A Guide to Getting Started in Making Hard Cheese
~ Understanding Cultures Used for Making Cheese at Home
~ How to Make Cheese Curds for Hard Cheese
~ A DIY Homemade Cheese Press Plan
~ 7 Great Ways to Age Your Cheeses
Understanding Cultures Used for Making Cheese at Home
Making Cheese at Home Changed with Pasteurization
By Marissa Ames
Though people have been making cheese at home for millennia, the rules changed with pasteurization. Here’s how to use cultures for safe and successful dairy products.
Pieces of pottery confused archaeologists in the 1970s. The red clay shards were perforated, as if they had been baked while pierced with pieces of straw. Poland produced some of Europe’s first farmers so the shards were probably used for preparing food. Archaeologist Peter Bogucki had seen a similar tool at a friend’s house, used for making cheese at home, so he speculated the shards belonged to a cheesemaking, colander-type tool. But at that time he had no way to test his theory.
The shards sat in storage for 40 years. Then in 2011, Dr. Melanie Roffet-Salque analyzed fatty residues in the clay. She found signatures of abundant milk fats, meaning the early farmers had used the sieves to separate milk solids from whey. The shards became the oldest-known evidence of cheesemaking in the world, existing since 5,500 BC.
Before that, scientists believed dairying dated back to 4,000 BC. A legend credits the discovery of cheese to an Arab trader who stored milk in the stomachs of ruminants, where residual rennet solidified the proteins into edible curds. But Sumerians made cheese even before then. Curdling and salting hard cheeses was the only way to preserve milk in a hot climate.
People from Sumer and Arabia had a problem. Adults, unlike children, could not produce the enzyme lactase, which allowed them to digest lactose. Milk was essentially a poison for them. Introducing the right bacteria reduced lactose to tolerable levels. They learned how to make yogurt from scratch, adding samples from the last batch to a new container of milk. This created another food source that could keep people alive even if plant harvests failed. Yogurt is still a strong component in Middle-Eastern food.
But milk wasn’t a major food source for anyone until a mutation occurred.
About 7,500 years ago, coinciding with the archaeological discovery in Poland, Europeans developed a genetic tolerance to lactose, even into adulthood. Those of European ancestry still account for most people who can drink milk. With the mutation, cheesemaking burgeoned. Cooler European climates allowed growth of beneficial microbes and molds that gave cheeses their delightful flavors. Some microbes already lived in raw milk; others came from the environment or from recycling whey from an earlier batch.
Pasteurization and the Changing Game of Making Cheese
Cultured butter and sour cream were common prior to the 19th century. Cream sat at room temperature for a couple of days before entering a churn. Though cultured butter is still sold, it’s not as available. One reason is because dairymen learned that scalding and straining cream increased the keeping qualities of butter by killing the microbes. Another is because sale of raw milk products is illegal in many states. It’s quicker and safer to pasteurize cream then make uncultured butter within industrial settings.
Before America’s growth sent people out West, households kept dairy cows in urban areas. Raw milk wasn’t as dangerous because it was consumed soon after milking. When cities grew, cows were pushed to the countryside and milk was transported back to the city. This additional travel time allowed bacteria to cultivate. Now the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says improperly handled raw milk is one of the world’s most dangerous food products, spreading tuberculosis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, Salmonella, and E. coli. Pasteurization kills these dangerous microbes. It also kills the beneficial ones as well.
In 1987, the FDA banned interstate distribution of raw milk. Even if you can’t purchase it within your state, you can purchase the necessary cultures. Scientists began producing pure microbial cultures around the beginning of the 20th century. These samples are constant and guaranteed; Listeria isn’t a problem if cheese is made with pasteurized milk and starter cultures.
The Right Cultures for the Right Cheeses
France has over 3,800 cheese products made from either raw or pasteurized milk. But there aren’t 3,800 types of cultures. One culture can make many kinds of cheese, depending on temperature, ripening time, and environment.
The best place to find cultures is from a company that specializes in cheese or brewing. Softer products, such as yogurt, can be made by purchasing a small amount of the existing product in a grocery store. If the package contains “live and active cultures” and the milk sits at the proper temperature for adequate time, microbes grow. A quarter cup of real yogurt can ripen a gallon of milk.
Though buttermilk and sour cream can be cultured similarly, store-bought products don’t have a guaranteed culture strength. The microbes might not even be healthy by the time the carton resides in your fridge. The best buttermilk comes from a pure culture.
The biggest reason to purchase cultures from a supply company is because, if the culture is not strong enough, the milk may still ripen … but it will be because of other bacteria from the environment. That’s why dairies sanitize so rigidly and regularly. Cheesemaking experts advise that raw products should be made with extremely clean milk that has been allowed to ripen for a short time before adding a little pure culture to keep the microbes constant.
Powdered cultures can be purchased in jars or small packets. New cheesemakers should try smaller quantities first. The packets can last two months unrefrigerated or over two years in a freezer.
Thermophilic cultures ripen milk scalded to temperatures between 104 and 140 degrees F. Milk for mesophilic cultures should never exceed 102 degrees. Both can make a variety of dairy items. For instance, mesophilic can make cheddar, Monterey jack, cream cheese, and cultured butter. Additional cultures ripen sour cream, buttermilk, and chèvre, though some recipes can use mesophilic as well. The best way to determine which culture to use is to first acquire a cheesemaking book.
Remember that while ripening dairy products, you are growing bacteria. They are good bacteria, but the perfect environments for the good also propagate the bad. Make sure you have minimal bad bacteria by using pasteurized milk or raw milk that has been collected safely. Even safe collection isn’t a guarantee. During the yogurt-making process, milk is often heated above 160 degrees F before culturing because it kills existing microbes so the only bacterial growth is intentional. Cheese made with raw milk must be cured at least 60 days in an air-free environment to ensure it is safe for sale.
Dairy products ripen at 70 to 120 degrees then are either cooled or coated with wax to stop bacterial growth. Be sure you ripen for the right amount of time, with the right techniques, to control the microbes. Cheese should be waxed completely so none of the surface is exposed. Homemade cream cheese or sour cream should be consumed within about a week.
Don’t let the science or precautions daunt you. It’s worth reading up on making cheese at home, understanding how cultures work, then giving it a try. Homemade cheese is a treat you can be proud to have made.
Editor of Goat Journal and Backyard Poultry magazines, Marissa Ames runs a small homestead in Fallon, Nevada, where she focuses on saving and propagating rare breeds of goats and garden vegetables. She and her husband, Russ, travel to Africa where they serve as agricultural advisers for the nonprofit I Am Zambia. She spends her free time eating lunch.
How to Make Cheese Curds for Hard Cheese
By Kate Johnson
Hard cheeses can be intimidating. Recipes are longer and more involved, and your equipment needs will increase. But if you’re willing to invest more time, they are well worth the effort.
Here’s what you’ll need for hard cheeses that you might not need for soft varieties:
- A mold (or form) to press your cheese curds
- A cheese press
- A refrigerator for aging
You can find an assortment of inexpensive cheese forms (also referred to as molds) at many cheesemaking supply websites, or you can make one out of PVC pipe. A cheese form includes two parts: the form and the follower, which is the piece that presses the cheese curds. To make your own form from PVC pipe, just choose the size of pipe you want (I’ve made tiny forms out of 3 ½ inch diameter pipe and larger forms out of 5 inch diameter pipe), cut to the height you want (roughly the same as the diameter), and drill small holes on the sides for whey to drip out. Make a follower by using a jig saw to cut a round disc from a thin plastic cutting board.
Next, you’ll need a cheese press. You can buy presses from cheesemaking supply companies, and you can find instructions online for building a Dutch-style press.
Last, you’ll need an aging space, or a “cheese cave.” Most cheesemakers I know lovingly refer to our mini-fridges as caves! You can turn a dorm-style fridge up to its warmest temperature setting (about 50 degrees). Wine fridges are also a good option. For a more precise temperature, purchase a temperature controller and plug the refrigerator into it. These will cost around $50. If you don’t have these options, a basement or a cooler place in your house (no more than 55 degrees ideally) can also work.
Now decide what recipes to use. Many cheesemaking books suggest you start with a farmhouse cheddar recipe, but in my experience many of these don’t yield the best results. If you want a cheddar-like cheese without doing the full cheddaring technique, Colby has been quite successful and flavorful for me!
Colby is a “washed curd” cheese, because of the technique of removing some whey and then replacing it with water. This reduces acidity, which gives you a milder, creamier texture.
How to Make Colby Cheese
- Heat 1 gallon of pasteurized whole milk quickly to at least 70 degrees F in a large stockpot. Add 1/8 tsp of mesophilic culture. Let hydrate for several minutes and then stir into the milk with an up and down motion.
- Continue warming the milk to 86 degrees. Cover and maintain temperature while the milk ripens for about 1 hour.
- Add 1/8 tsp liquid annatto diluted in 1/8 cup cool, non-chlorinated water. Gently stir for 1 minute.
- Add ¼ tsp liquid rennet diluted in ¼ cup cool, non-chlorinated water. Gently stir with up and down motion for 1 minute. Cover and let sit for 30-45 minutes until the curd makes a clean break.
- Cut curd into ½ inch pieces and let sit for 5 minutes.
- Over low heat, bring the temperature up to 104 degrees over 40-50 minutes, stirring gently but continuously.
- Once the cheese curds reach 104 degrees, turn off heat and let sit for 15 minutes. The curds will sink to the bottom of the pot.
- Ladle out enough whey to expose the curds. Replace the whey with the same amount of 104 degree water. Gently stir for 2 minutes, then cover and let curds rest for 10 minutes.
- Line a strainer with damp butter muslin and ladle the cheese curds into it. Let drain 5 minutes.
- Line a mold (or form) with damp cheesecloth and gently transfer the drained cheese curds into the mold. Set the follower on top and press at 5 pounds for 1 hour.
- Remove cheese from form, unwrap, flip, and redress, then press again at 10 pounds for 12 hours.
- Make 2 qts. of brine (14 oz salt to ½ gallon water) and chill to 50-55 degrees. Remove cheese from the form and place it in the brine to soak at 50-55 degrees for 8 hours.
- Remove cheese from brine, pat dry, and air dry at room temperature for 24 hours.
- Wax the cheese and age at 50-55 degrees for 6-8 weeks, flipping it once a week.
Adding flavors to your cheese is part of the fun and expands the cheeses you can create with a single recipe. In general, you can add anything that is sterile and has no fats or live matter. For instance; spices, dried herbs, dried chilies, canned jalapenos, etc. If you’re unsure of the sterility of the item, just boil it for 10 minutes before you add it directly to the curds before pressing.
A DIY Homemade Cheese Press Plan
By Kate Johnson
This homemade cheese press plan will get you off to a great start when you’re ready to tackle pressed cheeses with your milk.
When I started making hard cheeses, I had to locate certain cheesemaking supplies, most notably a decent, affordable cheese press. Many of the presses available were quite expensive, up to $275! Boy, I’d have to make a lot of cheese to justify that expense. But I could have made a press that would work just as well, if not better, without spending a dime. So that’s what I did and I’m here to show you how.
Introducing, the Bucket Press!
This concept is so simple I almost felt silly when I first learned it. Here’s how it works:
1. Go to a local bakery or deli and ask if they have any three-to-five-gallon food grade buckets that they’re getting ready to throw away. They’re usually happy to have you recycle them. You’ll need either two or three buckets of the same size. (Note: if you can’t find free buckets, they are inexpensive from a restaurant supply store.)
2. Drill holes in the bottom of one bucket with a power drill. The more holes the better, but not so many that you compromise the strength of the bucket base.
3. Fill a gallon jug water. Pour that into the other bucket, and then mark the water line with a permanent marker. Label that line “eight pounds.” Do that again, and label the next water line with a “16.” If your buckets are big enough, do it one more time and mark that line with a “24.” Now fill in a few lines at the halfway points to represent 4, 12, and 20 pounds (or you can estimate where 5, 10, and 15 would be as shown in the picture).
4. That’s it! You have a homemade cheese press that will accommodate at least 15-20 pounds of pressure. (You can always use additional weights to make it heavier or skip the water and just place weights inside the bucket.)
How to Use:
- If you only have two buckets, place the one with the holes directly into your clean, disinfected kitchen sink. If you have three buckets, place the one with holes into one without holes and the bottom bucket will serve as your sink.
- Put your cheese form into the bucket with the holes, line it with cheesecloth, and then scoop your curds into the form and put the follower on top. If needed, put a can on top of the follower to give you something to rest weight on.
- Put the remaining bucket, with the appropriate amount of water or weight, right into that bucket and on top of the follower. You may need to put a kitchen towel or pot holder in between the buckets to keep the top bucket from wobbling, especially at first when the curds are still full of whey.
- Now all you do is wait! Your cheese is being pressed and the weight will follow the curds as they release the whey. Expelled whey will drip through the holes into the lower bucket or sink.
Pretty nifty, huh? Best homemade cheese press plan ever!
7 Great Ways to Age Your Cheeses
By Kate Johnson
You can make aged cheese with pasteurized or raw milk. For commercial cheesemakers in the U.S., cheese cannot be made with raw milk unless it’s going to age for at least 60 days. That is recommended for home cheesemakers as well, although many goat owners make aged and fresh cheese with raw milk. Raw milk contains numerous beneficial bacteria that adds to the character and nutrition level of the cheese, but it also requires some special handling and some modification to your recipes in terms of the amount of culture added to the milk. Raw milk cheeses are delicious and nutritious, and pasteurized milk cheeses can be, too.
Aged cheese involves two distinct components: The “make” (that’s the day you actually work with the milk) and the “affinage” (a French word meaning maturing or ripening, this refers to the time and techniques involved in aging your cheese). Using one simple recipe, you can achieve different results simply by varying your affinage techniques.
Choosing an affinage technique depends on how much time and effort you want to put into your aged goat cheese as well as your desired results. I’m going to describe seven common techniques, from easiest to most complex, and the expected outcome. I encourage you to try these techniques with a simple recipe like Colby, so you can spend more time and effort on learning them. It can be fun to make one big batch of cheese and then age several small wheels from that single batch using different techniques, so you can really see how affinage affects the outcome.
Aging Technique #1: Waxing (Easy)
Originally, waxing a wheel of cheese was more of a packaging technique. Cheese might have been aged with a natural rind but when it came time to transport that cheese, it was waxed so that lots of wheels could be stacked in the back of the cheesemaker’s wagon and taken to the market. Nowadays many cheesemakers, particularly home cheesemakers who are making smaller wheels, find that waxing is a great way to preserve moisture, minimize mold growth, and make your aging time fairly effortless. You’ll want to use cheese wax or beeswax (as opposed to paraffin, which is much too brittle). I like to use mini crock pots as my dedicated waxing pots but you can also use double boilers. Once your little wheel of cheese has air dried for a couple of days, you can wipe it with a piece of clean cloth or paper towel dipped in vinegar to inhibit mold growth, and then quickly dip it in and out of the melted wax. Allow it to dry and then repeat this process once or twice more, being sure not to hold the wheel of cheese in the wax too long or you will melt off the previous layers.
Aging Technique #2: Vacuum Sealing (Easy)
When I first heard about vacuum sealing as an aging technique, I was skeptical. I knew that cheese needed to breathe as it was aging in order to ripen effectively and I thought the sealed wheels wouldn’t really mature much. I tried it for myself, and while I’d still argue that you get less flavor development in a vacuum sealed cheese than just about any other technique, the cheese does ripen and mature. And like the waxing method, moisture is retained and mold growth inhibited. This is a very quick and easy technique that will make your cheese pretty much “fix-it-and-forget-it!” I particularly like vacuum sealing in combination with the next technique — applying rubs.
Aging Technique #3: Rubbed (Easy)
Applying a rub is a creative way to add flavors and color to the outside of aged goat cheese. You can make a sweet rub by combining coconut oil, cocoa powder, and even honey, or you can do something more savory with lard or coconut oil along with dried herbs or seeds. You can even make a smoky rub by utilizing smoked paprika or smoked salt or peppercorns. The trick here is to make a very thick rub that you spread on the outside of your wheel of cheese, much like frosting a cake. I like to vacuum seal the cheese after adding the rub so that it can age without competing mold development on the rind. The finished cheese will absorb some of the flavor of the rub into the rind, but not as much into the actual paste of the cheese as it might if you added a flavoring directly to the curds before pressing. Still, it’s a lovely look and can add an interesting twist to a simple cheese.
Aging Technique #4: Natural Rind (Moderate)
In my experience, natural rind is the best way to get the most complex flavor while allowing cheese to dry, but it also means more tending to during the aging process. It also involves monitoring the humidity level of your aging facility a bit more closely, as insufficient humidity will mean cracked wheels of cheese, but too much humidity will make controlling mold development difficult. Essentially, a natural rind cheese is achieved by simply allowing the molds and other microorganisms to naturally accumulate and rubbing them gently with a dry brush or clean cloth every few days until a grayish/brownish rind forms on your wheel. When you get the humidity level correct (50-80 percent), this rind eventually becomes fairly stable and allows the cheese to breathe and develop the complex flavors of the unique combination of milk and cultures used in the make.
Aging Technique #5: Leaf Wrapped (Moderate)
This can add an exotic look and taste to your aged goat cheese and is relatively easy to do. Take some big leaves (grape leaves work particularly well) and macerating (soaking) them in alcohol such as wine, brandy, or bourbon. You can soak the leaves for several days or up to a couple of months. Let the finished wheel of cheese air dry for a few days, then wrap it in the alcohol-infused leaf. Tie the leaf with twine, raffia, or yarn. Then age the cheese as long as desired. The result will be a cheese that absorbs some flavor of the alcohol while also retaining moisture as it becomes more complex.
Aging Technique #6: Washed Rind (Moderate)
Washing your cheese wheel as it ages takes a little time and attention, but is a great way to significantly change the final flavor outcome of your aged goat cheese. You can wash with a simple salt brine, or with a brine that includes herbs and spices, alcohol, or ripening bacteria such as Brevibacterium linens. High humidity levels are required to allow the flavors to “smear” onto the rinds and the resulting cheeses can have very complex and aromatic features. The bacterial washes can produce a very strong smelling cheese often referred to as funky or stinky cheese, and for some, this might be an acquired taste. The challenge with these cheeses is to retain enough humidity to allow the brine or wash to absorb without letting the mold run rampant. Adding salt or alcohol to your wash can assist with this.
Aging Technique #7: Bandaged (Advanced)
This final technique is perhaps the most complex but it can also be a really interesting process that produces a complex flavored aged goat cheese with limited moisture loss. The cheese wheel is first coated in lard, coconut oil, or ghee (clarified butter). Then it is wrapped tightly in cotton or linen, using several layers to ensure good coverage with minimal air pockets. While the cheese ages, naturally occurring mold and other micro-organisms will grow on the bandage but not the rind itself. When ready to eat, simply unwrap the bandage and discard it and enjoy the yummy cheese!
Whatever technique you choose when you make aged goat cheese, I’m sure you will have fun doing it and find that the rewards are well worth the effort!
Originally published in the November/December 2018 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.
Kate Johnson runs a cheesemaking school in Longmont, Colorado where she and her family also raise Nubian and Nigerian Dwarf dairy goats. Visit www.theartofcheese.com or email her at email@example.com