A Year of Learning
As I now reach my one-year anniversary of cheesemaking, I think I have come a long way from my early attempts to make a simple mozzarella. I am certainly not making the same varieties of cheese I thought I’d be making when I first began. I know some will call me snobbish, but neutral-flavored, mass-produced cheeses just don’t interest me, so why try to re-create those in my kitchen lab? My motive for getting into this hobby was really a long-standing interest in “living” food. Finding out how mold grows, ages and develops over time, along with the variety of ingredients available makes this hobby every bit as interesting as homebrewing beer—maybe more, because the same people who might not be surprised by hops can still be surprised by certain varieties of cheese.
Is home cheesemaking cost-effective? Like homebrewing your own beer or wine, that depends upon what you make. If you spend $30 on barley, yeast and hops and end up with five gallons of a perfect or even reasonably close Pliny the Elder clone, it is definitely cost-effective. But if you’re making an American Light Lager, the ingredients and especially the time will cost you more than the mass-produced version. Likewise, if I can make a washed-rind cheese of a similar quality to one that costs $30-per-1/2-pound, yes, home cheesemaking can be cost-effective. But is it less expensive than that $4-per-pound cheddar in the vac-wrap at the supermarket? Definitely not. Top-quality raw milk is $15 a gallon in Southern California, and about $10 a gallon if it’s in glass from specific dairies.
When I began cheesemaking, I wanted to learn about how such a ubiquitous food was made and maybe learn something about how the styles of cheese differ. On my cheesemaking anniversary, I’d like to share a few bits I’ve picked up over the course of the past year:
1. People always ask what equipment you need to have to make cheese. At the very least, you need one or two stainless steel pots, a thermometer, a colander, some cheesecloth and a bacterial culture. You could easily make fresh ricotta, mozzarella and farm cheese with these simple tools. Instead of using a forming mold, just tie up your cheesecloth and let it drain on a cookie rack suspended over your sink. If you want to make specific styles of cheese in traditional shapes, you will need to add to your arsenal some plastic molds, as well as some kind of long-term temperature control, like a small, temperature-controlled wine refrigerator. To maintain mold-growing humidity, I place finished cheese inside of plastic containers with little cups of water in them before sliding them into the wine fridge. Aside from those basic tools, the most useful items have been sushi mats for whey drainage so aging cheese doesn’t sit in its own water and a double-boiler. None of my milk gets direct heat—it is always heated by hot water outside of my cheese vat 4.5 gallon stainless steel pot sitting on a rack in a larger enamel canning pot.
2. A low pasteurization temperature for cheesemaking milk is extremely important. After sterilization of your materials and work area, nothing is more vital in the development of a successful cheese than a strong, unshattered curd. If your curd is so soft and milky it would almost go through a cheesecloth, or your dry curds are flaky and don’t stay together, then you probably have this problem. Buy better milk and experiment. It is not worth saving $3-5 a gallon for unpredictable results. Organic and dairy-specific milk is usually pasteurized at a lower temp, but it never hurts to call the dairy and ask specifics. Of course, the best milk to use for all cheese is raw milk, but that remains very expensive in Southern California. Recently, I have been experimenting with a mixture of organic and raw, and the results have been good.
3. Milk sources are important. It should go without saying that the flavor of the milk will influence the flavor and sometimes the color of your cheese. Raw cow milk will sometimes produce a light yellowish color, since color is affected by what the animals are eating. However, goat milk—because of the biology of how the goat makes its milk—will always be perfectly white. Curd yield can also be affected by the time of year the animals are giving milk this is why many farmstead cheeses are seasonal. If your milk is not dairy-specific i.e. Straus, Top o’ the Morn, or Broguiere’s, the law requires milk cartons to have plant numbers on them. Simply log into www.whereismymilkfrom.com and input the plant number and you will receive information about where the source of your milk is located.
4. I learned about some new microbes. There are more kinds of microbes than you can possibly use or count—considering aging time, it could be years before you find your “perfect” combinations or process. White Brie candidum mold comes in two forms—genus Penicillium and genus Geotrichum—and they have very different flavor profiles. Penicillium is generally neutral flavored—some variations can be mushroomy or yeasty—and is used in most mass-marketed cow milk Bries. Geotrichum—which is earthy and barnyardlike—is usually used in goat milk Bries, mixed-milk Bries and softer, fresher, “breakfast” Bries. The “stinky” Brevibacterium linens is an excellent addition to cheese for rind development. You can make a batch of Brie and “wash” the white mold off and watch the battle for dominance begin. Or you can just use it as a flavor enhancer for a standard Brie. The same thing is true of basic cheese cultures—there are many different blends available to home cheesemakers. In a year, I’m happy to understand the general flavor characteristics of one or two molds.
5. I’ve become better acquainted with your local specialty or “organic” market. With that comes the misconceptions associated with the movements of organic, farmstead and artisan. Organic farms, for example, cannot use antibiotics in their herds, so if the animal needs that type of medication, it must be removed from that herd and sold or on large farms, reassigned to the non-organic side. The term “farmstead cheese” means that the cheese was made on the same farm that owns the herd. Of course, this is no guarantee that the animals are treated better than those used by creameries that source their milk from a reputable dairy, but in much of food marketing, perception is a powerful influence. The term “artisan” or “handmade” has little value since both small and large manufacturers use the term in their marketing. At some point in any manufacturing process, somebody’s hands will move the product around.
6. I’ve begun to rethink mass-marketed cheese. Your grocery store block cheese is the Budweiser of cheese. It is mass-produced for the largest audience so it tends to be bland and uninteresting. There is no rind development or long-term care in store bought bricks. That “bridge” market of slightly better cheeses isn’t much better—wax-covered goudas, flavorless bries and watered-down blues pale in comparison to their regional small-batch counterparts. Yes, better cheese does cost more, but if you’re featuring a cheese as a central ingredient on a cheese platter as opposed to just melting it into a sandwich, fondue or a noodle dish, something from your local cheesemonger is always the better option.
7. Styles Americans think of as “weird” are quite common worldwide. Cheeses I have called “stinky”—reblochons and the washed rind varieties—are not culinary oddities. They are simply the indigenous cheeses of certain locales around the world. And as you’ll find out, strong-smelling cheeses often do not taste the same way they smell. Blue cheese or “sharp” cheese are not at the fringes of the cheese flavor spectrum at all. My best advice: be experimental and try something new: you may love it.
8. Make a connection with a cheesemonger. A connection with an actual cheesemonger was the most eye-opening step in opening up a deeper knowledge of cheese. A local cheesemonger’s shop is the best way to educate your palate and keep track of your tasting journey. Your cheesemonger knows when the cheeses you like will come out, and once he or she gets to know you, will be able to make solid recommendations.
9. If it’s not wax, plastic or cloth, please at least try the rind. A cheese rind may vary from very obvious white or red mold to something that has a thickness to it and looks like dirt. If it’s not obviously inedible—like the cloth rind of a clothbound cheddar or the hard rind of Parmesan Reggiano, I always try it. Cheese tasters recommend you try the cheese from the inside out—from the paste end, and move toward the rind. If you don’t like the rind at that point, fine, but more often than not the experience will be enlightening—you will understand how the rind development contributed to the good flavors in the cheese paste.
Cheesemaking has contributed to a couple of side effects that I didn’t anticipate. I didn’t expect that my tasting palate would enjoy these “stinky” cheeses, or that I’d want to make them. I also didn’t realize I would begin to think so seriously about where my food comes from and who makes it. As I enter my second year of cheesemaking, I am trying to develop my hobby by making some aged cheeses with more complex rinds on them. And of course, I will continue to share these tidbits with friends, family, and others who are willing to listen.