Why I make cheese

I live in one of the greatest food markets in the world. I can get anything I want, including the finest cheeses in the world. Why, then, do I go to the trouble of making my own ricotta, goat cheese, farmers cheese, and yogurt? I am an inveterate explorer. I have always loved learning new things, especially the ones that give me pleasure. Cheese is one of the most pleasurable foods I know. So, it was only a matter of time before I dived into the mysteries of cheese making. I am having a lot of fun with it.

Every handmade cheese, even if they are the same kind, is different. Every batch of yogurt, every cylinder of goat cheese, every pot of ricotta tastes different from every other one.  It’s a glorious mystery. I decided to spend the summer learning why. As with most good experiments, I thought I knew the answer ahead of time: it’s about what the cows/goats/sheep ate, the temperature of the milk, the variations in the starter culture, the length of time the curds are allowed to develop, and/or the amount of whey that is drained from the curds. Well, that partially true, but there are even more variables, as I  learned.

We have been making out own yogurt for years. I already knew that draining the curds for eight hours will give you what  people understand as Greek-style yogurt, but draining them for 24 hours will give you a thick cream-like cheese (labna). Fermenting the curds for 12 hours will give you a softly milder taste, while waiting 18 hours will give you a sharper taste. That’s because before the whey is drained off, the bacteria continue to convert lactose to lactic acid. The milder taste is the presence of more lactose; the sharper taste is more lactic acid. If you only make one kind of cheese, you learn a lot about its important variables. If you make a whole series of cheeses, your learn more about the people who developed them, our farming ancestors.

That’s what I chose to do. I decided to make two different series of cheeses. These include the lactic cheeses, like yogurt, paneer, ricotta, buttermilk, kafir, creme fraîche, formage blanc, and the mesophilic cheeses, like cheddar, farmers cheese,  cottage cheese, goat cheese, feta, canestrato, caciotta, queso fresco, and farmstead tomme. What distinguishes these two series is the temperature of the milk and the agent that causes the caseins in the milk to clump together into curds.  The lactic cheeses are produced from hot milk, 160-185° F, with little to no rennet. They rely on the action of the bacteria converting the lactose to lactic acid. When the milk acidity becomes high enough, the milk will coagulate even without the use of rennet.The mesophilic cheeses are produced from room temperature milk, 75-90°F. The mesophilic cheeses use a bacteria culture and rennet to firm the curds.

The first thing I learned as I worked my way through the process of making these cheeses was that the lactic cheeses work fast and produce foods that can be immediately consumed, while the mesophilic cheeses required more days of draining and aging before they tasted the way we are accustomed to eating them. The second thing I learned was that the mesophilic cheeses would had to be produced in the warmer months of the year. The variations in the “room temperature” they require reflects a time when the farmers did not have thermometers. Instead, they might say to each other, “Today is indeed hot enough to make cheese.”  There would be many more days like that in the Mediterranean. That’s why there are so many variety of mesophilic cheeses from that region. Then it’s a simple matter of taking the fresh milk and letting it adjust from cow temperature to “room temperature”. Add a bit of starter from the stash in the cold cellar, add your rennet, and you are on your way. A few hours later you will have a pound of curds for every gallon of milk. The lactic cheeses, on the other hand, are not seasonal. They can be made anytime you have firewood to heat the stove, summer or winter.

By the way there is another series of cheese, thermophilic cheeses: Mozzarella, Parmesan, Provolone, Romano, Swiss, Gruyere, and other mountain cheeses. These rely on bacteria that develop at higher temperatures, 115-140°F, and rennet.  They are more complicated to produce. I don’t yet understand how or why the higher temperature cultures established themselves. I suspect it has something to do with creating cheese that will age for years. That’s going to take some work. I’ll get around to them next summer.

The other types of cheese you may be familiar with are distinguished by the finishing techniques employed: bloomy rind cheeses (brie, camembert), washed rind cheeses (taleggio, muenster, limberger) and blue cheeses ( gorgonzola, shropshire, rocquefort) are all mesophilic cheeses that have had special bacteria added to them, or have been aged under special conditions. Mesophilic cheeses are the largest series of of cheeses. Lactic cheeses are the most commonly consumed.

Learning aside, making cheese is a craft. You get better at it the more you do it. I have made progressively more complex and involved cheeses over the last two months. This is my latest, a 2 lb. Caerphilly. This is named after a town in Wales. It all but died out in England after WWII, but it’s now making a comeback. It looks like a white cheddar, but the curds are warmed in the whey, rather than after being drained, as is the case with cheddar. It is a moister cheese than cheddar. It’s also sweeter and not as crumbly. What also appeals to me was that it can be waxed, making it easier to age in my refrigerator. Ordinarily, I have to find a plastic box for each cheese I’m aging, to keep the odours out and the moisture in. I’m running out of boxes! This is what the cheese looked like after 24 hours of pressing st 15 lbs pressure.

I started with two gallons of milk and ended up with 2 lbs, 1 oz of cheese. The milk was whole milk.  One of the two gallons was milk from cows fed only grass, no grain. The other gallon was grain milk. The process, from heating the milk to pressing the curds took three and a half hours. Most of that time was spent elsewhere, while the cheese did something on its own. For only 30 minutes toward the end, did I stand at the stove and gently stir the curds. Easy peasy!

Not done yet. It’s sitting in a salt brine for twenty four hours. Then it will dry at room temperature for two days before being waxed. Then it’s six weeks in the refrigerator to develop the final flavor off the cheese. I’ll let you know how it tastes. ( I did nibble a few crumbs out of curiosity. The cheese is surprisingly sweet. It will become more complex as the bacteria culture eats all that lactose.)