Making Homemade Cheese

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Aged to perfection, this homemade cheese is worth showing off to friends.
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Cutting the curds allows the whey to rise.
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Dried commercial starter can be ripened to add value and to simply make more cheese.
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Draining the whey off the curds so the curds can settle.
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Once on the drying rack, the cheese is turned every 12 hours for three days as the rind forms.
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Turning the cheese in the press encourages even drying.
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Salt and optional flavors are added before pressing.

Cheese is the ultimate comfort food. Whether it’s in grilled cheese sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, or just a few crumbles on your favorite soup, cheese satisfies and fills a very particular niche in our appetites. And your taste buds will tell you the best cheese is still made fresh on the farm – or in your own kitchen. Not only is making homemade cheese fun, but artisan cheeses’ flavors are highly individualized, and they are the center of attention whether served at a country-style wine and cheese party or on a sandwich at lunchtime. 

SIDEBAR:Homemade Cheddar Cheese Recipe

Cleanliness is key

Before you even think about that delicious block of sharp cheddar cheese, clean every tool and every surface you will use in the cheese-making process. Ensure there is no soap residue or disinfectant. I even boil stainless steel pots and utensils for 20 minutes. Although boiling isn’t essential, cleanliness is crucial when it comes to making cheese; leave no doubt your surfaces and tools are clean.

Dr. Arthur Hill from the food science department at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, says, “Sterilization is not required. Sanitize is better. Clean as if you are handling a vulnerable product like poultry.” You can also use a microwave for plastic containers, chlorine bleach, or a dishwasher on hot cycle. 

To pasteurize or not

Pasteurized milk makes great cheese. In my region of Canada, it’s illegal to buy, sell or serve non-
pasteurized milk or cheeses from non-pasteurized milk, unless the cheeses have been aged.

Comparing the nutritional properties of pasteurized milk to raw milk is difficult. Milk is a complex product, so it’s like comparing soil; all the factors are infinitely variable. Pasteurization alters the properties and consistency of milk for cheese making; more importantly, pasteurization reduces the bacteria in milk.

Cleanliness of production isn’t the only factor in determining the safety of milk. Many stories have been documented about farm families who drank raw milk with a neighbor and only the neighbor became ill. Other factors that affect safety include immunity levels, animal health and the time from milking to consumption.

The debate about whether to use pasteurized or non-pasteurized milk is largely emotional. I was raised on raw milk, and I loved it. When I ask milk experts, they all say they would not feed raw milk to a fragile grandchild. Hill says, “Pasteurization is like automotive seat belts.” Before you serve or sell artisan cheese from raw milk, know the facts and check with your insurance carrier and lawyer in case a customer or guest becomes ill.

Getting starter

Since there are many types of starter, I ask my retailers for their recommendations with each recipe. Some starters work best for high temperature cheeses or for cheeses that ripen at over 100 degrees.

You occasionally can purchase starter at bulk stores and health food stores or special order it. I order rennet and starter from Glengarry Cheese.

To make the starter more affordable, I clean a canning jar and fill it with milk. I add a teaspoon of dry starter and place the jar in the oven with the light on and the heat off for 12 hours. The oven door is propped open an inch, and the temperature reaches 85 degrees. To establish this temperature, I experimented for a couple days with a thermometer. Once the milk has ripened, I spoon it into a clean ice cube tray and freeze for up to three months.

Other starter options are yogurt or buttermilk. Both usually need to be ripened for 12 hours. Buttermilk often produces small “eyes,” caused by gas bubbles, in some cheeses. Personally I haven’t had great success making hard cheeses with these starters, but I do produce fabulous soft cheeses with intense flavor. 

Country pressure

Used and new cheese presses are available on the Internet in home sizes for a couple of styles, but making a press is a simple task. See Page 78 for “A Homemade Cheese Press.”

There are as many recipes for pressed cheeses as there are people who make them. Pressed cheeses can be aged to enhance their texture and flavor and are an excellent means for storing milk for later use.

Variety is the spice of life

The science community says it is almost impossible to make consistent cheese at home. You have to know the pH of the milk and starter throughout the process and maintain the exact time and temperature. They are correct. Every batch I make is individual and interesting. In the years since I started making cheese, I have never thrown out anything; every batch is good, just not consistent.

Many stories exist to explain just how cheese making started. My favorite is the story of a milk-loving traveler making a journey on a camel’s back. The milk was carried in the “Thermos” of the day, a sheep’s stomach, which was at the bottom of the baggage as the traveler set out across the desert. Stopping for a bite to eat, the traveler discovered cheese.

Cheese making is a simple process. Take milk. Add rennet and wait. The starter and calcium chloride just speed up and control the process.

Share your cheese with urbanite friends. They usually think a day of cheese making is complex and hard manual labor, and you’ll be much admired for surprisingly little effort.

Cheese Making: The Art of Country Living

  • Don’t hurry.
  • Don’t fuss.
  • Don’t over-stir.
  • Be patient.
  • Relax.
  • Pace yourself.
  • Don’t peek. (Leave the lid on when it is ripening.)
  • And when you are done, enjoy wholesome, nutritious,
    homemade goodness.

The writing and photography team of Pat and Dan Kerr are enjoying their return to homesteading on a 272-acre ranch in Northern Ontario, Canada.