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.

Learning about Milk Fat

I learned something new today, thanks to a debate with a friend.

The other day, a friend and I were discussing milk.

I told her I preferred 2% milk but was trying to get to like 1% milk. To me, it was about reducing unnecessary fat and calories in my diet. I’ve been drinking 2% milk for years and actually now prefer its flavor and consistency over whole milk. Whole milk, to me, had become too rich, almost like a light cream. I wanted to start liking 1% milk in an effort to further reduce fat and calories for a healthy diet. I already enjoy fat-free yogurt; indeed, I don’t think I’ve had whole milk yogurt in years, if ever. (Do they even make it? I guess I could make my own.)

My friend was adamantly opposed to reduced fat milk. I gathered from our conversation that she thought they added things to the milk that made it less healthy when they removed the fat. Or that something about the actual process of making reduced fat milk caused it to be less healthy. In any case, she thought reduced fat milk was bad and didn’t want to hear anything else about it.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, especially in the past three or four years, is that when someone is stuck with an idea in their head it’s no use debating the point. At least not without facts. And although I suspected there was nothing unhealthy about reduced fat milk, I had no evidence to prove my point. So I let the subject drop and we chatted about other things.

But this morning, when I sat down with my coffee and some time to kill before dawn, I set about finding some evidence to support my point of view.

How Reduced Fat Milk is Made

I Googled “How do they make reduced fat milk?” I got a number of search results. The first, from The Kitchn website, had the answer I was looking for: “How is Skim Milk Made?“. Here’s the pertinent info:

So how is skim milk made? Traditionally, the fat was removed naturally from milk due to gravity. If fresh milk is left to sit and settle, the cream — which is where most of the fat is — rises to the top, leaving behind milk with much less fat.

The quicker, modernized way of making low-fat and skim milks is to place the whole milk into a machine called a centrifugal separator, which spins some or all of the fat globules out of the milk. This occurs before the milk is homogenized, a process which reduces all the milk particles to the same size so that natural separation doesn’t occur anymore.

The article goes on to provide some other interesting information about milk and fat free milk. Among that information was a note about additives:

Federal law mandates that most skim milk has to be fortified with vitamin A and sometimes vitamin D. This is due to the fact that even though whole milk naturally has a fair amount of both, the vitamins are fat soluble and thus lost when the milk fat is removed during the skimming process.

Milk solids in the form of dried milk are also added since they contain proteins that help thicken the watery consistency of skim milk.

Not only was this likely the additives that worried my friend, but it also explained how some brands of skim milk were far more palatable than others: they likely added back more dried milk to thicken it up.

2% Milk
The only thing that creeps me out about Shamrock Foods milk is its extraordinarily long shelf life: the quart I bought last week is supposedly good until March. Could it be the plastic packaging?

Now I don’t know if the 2% milk I normally consume has a lot of vitamins or any milk fat added back in. The milk in my camper’s refrigerator now — remember, I’m on the road this winter — is from Shamrock Farms and says it contains “reduced fat milk, Vitamins A & D.” Nothing about milk solids.

So nothing I learned about the production of reduced fat milk has scared me away from drinking it.

Benefits of Whole vs. Reduced Fat Milk

Scrolling down in the same search results, however, brought up links to two different articles in TIME Magazine. I read them both. After all, I wanted to learn the truth — a truth that would either support or even change my own opinions.

  • The Case Against Low-fat Milk Is Stronger Than Ever from April 4, 2016 cites a study of people whose health had been tracked for 15 years. The conclusion was that, if anything, people who consumed whole fat dairy products were less likely to be obese or suffer from type 2 diabetes.
  • Why Full-Fat Dairy May Be Healthier Than Low-Fat from March 5, 2015 cites the results of over 25 studies that concluded that “people who eat full-fat dairy are no more likely to develop cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes than people who stick to low-fat dairy. When it comes to weight gain, full-fat dairy may actually be better for you.”

Huh.

Both articles suggested that there might be something special about the fat in dairy that works with our bodies to help them process the foods we eat and help us feel full. Dairy fat could actually be preventing us from eating less healthy sugars and carbs to feel sated. And these articles maintained that it was foolhardy for diets to recommend cutting (or eating) just one kind of nutrient — for example, low fat or fat-free diets — when the body naturally works with all consumed nutrients together.

I understand how these studies could have gotten these results. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the fat-free diet craze was in full swing, stores were full of fat-free processed foods. I know because I still lived at home (or at least visited regularly) and saw that my mother bought them. She, like so many other people, thought that the answer to keeping weight under control was to keep as much fat out of their diets as possible. But rather than do this by eating naturally low fat foods like fruits and vegetables and whole grains, they did it by buying processed foods labeled “fat free.” They then consumed as much as they wanted, not paying attention to the ingredients that made this food taste good despite the lack of fat: mostly sugar. Calorie counts were sky high. It was around this time that I started reading labels and making food choices based on what I read. While I don’t have a perfect diet, I’ve learned to minimize my time in a supermarket’s middle aisles where all the processed foods reside.

The Calorie Argument

Okay, so what about calories? The articles both confirmed that one of the benefits of reduced fat dairy products was the accompanying reduction in calories. So I decided to see just how many calories I was saving by switching between whole, 2%, and 1% milk. (I really detest fat-free milk and generally only have it in lattes because I think it froths better. Fat free yogurt tastes fine to me.)

So I Googled “What is the calorie count for whole, 2%, 1%, and fat free milk?” The PopSugar website had the answer I sought: “Whole vs. Reduced vs. Low-Fat vs. Nonfat Milk.” Here’s the nutritional information that interests me for one 8-ounce cup of milk:

  Whole 2% 1% Fat-free
Calories 150 130 110 90
Total Fat (g / %) 8 / 3 5 / 2 2.5 / 1 ~0 / 0

What’s interesting when you read data in the article’s table is that they all the same fiber, carbs, and protein but 1% and fat-free milks actually have more sugar — although admittedly it isn’t much more: 11g vs. 12g.

Now I don’t drink a lot of milk, although I probably do drink more than the average adult. I’ll go through a half gallon in about a week. Every cup of 2% is saving me only 20 calories over whole milk and a switch down to 1% milk would only save another 20 calories. Is it worth it? I don’t think so.

At this point, I sort of regret getting so used to 2% milk.

An Exercise in Critical Thinking

So what did I learn?

In a way, my friend was right: reduced fat milk isn’t any better for you than whole milk. And if she believed that there were additives, she’s right — although I’m not sure those additives make reduced fat milk any less healthy.

But in a way, she was also wrong: reduced fat milk isn’t really bad for you. It just doesn’t give the health benefits we’ve been led to believe.

As for me, I was wrong. There’s no real reason to switch to reduced fat milk. I have no evidence to show her. I have nothing to stand on for pressing my original point of view.

Will I change the way I buy milk? Probably not — at least for now. I really do like 2% milk. I’m used to it. To me, drinking whole milk is almost like drinking cream. I’m not so picky, however, that I’ll turn down whole milk if that’s the only thing available. I’m not worried about 2% milk hurting my health.

But 1% and fat-free milk have definitely become a little bit less attractive. No real calorie benefit and what’s with the added sugar? And what if milk fat really is good for you? Should I really be minimizing it?

And that’s what critical thinking is all about, folks. Gathering information and forming your own opinions after thinking about what you’ve learned. Even if you begin researching with a preconceived notion, you need to be ready to change your mind when the evidence clearly tells you your notion is wrong. You shouldn’t just look for evidence that supports your view. You should look for evidence that tells the whole story, the true story, or at least the story that properly conducted research and established facts support.

I sure wish more people would learn to think critically in today’s world.

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?