America’s love affair with cheese began early and hasn’t slowed down yet. On average, we consume more than one-half a pound per person per week, enjoying it in everything from pizza to ham-and-Swiss sandwiches to fondues. In fact, this culinary obsession has been going on since America’s earliest history.
Benjamin Franklin so loved Parmesan cheese that he went to considerable effort to obtain a recipe for his cook. Andrew Jackson, in his last reception as president, invited the public to the White House to devour a massive 3-by-4-foot chunk of cheese that had been aging in the basement for more than a year.
Ten thousand people stormed the White House for their share, leaving such a smelly mess it took a month for the East Room carpet, drapes and furniture to air out.
Resourceful American pioneer women found making cheese an effective way to preserve their precious milk, developing favorite recipes they passed on to succeeding generations. By the 1880s, cheese had developed into a whole industry of its own. By 1922, more than 2,800 active cheese factories were located in the state of Wisconsin alone. Many of these operations were associated with small family-run dairy farms. Twenty years later, fewer, larger factories produced cheese by the hundreds of millions of pounds in the United States. By 1968, the first television commercials were broadcast for what had become a staple of American cuisine. As the 20th century progressed, cheese-making arts were rarely practiced on a small scale or at home – but that is now changing.
In modern times, a certain air of ambiguity surrounds the concept of making cheese at home. Really, though, the effort is similar to any multistep cooking process. Once you understand the basics of curdling milk, learn a few tricks and throw in a little happenstance, you’re off and running. Indeed, making cheese in your own kitchen can be a gratifying experience. Making and marketing cheese on a small-farmstead scale can be profitable indeed. It takes anywhere from 10 to 15 pounds of fluid milk to produce a pound of hard cheese like cheddar and a full gallon to make three cups of cream cheese. If you plan to supply your family with more than a few pounds of homemade cheeses, you will need a good milk supply. Ideally, you will have direct access to the source – your own milking herd (goat, cow, sheep, camel or water buffalo) or a friend with a nearby herd. If you’re fortunate enough to own your animals, you can see directly to the milk’s quality.
Milk, as it is obtained from the animal, is as real as it gets. Many cheese makers find that this so-called raw milk makes a better product, but using non-pasteurized milk has other advantages. It provides a slightly firmer curd and contains its own cultures, or beneficial bacteria, so it does not necessarily require a milk-clotting enzyme like rennet (although adding one will speed up the process) for protein coagulation. Pasteurized milk, which is readily available at the grocery store, is a good choice for the beginner or occasional cheese maker.
The second most important ingredient in cheese making is the starter culture or activator. These beneficial bacteria provide the milk-thickening (clabbering) compounds needed for separating the curds from the whey. Various forms are available: yogurt, cultured buttermilk or freeze-dried bacteria. If you use buttermilk as your starter, make sure it is fresh and cultured. If you decide to use yogurt, make sure it is fresh and the label says “active cultures.” Although these starters work for some types of cheese, many makers employ a class of enzymes collectively called rennet.
Rennet comes from two sources, animal and vegetable, and can be purchased either in liquid or as tablets. The animal form is usually taken from the inner lining of a young calf’s fourth stomach (abomasum), whereas the vegetable type is generally extracted from plant or microbial sources. The milk-protein cleaving enzyme (protease) chymosin is the most important component in rennet.
Rennet, in the form of pure chymosin, is also manufactured using genetically modified microbes such as the fungus Aspergillus niger. Whatever the source, you might need to do a bit of searching to find rennet (see Resources), since it has long fallen from the list of standard household items.
Now on to the equipment you will need for your cheese-making project. A large pot, at least a 5- to 8-quart size, is necessary for heating the milk. Use only stainless steel, glass or unchipped enamel. Aluminum and cast iron will react with the lactic acid (produced as microbes feed on lactose or milk sugar) and change the flavor of your cheese, not to mention the metal might lend a greenish tint. Make sure all your equipment is meticulously clean. Remember, we are working with bacteria, but we want only the right kind.
Having a dairy thermometer is a good idea, but not absolutely essential. Many home cheese makers have learned to gauge temperature by touch – i.e., lukewarm is about 86 degrees; 102 degrees is very hot but still tolerable. Some thermometers float on the top of the milk, some hook over the side of your pot, while others simply have a rod that sits down in the milk. This latter type can often be held submerged in the milk by poking it through a slotted spoon laid across the rim of the pan.
Additional equipment you’ll need:
I recommend that a beginner start with cottage cheese or cream cheese. Both require only a few ingredients, and the process is relatively simple. It will give you practice, and more importantly, enough confidence to graduate up to the harder cheeses.
(so named because it could easily be made at home or cottage)
1 gallon fresh milk (raw or pasteurized)
1/4 teaspoon liquid rennet
1/4 cup cool water
1/2 cup cultured buttermilk
In large pot or kettle, heat milk over low heat until it reaches 86°F (pretty near room temperature, so start slow). Mix rennet and water. Stir in buttermilk and rennet mixture; remove from heat.
Cover pot with cheesecloth to keep dust out and allow air flow through.
Leave to sit in warm location until milk has clabbered – 16 to 24 hours if you have used pasteurized milk and buttermilk or yogurt as your activator; it will take less time if you have used rennet. Do not jiggle the pan during this process as it may break the curds.
As soon as the curd (solid) has separated from the whey (liquid), use a long stainless steel knife to “cut” the curd into 1- to 2-inch cubes. This will allow more whey to separate out.
Heat curds and whey slowly in double boiler until they reach 115°F; hold at this temperature for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally but gently. Pour into cheesecloth-lined colander set into bowl and allow whey to drip out.
After 20 minutes, lift 4 corners of cheesecloth and tie them up. Hang bagged curds over bowl for 4 to 5 hours until finished dripping. If you like, you may then rinse curds again with cool water to leach out any acid flavor. Drain again and, if desired, add cream and non-iodized salt to taste.
(requires no cooking)
1 gallon milk or cream
1/2 cup cultured buttermilk
1/2 rennet tablet dissolved in 1/4 cup cold water
Add buttermilk and rennet mixture to milk. Mix well, stirring approximately 10 minutes or until milk begins to clabber. Cover and keep at 70-80°F until whey separates from curd (up to 15 hours). Do not jiggle during this process.
Line colander with several layers of wet cheesecloth and set in bowl. Slice clabbered milk into 1-inch cubes; pour into colander. Let drip for several minutes.
Lift cheesecloth by 4 corners and tie together to form bag. Hang over bowl to drip until solid but gelatinous mass remains (8-10 hours or overnight). If the weather is warm, put the bag in a colander set into a bowl and place in the refrigerator. Squeeze bag occasionally. If necessary, change cheesecloth when it gets plugged.
As soon as cheese is desired consistency, pour from cheesecloth into bowl. Salt to taste (if desired), starting with 1/4 teaspoon. Some prefer no salt, though adding it will increase the cheese’s storage time. Pack into small bowls or wrap in greased paper and refrigerate for up to 5 days.
2 gallons whole milk
1 packet direct-set mesophilic starter or 4 ounces prepared mesophilic starter
1/4 teaspoon calf lipase powder (optional)
1/4 teaspoon liquid rennet
(or 1/4 rennet tablet)
1/4 cup cool, unchlorinated water
2 tablespoons salt
In double boiler, heat milk over low heat to 90°F. Add mesophilic (moderate temperature) starter (and lipase, a fat-cleaving enzyme, if you’d like a stronger flavor); stir well. Mix rennet with water. Add rennet mixture to milk and stir briskly for 1 minute. Let milk set (keeping at constant 90°F) 30-45 minutes, or until curd gives clean break.
Cut curd into 1/4-inch cubes. Heat curds gradually to 95°F over 20 minutes, stirring gently every few minutes to keep curds from sticking together. Let curds set, without stirring, for 5 minutes.
Drain off whey (and save it for other uses). Add salt and keep curds at 95°F for 30 more minutes (stirring if necessary to keep curds from sticking together).
Line cheese mold with cheesecloth and add curds. Press cheese with weight of 35 pounds for 6 hours. Remove cheese from mold and place in covered container in refrigerator.
Once you have taken up the challenge of making your own cheeses and have gained some confidence, you’ll be hooked. I recommend buying a book that deals with home cheese making, such as Home Cheese Making: Recipes for 75 Homemade Cheeses by Ricki Carrol (Storey Books, 2002), or American Farmstead Cheese: The Complete Guide to Making and Selling Artisan Cheeses by Paul Kindstedt (Chelsea Green, 2005). Plenty of recipes can also be found on the Internet. Better yet, ask your grandmother or mother for her special recipe and tweak it to your liking, perhaps adding herbs or spices. Another exciting family tradition may be born.
Susie Schade-Brewer lives in Adrian, Missouri, with her family and pugs.