Well, here it is — the idea that started this whole blog. As mentioned on in one of my first posts here in DIYEG, what initially got my wife and I into the idea of making and doing more things by hand, rather than buying them or hiring professionals to do them, was a cheese-making kit she bought at a craft fair. We still use the same instructions from that kit, and I think we’re still working on the package of citric acid that came with that kit.
Making cheese — or, specifically, mozzarella cheese — is something we do probably three or four times a year. Most often it gets given as a gift, or as a barter for something else. In this case, the cheese we made this weekend was given to a friend as repayment for a bounty of vegetables from his garden this past summer. Maybe not exactly an equitable trade, but one we’ll happily make.
The main actors in this play are: milk, citric acid and rennet. In this case, I grabbed four litres of whole goat milk from the Planet Organic store just up the street. We have made cheese with regular grocery store whole milk before, and with organic cow’s milk. Goat milk gives the finished cheese a little extra tang, but also gives it a more crumbly texture. The key to all of this, though, is using whole milk (or homogenized or whatever you want to call it). You want more milk fat in there, because that’s what you’re basically concentrating into cheese form.
The first step is to get the milk into a large pot on the stove, stir in some citric acid and start heating it up. The citric acid is what actually curdles the milk a little bit and helps separate the fat — or what will become the curd — from the water in the milk (the whey). For cow’s milk, you would dilute 1.5 teaspoons of citric acid in a cup of cool water and then add it to the milk on the stove. However, for goat milk, you need to use a little more — two teaspoons of citric acid.
The milk then needs to be heated up to 32°C (90°F). The instructions we use say to do this slowly, so we usually only put the burner on medium heat, because the last thing we want is to scald the milk. But with the volume of milk we have, that takes forever. So don’t be afraid to crank the heat up a little, to 7 or 7.5 out of 10. The instructions define “slowly” as taking “about 5-8 minutes to reach 90°F”, if that helps put your mind at ease.
Once the milk has reached the right temperature, take the pot off the burner. Now it’s time to add the rennet. Rennet is a complex of enzymes produced in the stomachs of ruminant animals like cows. For the purposes of cheesemaking, it helps solidify the curd and separate it from the whey.
My wife and I have a complicated history with rennet. The rennet that came with the first kit we bought was kind of in a powder form, so I eyeballed it and it seemed to work out fine. When we ran out of that, I found some rennet in tablet form at a local Italian grocery store. The kit instructions say, if using rennet in tablet form, to use only a quarter of a tablet. We tried that, and no discernible curd formed. We tried again with half a tablet, then a full tablet, and while it got better each time, there still wasn’t a strong enough curd to work with.
When we took a cheesemaking course at the Taste of Edmonton festival one year, the instructor suggested liquid rennet. After our tablet failures, we decided we should heed his advice. We ordered some through Barb’s Kitchen Centre in Edmonton, and it took a couple of weeks to arrive, but boy has it been worth it! The label on the liquid rennet says five drops per litre of milk, so we usually dilute 20 drops in 1/4 cup of water. And it makes the nicest, strongest curd we’ve ever had.
Pour in the rennet through a slotted spoon to ensure that it gets nicely distributed throughout the milk and stir gently for a few seconds. Now it’s time to play the waiting game. Leave the pot off the heat for 10-15 minutes to allow the curd to form.
When that time is up, you can check the curd by just touching it lightly. It should feel firm and spring back. This is the exciting part, when you can really tell how well this cheese is going to turn out. It’s also the part that usually elicits the most “oohs” and “ahhs” and giggles from my wife and me.
Now is when you get to make a bunch of fart jokes, because it’s time to cut the cheese (curd). With a knife that’s long enough to reach the bottom of the pot, cut the curd into 1-inch squares. The curd will likely rotate around the pot while you’re trying to cut it.
Place the pot back on the heat to cook the curd and make it stronger. You’re looking to cook it to about 44°C (110°F). You can stir the curd at this point, but be very gentle with it, especially on the first few stirs. Overstirring the curd at this point will only break it up and make it weaker in the end.
Once you get to 44°C, take the pot off the burner and scoop the curd out of the pot and into a colander over a bowl to allow it to drain. A small mesh strainer comes in handy here for scooping those last bits of curd out of the pot. Once in the colander, gently press the curd to help more whey run off.
Congratulations! At this point, technically, you’ve made cheese. But there are a few more steps before you get to full-blown mozzarella.
This point is where we like to mix in some salt. Use table salt, not coarse or kosher salt; you want the salt to be integrated, rather than getting big chunks of it throughout the cheese. I don’t have an exact measurement or ratio; I just tend to eyeball it, taste it, and then add more if I think it needs it. Err on the side of caution, though; once the salt is in there, you can’t take it out.
Here is where you really get your hands messy with the “water bath” method, which is how curd becomes mozzarella by adding shine and stretchiness. The instructions from the kit we bought say to heat the leftover whey to 82°C (185°F), but we’ve found that melts the cheese too fast and is hard on the fingers. I’d say just keep the whey on the stove on medium heat and you should be OK.
Get a good-sized chunk of the curd in your hands and form it into ball, then place it into a sieve or slotted spoon (the small mesh strainer I mentioned earlier works well for us) and dunk the curd into the warm whey for about a minute. Then pick up the curd and squeeze it gently in your hands. It might feel soft at first, but it should firm up as you knead. Form it back into a ball and dunk it in the whey again for 30 seconds. Then bring it out, knead some more if you think it needs it, and shape it into a ball. Place the ball in a bowl of cool water in the fridge for three hours — don’t go any longer than that, though, because the outside of the cheese will start to disintegrate and get mushy. Repeat with the remaining curd.
Voila! You have mozzarella! The whole process only takes maybe 1.5 hours — we’ve done it on weekday evenings before without much trouble. And when you get delicious cheese as the end product, it is a worthwhile investment of time.
Have you ever tried making cheese before? What problems did you run into? What tips do you have for people looking to give it a shot? Let me know in the comments.