It's the Cheese!

Guest post from my husband Tom today... enjoy!

For my birthday, Elizabeth got me a cheese making class at the Institute for Urban Homesteading, a place in Oakland that has classes in all sorts of interesting things -- in addition to cheese making, they've got classes in food preservation, fermenting, animal husbandry, etc. A place right up our alley.

Class was last week, and it was excellent! We made yogurt, ricotta, and started a feta cheese. The yogurt and ricotta were very straightforward -- we ate the ricotta at the end of the class, and I had the yogurt for breakfast the next day. The feta takes longer -- about 4-5 days start to finish.

Duly inspired, I picked up a couple of supplies on the way home and made the ricotta. It really couldn't have been easier -- you just heat milk up to 175°F, add some lemon juice so that it curdles, then strain the curds from the whey (thinking about Ms. Muffet all the time). After draining, I added some salt and some fresh herbs from the herb spiral, and it was great. When I do it again, I think I won't drain it quite as much -- it got a little crumbly.

In some ways, making cheese is a lot like making bread. There's just a few ingredients, there's some specific process, it takes a while, but there's a lot of waiting involved, too. There's some excellent science involved, too.

Today I'm trying my hand at the feta. This cheese requires a few more specific ingredients, which I ordered online from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company:

  • Mesophilic starter culture
  • Rennet
  • Real cheesecloth

The difference between the cheesecloth that you get in a regular grocery store and real cheese making  cheesecloth is striking -- take a look at the difference in the weave:

Safeway cheesecloth on the left; the real stuff on the right

The starter culture is lactococcus lactis bacteria (official state microbe of Wisconsin), which eats the lactose in the milk and produces lactic acid, lowering the pH of the milk and making it harder for icky bacteria to set up shop. For the feta I'm making, I had to heat up the milk to about 90°F, and keep it there while the starter culture did its thing. The "mesophilic" refers to the moderate temperature that the bacteria prefer.

The high-tech "beach towel" method of temperature control

Once the starter culture has done its thing, it's time for the rennet. With the ricotta, I'd used lemon juice to curdle the milk, and it formed lots of little curds. The rennet will form a big mass of curd, which you then slice up into smaller pieces. There's different kinds of rennet out there -- traditionally, it comes from the lining of calf stomachs, but there's vegetable-based rennets as well. I'm using a liquid animal rennet, mostly because it was the thing I had the most confidence in ordering online. They also sold dried rennet in pill form, but I didn't feel like cutting and crushing up pills. The vegetable rennet is more expensive and doesn't store as long.

For the rennet step, you're waiting for what's called a "clean break", where there's a clear separation between curds and whey. It's kind of like sticking a toothpick in a cake.

After the clean break, I sliced up the curd into smaller cubes using an icing spatula, stirred it gently so that the curds gave up more of the whey, then drained it in cheesecloth, gathered it up, and hung it to dry for a few hours. The amount of whey that drains out is fairly tremendous - I started with a gallon of milk (about 9 lbs) and will wind up with about 1 pound of cheese at the end of all this.

 This is a 4 1/2 quart pot, so that's a lot of whey.

After a couple of hours, I flipped it over, and will let it hang overnight.

The curd, right before the flip.

There's more process after the overnight hang, but that'll have to wait for another day...