In no way do I consider myself an expert or even very knowledgeable on cheesemaking, I have been making cheeses for about 10 years. Although it’s on my to-do list, I’ve never, for example, made a hard or semi-hard cheese that requires a press. On the other hand, I’ve made lots of Greek feta style cheeses, Bulgarian sirene, ricottas, paneers, and what some might call “yogurt cheese,” and variations on that. Most of the time, I have had good success but there have been times when something went wrong, but I was still able to get something tasty even though it was not the intended result.
It started about 15 or so years ago when I decided I wanted to make my own yogurt. A little bit of research indicated it was not hard to do – just a bit of time, and most of that time, I could let the cultures work while I slept, or did something else. Almost like home winemaking in a way – another hobby I’ve enjoyed.
All of my cheesemaking has involved purchasing cultures – generally mesophilic as opposed to thermophilic cultures. Mesophilic cultures are idea for making soft or semi-soft cheeses – and are suitable for culturing at temperatures from room temperature up to about 90F-100F (35C-38C). Depending on the precise culture, the range can be tighter. To confuse things, you might make a cheese that uses both mesphilic and thermophilic cultures and various temperatures are used during the process of creating the curd that will eventually be used to make the style of cheese you want.
Some years ago, I was having a conversation with a Greek lady (who now I spend most of my time with!) about feta cheese – her grandmother made this style of cheese in the traditional manner in a Greek village, and I was curious how it was done. “What did she do to culture the milk?” I asked. The question seemed to not be understood.
It lead me to more thoughts and wonderings: Before the advent of purchasing cultures from laboratories, how did cheese makers make cheese?? Are there any cheese makers that still make cheese today, without the need of lab produced culture?
The Art Of Natural Cheesemaking – Book
Recently I came across a book by Canadian David Asher who promised that if you followed his instructions, you could learn to make cheese the traditional way, and without relying on lab produced cultures. My curiousity was piqued! I ordered it from Amazon and have been spending some time in the book, as I’ve had a chance to do so.
I have both a few critiques of the book, as well as some very positive things to say about it.
David Asher has some interesting points of view, and has his own traveling cheese school wherein he’ll put on seminars for groups of people. He calls it The Black Sheep School of Cheesemaking.
His book, The Art Of Natural Cheesemaking contains a manifesto wherein he writes that the book was “originally envisioned as a companion to my in-class teachings,” and then suggests that “This book is meant as a guide for novice cheesemakers…” (page 11).
Well, this is where I am going to have to disagree with the author and probably quite vehemently. I would never recommend this book to a novice; especially one who has never made a cheese before. I would however, recommend it to someone who has started with some basic experience first in making yogurt, and then perhaps with a cheese making kit just to understand the basics, even if it is with a lab created culture. With Asher’s system, I could foresee many things going wrong to a complete novice, and things not working out.
But it gets a bit worse in my opinion. Asher is a vehement anti-modernist cheese maker. This poses a lot of problems for the rank beginner, as they go through the early chapters of his book, and read claims that include “pasteurized milk” and homogenized milk are totally unsuitable for making cheese. On page 18, we read, “..it is not worth making cheese with homogenized milk.”
He may be correct in his claim that “fresh is best” (meaning using milk taken from the animal within hours) for the best cheese – but where the heck is a novice, who wants to try their hand at cheese making, in most jurisdictions able to easily source fresh, unpasteurized, non-homogenized milk?
It would put any beginner off the idea of making cheese!
Asher also suggests that the best culture for making cheese is to use milk that has been fermented and cultured with kefir – but this is not necessarily the “most natural” way; kefir was not known in all of the ‘old-word’ in cheese making. It may make a fine culture if you can find it (he seems to think it is easy, but it is not always so easy to source it).
Kefir, to much of the world, is a relatively recent introduction, although it has existed in parts of Asia among isolated peoples for most of thousands of years. Five hundred years ago, Greeks making their brined cheeses would never have known of kefir.
At the same time, kefir may be a very good way to culture milk for cheese; I’m not arguing that it may not be.
Homogenized And Some Pasteurized Milks CAN Make Decent Cheese
If my interest in cheese making had started out with Asher’s book, and I took all he wrote at face value, I might not have ever attempted cheese making.
I would have been really disappointed at my prospects: It would have been virtually impossible for me as a resident of Ontario, Canada to source any unpasteurized non-homogenized milk, for one thing. And while I had heard of Kefir and had tasted it, I had no clue where I could get some for myself until some years later.
The fact is, you can make some half decent cheeses with a lab culture and a typical North American pasteurized and homogenized milk that you would find in a grocery store in North America. I know, because I’ve done it many times with both cow and goat’s milk that I’ve sourced there, and it’s been homogenized and pasteurized.
Things can get tricky if you’re in a place that has various pasteurization methods and the labeling is not clear – for example, why you can make yogurt with UHT milk, making cheese is not going to work out very well if you are hoping for a firm curd. But what to do when you’re in European country that has three or more pasteurization levels, and milk is not always labelled in such a way that makes sense?
But for Canadians (and I daresay Americans as well), purchasing non-UHT or Ultra Pasteurized milk and using a lab produced culture, along with some instructions and basic tools, you can make a pretty decent cheese you’ll be happy with.
Don’t believe me? Check out all the discussions on the North American Cheese Forum here. Most of the people contributing there are using homogenized/pasteurized milk, with some lucky ones that have access to non-pasteurized.
The Great Bits Of The Book
So now that I’m done with the critique – there are some really great parts to this book! Ignore the warnings about pasteurized and homogenized milk being useless for making cheese – and move on further – the chapters on understand Rennet, the important use of Salt, and ideas for a Cheese Cave (important if you want to age your cheeses) are very interesting. But again, most beginners and novices might want to skip these chapters and just try making cheese following a recipe and process. You don’t need all this information at first, though.
David Asher devotes a very interesting chapter to Kefir, and why in his opinion, it makes for a perfect cheese culture, no matter what type of cheese you are making – which is fine, if you’ve managed to figure out Kefir, have access to it, and have some available. I doubt very much that the average novice or beginner cheese maker will be able to simply reach for some kefir in their fridge, and make cheese.
Nevertheless, it does make for some interesting reading and ideas for those who already have made cheese previously, and want to experiment. Asher also suggests that you make your yogurt using a kefir culture – but you don’t need to do this if you’ve read this post of mine.
Cheese seems to be officially defined in some dictionaries as:
a food made from the pressed curds of milk.
But not everything we call cheese meets this definition. So we won’t quibble with Asher, when he refers to his “yogurt cheeses” which tend to be simply long whey-drained products. And indeed, they are very nice; I’ve made a variety of these myself. “Greek” yogurt is simply yogurt that has much of it’s whey drained off… but you can do more by draining longer and adding salt and get some really nice results.
David Asher calls this “Dream Cheese,” but in some parts of the world, it’s called “Labneh.” A very thick cream-cheese like texture, or even thicker, made from yogurt that has the whey drained off aided by the addition of salt.
The salt both helps to expel whey while also acting as a preservative that wards off “bad” bacteria. In Jordan, they take this a bit further and continue to add salt while drying yogurt in the sun to a hard rock like texture and is called Jameed.
In his book, Asher provides a recipe from thick drained yogurt, called Shankleesh in Arabic, where yogurt whey is drained for one or more days after salt is added, then rolled into balls, dredged in Za’atar, and then submersed in olive oil.
It is very yummy! You don’t need to use Za’atar – you can use a mixture of whatever dried herbs you want.
Next Basic Cheeses
The last half or so of Asher’s book is creating other types of cheeses, from more simple to more complex. Paneer, Chevre, Crottin, and more.
While he does focus attention on using Kefir, there is also discussion on using whey from a previous cheese or yogurt for your culture – and this does work. A couple of weeks ago, inspired by Asher’s idea to use whey from yogurt as a cheese culture, I tried a cow milk feta just to see what would happen. I had made a Bulgarian yogurt batch in which I had drained the whey and reserved – and two days later used 1/4 cup to culture the cow’s milk.
It worked! It won’t taste as sharp as a feta style cheese from goat or lamb’s milk, but it’s still nice if on the mild side.
Asher has provided some indepth information into making quite a few different styles of cheeses some of which I’ve never attempted yet. He includes Alpine, Blue, and Pasta Filata cheeses – his method for getting your own cultures to make blue cheeses is quite interesting. I do like blue mold cheese sometimes, but I have to admit to some nervousness of making my own – I wouldn’t mind trying Asher’s method of culturing blue mold on bread made from sourdough, but I think I’ll start with a lab culture first.
The book also has some interesting information on cultured butter and in the Appendix, his process to make a sourdough bread starter.
I think David Asher has brought together some valuable information for those interested in cheese making, and provides some historical ideas as to how cheese has been naturally made over the many centuries that mankind has enjoyed cheese.
I do not think this is a book for novices however (although you might be one to be so adventurous as to want to jump in from the beginning, source raw milk and kefir and give it a go).
I do not think this book would have encouraged me, way back when I was just curious about the cheese making process, to begin a journey of learning how to make cheese. Much of the contents of the book would have actually discouraged me.
On the other hand, now that I can see through some of the “anti-modernism” stuff in the book, and have some experience with learning originally from kits, and doing some basic research, I’ll be referring to David Asher’s book frequently, and perhaps coming up with my own ideas.
To his credit, Asher has put together a great deal of knowledge (although mixed with some biases that is not always helpful), and could be a book you’ll want to refer to in your research and ideas of making cheese.
To a person just starting out with an interest in cheese making, I wouldn’t recommend it as their first book. But I would recommend it as something to add to your library if you want to learn more, and have another perspective, and try some ways of cheese making that you won’t find anywhere else.
You can purchase the book here from Amazon.