Cheese Cheers

This past year I delved deeper into the fascinating world of cheesemaking.  You could say it all started with the Instant Pot and the Yogurt Setting.

I was a convert once I discovered that a delicious, tangy yogurt could be had by merely filling the Instant Pot liner with milk plus a little leftover yogurt and pressing the Yogurt Setting.  Even better, I could split the yield and have yogurt plus a batch of thick rich labneh.

Cheesemaking is an addictive, ancient process.  I wondered how the first person living in a cave felt when they figured out that sour milk could result in delicious cheese.

Once I mastered yogurt I wanted to know more, too. I tinkered with fresh cheeses like paneer, ricotta, feta, mozzarella, cheese curds, queso blanco and queso fresco.  Each was its own rewarding surprise.

Along the way I gathered up essential tools and supplies—many of which I already had, like sieves, strainers and cheesecloth.  For cultures, molds and other products, New England Cheese Making Supply Co became a helpful and reliable site. They focus on education with plenty of helpful resources, recipes, and tutorials for those who are just getting started.

My latest big step was obtaining a cheese press. It opened the door to more complex cheeses  requiring a variety of processes and aging stages. My next candidate along the cheesemaking spectrum would be Caerphilly, a starter cheese from Wales known for its forgiving character and shorter aging period.

Behold! Caerphilly freshly ripened

Caerphilly is a simplified cheddar style cheese that presses at 20 pounds for 16 hours and needs only 4 to 5 weeks of aging (some cheeses age for years!).  I halved a larger recipe from a Gavin Webber video, who maintains a popular You Tube channel.

The recipe came together without incident and the new cheese press made it look like I knew what I was doing! After 3 days of drying time, it went into its ripening box to age. The Caerphilly was ready to sample in 25 days. As I cut into its pale gold rind, I was surprised to see the interior became paler and creamier toward the center and displayed its characteristic holes. The rind had a slight nuttiness; the interior was not too salty with a firm texture and mild cheddar flavor.

Caerphilly holiday cheese feature

Caerphilly is such an agreeable cheese, it goes with just about anything.  On a cheeseboard, it is the star along with a Cambozola Triple Cream blue cheese and aged Gouda.  To round out the display I tucked in sliced salami, imported olives, almonds and crackers—and rounded it out with holiday favorites, Moroccan fruitcake and cranberry sauce.

So much cheese… so little time

You never know when good fortune will cross your path.  For some time now I’ve been making my own yogurt, thanks to the ease and convenience of the ole Instant Pot. Once committed to the process, my results have become far superior to any of the usual store bought varieties.  When I discovered one  batch could yield two distinct styles I got even more excited:  I’d have a quart of fine yogurt for daily use, plus a good supply of thick, creamy Greek yogurt worthy of cheese status.

During my early Greek yogurt period, I came across Home Cheese Making (3rd edition) by Ricki CarrolI, while browsing books at a used book sale. (Ricki has a 4th edition coming out  December 2018).  It looked nearly new (good/bad sign, whatever), I added it to my stack and brought it home.  Several days later, I opened the book and knew this was no mistake. I haven’t met a cheese that I didn’t like, and here was an opportunity to see where all this could possibly go.

Ricki’s well laid-out book takes a complicated subject and breaks it down into manageable chunks. It’s geared to the novice as well as the skilled cheese maker, with a wide range of cheeses to consider from soft fresh cheeses like queso fresco, mozzarella, and feta, to ripened cheeses like cheddar, gouda, brie, and much more.  Here, I could begin to understand and more fully appreciate the art of cheese making—and I was ready.

You can get started in cheese making with a few basic kitchen supplies.  A good digital thermometer is a must, plus a colander, cheesecloth, a long spoon or spatula, the usual measuring cups and spoons, a long knife for cutting the curd, a stainless steel pot, and a reliable cooking unit that maintains a steady temperature.

Each cheese requires specific additives for its success. Some of the basics are: a starter such as yogurt, a mesophilic or thermophilic starter; liquid rennet for coagulation; calcium chloride for curd formation; lipase powder for flavor; and cheese salt.

Sourcing cheese making supplies can be a hassle, but I’ve had good luck with Ricki’s website, New England Cheese Making Supply Co. It is a reliable resource for cheese making information and supplies.

Since cheese making can be intimidating, I centered on a realistic mindset:  cheese has been around for centuries, surely I can figure this out.  Granted, there’s a large learning curve—at this point I’m happy mastering fresh cheeses.  I’d tinkered with ricotta and mozzarella before, and I welcomed the opportunity to give them another try and add them to my cheese line-up. I was starting over but making progress—they both turned out well.  ✓✓

Thus far, my biggest success comes from making feta cheese.

I was intrigued by the additional brining process, since feta’s flavor develops more fully the longer it ages in brine.  This small extra step felt like a giant leap into cheese making. ✓

If you happen to read the previous post,  Feta Focus, you’ve absorbed a few feta details.  Essentially, Greek feta has earned its own provenance: much like a European wine appellation, it must be made with either sheep and/or goat’s milk. I’m keeping it simple at this point, I am happy  staying with familiar and readily available:  whole cow’s (not ultra-pasteurized) milk.

Feta cheese is fairly simple to make. I used a sous vide with my first batch, which was entirely unnecessary. The second time, I filled my well-scrubbed kitchen sink with 90° hot water, placed the covered milk-filled stainless steel pot into the warm water bath, and stirred occasionally until it reached 86°.   That’s when the starter culture and ultimately the rennet are introduced and the curd making process unfolds.  I added more regulated hot water as needed to maintain the temperature. Once the curds have formed, the process moves along fairly quickly.

It’s important to allow time for the curds to drain well.

Once draining has slowed significantly and forming a mass, the cheese is placed in molds for shaping and further straining.  It’s then briefly placed in a brine solution for a quick rest to stabilize the feta before turning out onto a mat to dry.  

The cheese is then returned to the brine for aging and storage. The feta is ready to eat in 4 to 5 days. 

Homemade Feta Cheese

Ingredients
1 gallon whole milk (avoid UHT or ultra-pasteurized milk), sheep and/or goat’s milk
1/8 tsp. lipase power, for flavor (diluted in ¼ cup unchlorinated water, let stand 20 minutes)
1/8 tsp. calcium chloride, for curd formation (diluted in 1/4 cup unchlorinated water)
1/4 tsp. mesophilic starter culture, MM100, bacteria to convert lactose to lactic acid
1/2 tsp. liquid rennet, to coagulate milk (diluted in 1/4 cup cool unchlorinated water)
1/4 cup salt for brining/storage

Utensils:  Digital thermometer, large stainless steel pot, large spoon & perforated scoop, colander, measuring cup & spoons, curd knife like a boning knife, cheesecloth or butter muslin, 2 perforated molds, sushi mat.

Instructions

  1. Warm the milk in a stainless steel pot to 86°F. As milk is heating, stir in the diluted lipase and the diluted calcium chloride.
  2. When brought to temperature, sprinkle in the starter culture and stir Cover and let milk ripen for 1 hour.
  3. Add the diluted rennet and stir gently with spoon in an up-and-down motion (not a stirring motion) for several minutes. Cover and let set undisturbed at 86°F for 1 hour until it has gelled, separates from side of pot, and there is a clean break in the curd when sliced with a knife.
  4. Using a long knife cut the curd at an angle. Turn the pot and slice into 1/2-inch cubes all the way to the bottom. Repeat if necessary. Let rest for 10 minutes.
  5. Gently stir the curds on and off for 20-30 minutes. As the curds firm and retract, stir more briskly.
  6. Line a large colander with a double layer of cheesecloth or butter muslin and place a bowl under it to catch the whey. Scoop in the curds and let excess whey drain off 2 hours.
  7. Once dripping has stopped divide into 2 cheesecloth lined perforated molds and weigh down. Turn often in molds to drain for 4-6 hours, regularly rotating to weight evenly until no more liquid collects.
  8. To stabilize feta, place the blocks in brine and weight down to keep submerged  1 Tbsp. salt per 1 cup unchlorinated water to cover for 4-5 hours.
  9. Remove feta to mat, cover loosely with cloth, refrigerate for 1-3 days to drain and air dry. Turn several time daily. Brine can be filtered and reused.
  10. Return feta to storage brine. Refrigerate 4-5 days, or up to 30 days. Yield: 1 pound.