Making Cheese Easy

One of America's favorite foods comes back home.

| November/December 2007

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.


Got milk?


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.

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