At the end of December, I decided to make mozzarella cheese for some holiday get-togethers. I had been thinking about making cheese since my drought-induced hiatus from homebrewing as a way to assuage the guilt I felt each time I walked past my retired stainless steel brew kettles. By chance, I found some Junket-brand rennet tablets at my local specialty grocery store, and that was all the motivation I needed. Rennet is an enzyme that makes milk curdle. I grabbed some extra milk and cheesecloth, and proceeded to follow the best instructions I could find on YouTube and some cheesemaking websites. I then failed at making my first batch of mozzarella cheese. It didn’t even set—from everything I read, I figured the rennet was bad. That may not have been the whole story.

Making cheese is a deceptively simple process. Get some milk. Acidify the milk by adding a bacterial culture or an acid like citric acid or vinegar. Heat the milk. Add rennet to coagulate the milk solids. Separate the solids curds from the liquid whey with some sort of straining device, and the solid remnant is cheese. So why doesn’t every home cook make this staple food? From my homebrewing experience and my earlier failure, I suspected it had something to do with time, temperature, and access to the right supplies.

I wanted to solicit the help of a cheesemaking supply shop, because my local homebrew supply store did such a great job of setting me on the right path when I began that hobby. However, from my home, I am equidistant from the only two cheesemaking supply shops that exist in the four counties around me--Curds and Wine in Kearny Mesa San Diego, and The Home Wine Beer and Cheesemaking Shop in Woodland Hills. Both are around 100 miles away. I chose The Home Wine Beer and Cheese Shop in Woodland Hills and was helped by their cheese guru Nancy who set me up with some expert advice, a good recipe book, some lactose-eating cultures, some plastic cheese molds, citric acid, cheesecloth, rennet, wax, and because I was wanted to have some fun, some Penicillium Roqueforti mold. In the course of this conversation, I discovered that my first challenge would be securing the main ingredient: milk. I was assured that the milk at Whole Foods works, but the nearest store is deep in Orange County.

According to the research I’ve done, there are two potential problems with grocery store milk: age and pasteurization temperature. As milk gets older, the rennet has less of an effect on it, and the same problem occurs if the milk is pasteurized at too high a temperature. Ultra-pasteurized milk even if it is organic can never be used for cheese. And let’s clear up a couple of misconceptions about milk. It does not need to be “raw”—in fact, for most styles it would have to be pasteurized. Second, it is okay if it is homogenized, though non-homogenized milk is preferred for certain cheese styles. This is good news, because raw milk and non-homogenized milk go for $10-15 a gallon everywhere I’ve seen them in Southern California.

I began a search for a local dairy that had fresh milk. Unfortunately, there are only two that I was able to find within reach of the Inland Empire. There is Broguiere’s Farm Fresh Dairy in Montebello, and DeJong’s Dairy in Wildomar. I chose DeJong’s because it is only 35 miles away and Montebello is nearly twice the drive. So I tried DeJong’s milk and using my citric acid and fresh rennet from Woodland Hills, made some excellent Mozzarella just in time for our family’s New Year’s Eve party. I had my milk source.

Armed with my new supplies, and my stainless steel brewing pots, I began the weekly ritual of acquiring milk and attempting different styles of cheese. I started with an English Derby, which is a lightly-aged pressed semi-hard cheese about five weeks of aging, moved on to Gouda six to eight weeks of aging, and then tried making some Camembert and Castle Blue—both mold-ripened “bloomy” cheeses. Each new style has revealed a nuance that confounded the simplified process I described at the beginning of this article.

Cheesemaking is a complex and subtle process in which every variable seems to matter. Cultures, which I had simply lumped into two categories—mesophilic medium temperature incubation and thermophilic higher temperature incubation actually come in several blends, similar to the variations found in brewers yeast. Along with the lactose-eating cultures, which expel lactic acid and acidify the milk, certain styles of cheese require white or blue molds, which are also added during the cheesemaking process. There are even variations and blends of these molds. All cheeses age comfortably at cellaring temperatures—from 50-58 degrees. A good temperature-controlled wine refrigerator will do the trick. To keep humidity high enough, simply place small cups of water in enclosed containers in the wine refrigerator, or just make cheeses that can be waxed or vacuum-sealed.

There are other subtleties that matter too, namely controlling the temperature during setting and curd separation. Cheesemakers are after a “clean break”—that moment after rennet has been added when the curds cleanly break apart and begin to separate from the whey solution. These setting periods can range from 30 minutes to nearly two hours. Of course, direct heat to the kettle creates a heat gradient in the milk, and can scald the milk or curds which cannot be stirred during the set. A double-boiler/warm-water bath is a must, and essential in holding the milk at temperature during longer setting periods.

How curds are handled post-break is important too. In most semi-hard and hard cheese styles, the temperature of the curd is usually raised by ten to twenty degrees, depending on the style. If the temperature is raised too quickly, the curds expel whey too quickly and the final yield will be too dry. Sometimes—in the case of Gouda styles—the curd temperatures are raised slowly by removing a precise amount of whey and then adding a precise amount of heated water back to the vat. This is called a “washed curd” cheese, and for those familiar with the brewing process, is very similar to a decoction mash.

And then wait. Like most culinary hobbies that involve making a living food, waiting time can be the most difficult part, because one must wait to sample the successes and the failures—and then try to figure out what went right and what went wrong. My first Derby I made, which I believed went horribly wrong, was just fine. My second try, which seemed to come together better during the five-hour cheesemaking process, didn’t turn out as well, but that was most likely due to temperature fluctuations in my cheese cave. Some people keep detailed notes, but I have never been one to do that. Instead, I pay close attention to the experience and make slight changes each time. Right now, enjoying the process of hobby and gaining new insights into a food I didn’t think much about before is reward enough.

The Home Wine, Beer and Cheesemaking Shop

22836 Ventura Blvd. #B
Woodland Hills, CA 91364

DeJong’s Cash and Carry Dairy

31910 Corydon Road
Wildomar, CA 92595

200 Easy Homemade Cheese Recipes: From Cheddar and Brie to Butter and Yogurt second edition

By Debra Amrein-Boyes