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Make Your Own Cheese

By Rona Sullivan

I think you can utilize these ideas and principles whether you are making cheese for your family, or striving for a commercial operation.

Start simple

Even when you start with the easiest, most basic recipes, it’s important to keep your standards high. Practice consistency in taste and texture, making the best cheese you can, before moving on to more complex cheeses. Some cheesemakers spend all their time on taste and forget, or don’t realize, the importance of texture. For me, raw milk cheese texture is consistently smoother, but whether you’re using raw milk or pasteurized, be very gentle with the milk and curd. Gentle handling is an important component to good texture.

Presentation

Don’t forget appearance. It may be the last step, but it is as important as your consistency in taste and texture. Whether it’s on your dinner table or in its package at the farmers market, a "pleasing appearance" makes tasting your cheese a more "pleasing experience." Attractive cheese also sells better.

Natural garnishes are often easily acquired, and sometimes they are even free from your own kitchen garden, or your neighbor’s. We don’t use any chemicals on the garden here, so we don’t have to worry about using our own edible herbs and flowers.

They do need to be washed, and if you are planning to make commercial goat cheese, you will have to check with the Department of Agriculture in your state for any additional requirements. They may require you to use standardized herbs. I have chosen to use only standardized herbs in and on my cheese. I do use my own clean garnishes to decorate around my cheese samples, on the outside of packages, or creatively arranged in a vase or on the farmers market table.

What’s in a name?

Name your own cheese. Set yourself apart, and above. Why copy European cheese recipes exactly, and re-use the names given them according to their origin? Some of those names are being reclaimed anyway; like Greek Feta.

Do some research on your family or the area in which you live, or the place where you were born. Besides the fact that it’s a pleasurable pastime, you should be willing to go the extra mile if you’re serious about commercial artisanal cheesemaking. Your knowledge will be obvious and will garner immediate respect from foodies, cheesemongers, customers, and cheesemakers "in the know." It also makes your older relatives feel valued and cherished. Is there some special family legacy that you can help perpetuate? How about a heritage food practice that you can help revive, or maybe even save from oblivion. Do you know, or could you find the place where some of your earliest ancestors entered and settled in America? Maybe your relatives remember something you could highlight about your family’s country or countries of origin relating to the use of milk, or making of cheese.

Many American artisanal cheesemaker’s have taken an "old world" idea, and placed their own creative, original twist and name on their cheese. Please respect our names, and don’t adopt them either! (My Bonnyclabber is one example, as it was not originally a cheese name, but a term for clabbered milk in the Blue Ridge Mountains where I was born. Besides using the name "Bonnyclabber Cheese Company," I am working on "Bonnyclabber" as a registered trademark.) Americans are smart enough to know whether they like, and recognize your cheese, without your naming them for say, Cheddar, England, or Roquefort, France!

Thrift stores, yard sales, library sales, and family members are good places to look for books with old cheese recipes. I like the old church, school, or neighborhood recipe books. Even one recipe per book related to your family of origin, or the area in which you live is a treasure!

Cheese that pleases…you

When I think of making cheeses that would please everyone, I can’t help but admonish you with Ricky Nelson’s "Garden Party" lyrics. "You see, you can’t please everyone, so ya’ got to please yourself." Go ahead and concentrate on making cheese that pleases you. Besides, you may be the only person there during the "make" process! Cheesemaking can be boring and labor intensive with long hours on your feet. It’s even more so if you are doing farmstead cheese, or working with large quantities of milk or curd. So make cheese that you like, and find out what would keep you engaged and interested.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t expand your own cheese palate. Many of us Americans are too accustomed to bland, standardized cheeses. Don’t be afraid to go around to cheese shops and taste samples of goat cheeses made from raw and pasteurized milks, from mild to strong, soft to hard, and American as well as imported. Try to take any available tasting opportunities that will include pairings with wine, fruit, good breads, chocolate, etc. What accompanies a cheese can vary your taste experience greatly. There are some very inexpensive short courses that might even be available in your area.

Some basic recipes

Please remember to check with your Department of Agriculture if you are planning to use any version of these recipes commercially. If you use raw milk, most likely you will have to age the cheeses for at least 60 days. Some states will not allow you to sell cheese in olive oil, especially if you use herbs from your garden, because of the Listeria or botulinum contamination possibilities. Most of these recipes are for family use as fresh cheese just to give you a feel for cheesemaking if you’re a newbie, or something to tweak if you’re experienced.

Make your own yogurt

This works with fresh, raw milk, or store bought milk.

You’ll need a large casserole dish or stainless pot, milk, and some yogurt to use as your starter. (Note: Make sure the yogurt you use has live culture.)

The ratio of yogurt to milk is roughly 1:5 (1 part yogurt: 5 parts milk). Pour the milk into a large bowl. Add yogurt and mix very well. Then pour gently into a large casserole dish placed in a pan of water, or directly into a stainless pot that will fit inside your oven. Bring the milk and yogurt mix to a temperature just under that which you could not comfortably touch. That should not be above 110ºF. Too hot and you will destroy the live cultures that are going to form your curd. Take it off the heat, wrap in a large towel, and place in a cold oven overnight, or for eight hours undisturbed. That works year-round unless your home is too cool in winter. If so, put the towel-wrapped casserole dish in a large cooler with a closed lid. Otherwise, it could be placed near a not-too-hot woodstove for the night, or some warm place where it will be undisturbed. I find that on top of a refrigerator is also a good place, as refrigerators do put off a little heat. The "undisturbed" part of the equation is very important. Antsy people like myself have to learn the hard way, after ruining batches by checking too often before the eight hours are up!

If the yogurt is not thick enough to please you, you don’t have to add gelatin or powdered milk, but could try leaving the mix undisturbed a few more hours. Or, you could try draining it in a close-weave cloth placed in a colander (cheesecloth weave is too loose for a weak yogurt), until it’s got the texture you like.

There is a choice of acid starters: strained fresh lemon or lime juice, a citric acid solution, white vinegar, yogurt, cultured buttermilk, or a naturally soured whey from a previous batch. The whey dripping from a batch of hung yogurt cheese makes an excellent starter. Each type of reagent gives a different body, texture, and flavor nuance to the fresh curd.

Temperatures and handling vary from person to person, so use these recipes only as a guide. If you experiment enough, you will find your own comfort level. Write your changes into the recipe if that helps you remember. Over time, if you have made one or more alterations, you can re-name the recipe as your own!

Acid-Coagulated Soft Cheese

(This is another non-rennet method.)

This soft cheese can be made with vinegar, or lime or lemon juice. I just don’t prefer the texture and the unpredictable results with cheese made this way. I find it to be grainy, but just try it for yourself to determine what you think.

1 gallon of fresh strained goat milk

1/4 cup vinegar, or lime or lemon juice.

With frequent stirring, heat milk to a boil, which should be about 230ºF. Add vinegar, lime or lemon juice, and stir briefly. Wait 10 minutes and strain through a cheesecloth-lined colander, or hang to drip making sure you save the protein-rich whey. (In a later series, I will give you some of my favorite recipes for using the whey. Freeze the whey in clean, empty yogurt containers or small zip-lock bags for later use. In the meantime, you can search the Internet to find some recipes using whey.)

Yogurt cheese ideas from the Middle East and Greece

Use yogurt that you have made, or plain yogurt from the grocery store, drain it in cheesecloth or a coffee filter, and then try the following:

Lebna (Yogurt Cheese)

4 cups goat yogurt

2-1/2 teaspoons salt

Mix salt and yogurt.

Place in a porous, clean dishtowel or cheesecloth.

Pull up ends and tie.

Hang over a bowl overnight or 24 hours.

Store in cloth or paper in the refrigerator.

Use plain on toast for breakfast, with fruit or honey, or add various spices and use as a spread.

Labnah Makhbus (Yogurt Cheese Balls in Olive Oil)

Use the preceding Lebna recipe. If you want to spice it up, mix Lebna with the herbs or spices of your choice; such as parsley, oregano, black pepper, hot pepper, paprika, garlic, etc. Form labnah into small balls-smaller than golf balls. Labnah can be rolled in spices, as well. Store covered in olive oil in glass jars and use as spreads or in dips.

Note: All versions of spelling lebna are correct.

Quick and Easy Buttermilk Cheese

Yield: Approximately 2 cups

2 quarts of buttermilk

(You can buy it from the store, or better yet, use your own if you have buttermilk left after making butter.)

Put the 2 quarts of buttermilk in a large covered ovenproof casserole. Place in a preheated 305ºF oven for 15 to 20 minutes. It will separate into curds and whey.

Pour the warm liquid into a cheesecloth-lined colander. Tie ends of cheesecloth and let drain for several hours over the faucet of the sink with a bowl underneath to catch the whey. Or, put a colander on top of a tall bowl or pot, with a plate or bowl on top of the knot-tied cheese.

Save the whey, which can be used to replace sour milk, buttermilk, and sometimes water or milk in baking. For a firmer cheese, squeeze out most of the liquid.

Wrap well in cloth and refrigerate, keeping in mind that the fridge will dry this cheese a little every day. You can use that to control the texture that you want.

This cheese can be used for blintzes, in any recipe calling for cottage cheese, or spread it on a bagel for a lower fat alternative to cream cheese.

Goat Milk Hard Cheese

Heat sweet, whole goat milk in a pan to 86-88ºF.

Add 10% by volume, otherwise one part to 10 parts, of yogurt or buttermilk with live cultures. Make sure the yogurt or buttermilk ingredients list active or live cultures which will act as the "starter." Stir for 2 to 3 minutes.

Add rennet at the rate of 25 drops to each gallon of milk, by first diluting the rennet in 1/2 cup of clean tap water, or distilled water.

Stir the mixture into the 86-88ºF milk, and then allow the curd to set for about 30 minutes.

Curd is ready when it breaks clean over a finger inserted into the curd at an angle and lifted slowly.

Cut curd into 1-inch vertical squares. The curd is then cut into cubes by cutting horizontally with a stiff bent wire or long knife. Curd particles should be uniformly cube-shaped to allow for even heating.

Slowly raise the curd temperature to 98-100ºF in about an hour. Stir the curd gently and slowly with a spatula to keep the curd from breaking. During the entire heating period, stir the curd frequently enough to maintain an even temperature and to prevent scorching.

When the curd is firm enough, it has a tendency to stick together. At this time, pour the curd into a muslin cloth or bag and form it into a ball. Allow the ball to hang until all free whey has dripped away-about two to three hours. After draining, remove the cloth from the curd ball, and place the ball on a cheesecloth folded over three or four times.

Fold a long cloth, about the size of a dish-towel, into a bandage about three inches wide and wrap it tightly around the ball of curd. Pin the band in place. Work the top of the ball with your hands until it is perfectly smooth with no cracks.

Lay a piece of wet cloth over the top of the cheese; place a flat plate over the cloth and weight the plate with a flat iron or a brick. If the weight falls to one side, the cheese will be uneven. To avoid this, make a simple cheese press by sandwiching the cheese between two pieces of clean board or metal pans. The round wheels of cheese should not be more than six inches in diameter. Otherwise there will be a tendency for the cheese to dry too quickly. At night turn the cheese over and replace the weight. Allow the cheese to press until the morning.

Remove cloths from the cheese and place in a cool place, turning twice daily for three days or until a rind forms.

Rub a tablespoon of salt on the rind once a day for two days. After salting, rub the cheese with a small amount of olive oil for two days, or daily until the rind is very firm. After this, it should be necessary to rub the cheese only about twice a week to prevent drying and restrict mold growth. The cheese should be ready to eat in about eight weeks.





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