5 Steps to Start a Homemade Cheese-Making Routine
Got Milk? If you have a dairy herd or are thinking about it, summer and fall are prime time for making milk-based products.
Most goats breed in fall. Then they kid (have babies) in spring. For a couple of months, much of their milk goes to the babies. Once the kids are weaned, 2-3 months later, suddenly there’s a milk windfall.
Lactating goats require a lot more feed than non-lactating goats. Luckily with plenty of pasture at this time of year, feeding goats for milk production is also cheaper now.
I haven’t raised cows, but I understand the cycle is similar. To me, it makes perfect sense that peak milk production comes when nature is making the most abundant forage for dairy livestock.
The only problem, though, is that in hot summer weather, milk won’t last long without additional processing.
Making Cheese – An Ancient Food Preservation Method
Homestead cheese is a great way to solve this milk shelf-life dilemma. Many of the artisan cheeses we know today like cheddar, Gouda, and brie are only 500 -700 years old. Factory cheese has only been around since the 1800’s.
Homestead cheese, though, predates written history and has been going on for at least 8000 years. It has been made with primitive tools and no refrigeration (even in hot climates) probably since the birth of agriculture.
Now, I can’t say if all ancient homestead cheeses were as tasty as what we’re used to these days. Still, knowing that cheese production is a simple, primitive practice makes it a lot less intimidating to learn how to do it at home.
If you are new to cheese-making or want to formalize your cheese-making routines, here are some steps to get started.
Step 1: Research and Decide on Your Safety Procedures
Let’s get the scary stuff out of the way first. When you start reading about how to make cheese, you will undoubtedly find all sorts of information about sanitation and risks from bacteria that can cause illness and even death.
Milk is a perfect food for many kinds of bacteria which is why it becomes so tasty when the right bacterial cultures are encouraged in making cheese. However, that also means it is a good host for not so fun bacteria like listeria, E. Coli, Salmonella, and others.
If you were making cheese 8000 years ago, you wouldn’t even know about bacteria. Food safety would be more a matter of experience and sharing of knowledge. You also probably had a stomach of steel since you lived without refrigeration, close to the land.
Today, many people live in hyper-sanitized environments. As a result, some have less immunity to harmful bacteria.
Many people are also on medication or have health conditions which may make them more likely to become ill from certain bacteria. We’re also more aware of bacteria, so we tend to take more precautions now.
The regulatory standards for making cheese to sell are incredibly high. If you want to get a sense of just how detailed the professional sanitary standards are, check out the FDA’s Guide to Inspections of Dairy Product Manufacturers.
It’s not the most exciting read, but it tells you precisely what inspectors are checking for to determine if products will be safe for consumers. That information can also give you insights on what to watch out for in your kitchen as well.
As a homesteader, making cheese for personal use, you aren’t required to hold yourself to these professional standards. However, you do still need to decide what kind of safety precautions you feel are necessary to prepare a wholesome product at home.
Some homesteaders, like me, tend toward more primitive practices. Others invest in equipment and maintain environments that offer more control and potentially less risk during the cheese-making process.
Here are some things to consider as you plan your safety procedures.
– Raw or Pasteurized Milk
Pasteurizing milk is an easy way to reduce most bacterial risks and prolong the shelf-life of your milk.
You can flash pasteurize by heating milk to 161ºF for 15 seconds. Or you can slow pasteurize by heating milk to 145ºF and sustain that temperature for 30 minutes. In either case, frequent stirring and use of a double boiler reduce the risk for scalding your milk.
The downside to pasteurizing is that you lose the natural cultures in the milk which impacts the flavor. Also, your milk will no longer be “raw,” so the health benefits of raw milk are lost in this process.
– Traditional or Commercially-Produced Equipment
Wooden cheese presses, box molds, wooden spoons, or planks for drying are commonly used in homestead cheese since we can make these ourselves. Wood is also a great host for the bacterial cultures you want to encourage in your cheeses and often imparts a flavor of its own.
Unfortunately, if bad bacteria infiltrate your cheese products, wooden materials are excellent hosts for these too. Industrial materials like plastic and metal are much easier to sanitize and encourage fewer bacteria – good or bad – than wood.
Also, if you are like me, the idea of aging your cheese in a basement, cellar, or cheese cave is part of the charm of making cheese. However, it’s harder to control the temperature and humidity in those environments.
Specialized, temperature, and humidity controlled appliances designed for aging cheese, if properly maintained, offer greater control and food safety potential.
– Cleaning Procedures
Most cheese-making websites recommend high-levels of sanitation of your kitchen, equipment, towels, and cheese aging area. Sanitation starts with thorough cleaning and ends with the use of sanitizing products such as bleach, vinegar, or hydrogen peroxide to kill bacteria.
Unfortunately, sanitizing also kills any of the native bacteria and cultures that can contribute to a unique homestead cheese flavor complex. If you sanitize, then you will most likely need to buy cheese cultures to produce flavor and aroma in your milk.
Also, once you start sanitizing, it’s important to keep it up. Bad bacteria tend to be more aggressive in environments that are routinely sanitized.
– Temperature and Timing
Most cheese-making relies on precise temperatures and processing within specified time limits. Designing your safety procedures to include things like setting timers; using calibrated thermometers, and using water-baths to regulate temperature, can improve the quality of your cheese.
Also, by offering ideal temperatures and timing that explicitly encourages the bacterial cultures you want to flourish in your cheese, you also make it less likely that potentially dangerous bacteria can occupy that same space in your milk.
– Reality Check on Safety Procedures
Making informed decisions on the safety issues detailed above is important. As a homesteader, though, keep in mind, you also need to balance your assessment of risks with the reality of how much time you have to do these activities.
Don’t sacrifice safety for speed, but do consider how likely different risk factors are, given your methods for collecting, storing, and using your milk.
Step 2: Pick Your Cheese Line-up
Once you have a sense of what kind of safety procedure is right for you, it’s time to decide what cheeses you want to make.
There’s a reason why artisan cheese makers focus on making only a couple kinds of cheese at a time. Every variety of cheese requires different cultures, humidity, temperatures, and aging requirements.
Also, cultures transfer. If you age a blue cheese near a cheddar, your cheddar will most definitely taste and look a bit like blue cheese.
In other words, you probably aren’t going to be making all your favorite cheeses at the same time. You are going to have to narrow down your picklist to a few kinds of cheese that work well together.
I make several fresh cheeses for immediate eating and freezing. Then I make a soft-ripened cheese for intermediate use and a long-aged hard cheese for winter use. Because my long-aged cheese is heavily salted and vinegar washed, it tends to resist the flavors from my soft-ripened cheese.
Here’s a quick look at some cheeses that are easy to make on the homestead.
Fresh cheeses are made to be used within a few days time. They can last longer if you pasteurize your milk, but the quality and flavor degrade quickly. You can also freeze fresh cheeses for a longer shelf-life.
Many fresh kinds of cheese only require a single culture or rennet to make. Also, they tend to be ready to eat in just a few hours. Here are some of my favorites.
Paneer is one of the easiest fresh cheeses to make. It just involves almost boiling milk and then adding lemon juice (or whey vinegar) to coagulate the cheese curds. After that, you merely hang dry the curds, cut, and enjoy.
Halloumi is another easy, fresh cheese. You heat milk to about 86-90ºF then add several drops of rennet for fast coagulation. When firm, cut the curds, heat the curds and whey slowly to about 130ºF to shrink the curds for a few minutes.
Then strain, and hang the curds, dry and slice. This cheese is often grilled or fried and served as a meat substitute.
Mozzarella is similar to halloumi except that you first culture the milk using citric acid or a mesophilic or thermophilic culture. After you shrink the curds, you shape the mozzarella into a ball and stretch it to stiffen the cheese. Then you salt it and cool it by soaking it in a salted ice water bath.
– Ricotta and Anwari
After making halloumi and mozzarella, you can boil the strained whey to extract anwari or ricotta. These are both soft cheeses that work well in desserts because of their natural sweetness.
– Simple Goat Cheese
When working with goats milk, you can add mesophilic culture to fresh, warm, raw milk (about 86ºF). Allow it to sit for one hour. Dilute a few drops of rennet with cool water, pour into your milk and stir gently.
Allow your milk to sit until firm. Cut into curds and hang to strain. Unwrap when dry and eat.
– Other Fresh Cheeses
There are many other simple, fresh cheeses you can make like queso fresco, queso blanco, feta, fromage blanc, cottage cheese, cream cheese, farmers cheese, and more.
Aged cheeses are almost as easy to make as some of the fresh cheeses. However, they tend to have a few extra steps to ready them for aging.
Aged cheeses may require the use of a cheese press to extract more liquid so that the cheese will dry rather than mold during aging. Curds are often shrunk before pressing. Rind washing or waxing methods are also sometimes employed.
Aged cheeses general require a dark, cool, somewhat humid environment for the cheese to ripen, soften, or dry depending on type. Here are a few aged cheese types to consider in your line-up.
– Soft-Ripened Cheese
I make a soft-ripened cheese similar to Camembert or Brie. It is usually ready in 1-2 months depending on the size of a cheese round I make.
The big difference between making this cheese and a simple goat cheese, is that you need to add a white mold culture to create the rind. Then, you wrap the cheese in waxed paper. You age it in a cool environment with reasonably high humidity, flipping it daily to ensure the rind develops evenly.
With a proper aging environment, soft-ripened cheeses are simple to make and rewarding to eat. They are expensive at the grocery store, so they also make great presents for cheese lovers.
Even if they don’t fully ripen, you can still use them in your favorite baked brie recipe.
– Semi-hard Cheese
Semi-hard cheeses tend to be aged for 2-6 months. They often include curd shrinking and wax wrapping to control the moisture loss before the aging process.
Gouda, cheddar, Havarti, Gruyere, and provolone are examples of semi-hard cheese styles that you can make on the homestead.
It is much easier to control humidity loss and develop flavor-complexes for these cheeses if you use an electric cheese cave.
– Hard Cheeses
Hard cheeses are usually aged longer than six months. They also tend to contain more salt to aid with the drying process. This is most likely what the ancient homestead cheese-makers ate.
For a fine hard cheese like Pecorino or Parmigiano Reggiano, you need to control the drying and aging process using specific temperatures and humidity.
Or… you can make a perfectly good hard homestead cheese by using any cheddar recipe. Then add a bit more salt than called for in the recipe, press out a bit more liquid, and age for at least six months.
Step 3: Choose Your Methods
Cheese-making is more a method than a recipe, though there are ingredients. Things like how long to culture, whether to clabbor, backwash, or direct-set your cultures, contribute to the character of your cheese.
- Clabboring basically means to pre-culture some milk and then add that milk to your fresh milk as the recipe.
- Backwashing is the same basic process as clabboring, except you hold back some of your milk from your cheese-making in each batch to use for your next batch. It’s like using a sourdough starter to make bread. The longer you do it, the better it gets (at the right temperatures).
- Direct-set means to add powdered cultures to milk and make cheese immediately.
Besides the culturing method, there are also other steps in the process that can vary from method to method.
There can be lots of different ways to make cheddar. Some people add color, others don’t. Some use raw milk; others use pasteurized. Some age for two months others for two years.
Try to find methods that match up with the skills and equipment you have (or want to purchase). Find examples using the type of raw or pasteurized milk (e.g., cow, goat, sheep, etc.) you will use fresh. Choose methods that will work well with your plan for aging cheeses.
Many cheese-making methods offer adaptations for your milk type. Often calcium chloride and lipase are added to pasteurized cows milk. Meanwhile, these aren’t necessary with raw goat or sheep milk. These details can make the difference between a passable or tasty cheese.
Pick methods that help express the raw materials you are working with and that line-up with the time and effort you want to put towards your cheese-making.
Step 4: Assemble Your Equipment and Ingredients
Now, you need to make sure you have all the equipment and ingredients to make your cheese.
Don’t assume you have to buy everything. You can use a lot of your existing kitchen utensils in place of specialized cheese equipment.
Most of my cheese is made and strained with the pots, colanders, and sieves I already had. A custom cheese press was too expensive for me, so instead I use my fruit press.
I bought some custom mold forms for my soft-ripened cheeses from a cheese-making supply store. Then, I got my curd straining spoons at the dollar store.
I also bought stacks of flour sack towels in bulk rather than buying more expensive cheesecloth. Bamboo drying mats can be bought for a few dollars at Asian grocery stores.
I make fresh cheeses with citric acid, homemade vinegar, and natural cultures. I use bulk-purchased cultures for my soft-ripened and aged cheeses. I buy liquid animal rennet for all my renetted cheeses. These supplies cost me less than $50 per year.
The more cheeses you make, the more you will spend on cultures and other special ingredients. Also, aging techniques like waxing or wrapping in waxed paper add to your costs.
Step 5: Make Cheese
With all your preparations out of the way, now on to the fun of making cheese!
When I started out, I would make ten batches of the same cheese before trying another. From the outset, the cheeses were edible. By the 10th try, they were as good as or better than what we could get at the grocery store.
Repetitive practice helps you get the hang of the steps involved. You learn how to handle the curds and time the acidification. It also teaches you about the milk and how it reacts with different substances.
Make sure to sample your curds before and after they are salted. Even if you are aging cheeses, at the outset, you probably want to do a taste test every few weeks to make sure your methods are working.
Celebrate your successes and learn from your failures. And remember to smile when you say “”
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