Adventures in Cheese

by Lisa Linderman on May 11, 2011

in cheese,food preservation,pioneer home skills

One of the things I’ve been meaning to do for a long time is learn to make cheese.  It seems mysterious, but I know people who do it, and it didn’t seem so much hard as a wee bit complicated.  So when the Clark County Goat Association held a cheesemaking class for a mere $15, I signed both my husband and me up for it.  Sweet.

The class included instruction in making mold-ripened soft cheeses as well as a cheese-tasting for lunch.  I am pretty sure my husband would have paid the $15 just for the cheese tasting alone.  He’s declared Humboldt Fog to be “pretty good”.  At least I think he liked it…he’s only mentioned it about two dozen times since the class.

True to form, once I took the class I had to “do”.  I got a couple of gallons of raw cow milk, ran to the local Beer and Wine Supply shop to get some cheese cultures and rennet, and came home and made camembert and blue cheese.  I probably should have taken pictures of the process, but I didn’t think about it.  Suffice to say that right now, I have one larger and two smaller camemberts and one larger and two smaller blues hanging out in plastic tubs in my artificial cave (also known as the Jelly room, or the downstairs pantry.)  It’s a concrete-walled, concrete-floored room with no heat ducts.  It’s kept marginally warm by a refrigerator and the water heater, but it’s a pretty constant temperature all year.

Two weeks later, I was again faced with two gallons of raw cow milk, so this time I decided to make feta cheese.  It’s really not terribly hard to make, though you do spend a lot of time eyeballing a thermometer and waiting.  First, I sanitized everything.  And I mean everything.  All the utensils got soaked in a bleach solution, the cheesecloth and the tea towels I used to cover and/or strain the cheese got boiled, and the counters got sprayed down with bleach solution.  Milk is great, but it is a perfect culture dish for growing all kinds of nasty beasties.  For precisely that reason, I also heat-treated the milk.  This is to kill things like listeria, which like to hang out in milk and can make you really sick.  It’s not done at  as high a temperature as store pasteurization, and the milk is not homogenized, so it’s still a lot better for cheese.  Better flavor, better texture.  It’s done by bringing the milk to 145 degrees F for 30 minutes, then cooling it immediately down to either refrigerator temperature, or the temperature at which you’re going to cook the cheese.  I always heat-treat right before doing the cheese, so I only have to cool it to 88F in this case.

Cut cheese curds resting in a pot

Cut curds, hanging out, releasing their whey.

Once the milk hit 88F, I sprinkled in the cultures.  For feta, it’s just a mesophilic starter.  To give it some of that “feta-oh-lord-it-smells-like-feet” kick, I added goat lipase.  Lipase is an enzyme that adds flavor to your cheese.  Since I was making a cheese that’s traditionally created from goat milk but I was using cow milk, I decided to add the goat lipase to kick the flavor up to the right strength.   With the cultures added, I let it hang out for another half hour or so, to let the bacteria have a chance to multiply and flourish.

After the cultures it’s time for the rennet, diluted in some distilled water.  I use calf rennet, but you can get vegetarian and goat rennet too.  Once the rennet is stirred in, it sits undisturbed for 30-40 minutes.  Don’t poke the pot, it disrupts the curding process and you get a mess.  You know it’s done when you cut it with a knife and it slices cleanly.  It’s called a “clean break”.  Basically, it looks a bit like milky soft jello.  Mmm.  Cheese.

two jars of whey and a bowl of cheese curd

Miss Muffet's lunch - two half gallons of whey and a bowl of soft curd.

Once that clean break was achieved, I cut up the curd with a long knife.  First came parallel cuts about 1/2″ apart, then I turned the pot 90 degrees and did it again, so the surface looked like a grid (if you could see the cuts, which I really couldn’t) and the curd was in 1/2″ by 1/2″ columns.   Then I held the knife at about 45 degrees and cut across the pot, so the knife angled down into the pot as I cut, starting at the edge.  By the time I got to just past the middle, the handle of the knife was bumping on the far side, so I turned the pot a bit and repeated, all the way around the pot, so the curds ended up sliced in something like 1/2″ cubes.  I’m so not tidy about it.  The point is to get them sliced apart and let them sit for five or ten minutes, to start releasing their whey.

ball of cheese in cheesecloth hanging up to drain

Proto-feta, slowly losing whey over 24 hours

Once the curds have rested for a bit and it begins to look a little like tofu chunks in a yellowy soup, it’s time to start straining them.  I lined a large plastic colander with layers of wet cheesecloth, and then ladled the curd out into the colander.  It’s a lot of curd, really.  It just sort of hangs out in the colander, draining, for an hour or so.  I save the whey, and I’ll tell you why in a bit.

When the curds have released a good bit of whey, I pulled the corners of the cheesecloth up and tied them together, then hung the bag from a metal hook suspended from a cabinet knob, so that the bag hung over a pot to catch the whey drippings.  I was supposed to hang it for 3 or 4 hours, then take it out, turn it over to shape it, put it in another cheesecloth draining bag, and rehang for 24 hours.  I didn’t do that, I just let it hang for a bit over 24 hours.  It works fine, it’s just not quite as tidy looking when you go to cut it.

cheese curd

Cubes of feta cheese curd, salted and aging

After the 24 hours is up, the cheese comes out of the bag and gets sliced into 2″ cubes, more or less.  All sides of the cubes are salted with kosher salt, and then put into a plastic box for 3 days to age and release yet MORE whey.  There’s a lot of whey involved.    At the end of the three days, the chunks of feta are moved into a half gallon container and then covered with a salt brine made of 1/2 cup of kosher salt to 1/2 gallon of water.   They age for another 1-4 weeks in the brine, but are good for up to a year if kept in the brine and in the refrigerator.

feta cheese in a jar

Feta cheese, in brine, ready to eat

So what to do with all that whey?  Some possibilities:

  • Use it to make ricotta.  Add 1 cup of milk per gallon of whey, heat it up to 190, then add 2-4 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar to make it curdle.  Strain through very fine cheesecloth, drain, salt, and eat within a couple of days.
  • Feed it to your chickens, goats, or pigs.  They all love it.
  • Use it in cooking in place of water, especially in mashed potatoes or baked goods.  It adds protein and tends to fluff up breads.
  • Kickstart your sauerkraut or other lacto-fermented vegetables with some whey.  Makes  a great starter.
  • Wash in it.  It’s supposed to be great for your skin.
  • Drink it.  Some people like it, and swear by it for skin and hair.  I’ve heard people add it to juice and sparkling water to disguise the taste a tad.
  • Pour it on your compost heap to give the good bacteria a boost.
  • Pour it on your plants, particularly the ones that like a boost of calcium, like tomatoes.

{ 1 comment }

Green Bean May 17, 2011 at 9:26 am

I still haven’t taken the cheese plunge but your post does inspire me. Perhaps I should start gathering my supplies . . . Doesn’t look THAT much harder than yogurt.

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