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.