Cheese: The Temperature Problem Solved

A creative solution for an annoying problem.

If you’ve ever made cheese — I’m talking about real cheese like brie or butter cheese or cheddar — you know that one of the challenges facing a cheesemaker is raising the milk to an exact temperature and holding it there — sometimes for hours at a time. Unless you have a temperature-controlled cheesemaking vat — which I still haven’t found for home cheesemaking — you’re likely sitting by the stove making minute adjustments to the heat under the pot of water that your pot of cheese is sitting in — just to get the temperature of that to the magic temperature. It’s a nightmare that really makes cheesemaking an unpleasant chore.

A while back, I discovered immersion circulators, which I blogged about here. The circulator heats water to a temperature you specify and is commonly used for sous vide cooking. Trouble is, I didn’t pay close attention to what I was buying and it was only after I got it home that I realized the lowest temperature was higher than I needed to make most cheeses. It wouldn’t solve my problem. (But I did put it to use making sous vide steaks. I like grilled better. I’m pretty good with a grill.)

I experimented with a brewmaker’s mat that I wrapped around the outside of the pot. That was a so-so solution. It worked, but awkwardly. And it only worked on the pot I used for 2 gallon batches of milk; it wouldn’t work for the pot I’d need to buy for 4 gallon batches.

The other day, while surfing Amazon for something else, I decided to look at immersion circulators again. That’s when I found one that went as low as 77°F — the lowest temperature any of my cheese recipes required — the Sous Vide Travellortech Precision Cooker Immersion Circulator. I bought it.

That was only half the problem. I needed a pot big enough to put the cheesemaking pot and the sous vide cooker in. I found one at Fred Meyer: a huge, 33 quart canning pot.

My Cheese Pot Solution
Here’s my cheese pot solution. I don’t even need a stove to use it.

So yesterday I started a batch of brie using 2 gallons of milk. I put the milk in a stainless steel pot and lowered it into the canning pot. I fastened the immersion circulator onto the side of the canning pot. I filled the big pot with warm water to a point slightly higher than the level of the milk in the inner pot. I put a thermometer in the milk pot, programmed the immersion circulator for 88°F, set the timer for 2 hours, and turned it on.

Temperature Setting
The immersion circulator quickly got the water up to temperature.

Because I’d started with warm water, the temperature quickly got up to 88°F. And held there.

The temperature of the milk read high until I stirred it. It eventually leveled out at 88°F.

I added the molds, calcium chloride, and rennet, stirring after each one. Then I put a cover on the pot and left it to sit for 90 minutes, per the recipe.

Milk Temperature
I can monitor the milk temperature through the glass pot lid using a thermometer clipped to the side of the pot.

Every time I checked it, it was exactly 88°F.

No stove babysitting. No wandering temperatures. This is the first time I’ll be able to follow a recipe exactly because I’ll be able to keep the milk the exact temperature I need.

Cheesemaking might actually get fun.

I measured the opening and I’m pretty darn sure I’ll get the pot for 4 gallons of milk into my cheesemaking contraption. Butter cheese in next on my list.

Total cost of this solution: Immersion Circulator: $79. Huge canning pot: $32. I already had the other pots.

Homemade Brie

And other new adventures in cheesemaking.

Way back in September 2013, when I was still living in my fifth wheel RV (the “Mobile Mansion”), I got interested in cheesemaking. I took a class at a local cheesemaking facility (which closed down the following year when they lost the land lease they needed to graze their sheep) and even tried making a few cheeses myself. Trouble was, my RV kitchen was tiny and if there’s one thing cheesemaking requires, it’s space. So I packed up the cheesemaking gear I’d invested in and set it aside until I had a real kitchen again.

200 Homemade Cheeses
I highly recommend this book, 200 Easy Homemade Cheeses, to anyone just getting started making cheese.

Artisan Cheese
I also bought this book, Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking, but it’s a bit more advanced than I’m ready for at this point.

In the meantime, I bought and read (or at least browsed through) two cheesemaking books and heard more than a few Splendid Table stories on NPR about making various cheeses.

I should mention here that I’ve been making my own yogurt for at least five or six years. Making yogurt is similar to making cheese, but I think it’s a lot easier.

I moved into my new home in May 2015 and the kitchen certainly was ready for cheesemaking then. But I wasn’t. I’m not sure what finally got me to try again — maybe it was walking past the plastic bin containing all of my cheesemaking equipment that was stored in my garage? — but I finally pulled out my favorite cheesemaking book, ordered the necessary cultures, unpacked the stainless steel pots, etc., and bought four gallons of milk to start making cheese again.

Brie

I decided to start by making brie. I like brie. I can eat brie every day of my life and not get tired of it. What would be better than making my own?

I had two recipes. One was from the Splendid Table website. The other was from my favorite cheesemaking book.I can’t remember why, but I decided to go with the one in the book. It may have been because it provided instructions for adding calcium chloride, which is pretty much required when making cheese from homogenized milk. I didn’t have an affordable source of raw milk — no, I won’t pay the local health food store $10 per gallon for it — so I knew I’d have to add calcium chloride and I wanted detailed instructions on how much to add and when to add it.

The trick with making cheese is to heat the milk to the exact right temperature — in this case, 88°F — and, if necessary, hold it there. Fortunately, brie doesn’t need a temperature hold. It does require the cheese to drain for about 24 hours at room temperature. What you’re draining off is the whey, which some people drink and I used to give to my chickens (as a good source of protein). Whey from hard cheeses can be further processed into ricotta, but not whey from brie making. Such a shame to let it go down the drain, especially since it accounts for at least half the volume of milk — in this case, a gallon of the two I started with.

After draining, the cheese is ready to ripen in a cheese cave. I don’t have a cheese cave. (I suspect you don’t either.) I originally thought that my dorm-style cube fridge, which I’d bought for my Wickenburg hangar at least 12 years ago and now had in my garage, could be used if set so it barely cooled. Unfortunately, the lowest (highest?) setting still put the temperature below 42°F; I needed a range of 50°F to 55°F. On a whim, I threw the thermometer into my wine fridge. Bingo: 50°F. The ripening containers went right in.

Ripening Brie in a Wine Fridge
Brie in ripening containers in my wine fridge. I was not happy about evicting the wine that was in there and am looking at a new wine fridge to accommodate both wine and cheese. (My sister and brother bought me this wine fridge for Christmas 2016 to support my cheesemaking habit.)

I should mention here that although I bought open-bottom cheesemaking molds and cheese mats from a Cheesemaking supplier — I use The Cheesemaker website — I went local for the ripening containers. Wenatchee has a restaurant supply shop and I bought hard plastic food storage containers that can be stacked to use as ripening containers. I have them in a variety of sizes so I can make just about any size cheese.

Mold on Brie
This photo shows the mold just starting to cover one of the two bries I made. (I used a food mat for this; I’ve since bought real cheese mats.)

What you might not realize is that the white “skin” on brie is actually mold that’s created by the Penicilum candidum added as part of the cheesemaking process. This begins to grow on the cheese after a few days. It kept growing as I flipped the cheeses daily. When the cheese is wrapped, the mold gets flattened down to form that skin. And yes, you can (and should) eat it.

The cheese stayed in the “cave” for a few weeks. Then I had some friends over for dinner and decided to make up a cheese platter for them that included two of my cheeses. The brie was one of them. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t quite ready, either. Not ripened enough. Still, we all enjoyed it and I’ve been eating it slowly since then. Had some on my eggs this morning. The other cheese — I made two 7-in rounds — just went from “cave” to fridge. I consider it a success and plan on making two more to take with me on my winter travels.

Homemade Brie
This is all that’s left of that first homemade brie. I’m going to use smaller molds next time so the cheese is taller.

Chaource

I used another two gallons of milk to make chaource, which looked like an easy enough recipe in my cheesemaking book. This is also a soft-ripened cheese, but it does not get gooey in the middle like brie does. Actually, I’m not sure how it gets because I’ve never had it and honestly don’t know if the ones I made are really like chaource cheese.

Th difficult part of making this cheese was getting it to 77°F and keeping it there for 12 hours. I rigged up a double-boiler on the warming burner of my stovetop, using a BBQ temperature probe to give me an accurate reading. When it got too warm, I’d turn off the burner. When it got too cool, I’d turn it back on. This was not fun, and if I had to go out that day, I would have ruined the cheese.

Double boiler
I rigged up a double boiler with my canning pot holding water for a stainless steel cheesemaking pot. This sat on the “warming center” burner of my stove, which kept it as close to 77° as possible.

This particular cheese had to drain for about two days at room temperature. (Now you see why you need counter space to make cheese; cheese needs real estate before it’s ready to ripen.) It never got quite as firm as I expected to — it stayed sort of crumbly throughout. I managed to fit it all in one ripening container, where it joined the brie. But although it started second, it was finished ripening first. I served it up on that cheese platter and it seemed to go over well enough.

Would I make it again? Not until I try store-bought chaource to see how close I came. If I blew it, I’ll likely take a pass — unless the “real thing” is so good that it’s worth another try.

Fromage Frais

Just to mix things up a bit, I bought another gallon of milk and whipped up a batch of fromage frais. This is a fresh cheese a lot like cream cheese. Like all fresh cheeses, it was extremely easy to make and yielded quite a bit of cheese.

Greek Yogurt Strainer
A fine mesh strainer like this is a must-have when making greek yogurt or fresh cheese. I got this one on Amazon.

For fresh cheeses, you basically heat the milk and then add the cultures. Then you add the rennet to get curds. But instead of using a mold, you let the whey drain out in a cheese bag. I used my greek yogurt strainer. You then put it in a bowl, add a bit of salt, stir it up good, and refrigerate it.

The note on the recipe in the book said “This fresh, creamy cheese is so delicious, you’ll want to eat it on everything.” And they were right. I used it like cream cheese and like sour cream. I ate it on date nut bread and on butternut squash ravioli. I basically added it to anything I might add cream cheese or sour cream to. But after a while, even I’d had enough. If I do this one again — which I likely will — I’ll do a smaller batch.

More in the Future

As I mentioned earlier, I’m planning to make a few more bries before I leave; with luck, they’ll be ready to take with me on the road this winter. I might try a cheddar, too — it really depends on difficulty and whether I can leave it behind to age while I’m gone.

I do enjoy making cheese, but I won’t lie: it’s a lot of work. The only reward at this point — I’m definitely still a novice and not an “artisan” — is that feel-good feeling I get when I do something myself. Do I see myself making all my cheeses in the future? Hell, no. But I’m having fun with it now.

And who knows? Maybe I’ll come up with some sort of specialty cheese that only I make. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Cheese: The Cheesemaking Class

I get to see — and participate in — the cheesemaking process.

There’s a cheese maker that comes to Wenatchee Valley Farmer’s Market held each Wednesday and Saturday at Pybus Market: Alpine Lakes Sheep Cheese. As you might imagine, I stopped at their booth tasted some cheese, and bought some. It was very good. I don’t know how I missed it, but my friend didn’t: a rack card that advertised a hands on cheese making class. I went back to the booth and talked to Katha (pronounced with a long a like Kate). The class was five hours long and cost $80. It wasn’t held regularly, like the rack card suggested, but if I could get at least three people to go, she’d do a class.

I immediately thought of my meetup groups and decided to suggest it to the Wenatchee Social and Outdoor Adventure Group. They’re really not big on “adventure” (despite the name) and I thought this might interest them. But I was quite aware that the price tag would likely turn more than a few people off. Still, I got one person to RSVP yes for the August 10 date.

Then I sprained my foot. I wasn’t sure if I could stand for five hours. And I’d failed to get three people.

But Katha assured me that if I was able to attend with my companion, she was willing to do the class with just two of us. So on that Saturday morning, I met with Jill and we carpooled up to Peshastin in my truck. We arrived at 10 AM.

Alpine Lakes has an excellent cheese making kitchen in a converted garage. It has all the things they need to keep the equipment clean and sterile, several cheese making vats in different sizes, draining trays on wheels to capture the whey, and a “cheese cave.” At least a dozen refrigerators line one wall. A set of sinks and dish draining boards make all-important sanitation easy.

Katha was prepared to make four kinds of cheeses: a soft fresh cheese (like cream cheese), a soft ripened cheese (like brie), a hard cheese, and ricotta. She’d already put various quantities of milk into pots or vats and was heating them. The milk was all fresh sheep’s milk from that morning’s milking. The quantities varied from 2 gallons for the fresh cheese to 20 gallons (I think) for the hard cheese.

She explained that each type of cheese used a different culture and required a different temperature. Some cheeses required a very specific temperature while others could be made within a range of temperatures. She let us measure out the powered cultures that came in a foil envelope stored in the freezer and sprinkle them over the milk surfaces. After waiting a short while, we used large skimmer ladles to draw the moistened culture down into the warm milk. After a certain amount of waiting time, we added liquid rennet diluted in a small amount of cool water. Again, we drew the rennet down into the milk, blending it well.

While we waited for the milk mixture to coagulate, Katha kept us busy. We visited her cheese cave — a room off the side of the kitchen with controlled temperature and humidity where cheese is left to ripen. The room was full of shelves where cheeses in various states of the aging process sat waiting for their time to come.

Katha pulled out a tray full of soft-ripened cheese and set it on a worktable. She showed us how the white rind on these cheese is actually a fuzzy white mold that gets more rind-like as the fuzz is pressed down onto the cheese when it’s wrapped. She put us to work wrapping the cheeses.

At around 11 AM, three more women showed up. Katha had been expecting them — they were last-minute participants. She caught them up on what they missed. Soon we were all taking turns wrapping cheese and coating hard cheese in wax.

Katha also pulled out some cheeses for us to taste. I think this was the best part. We tasted the cheeses she usually sells at the market and elsewhere, as well as a few new cheeses and even two cheeses she called “mistakes.” I liked the mistakes a lot — especially the blue-veined one. There was so much about this that I found odd — most of all that if you make cheese, you can’t immediately taste it to know how it came out. Some cheeses need weeks or months to ripen. These “mistakes” were good examples. She knew that she’d done something wrong — or at least something she hadn’t intended to do — but she wouldn’t know whether it would result in an edible cheese for months. I wondered how many other “mistakes” sat on shelves in her cheese cave.

Once the milk had coagulated, it was time to test it for a “clean break” — an indication that there were good, solid curds. Katha demonstrated and each of us tested one of the cheeses. We worked in shifts to cut the curd — large curd for the soft cheese and very small curd for the hard cheese. She had a huge rounded-tip spatula for curd cutting. The hard cheese, which was in the largest vat, required an extra step: curd cutting by dragging a huge wire whisk through it. This was quite a chore that required a great deal of arm and upper body strength. Who would have thought you could get good exercise making cheese?

Through the course of the morning, we scooped the various cheeses into various molds on the whey draining trays. The whey drained away into 5-gallon buckets beneath the trays. Katha told us that she feeds it to her pigs.

Ricotta for Breakfast
I enjoyed the fresh ricotta cheese for breakfast with fresh fruit.

She also uses it to make ricotta cheese, which is what we did next. She heated about 5 gallons of whey in the now-empty medium sized vat. The whey had to be heated to at least 200 degrees — but could not be heated beyond boiling because it would boil over and make a horrendous mess. It also had to be stirred the whole time. We watched it closely. When it reached the proper temperature, she turned off the heat and added a small amount of vinegar. Small curds immediately began to form. She poured off the contents of the vat into a relatively small cheese bag, letting the whey drain through onto a draining table. After draining and squeezing she had about a quart of ricotta, which she split among the five of us in small plastic containers. I ate it over the next two days with fresh cherries and blueberries from the orchard where I was living along with a small amount of honey from my bees. Amazingly delicious!

Katha took my classmates out to the field to visit with the sheep. Because of my sprained foot, I stayed behind, resting on a chair and munching on cheese.

There was more to the class but I honestly can’t remember the details. I waited too long to write it up. And for some reason I didn’t take any pictures! But I do remember paying an extra $20 at the end so I could take home a bunch of cheese — including those “mistakes” which likely won’t be for sale anywhere.

I’m extremely interested in cheesemaking and, since taking this course, have tried twice to make cheese. My first attempt was probably a success — but I won’t know for sure for another two weeks! My second attempt was a disaster, with a failure of the milk mixture to coagulate properly; I did get a lot of ricotta-like cheese to eat, though. I think my main problem right now is the size of my kitchen (tiny) and my inability to maintain proper “room temperature.” (Remember, I’m currently living in an RV and I detest listening to the constant hum of an air conditioner during the day or heater during the night.)

But I’m very glad I took this course. It taught me a lot about the basic steps of this complex process and what I should expect when I get things right. I recommend a hands-on course like this to anyone interested in making cheese.