Hard Cheese is Hard

Thursday I made my first hard cheese. It was kinda-sorta a disaster, but I learned a lot. And ten months from now, when it’s fully aged and we taste it, I think it’ll be like keeping that first pair of socks you made that look nothing like human feet – a memento of a learning experience that is a lot funnier in hindsight.

Here’s what I learned:

(1) Don’t try a brand-new, mega-complicated, time-sensitive food project on a day you are really really tired. Should have known this, but exhaustion is like getting drunk: like they tell you in driver’s ed, judgment is the first thing to go. This is my only explanation that I didn’t take it as a warning sign that, when I was playing on the carpet with Naomi, I briefly put my head down on the carpet and fell asleep. But I had been psyching myself up to do cheese that day for so long! I really wanted to do it. So I did. Next time I’ll nap instead.

(2) Parmesan cheese is not a great first cheese choice. I chose parmesan because, according to Home Cheese Making, it looked like it had a relatively simple process (read: 4 or 5 hours of babysitting rather than 6 or 7). Also, we like parmesan, and it has to age for a really long time, so I figure, get it started early!

Then I did a little googling around right before I started, finding other parmesan recipes, hoping to come across some tips or background info that would give me a little help. I didn’t get much helpful input, but I did discover that parm is considered “advanced.” But by that time I was committed; I had the 2% milk and not much else I could make with it.

(3) You can’t make a cheese if you don’t put a culture in first. I guess, because it’s soooo obvious, because every single cheese recipe says to do it, because the introductory chapters (which I had read in entirety) detailed it…. the instruction to “add the starter” was written kinda small in the first step of the recipe itself. And I just plumb missed it. I had made the thermophilic starter myself, so I knew it was important, and I noticed that on my nice “cheese keeping record form” that it was the first step. I kept wondering when it would go in, thinking this cheese must be really weird to add it later. But it wasn’t until I added the rennet (I had just put the kidlet down for a nap at that point, so I had time to really think and look) that I noticed it. Right there in the first step. “Add the starter and…”

But you know what? I will never make that mistake again.

Cheese is not really forgiving. At least, the endless fussy instructions make it seem that way. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed, it’s that you really have to follow the directions, and then pay a lot of attention, and then you still might have to troubleshoot if something goes wrong. And you might not find out something was wrong until you’ve aged the cheese for 3-12 months. So I knew very well that what I had on my hands was probably two gallons of carefully warmed trash.

I almost cried. I almost dumped the whole thing down the drain.

Then I realized that, first, I am stubborn. Second, that I have nothing to lose. I have more starter than I know what to do with anyway, so I just threw the starter in. Right after the rennet. I knew that it was still sort of the right temperature to ripen the culture, so maybe it would activate? No clue.

I decided that if the cheese set enough to make curds, I would go forward.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was quite surprised when I got a pretty decent set, and carefully cut good curds.

(4) When warming a giant pot in a sink water bath, it is not hard to go slow. It took almost continuous running of our hotpot and dumping the boiling contents into the sink to raise the temperature at the requisite 2 degrees every 5 minutes.

(5) “Stir often” means more than “stir every five minutes or when you remember.” I got a lot of clumping of curds, which I’ve heard called “consolidation” so it might be okay, but it seemed to happen fast and a lot.

Incredibly, when I got the curds to 124 degrees F and let them set for five minutes, they had a wee bit of squeak when I tried one! Maybe cheesemaking is not as intimidating a science as I thought, but I felt like I’d dodged a bullet just to get to the point where I was stuffing curds into a mold.

(6) I learned a lot of little things about using my cheese press. Like:

  • Flip the mold so the smooth side is up – otherwise the cheesecloth will get hopelessly caught on all the nasty bottom edges of cheese mold that you hacked off with a pair of scissors. (Like I said, ghetto.)
  • I should probably recalibrate the smaller weights. I think I included the weight of the springs and crossbars in the calibration weight, such that it now looks like it rests at 5 lbs of pressure. Oops.
  • Using a strip of saran wrap as a drip tray protects the cheese okay, but it doesn’t protect the press’s unfinished base from getting soaked with whey. That’s gonna get nasty. I need to come up with a real drip tray.
  • Next time: shallower pan. Endless frustration from trying to wiggle the mold out between the crossbars and the edge of the pyrex.
  • A nearly-empty roll of painter’s tape makes an awesome follower. Also, I happen to have some bamboo coasters that are almost the perfect size.

It’s all the tiny observations like this that made me relieved I’d kept going, that I had given myself some kind of accidental practice round.

The curds took longer than I expected to become a solid mass, probably because my lighter weights were off, so I pressed it overnight on a heavier-than-instructed setting. Lo and behold, the morning revealed something that looked like a cheese!

I had made a brine the night before, and in the morning plopped it in and sprinkled more salt on top.

(7) I probably have to figure out how to install a temperature controller. While the cheese had its salt bath, I had a day to figure out my new cheese cave. I had bought a mini-fridge from a friend who is moving out of town, hoping that the lowest setting would magically be around 55 degrees. It wasn’t. But the bottom shelf registered around 51 degrees, which (from what the internet tells me) is probably close enough for a long-aging cheese like Parmesan. We keep our house at 63 degrees in the winter, so in a few more weeks I’m hoping it’ll be cold enough in the basement that I can just leave the fridge off. Then I have the whole winter to figure out how to wire the fridge up to a temperature controller, so it stays reliably at 55 degrees.

After a day of brining, my slightly-lopsided parmesan-or-something looks almost regal as the sole resident of the new cheese cave.

8) I am really bad at failure. This is not really news, but I am a little spoiled when it comes to learning new skills. I like to try things that are easy, that have a good chance of success at the first go. When I made my big oopsie (up at lesson-for-the-day #3), I had to stop and journal and pray to get myself to calm down. It sounds a little silly in hindsight, especially since it seems to have more or less worked out, but I was pretty upset. Exhaustion ups the drama quotient too, of course, but I do feel a little silly about how I reacted.

In the end, though, I think it says good things that I am more and more willing to try things that take more than one go to get right. Cheese making is not really a life-or-death situation; getting it wrong wouldn’t lose me anything but the price of the milk. But I’m stepping out in other areas of life too, areas with a little more reality on the line. I often find that the second try – the second conversation with a new acquaintance, the second sermon on Romans, the second time you bring up a deep topic – is where I start to see movement. So I am trying to give myself an easier time when the first attempt doesn’t seem to have gone so well. In CPE, no matter how weird the first conversation was, a person was mostly just pleased that I came back.

I am glad I went through with the whole parm process, because I learned so much about what to expect from making hard cheese: from my equipment, from my concentration, from my day. That way, today, when I make Farmhouse Cheddar (a much more appropriate first hard cheese, by the way), I am ready for success. The second time around.

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