The Unprocessed Process

If you’re any kind of catholic and have heard mass in another language, you may have had the surreal experience of recognizing where the priest is in the liturgy by the flow of his words, even though you don’t speak the language. I’ve only made two hard cheeses now, but I’m already starting to recognize that the process has a certain shape, a pattern as recognizable as a eucharistic prayer. The steps are pretty set, and it’s only small variations in this step or that step that make the difference between a wide variety of hard cheeses.

This is good news, since it means that cheese making, like so many other hobbies, has a steep learning curve, but once you get used to a few skills, everything else is just variations on a theme. At least, that’s what I tell everyone about knitting.

What are the cheese making equivalents of the knit and purl?

Well first, you warm the milk up to a temperature that makes a starter happy (usually between 80 and 90 degrees), and you add the starter. (Don’t forget this one.) You then let it sit for a while to “ripen.”

Then you add rennet, traditionally made from calf stomach or something (there are vegetarian options), and let it sit for longer.

During all this long, boring stage, it still looks like a pot of milk. Which is why I will only bore you with one picture of a pot of milk.

After you let the rennet set, though, you stick in your finger to find it is not, in fact, a pot of milk anymore.

This is not a good example of a clean break (I think I need to add more rennet to my milk than the recipes are calling for), but it was good enough for my purposes that day.

Then comes my favorite part: cutting the curds. I like taking my time and being meticulous about it, even though it’ll look a mess after I stir it up, just because that glistening checkerboard is so satisfying.

A little gentle stir reveals that it has definitely transformed from a placid pot of milk into a gelatinous mass, which you have now thoroughly disturbed.

Then comes the tedious part, which I always try to time to be during naps, and during which I have mercifully had someone call to chat with me every time.

So those cubes, which I messed up above, are called “curds.” They are the fatty part of the milk, which has separated from the watery part of milk, called “whey.” Here’s what you do during the tedious part: you gently stir the curds, while slowly (really slowly) raising the temperature to some target temperature, and this usually takes 30-90 minutes. This process is gentle enough to cause the curds to lose more whey while holding onto the milk fat, and the stirring keeps the curds from clumping together too much.

Add in the fact that you are not doing this on the stove, but in a water bath in the sink, and you are now juggling boiling water every few minutes to add to the water bath. It’s a little finickey, but I’m getting the hang.

This day I was making farmhouse cheddar, sort of a quick cheater’s cheddar, so I only had to stir the curds for 30 minutes. Above you see them after about ten minutes, already starting to shrink. Below, they have set at their target temperature for five minutes, and have shrunk as far as they’ll go. If I kept raising the temperature and stirring for longer, as many other recipes require, the curds would get really tiny, and eventually would squeak between the teeth when chewed.

Then comes the draining of the whey. I think to make up for the fact that you aren’t stirring for so long, farmhouse cheddar has a long drain time.

For some cheeses – I don’t know which other than cheddar – the draining is followed by “milling.” After draining for an hour, the curds have hilariously taken on the shape of the hanging bag. With milling you just break the curds up with your fingers. That’s also when you add salt, which I recommend always doing if the recipe suggests it!

Then you stuff your curds into the press, protected by cheesecloth, and start pressing. You always start with low weights for short periods of time, then end up pressing at least overnight at a higher weight. As you can see, it continues to lose whey during this process. It starts out a milky color, which means it still has some milkfat in it, but you want it eventually to go clear.

Again, because the curds for this cheese weren’t given as much stirring time to shrink, there was too much to fit in my slightly-stunted mold. No worries – Naomi and I had the extra salted curds for a snack, along with some tiny pears from our CSA. It was impossibly tasty.

After a night of pressing at 50 lbs (again, I think the maxed-out weight was yet another measure to compensate for the short curd-stirring time), I had what definitely looked like a cheese.

I am having a little trouble with them coming out lopsided, evidently. I have to be really careful about centering my followers under the crossbars!

It looks a little better from this angle, though you can probably see the cheese’s two funnier defects. (1) I didn’t manage to get all the charcoal out of the bottom of my cheesepot after Saturday’s apple disaster, so some flecks inevitably got into the cheese. (2) I will now take the boiling of my cheesecloths more seriously, as this time I had only put them through my washing machine… and the cloth left behind flecks of lint about the same shade as what came out of my lint filter. Ew.

Fast forward about five days, during which the cheddar has been air-drying. The farmhouse cheddar is on the right. I like how the shape has shaped a little bit; it seems to have compacted into a rounder, friendlier shape. However, despite my best efforts and improvised cheese mat (it’s a piece of plastic canvas I had lying around; I sanitized it), I was unable to flip the cheese enough times to prevent moisture from accumulating on the bottom, so I did end up with a little dark mold. I wiped it off vigorously with a clean rag, as recommended, so I’m hoping all will still be well. Dark mold freaks me out a little. Next time I’ll try a cheese mat on a drying rack.

The cheese on the left is the parmesan, which had been in the cheese cave for a week at that point. You can see it already has a very solid rind. Parmesan is not usually waxed, but with one this small it it sometimes recommended to wax it to keep the cheese from drying out too much. Otherwise you’ll end up with all rind.

Time for waxing, the penultimate stage of the adventure, and one completely new to me!

I had split a 5-lb block of yellow cheese wax with some compatriots in cheese exploration, and my 2.5-lb block barely fit in the larger of the two pots I had set aside for this purpose. It was an old dyepot, and I mean very old, probably hadn’t been used for that purpose in four years. I washed and sanitized it thoroughly, so i’m hoping that’s enough. I needed something that could be used for wax and nothing else, and I was eager to avoid buying one more thing.

The wax was a pain to melt. I ended up with some frustrating mess on my hands. I’m still not sure how I’m going to get my nesting pot all the way clean; I grabbed it at the last minute and was unable to prevent some spillage. I finally came up with a way to prevent most spilling by sticking a couple canning rings between the pots so the upper pot could rest without spilling wax into the lower pot. Sheesh! And that was already a Day I Was Doing Too Much. You ever have those? Being your own boss is a touchy thing.

Once the wax finally melted, the actual waxing was super-easy. Just dip one half, wait 10 seconds, then dip the other half, repeat a few times. The paper slip I just stuck on, then put one more layer of wax overtop. Easy peasy.

I’ll let you know how the cheddar is in a month!

So there you have it: the super-basics of hard cheese making, from someone who barely knows what they’re doing. This is more of a glimpse, a record of a newbie’s experience. Please do not treat this post as a how-to. If you want to get into it, I recommend getting Ricki Carroll’s Home Cheese Making and spending time on her website, cheesemaking.com.

At best, I offer you a few of my silly mistakes – things that the experts forget to tell you not to mess up, because it would never occur to them to do that wrong. I’m still so new at this that my mistakes are as inevitable as they are potentially instructive. They might even be comforting, if I still get a yummy cheese in the end. And, in retrospect, the whole thing will probably be hilarious.

2 thoughts on “The Unprocessed Process

  1. […] seckel pears: Are they not so cute and tiny?! We were not even sure what they were at first. As soon as I figured out that their hard skin concealed sweet pear flesh that was much riper than they felt, Naomi and I ate them as snacks all week. They were perfectly divine with the leftover curds from my second attempt at cheese. […]

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  2. […] brief update is for the food nerds instead. Since I finally opened the Farmhouse Cheddar – the second hard cheese I made, but the first tasted. Snacktime was our testing ground, so I […]

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