Cheese: Miscellaneous Notes

Some things I’ve learned.

I’ve been making cheese on and off for a few years now. I thought I’d take a moment to talk about some of the things I’ve learned.

Basic Needs

I started making cheese way back in 2013, when I took a cheesemaking class at a sheep farm in Dryden, WA. Back then, I was living in my RV and although I tried (and succeeded!) to make some cheese, space constraints were a real issue. Simply said, cheesemaking requires a lot of countertop and sink space. You use countertop to air dry the sanitized equipment and lay out the draining pan, which might need to be out for two days or more. You need sink space to be able to wash, rinse, and then sanitize everything that touches the cheese ingredients. When I moved into my new home two years ago, I had enough space to get back to it, so I did.

Countertop
My kitchen island this morning. The white tub is full of sanitizer that I used to sanitize the eight crottin molds draining on a clean dishtowel that I’ll need around noon. The pot on the stove has a gallon of goat milk forming curd for the crottin. Nearby, you can see the sanitized ripening containers waiting for the goat milk brie draining on another countertop (see photo below). I’ll use those other two tools (also already sanitized) to cut and scoop the crottin curd.

Of course, there’s always something else you need to do the job right. Stainless steel pots capable of heating up to 4 gallons of milk is one of them. I have an impressive collection now, along with large canning pots I can rig up as double-boilers. And I blogged recently about the tool I acquired to help me maintain the temperatures I need to hold the milk at while it forms curd.

Cheese Molds
Examples of soft cheese molds; photo from Schuller.us Dairy Technology website.

And molds! I never realized that there were so many varieties of cheese molds: brie, camembert, crottin, tomme, chèvre, pyramid — the list goes on and on. I try, whenever possible, to get molds that can do double-duty. For example, a brie mold with an insert and a weight on top can become a poor man’s cheese press.

I also needed a ripening area. I discovered last year that my small wine fridge, which I brought with me from my old Arizona home, maintained the perfect temperature for ripening most cheeses: 50° to 55°F. Unfortunately, it was small and I also had some good wine I wanted to store inside it. My sister and brother came to the rescue, buying me a new, much larger, thermostatically controlled wine fridge for Christmas. While I still use the old fridge for initial ripening — it’s inside a closet and can be kept dark — the new fridge gives me plenty of space for overflow — and to store that good wine.

Brie
One of the four wrapped bries currently ripening in my new wine fridge. They ripened for two weeks unwrapped and are now in the middle of another two weeks wrapped. I’ll be able to eat this next week and should probably finish them by June 30. (I’ll be sending one each to my sister and brother.)

Ingredients

Pasteurization and Homogenization

The milk you buy at the supermarket is usually pasteurized and homogenized.

Pasteurization is a process that heats the milk to kill harmful bacteria. In my opinion, you should avoid drinking milk that has not been pasteurized.

Homogenization is a process that prevents the milk’s fat from separating out of the milk. Homogenization is bad for cheesemaking because it can prevent the development of curd.

The main ingredient of cheesemaking is milk. Whole milk that has been pasteurized but not homogenized is best. It’s also difficult to find and can be very expensive. I priced up whole pasteurized but not homogenized milk at the local health food store the other day; it was $15/gallon. With a typical 10% to 20% yield, you can imagine how costly the cheese can be.

Of course, processed milk adds challenges for cheesemakers. I’ve known since that cheesemaking class that homogenization makes it difficult for cheese curds to form. To get around that, cheesemakers add a tiny amount of calcium chloride to each batch of cheese. But what I just realized recently is that there are different types of pasteurization and that “ultra-pasteurized” milk also may prevent good cheese curds from forming. I learned this the hard way when I failed to get curds in a batch of blue cheese I was making. It’s heartbreaking to have to throw away 6 quarts of whole milk mixed with a quart of heavy cream that simply won’t curd. So now I’ll be very careful to buy milk that isn’t ultra-pasteurized.

Cow’s milk isn’t the only variety that can be used to make cheese. Since there are so many goat and sheep owners around here, I decided to try getting my hands on some other milk. I placed an ad in Craig’s List. Within a few days, I got an email from a woman in Chelan with a goat. We arranged for her to give me a call when she had four gallons. On Saturday, I drove up to fetch it. We had a nice conversation about cheesemaking and milking goats and shipping goats up and down Lake Chelan on a barge. (Seriously, I can’t make this stuff up.) And I went home with four gallons of literally farm fresh raw goat milk — for $16. As I type this, I have four goat milk bries draining on my countertop and another gallon of goat milk forming curds for crottin. And I have a half-gallon of goat milk left for a batch of brousse or chèvre.

Goat Milk Brie, draining
Four goat milk bries draining on a countertop. They’ll drain for at least 24 hours at room temperature before I salt them, put them in ripening containers, and slip them into my wine cooler to ripen for two weeks. While ripening, I’ll have to turn them over every day and wipe away any accumulated whey. The four cows milk bries I made three weeks ago will be ready to start eating next week.

For the record, I did pasteurize the goat milk before using it to make cheese. There are several ways to do this, but I think the best is to get it up to 145°F and hold it at that temperature for 30 minutes. I did this in my homegrown cheese vat, helping the heating process by adding boiling water to the double-boiler’s water vat. I did all four gallons at once. When the 30 minutes was up, I lifted the pot of milk out of the double-boiler and put it into a sink full of ice water. As the temperature came down, I measured out two gallons of 88° (or thereabouts) milk for the brie. Later, I caught the milk at around 72°, which is what I needed for the crottin. So the pasteurization process really didn’t slow down my cheesemaking. The rest is in the fridge.

Culture Packet
Two sizes of culture packets. The larger one is labeled 7.8 grams and makes 25 batches of cheese.

Of course, milk can’t become cheese without the addition of cultures or other additives that enable it to ripen and/or form curd. Cultures come in tiny foil packets that you store in the freezer. A typical packet of something like Mesophilic Starter Series MA 4001-4002 — which is commonly used for many cheeses — might contains just a few grams of a powder that looks like yeast, but those few grams might be enough to make half a dozen batches of cheese. (Needless to say, you also need very tiny measuring spoons.) The cultures you buy depend on the cheeses you want to make. At this moment, I have about 8 different cultures in my freezer, all ready to be used.

You’ll also need calcium chloride and rennet. These are liquids that come in tiny squeeze bottles and should be stored in the refrigerator. They’re added separately, calcium chloride first, after dilution in water. Although the water out of my tap tastes fine, I suspect it’s not pure well water. (It’s also pretty hard.) So I use bottled spring water to dilute anything I add to my cheese. It would really suck if I ruined a batch of cheese because of some additive in my tap water.

Cleanliness Counts

Every single cheese recipe in my book starts with the instruction: Sanitize all equipment. I do this with a sanitizing liquid diluted in a tub of water I use only for this purpose. I get the sanitizer at the local restaurant supply place or Stan’s Merry Mart (really!) where they sell all kinds of things, including brewing equipment. If you’ve ever been in food service, you know that everything needs to be washed, rinsed, and sanitized. That’s why restaurants have sinks with three tubs. My sink has just two tubs so I use the plastic one for the sanitize step.

Why sanitize? To prevent unhealthy bacteria or other nasty stuff from growing in your cheese to either ruin it or make you sick when you eat it. I don’t take chances.

But I’ve also learned that the key to making cheese without losing your mind is to keep a clean, uncluttered workspace. To that end, I only take out the equipment I need just before I need it and I clean and put away the equipment I’m done using as soon as I’m done using it. After all, the active part of making cheese — heating milk, adding cultures and rennet, setting curd, cutting curd, draining curd, salting cheeses — can take days. That’s time when you must have equipment — and likely cheese — out in your work area. If you’re like me, your work area is in your kitchen, which is also where you prepare meals. Keeping your cheesemaking area neat and clean will make it easier to use your kitchen for other things.

I’ve also learned that clean towels make good countertop protectors. The woman who led our cheesemaking class warned us that whey is acidic and can stain countertops if not cleaned off promptly. My countertops are granite and I don’t know how much they might stain. But better safe than sorry. I use bath towels to cover large areas in the messiest stages of cheesemaking and dishtowels for smaller areas later in the process. When I’m done, I gather them up and toss them into the washer, before wiping down the countertops.

As for storing all that specialized equipment, I use plastic storage bins. One holds all the ripening containers, sanitizing bin, and miscellaneous equipment. Another smaller one holds all the molds. And each of the pots is covered with its lid and wrapped in clean plastic. Everything is stored in my cavernous garage, on one of the shelves I built to store things that can’t fit in my kitchen. This way, the only things that get dusty/dirty are the bin lids and outer plastic wraps.

And yes, I sanitize right before use — not when putting equipment away.

Resources

Finding cheese ingredients locally is damn near impossible — at least in this area. But there are plenty of online resources. Here are a few:

  • The Cheesemaker is a great site for a wide range of cultures and many cheese molds. This is my primary resource these days.
  • Cultures for Health has mostly fermenting supplies, but it does carry some cheesemaking items.
  • The Cheese Connection is based in the Seattle area and was recommended by the woman who led the cheesemaking class I took. It seems to be geared toward small cheesemaking businesses.
  • New England CheeseMaking Supply Co is popular for cheesemaking supplies, but I admit that I’ve never purchased anything from them.

I’ll likely add more links as time goes on. (If you have any resources to add, put them in the comments for this post. Be sure to explain why you like them. No spam, please.)

Note that most of these sites also have how-to information, recipes, and even free cookbooks for cheese. For example, if you get on the Cultures for Health mailing list, you can download a free, illustrated cheesemaking cookbook. The Cheesemaker is also very responsive to questions; I asked him about my failed blue cheese and he immediately responded and tried to help, even going so far as inviting me to call him.

I guess I should add here that I’m a beginner and am not a good resource for troubleshooting help.

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.

Home Made Trail Mix

The best way to get a mix with everything you like — and just that.

I like trail mix as a snack food, especially on a long drive or hike. But I’m also pretty picky about what’s in my trail mix. This leads me to a never-ending search for the right blend — and often paying a premium to get it.

The solution, of course, is to make my own trail mix with just the ingredients I like. With that in mind, I went shopping at Trader Joe’s.

Trader Joe’s is a good source of dried fruits and nuts. Although they also have a bunch of different pre-formulated trail mixes, I don’t really like any of them. Instead, I bought the following and made my own:

  • Dried apples
  • Pitted dates
  • Dried tangerines
  • Dried (slightly sweetened) coconut strips
  • Honey roasted peanuts
  • Raw almonds

Trail Mix
My custom blend trail mix.

I chopped a bunch of it up — except the peanuts, which I left whole — and mixed it in a yogurt container I had a cover for. I had some chocolate chips and thought I might add them, but the mix turned out to be sweet enough without them. Also, I knew I’d be spending some time in warm weather and I didn’t want melted chocolate in my trail mix.

The result: perfection — at least as far as I’m concerned.

Best of all, I have enough ingredients to keep me in trail mix for the rest of my winter travel season.

If you like trail mix, give it a try with your favorite ingredients. I think it’s a good, budget-conscious way to get plenty of trail mix just for your taste.