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Monday, 10 December 2012

Cheesemaking for Beginners!

So I have been making cheese for a couple of months now, and am having quite a bit of success at it!  (I have also had to put up with many Monty Python's Life of Brian cheesemaker jokes by my wonderful husband!! *sigh*)  The best thing about cheesemaking is the satisfaction you get from creating and eating your very own handmade cheese, but another huge benefit is that it pretty much halves the cost of your cheese budget :)  I have found that the amount of cheese I get from a three litre bottle of milk ($3.50ish) I would pay approximately $7-$9 for in the shop.  All it requires is some time, effort and patience, and I can make my very own cheese :)

My first cheese!
When I started out making cheese, I did a fair amount of reading online, and settled on using this website written by a professor of biology and chemistry (so he knows what he's taking about!) to get my instructions.  The thing I love about this website is that he goes into the scientific explanations of things, which allows me to modify the instructions to suit my own needs as long as I create the right environments and conditions for the processes to work.  In outback Queensland where I live, summer daytime temperatures typically soar to above 40 degrees C each day, so I had to modify the instructions to suit my climate.  Luckily I have a strong biology background myself, so am able to do that :)

Here's the general process I follow when making cheese.

Equipment and Materials:
  • One 3L bottle of milk, preferably as fresh as possible and unopened
  • 1/4 junket tablet (rennet tablet)
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1/3 cup plain yoghurt with live cultures  (I use the yoghurt I make myself - a post for another day!)
  • Two large saucepans that have a capacity of over 3L.  5L or up is probably ideal. 
  • Two fine-weave cotton dishcloths/tea towels. 
  • Food thermometer that allows you to measure temperatures between about 25 degrees and 50 degrees Celsius (mine doesn't go down as far as I need, but I have tallied it up with a human medical thermometer to get an approximate scale for the readings on it)
  • Whisk, spoon or ladle for stirring.
  • Large knife to cut the curds. 
  • Stove top
  • Cheese press (basically a double open-ended tube with a circular piece to fit inside it that has a diameter slightly smaller than the tube itself - mine is made of a 750g Milo tin with both ends cut off, the Milo tin lid, and a circular piece of plastic cut to slightly smaller than the diameter of the tin!)
  • Something heavy to use as weights for your cheese press - a stack of textbooks or something similar works well

Method:
Pour 3L of milk into a large pot and heat on stove (stirring so doesn't burn) until it reaches around 35 degrees C give or take a few degrees.  Stir in approximately 1/3 cup of plain yoghurt (or a couple of large tablespoon dollops which is what I do!) and mix thoroughly.  Dissolve the 1/4 junket tablet in a tablespoon or so of water in a small cup and when dissolved, mix this through the milk. 

Place lid on pot and leave to stand for approximately 2 to 3 hours, checking each hour to see if the curd has formed.  The milk is ready for the next step when you have a "clean break" (see this website for a good description of a clean break).  Note:  my break is never as beautiful and perfect as this website describes, but as long as you have a nice milky jelly that jiggles when you move the pot instead of flows, it seems to work just fine! 

When you have a "clean break", cut the curd in the pot into approx 2cm x 2cm cubes using your long knife, running it in a grid through the pot.  Place the pot back on the stove top, and using your thermometer to measure temperature, while stirring gently with a ladle, gradually raise the temperature of the curds to somewhere betwen 34 degrees and 39 degrees Celsius depending what you want (the higher the temperature the harder the cheese - 39 would be for something like cheddar).  Once temperature is reached, take pot off heat and continue stirring gently for approximately 15 minutes to set the curd - ie allow it to separate from the whey without allowing it to clump together.  It will form the consistency of a scrambled egg soup (see picture!)

Setting the curd - most of the curd is sinking to the bottom.

Set up your second large pot with the colander over the top, and line the colander with one of the teatowels.  Pour your curds and whey into the teatowel to strain them, and help the process along by picking up the four corners of the towel and holding above the pot.  Once the whey is dripping through rather than pouring, set aside the whey to use for ricotta making later, and scrape your curds back into the original pot.  Add the 2 tsp of salt to the curds and mix in well (you will have to break up the curds to do this). 

Place your cheese press somewhere where it can drain excess whey out of the bottom and not have it sitting directly in the liquid - for example, on top of an upturned smooth-bottomed dinner plate placed in the sink or in a plastic tray.  Set up your second teatowel inside the cheese press and spoon in the curds.  Place the plastic disk in over the top of the cheese, and weight slightly  (I use a 750mL plastic jar filled with water for this).  Leave for 15 minutes, then remove weight and turn the cheese over in the tea towel.  Rewrap, place back into cheese press, and leave for another 15 mins.  This is to make sure the cheese presses evenly, and so that the material of the tea towel doesn't get stuck to the cheese.

My cheese press!  From the bottom up: drip tray,
upturned dinner plate, press containing cheese in teatowel,
plastic disk on top of cheese, jar of water, textbooks. 


Better view of the cheese press - without textbooks on top!
Repeat the cheese turning about 3 or 4 times at 15 minutes intervals, and at the last turning, place your weights (textbooks etc) on top of the jar to press the cheese. Set it up in a place where the books can't fall off - I've found on my kitchen bench leaning slightly against the wall to be a good spot. Leave for up to 7 hours. If you like, you can turn the cheese again after the first hour.

Cheese at the first turning during pressing.

Once the cheese has finished pressing,  unwrap it and leave it to air dry somewhere safe at room temperature for several days until it is dry to the touch and forms a nice hard 'rind' - this usually takes around 4 to 5 days in my climate.  During this process, turn it over every 12 hours or so to allow it to dry evenly.  I also use a plastic drying rack to set it on so it can get better airflow all around it.

Partway through drying.
 Once it is dry, either dip it in cheese wax or prepare for storage in another way (I use cheese wax), and store it for between 1 and 12 months to mature before eating.  In this climate I have to store them in my refrigerator to mature, but ideally they should be stored a bit warmer than that.  At the moment I have one cheese pressing, and about three more in the fridge maturing.  I tend to make about one cheese every two weeks or so and just add it to the stash, so that when we run out of cheese there is always more matured and ready to pick from. 

Ricotta:
Remember that whey we put aside earlier?  I haven't forgotten about that!  To get some lovely ricotta cheese, what you do is set that whey aside to self-acidify for about 6 to 24 hours depending on your climate (6 hours in this heat up here!!), then place it on the stovetop and heat it to almost boiling (about 95 degrees C) while stirring to make sure it doesn't burn, and being careful to not let it boil over which just ends in a big mess.  Once it reaches this temperature, take it off the heat and let it sit somewhere undisturbed for the ricotta curds to precipitate and settle out until it is cool enough to handle comfortably (a couple of hours).  Use your colander lined with a fine-grained teatowel to strain out the ricotta, and either loop it over something to allow it to drain for a couple of hours (kitchen tap works well), or if you are impatient like me, squeeze the teatowel to encourage the process along.  Voila - ricotta cheese! 

Useful cheesemaking websites: 
Fankhauser's Cheese Page
Curd Nerd