-3 hours.
  • Add the starter and after a few minutes, add the rennet. Let sit until a clean break, anywhere from 1 to 8 hours depending on proportions.

FAQs for Achieving a Clean Break

Was the milk fresh, and warmed up to room temperature?
If milk has started to “turn,” the wrong bacteria can grow and prevent the starter bacteria from growing properly and acidifying the milk. (If you use store bought, check the expiration date for the freshest.) Also, if the milk is not warmed properly (at several stages), bacteria will not grow, or rennet will not act on the milk.

Was the starter fresh and active (either buttermilk or yogurt)?
The bacteria in the starter must be alive and well. Bacteria may have died in outdated starter. When in doubt, purchase the freshest buttermilk or freshest Dannon plain yogurt which you confirm is not outdated.

Did you add the correct proportions of starter for milk?
If you add too little starter, the milk will not be acid enough for the rennet to work. If you add too much, the milk may get over acidified and curdle. Over acidified milk is recognize the by a slight thickening (clabbering) of the milk. The milk should look exactly like regular milk when the rennet is added. If the milk is even slightly clabbered, you will NEVER get a clean break.

Remember that buttermilk contains mesophilic bacteria which grow well at room temperature while yogurt contains thermophilic bacteria which grow more slowly at room temperature. Buttermilk bacteria are aggressive acidifiers. Therefore, it takes 1/2 to 1/4th as much buttermilk as yogurt to act as starter. (With very active buttermilk, you may only need 2 teaspoons/gallon of milk for proper acidification.)

After adding bacterial starter, did you let the inoculated milk incubate (sit) at room temperature overnight?
Bacteria will not grow if the milk is not warm enough. It should stay close to 68 F (20 C) overnight so that the bacteria can grow and make lactic acid to acidify the milk. This room temperature incubation is mandatory. If it is too warm, the milk may over acidify.

The next morning, did you warm the inoculated and incubated milk up properly before adding the rennet?
Because rennet is an enzyme, it works better at warm temperatures, and hardly at all in cool milk. Also, if the milk is warmed too high, the curd will be tough, and alter the quality of your cheese. The consistency of the milk should not change when warmed.

Was the rennet active, did you use the correct amount?
Rennet is an enzyme, and can deteriorate with time. I have never had problems with Junket Rennet tablets going bad even after a year or two, but I have heard of liquid rennet losing its potency. Obviously weakened or inadequate quantities of rennet will require longer to achieve a clean break, if ever. If you add too much rennet, I have heard that the curd may taste bitter, but I have never experienced this. It will not hurt to add twice the called for rennet if you are in doubt as to its potency.

Did you let the inoculated milk sit UNDISTURBED after you added the rennet?

This is crucial to getting a clean break.

If you disturb the inoculated milk after it has begun to set, even a little, you may never achieve the tight curd required for a clean break. Once you have added the rennet, be careful to place the container in a place where it will not be jostled.

Were you patient enough to wait for a clean break? 
After the specified time (30 minutes to overnight, depending on the cheese), gently lift the lid, slowly plunge your finger into the milk and lift. If it is still liquid, carefully replace the lid and try it again in an hour or so. If it is slightly thickened, let it sit for another 30 minutes without disturbing it. If you have not achieved a clean break in 12 hours, you probably never will.

If you did all these, then you should expect to achieve a clean break within 2-3 hours at the longest.

The Calcium Issue in Formation of Curd…

The one remaining problem relates to use of pasteurized, homogenized milk (as one would get from the store). I am less familiar with it than the fresh raw goat’s milk I use, but the processing alters the protein structure, and may cause problems establishing a firm curd. Some recipes call for purchasing a solution from a cheese making supply house, and adding “1/2 to 1 teaspoons” per gallon (5-10 mL).

But, nobody talks about the concentration of the solution!

The desired concentration of CaCl2 is usually specified as 0.02%. This would mean adding 3.6g CaCl2 to 5 gal of pasteurized milk. My measurements indicate that 3.6g of crystals = 3/4 tsp. Thus 3/4 tsp crystals/5 gal = 0.02%. You should completely dissolve the CaCl2 in about 1/4 cup water before adding it to the milk. Add it slowly with thorough stirring.

If you know more on this subject, please let me know.

This could be critical for folks making cheese from store-bought milk.