New Hobby – Cheese Making

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draining whey from cheese curds
Initial Draining Of Whey From Cheese Curds

So, I have a new hobby. Cheese making. Actually, I’ve been making cheese for a long time, but didn’t really know it. I like to make my own yogurt, and often will drain off much of the whey from some of it to make a thicker “Greek Style” yogurt, from which I’ll make Tzatziki Sauce. I do this using two basket style coffee strainers inside a sieve and let the whey drain off into a large measuring cup.

But sometimes in the past, I’ve wrapped up that thicker yogurt in cheese cloth and hung it from a nail over my sink to let it drain further for a couple of days. I didn’t realize it, but what I was doing was making a yogurt style of cream cheese. It’s delicious on toast and crackers – or with some dried herbs such as Sumac added. Or even some garlic.

About two years ago, I had heard of people making cheese in their homes and selling it at farmer’s markets. That made me curious, as I love cheese – all kinds but especially feta and various cheddars. It piqued my interest enough to do some research, and I ended up purchasing a feta cheesemaking kit – with the supplies necessary to make feta about 8 times, each from 4 litres (approximately a gallon) of milk.

My first attempt did not go so well; I was not prepared for all the time I would need to spend, nor how difficult it would be to figure out how to get milk to a temperature of precisely 90F and then keep it there for a couple of hours or more. But the cheese turned out okay, and I wanted to try again, now that I had a handle on the process. I checked out some cheese making forums and learned some ways to heat the milk that I would be able to attain and then maintain the correct temperature and a few other tips.

Since then, I’ve made too many batches of feta cheese to count, and presently have two pounds aging in brine in my fridge, that I made a year ago.

How Much Cheese Can You Make From A Gallon Of Milk?

I was pretty surprised when I made my first batch of cheese with a gallon or 4 litres of milk. It’s amazing really – out of all that volume of milk, you only end up with about a pound (just under half a kilogram) of cheese. The rest of the milk becomes whey – which is usable for many things including preserving and aging feta.

When you realize how little cheese you get from a gallon of milk, it makes it much more understandable to see good quality cheese that is so expensive.

Is Cheese Making Easy?

“Easy” is a relative term. Making soft cheeses such as the yogurt cream cheese is very easy and does not require anything much more than good quality cheese cloth or muslin. And a place to hang it. If you want the cheese to last a bit longer in the fridge, it’s a good idea to also salt it. Salt is a preserving agent and combats bad bacteria, while allowing “good” bacteria to live.

I have not yet tried a cheddar or a hard cheese that would require a press, and that type would be more difficult than soft cheeses, but now that I have a press, I do plan on giving cheddar a try, and then also move onto to hard cheeses (cheddar is actually not considered a hard cheese, but still requires some pressing).

The Basics Of Cheesemaking

I might explore some further details for different types of cheeses, but basically, cheese is made with some type of bacterial culture. Traditionally, the culture would be from whatever was natural in the cow’s milk, generally speaking.

Soft cheeses and yogurt are made with bacterial cultures that are referred to as “mesophilic” while hard cheeses are made from those referred to as “thermophilic.” The first type are cultures that thrive in conditions under 100F – probably in a range of 80 to 100. Thermophilic cultures are those that thrive above 100F.

For my feta cheese, I have been using a culture known as “Probat 222.” For 4 to 6 litres of milk, you only require about 1/8 of a teaspoon to inoculate the milk.

Generally speaking, cheese also requires rennet – sometimes called “yeast” in some European countries. Rennet is available both in liquid and tablet form, and can be made from animal sources or vegetable sources. Traditionally, it has been animal sources.

After the bacterial culture is allowed to propagate and ripen the milk for a period of time, rennet is added to the milk which then causes the curd to form, and they whey to separate. After the curd has firmed up, it is then slowly cut with a knife, which allows even more whey to be expelled. Then, the curd and whey continues to be heated, sometimes at a slightly higher temperature while being gently stirred for 20 minutes or more. This is sometimes called the “cooking” stage.

Most of the curd will eventually fall to the bottom, and the whey is then skimmed off and reserved if it is to be used for other things. The curd is then placed into cheese cloth, allowed to drain a bit longer, and then placed into a mould.

For feta cheese, the “modern” way of making it is to then place the curd, wrapped in cheese cloth into a mould, where the curds continue to drain for around 24 hours or longer. The curds will also “knit together.” Then, it is cut into smaller pieces, each rolled around in course salt such as kosher or pickling salt (you can get cheese making salt but I don’t think it’s really required) and allowed to drain another couple of days while sitting on a screen in an enclosed container.

After a few days, you can make a brine with water or use the reserved whey and make a whey brine. The recommended concentration of salt is about 10%. The chunks of feta cheese can be aged and preserved in the brine in a cool place – a fridge is best, of course.

Traditional Feta Cheese Making

Most people may know that feta originate in Greece. I happened to have a most awesome friend in Greece, who’s grandmother made feta cheese in the traditional way. It was interesting to learn that she did not add any bacterial culture, but relied on the bacteria that was already present in the unpasteurized milk, straight from the cow. At cheesemaking time, rennet was added and then the milk was allowed to sit for two or more hours.

In the instructions I received, the cheesemaker should wait only about 45 minutes after adding the rennet before cutting the curd, so I was surprised to hear that they would wait two hours or more. I’m going to try that sometime to see what happens and what the difference might be.

Then, after the curd is cut, it is put inside cheese cloth and allowed to fully drain in that, without being put in any kind of mould. Once it’s been drained of whey, it is cut into chunks and then added to a bowl that contains salt, and left there for several days. After this, it’s added to salt brine in tins.

There are probably a lot of ways to make cheese and while some methods may give better or more desirable results, it’s fun to experiment and learn how others do things!

Obtaining Cheese Making Supplies

In Canada, there are not many online retailers of cheese making supplies. I found one out in British Columbia where I first purchased the feta making kit – and was pretty excited. However, subsequent orders and follow-up with them have not been satisfactory, so I’m unable to recommend that company. They seem like very nice people – I have talked to the owner twice – but unfortunately, they got one of my orders wrong, promised to rectify it, but never did. They also did not reply to follow-up emails or voice mails left at their telephone number.

I’m going to try some other suppliers and will see who I might be able to recommend. HOpefully, soon, as I’ve managed to acquire a Dutch Cheese press and am itching to try out some other cheeses as soon as possible!

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