Cheesemaking Basics for the Beginner

Here is an outline of basic equipment needs, as well as a few considerations for buying milk.

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Most people getting into home cheesemaking have aspirations of making their favorite aged Cheddar or creamy blue right off the bat. Not to discourage anyone, but I have found it best to start with a basic soft cheese or a simple cultured dairy product like yogurt, cream cheese, or butter. These products require little preparation and minimal equipment and are harder to mess up than an aged cheese. Once you master the basics, which I’ve outlined below, it will be easier to move onto more advanced cheeses like Cheddar…or to come up with your own recipes!

Basic tools for the home cheesemaker

Essential Equipment:

Large heavy-bottomed stainless steel stock pot (10 to 20 quart): A stainless steel pot is easy to clean and sanitize and won’t react with the milk. A pot that is as wide as it is tall will make cutting and stirring curds much easier for a novice and a heavy bottom will protect the milk from scorching if you cook directly on a gas or electric stove. For best results, I recommend purchasing two pots that fit together to create a double-boiler, which prevents scorching or overheating. You can also use your sink as a water bath by filling it up with hot water and submerging your cheese pot in it to reach temperature. Look to purchase your pots from a reputable kitchen supply store (fake stainless steel is out there!); I recommend All-Clad brand. For larger pots, I like buying from Midwest Supplies, which sells equipment for home brewers.

Thermometer (digital or dial): Temperature accuracy is important, so invest in a good food thermometer. Dairy Connection offers thermometers specifically for cheese making.

Perforated stainless steel ladle: A ladle with small holes is best for stirring in rennet and scooping curds.

Stainless steel cheese knife: Though a cheese knife is made specifically for cutting curds, you can also use any straight-bladed kitchen knife.

Natural fiber fine-mesh cheese cloth: This is a necessary tool for hanging soft cheeses, lining molds for hard cheeses, and making butter. Some cloths are advertised as cheesecloth, but are not. Look for a fine mesh cheesecloth and avoid the loose-weaved imposters!

-Enamel or stainless steel colander: These come in handy for making a variety of cheeses and cultured dairy products and are always good to have on hand.

Fine grain sea salt: I prefer using domestically produced sea salt from the Maine Sea Salt Co., but you can use any sea salt or kosher salt as long as salt is the only ingredient listed. For example, iodized salt, which contains iodine, can interfere with the growth of lactic bacteria – the good bacteria that you want!

Selection of cultures: This is for making basic cheeses and dairy products. Choose from yogurt culture, fromage blanc culture, feta culture, good mesosphillic culture, etc.

Single strength liquid veal or vegetable rennet: I like liquid rennet because I find it easier to measure and use. You can also use rennet tablets.

And most importantly …

Good, clean raw milk or non-homogenized pasteurized milk: In order to make good cheese you need good milk. Fresh milk straight from the farm where it was produced is ideal. Beware that all farm-fresh milk is not created equal. Milk quality is a remarkable reflection of the environment in which it was produced. If the milk was produced by clean, happy, well-fed cows, the flavors in your cheese will reflect that. Investigate whether the farm is grass or grain fed. Do the cows graze on pasture, or are they confined to a barn? If you are using raw milk, make sure it is a certified producer (if raw milk is legal in your state) or that the producer has good, sanitary milking practices. If using pasteurized milk from a farm or grocery store, be sure to get non-homogenized milk for the best results. Ultra-high-temperature treated or ultra-pasteurized milk is not suitable for cheesemaking since its protein structure has been denatured and it will not coagulate well. Milk that is ultra-pasteurized is required by law to be labeled, so look for the UP or UHT designation. Finally, full-fat/whole milk is generally best for most types of cheese. You may run into some problems using skimmed milk.

If you are using raw milk from your own animal, be sure that proper sanitation procedures were followed during milking and handling. Raw milk with high bacterial levels can interfere with the growth of the starter culture and limit the acid production needed to make and age cheese. In general, you want to use milk for cheesemaking within the first few days of collection. Optionally, you can gently heat treat your milk for a few minutes at 140 F to kill off some of the unwanted bacteria.

Types of Milk

Cow: Cows produce more milk than sheep or goats. The flavors are often pleasingly grassy and sweet. Cow milk generally contains a nice balance of fat and protein, making it great for a variety of cheeses from feta to parmesan.

Goat: Goats produce milk that is pure white (since goats don’t pass beta carotene into the milk) that is lower in fat and protein than other milk. Curds from goat milk are generally softer and yield is a bit lower. Flavor can vary greatly depending on the time of year and the goat’s diet, and sometimes the milk has a hint of “goatiness.”

Sheep: Sheep produce yellow, creamy-colored milk that has a slight shimmer due to the amount of proteins and fats in it. For this reason, the resulting cheeses are often slightly oily and a little golden in color. The flavor is often barnyard-y and nutty, with scents of dry grass. While sheep produce roughly 2 quarts of milk per animal, you can actually make more cheese from a gallon of sheep’s milk than with a gallon of cow or goat’s milk due to the high fat and protein content.