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
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.)
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.”
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.
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