Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Late June update

On Sunday Bridget and I cut into a cheddar that she made about 10 weeks ago. It was made with half goat milk and half cow milk, and since the goat cheddar recipe calls for only 4 to 12 weeks of aging, we thought we'd give it a try (cow's milk cheddar calls for 3 months or more).

It turned out amazing, and I like it better than any of the derby's I have made. I'm excited to make more soon since it is ready so quickly and tastes so good. Between eight people we finished off about a third of the 2 lb. wheel, and the rest is in the fridge where the flavors are further developing (yum!).

Yesterday I brought all of our currently aging cheeses together for a photo:

The unwaxed cheeses in the front are, from left to right: rye whiskey soaked manchego, romano, Swiss (front), Black Jack, Parmesan. The full wheels of waxed cheese, from left to right, are: Wild chanterelle cheddar, traditional cheddar, gouda. The waxed halves and quarters are cinnamon cheese, red jalapeno derby, and smoked tomato derby.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Update: March 14, 2011

Hello cheese lovers!
I have been too busy with school and life to blog for many months now, but I haven't given up. Finishing up a degree in Chemistry with a one-and-a-half year old kid at home can keep a person occupied. Since I haven't blogged since last September, anyone who is actually interested in my cheesemaking adventures is long overdue for an update. Here's what I've been up to since last September:

I made two derby's within a few days of each other in November. Unlike my previous derby's, I decided to add something extra to these guys. The first one was a red jalapeno derby, using a single red jalapeno pepper grown on my in-law's organic farm. I was interested to learn that jalapenos (like almost all peppers) turn red when fully ripe, and the typical green jalapenos we are used to seeing are green because they are picked early. My understanding is that letting them ripen to a nice red color results in a sweeter tasting jalapeno, which added a ton of delicious flavor to this cheese.
This was maybe my third or fourth derby, and when I ladled the curds onto the draining board they were unusually runny. This worried me quite a bit, but I was already way into the process, so of course I continued despite the problem. I was glad to see the curds firm up on the board, but they were still not like they should have been. I scraped all the seeds out of the fresh pepper before dicing it into small pieces and mixing it in with the curds (along with the salt) just before pressing the cheese. After it was pressed, dried, and waxed, I put it away in a closet to age.
The next cheese was a smoked tomato derby, and the tomato was grown and smoked by Lindencroft Farms (the in-laws). Since the smoked tomato was dry, I reconstituted it by soaking it in a small bowl of water. Not only did this soften up the tomato, but the water took on a smoky tomato smell/flavor and I mixed a small amount of this water into the curds along with the diced tomato. The curds acted normal this time around, and the cheese was eventually waxed and stored away for aging.

December was an exciting month for us because we got to finally try the first hard cheese I ever made (that first derby). We cut into it at our Christmas celebration at my Dad's house, and it was a big success. Maybe all that waiting and anticipation had built it up too much for me, but when I first tasted it I wasn't sure what I thought. Everyone else seemed to love it right off the bat though, and I found that by my third or fourth taste I was hooked as well. We finished off practically the whole 2-pounder that night!
On December 31st, we had our second celebratory cheese cutting. Because I was having trouble keeping the first cheese cold enough during the aging process, I had buried the second cheese in the ground behind our house. After 3 months of waiting, we dug up the cheese and dug in! It was fairly good, similar to the first one we had on Christmas. Two pounds is a lot of cheese for two people, and a big chunk of it was put in the fridge to be slowly nibbled on.

Bridget got more involved in the cheese making in December, and on the 31st she decided she was going to make her first cheese: a parmesan! It was a nice break from the derby I had made many times, we were definitely due to try something new. Although I was there to help guide her, she basically made the parmesan herself. It was quite a different process than the derby I was used to, and was also the first brining of a cheese we had ever done. The recipe recommends at least 10 months aging for a parmesan, so we are planning to try it Christmas this year.

January & February:
I didn't make or cut into any new cheeses in January or February, but something happened worth mentioning. I had to do a presentation for an education class near the end of February, and I chose talk about the science of cheese making (I am in the process of becoming a chemistry teacher, and the presentation just had to be on something related to science). To add a little something extra to my talk, I brought in a small chunk of my homemade cheese, the last of the "buried derby" that had been in my fridge for about 2 months. It had a slight discoloration and a moldy smell (which is totally normal for cheeses to develop) so I cut off all the outer edges and took it to school. My talk went well, and people were really enjoying my cheese. In fact, they seemed to be almost over-enjoying it, but I just figured they were impressed that it was homemade. When I left class to catch my bus, I hurriedly grabbed my tupperware with the last little slice of cheese in it. On the way to the bus stop I popped the cheese in my mouth and was stunned; it had improved immensely over the 2 months it had spent in the fridge! It was no longer just "pretty good", it was delicious. It was a great eye-opener to the fact that aging a cheese really does have a profound impact on its flavor.

Early this month we cut open the red jalapeno pepper derby that was made in late November. Despite the curd problem it came out fine, although a little more crumbly than I would like. The pepper flavor is absolutely delicious, and permeates the whole cheese so you can taste it in every bite. Since I took the seeds out, it's not exactly spicy, but it is still very good and the flavor is reminiscent of pizza. We have yet to cut open the tomato cheese. I suddenly got an urge to make cheese again this month, and Bridget has also been more interested than ever. We have cranked out 3 new cheese in the last week; a cheddar, a gouda, and a third cheese of my own invention. Here's some details on each:
Wild Chanterelle Cheddar: We sometimes find wild chanterelle mushrooms growing on the property, a delicious delicacy for those of you who aren't familiar, and at $15 or more per pound in the stores, an awesome thing to find growing in your backyard. I found two of them growing a month or so back, and we never got around to eating them while fresh. Instead, they dried out perfectly (no rotting or molding at all) and have been sitting on our pantry shelf waiting to be used. When we decided we wanted to make a cheddar, it seemed like the perfect use. Rather than reconstituting the mushrooms like I did for the tomato, we used our spice grinder (a.k.a. spare coffee grinder) to make a rough "powder" which was stirred into the curds along with the salt just before pressing. It;s currently drying, and will be waxed any day now and then aged.
Gouda: This was the first "washed curd" cheese we made, which means the curds were rinsed with water during the process, removing lactose and supposedly making the cheese less acidic. It also required a brine bath (like the parmesan), which is interesting because that is the only salt involved in the recipe. The recipe says it will take about 3 weeks for it to dry out to the point of waxing, but I don't think that's the case for us. It's been just over a week and it's pretty close. I had it aging on a board in our downstairs closet (where it is relatively cool), and I have been checking it every day or two for mold, which has been a problem in the past. It was fine up until last night, when I discovered a little mold beginning on the underside. I brought it upstairs and wiped the mold off with a piece of cheesecloth dipped in vinegar. Then I set it on a shelf upstairs where there is little risk of a mold problem, but the air temperature is higher. I have decided that I will oil the gouda instead of waxing it, an alternative way of preserving cheese. By rubbing a vegetable oil (I use olive) on the outside of the cheese, it is kept from drying out and also protects against mold development. I learned about this method from making the parmesan.
Yet-to-be-named Cinnamon Cheese: I had the idea of making a cheese that would be a break from the norm, something desserty. Cinnamon immediately came to mind, and after experiencing the washed rind method of cheese making, I thought that would be a perfect method to use. My hope is that the cheese I've created will be very mild; that is, non-tangy. We all know that cinnamon and cream cheese have been paired, but what about a cinnamon hard-cheese? I pretty much invented the cheese recipe from scratch, using what I've learned so far to develop what I hope to be the perfect curd to compliment the spice. I won't disclose my recipe, but I will say that the temperature of the milk/curds was kept below 100 degrees for the entire process, something I haven't ever seen in a recipe. It worked though, and I managed to make some really nice looking curds using my own recipe. Then I added a tablespoon of cinnamon and only a teaspoon of salt. I am the most anxious to try this cheese, it smells SO good, and it is exciting because it is something I have never seen or heard of before.
Well, that pretty much brings you current. I am going to make a sincere effort to keep posting as I go. Thanks for reading!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Science or Art?

Some call it a science, some call it an art; it's the ancient process of transforming milk into cheese. Originally done as a way to preserve milk fat, cheese making has evolved to include hundreds of varieties from all over the world. So is it a science or an art? Well, the short answer is both. Let me explain:

The only aspect of cheese making that is considerably difficult is having precise control over the temperature of the milk at all times. This is made even more difficult by the fact that the milk cannot be heated directly over a burner, but must be heated in a hot water bath (typically a kitchen sink). Hard cheese recipes usually have a step that requires you to "raise the milk's temperature by 10 degrees, but by no more than 2 degrees every 5 minutes" or something very similar. Maintaining a specific temperature for long periods of time is also a big part of the process.

Before I began making cheese, I thought there was a different microbe for each type of cheese. As it turns out, there are only a handful of microbes used in cheese making, and all the different cheeses we know and love are different from each other mainly because of other factors. Because temperature and time play a huge role in the cheese making process, they also play a huge role in determining the various qualities of your final product. Whether it's sharp, mild, dry, crumbly, rich, creamy, or any other texture or flavor associated with cheese, it's been determined by the temperatures and times used in the recipe (and a handful of other factors, like soaking in brine, washing the curds with water, etc.).

What this means, of course, is that unless you are incredibly lucky, your first attempt at a cheese isn't going to be by-the-book. Maybe your starting temperature was 2 degrees too high, or on a later step you raised the temperature by 3 degrees every 5 minutes instead of by 2 degrees every 5 minutes like the recipe called for. These small variations in the procedure will result in different qualities in the cheese. This is why it is a good idea to keep meticulous notes of every step of your process in a journal. Ingredients, temperatures, times, and observations should all go into the journal. Once you have a grasp of controlling milk temperature via water bath, you can start to experiment by altering one variable at a time and analyzing the results. Starting to sound like laboratory work, isn't it?

Now that you see why I say cheese making is a science, let me explain the art:

When you make a cheese at home, you are creating something truly unique. Tiny variations in the way you execute the recipe make the cheese your own creation. It is also an art because when we make cheese ourselves, we may create a flavor that is different than anything we've ever tasted before. The subtle yet complex flavors that hand-crafted cheeses can produce simply cannot be reproduced in an industrial cheese making factory.



Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Triers and Presses

Cheese trier
There are all kinds of specialty kitchen tools designed for cheese making, and luckily only a few of them are expensive. The most expensive instruments I have come across so far are the trier (pictured above) and the cheese press. The trier is used to take a core sample of cheese that has been aging to determine if it is ready, and varies in price from about $70 to $150. The reason why this tool is especially helpful is that the sample you take can be reinserted moments later, plugging the hole that was just made. This way, the fact that you checked the cheese doesn't actually affect the further development of the cheese. I do not own a trier yet, and may make due without one for a while since they are so expensive and aren't absolutely necessary.

Cheese presses are used to press the cheese (duh!), but not in the way you might think. Rather than wringing out the liquid with brute force, like an apple press for example, the cheese press applies a steady pressure that starts out light and is incrementally increased over about 36 hours time (depending on the cheese). A store bought press can cost $250 or more, with the cheapest decent one that I've seen costing around $170. To the beginning cheese maker, this can seem like a lot of money for something that can be duplicated by just stacking books or dumbell weights on your cheese.
That may be an oversimplification, but just barely. Click on this "Cheese presses" link to see photos of hundreds of different cheese presses that people have fashioned in their own homes. As for stacking weights or books on your cheese, it actually does work; but I found out the hard way that you better have a strong supporting structure of some kind to prevent the whole thing from toppling over.

You may have read about the hard cheese, a Derby, that I recently made. It's recipe calls for 15 lbs. of pressure for 10 minutes, then 30 lbs. for 2 hours, and finally 50 lbs. for 24 hours. I used my Wii Fitness game to weigh several heavy stackable items around my house:
                                                 Big book............................5 lbs.
                                                 Bigger book.......................8 lbs.
                                                 Marble slab.......................21 lbs.
                                                1960's sewing machine.....38 lbs.

I used the two books for the first ten minutes, and then the marble slab with just the bigger book for the next two hours. The sewing machine, although extremely heavy, wasn't a feasible thing to use... it was just too big and oddly shaped to balance on something with a 6" diameter. I decided to use two 15 lb. dumbbells (the kind with flat edges so they won't roll) and the marble slab for the final 24 hour pressing. Everything was working fine until I fell asleep.

As cheese is pressed, it is constantly shifting and shrinking under the weight, but very slowly. Over the first eight hours or so, I would occasionally readjust the position of the weights on the slab ever so slightly, and everything was going great. It seemed like I was only adjusting the weight every couple of hours or so, and even then the weights never seemed in danger of toppling over. I fell asleep sometime around 1 am, and at 2:30 there was an enormous crashing sound as the 21 lb. slab of marble fell to the hardwood floor from on top of the cheese mold, which was on top of the dining table.

What was I thinking? Well, I figured the weights could go at least three hours without being adjusted before there was any real danger of a topple. And I tend to wake up fairly often throughout the night, so I planned to check it when I did wake up, and hope for the best. Bad decision apparently, lesson learned. I think I am going to copy the press pictured below (more or less) to use next time.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Soft Cheese Impressions

Cow's milk queso blanco
I have made soft cheese on three occasions, with varying success. The first two times were the cow's milk and then goat's milk versions of queso blanco that I mentioned in my Introduction post. Queso blanco is a firm, bland, Latin American cheese that has the somewhat unique property of not melting, even at high temperatures, which makes it ideal for frying. These cheeses were alright, but definitely nothing special. Still, it was a fun introduction to cheese making.

Very recently, just before I made my first hard cheese, I made a panir (also spelled "paneer"). It is an Indian cheese that can be made with just milk and lemon juice, and  I made it while I was still working on getting all my ingredients together for the hard cheeses. I still used the cheap cheesecloth, but I quadrupled it up, using the rest of what I had because I knew it would be the last time before I had "real" cheesecloth and butter muslin, which are washable and reusable, just like any other fabric. The panir came out good; nice texture, good creamy flavor, but one unexpected side effect of the chosen coagulating agent... a lemony flavor! It is actually pretty good, if eaten with the right things, or just by itself. It reminds me of the flavor of lemon yogurt slightly. In the process of making panir, there is a step where the lemon juice is washed from the curds, and I guess I didn't wash them thoroughly enough.

My overall impression of homemade soft cheeses so far is that they tend to be very bland. I will probably play around with making some more soft cheeses someday, but for now I plan to focus on hard cheeses, because they are much more flavorful and the process of making them is so much more involved.


It all started when I was given a copy of Ricki Carroll's Home Cheese Making book last year. Shortly thereafter I made my first cheese, a queso blanco that required nothing more than a gallon of milk, some vinegar, and a piece of cheesecloth. To my delight it turned out pretty good. About a week later I tried to recreate the cheese, but this time using goat's milk. It was decent, but was not as good as the one made from cow's milk, and there was a lot less of it. I later found out that this was because the size of the butterfat globules in the milks are different, and I was using a cheap cheesecloth instead of butter muslin (a finer, higher quality fabric). After these first two attempts I shelved the book for many months, until I recently became interested in giving it another shot.
This time around I knew I wanted to make a hard cheese, mainly because I wanted something with some real flavor. To make hard cheese I would need a starter culture, rennet, a mold to shape the cheese, a press, "real" cheesecloth, cheese wax, and cheese salt. Also, I would need a stainless steel pot bigger than the one I currently had, as well as a few additional pieces of equipment. So, I got to work locating the ingredients and equipment I needed, and last Saturday I made what I hope turns out to be my first successful hard cheese, a derby. It is currently drying out on a wooden board, and either tomorrow or the next day I will wax it and then age it for about three months. As of this morning, it smells INCREDIBLE. Makes me wonder why it even needs to be aged!
My plan is to make the derby cheese again, since I am now somewhat familiar with the lengthy technique. I will be posting pictures with step-by-step explanations of the entire process this next time around, which I plan to begin on Saturday, the 25th of this month.