Sure, most people's notion of cheesemaking is slicing it up and slapping it on a cracker. But actual cheesemaking, in some cases, is easier than most people think and way more impressive than opening the wrapper and stabbing a ball of it with a teeny-tiny, albeit decorative, knife.
"You really don't need much (to get started)," said Carol Lake, cheesemaker and owner of Dancing Dog Farm in Dublin. "Good milk … a colander, pot, thermometer that starts at zero, and either lemons or vinegar. Ideally, you would have some cheesecloth but you can work up to that. Just a hot plate or even a campfire for a heat source, and you are good to go."
First off, it's not always the time commitment people think it is. Some easy cheeses can be made and eaten in a day. These are fresh cheeses like chevre, cream cheese, mozzarella, paneer or ricotta for example. These can typically be made in one to eight hours.
Aged cheeses — like blue cheese, cheddar or Swiss — as the term suggests, take longer because they need to sit. They can take anywhere from a few weeks to years, depending on the type. Monterey Jack, for example, is ready in about a month whereas a Parmesean would take anywhere from nine months to a year to age properly.
"I encourage students to try their hand at really simple acidulated cheeses before they try things like mozzarella or the aged cheeses," said Lake, who teaches cheese making privately and in community settings in Keene and Manchester.
Some of the easiest cheeses in this category to make are paneer (see recipe), an Indian cheese, and ricotta. These only need milk and lemon juice or vinegar to make, hence the name acidulated. Lake said citric acid can take the place of lemon juice or vinegar if those aren't the flavors you're going for.
If you want to get a little fancier, you'll need a starter culture to do what the lemon juice does (which is acidify the milk), rennet for coagulation and salt for flavor and preservation. For really fancy cheese — like blue — mold cultures and additional bacteria would be needed.
Starting with a good milk is key, although it can be any kind including cow, goat, sheep, buffalo and so on. Lake said she likes to start with raw milk, which can be purchased through local farms.
"Raw milk makes the best cheese," Lake said. "Low-heat pasteurized is second best, third is regular store-bought milk."
But said Janna Straughan, a cheesemaker and owner of Agape Farm in Ossipee, it's a good idea to use some caution when going with raw milk.
"With raw milk you want to know it's clean before you use it," said Straughan. "Do they have a place where they can milk their animals separate? Do they have a place where they can take their milk and cool it down separate? There are a lot of people who will milk their cows right on the floor of the barn, and they actually sell that milk. If they have a milking stand and have some way of cleaning the milk and getting it into a cooler really fast, chances are their milk will be OK."
In short, check out the farm the milk is coming from, she said.
Some home cheese makers will pasteurize their raw milk, which is easier than it sounds. To pasteurize the milk at home, simply heat it in a stainless steel pot—although a double boiler is preferred to keep the milk from scorching.
"Use heavy bottomed pots," Lake warned. "Boiled-over milk is no fun. One important caveat: don't ever make your cheese in an aluminum pot, as the acidulating agent you use will draw the aluminum into the fat of the milk/cheese. I suggest using stainless steel utensils, as they are far easier to clean and sterilize. I steam everything in a few inches of water before using."
Bring the milk to 145 degrees Fahrenheit and hold it there for 30 minutes. Put the pan with the milk into a bowl filled with ice until the temperature drops to 40 degrees. Then refrigerate the milk.
Once the milk is pasteurized, it's ready to get cheesy.
Yogurt cheese is super easy. Also called Labneh, it's literally plain yogurt strained through a cloth. The only thing that needs to be added to the yogurt is salt, which draws out the whey, Lake said. The resulting cheese can be seasoned so that it's either savory or sweet and is a little like a cream cheese, but a little more tart.
Homemade ricotta is also pretty simple, Straughan said: "All you need is an apple cider vinegar, and it will congeal. And then you just have to hang it in a cheesecloth and salt it after you make it as hard as you want."
To use a culture, or the suspension of "good" bacteria, there are two basic types: the kind that have microbes that can't survive at high temperatures and love room temperature—called mesophilic— and the kind that love the heat or thermophilic. Gouda and cheddar are good with the former while Swiss and Italian cheeses are better with the latter.
Too much acid makes a crumbly cheese; not enough, and the curd will be pasty. Different bacteria cultures are required to make different cheeses. For example, to make blue cheese, a penicillum culture is needed. The culture can be a freeze-dried concentrate, Lake said, or from milk in which lactic acid and bacteria have been allowed to grow.
When you add the culture to the milk, it feeds on the lactose—the sugar— in the milk and produces lactic acid; voila, you've done some fancy science called bacterial acidification and can be the envy of your friends. The lactic acid helps the cheese start to coagulate into delicate little curds.
The curds are filled with fat and water. The water is called whey—enter Miss Muffet! Curds and whey, when made with skim milk, is cottage cheese. Whey is none too tasty, which is why many commercial cottage cheese makers will clean up the whey a bit to make it taste better.
Cheese makers, even at-home ones, at this point will add a liquid called rennet if the recipe calls for it. Here, it admittedly gets a little gross.
"Rennet is a complex of enzymes produced in a ruminant's stomach—usually a calf—to digest a mother's milk," Lake says in her class notes.
However, there are vegetable-based rennets out there, which come in tablet form. But what this magic enzyme does is set the cheese into a strong rubbery gel, Lake said. For soft cheeses, the tablets work great. For more difficult and hard cheeses, the liquid is really better, Lake said.
Finally, it's time to put the cheese in the cheesecloth. Make a pouch out of cheesecloth and put the curds and whey in it. Start pressing the water out of the cheesecloth. What's left in the cheesecloth are the curds. Open the pouch and add some cheese salt. Regular salt can be used, but make sure it's not iodized, said Lake, since that will kill the bacteria needed for the aging process. Some cheese makers will use pickling or Kosher salt.
The cheese can then be put into a mold, which is good for making slicing cheese or rolled into a ball. To store the soft, fresh cheeses, use a glass container and keep them in the fridge for five to seven days. Aged cheeses should be stored in a cool, but not cold, humid place.