I'm making a hard cheese.
I'm making Farmhouse Cheddar, and I am both nervous and excited. I've started with 2 gallons of local whole milk. Pasteurized, but not ultra-pasteurized.
I figure I'll update as I go along. Next up will be adding the rennet, which is diluted in cold water – 1/2 tsp rennet in 1/4 cup cold non-chlorinated water, in case you're taking notes.
The starter phase is almost done. I just smelled the milk in the pot – it smells warm and sweet.
Okay, I added the rennet, which is done by pouring it through a slotted ladle and gently stirring so the rennet makes it all the way through the milk and to the bottom of the pot. Then you "top stir" by laying the slotted ladle kind of flat against the top of the milk and gently pressing up and down, no more than half an inch. I think this way of doing things is, in effect, rocking the rennet, like you might very gently rock a cradle – you don't want to disturb what's inside, but you want there to be motion. At least, that's my take on it.
So right now, the pot of milk is sitting on my counter, covered and wrapped in a towel to maintain the temperature as much as possible.
After this step – which is, I think, the most nerve-wracking because WHAT IF IT DOESN'T COAGULATE???!!! – comes the slicing or cutting of the curds. The book calls for a curd knife, which looks exactly like one of the large metal spatulas that I use to ice cakes. So that's what I'm using. I think I'll be able to take pictures of that step.
By the way – and this has nothing to do with cheese – my son had a baseball game this morning, and the coach or one of the other kids smeared on that black stuff under his eyes – because of the glare of the sun. Anyway, he's still got it on, though the game ended nearly four hours ago.
He played well – went 3 for 3…on his third time at bat the ball hit him in the thigh (they were using a machine to pitch – he's in the Rookie league this year) and at about 55 mph, it HURT. But he walked it off and went back up to hit (they don't walk them, I guess, when they're hit. I guess hit by a machine doesn't count as being hit by a person) and hit a double, so YAY, ALEX! And he made a nice play at second, as well – the ball was thrown to him, it bounced past, he dropped down to get it as the runner approached and spun around on his knees to tag the base with the ball. Runner was out. Yay, Alex!
And coincidentally, he's one reason I'm making cheddar. He isn't fond of the soft cheeses, so I wanted to make a cheese he'd like. And he likes cheddar.
Okay. Hitting a snag. Milk with rennet sat for 45 minutes but has not achieved a "clean break" – the curd doesn't hold together when I poke it with a finger or thermometer. I'm letting it sit another half an hour and trying to stay calm.
Okay, I'm calmer. Haven't checked the curd again yet, but I did some reading online and it's okay if the setting takes longer than that 45 minutes to an hour I had anticipated. So I'm still breathing.
ohpleaseohpleaseohpleaseohpleaseohpleaseohplease… five more minutes til I check again…
Okay, here's how it looks when you get a clean break. (Sorry – I didn't take a picture when it wasn't breaking cleanly for comparison – I was too panic-stricken. Hahaha. Not really. Much.)
Yes, my finger is clean. What you do is, you stick your clean finger about an inch into the curd at about a 45 degree angle…
And, ideally, the curd splits apart relatively neatly, like it's doing in the picture below (hee hee hee!!!) Before this, when I'd checked it the first time, my finger came away thinly coated with creamy wet curd. Nothing clean about it. So I was VERY happy when I achieved the clean break you see below.
So what's next?
Well, after I did my little happy dance, it was time to cut the curds.
I need practice with that. Basically, you take your curd knife and, holding it straight up and down and with the tip of the knife touching the bottom of the pot, you slice straight lines about half an inch apart, from one "end" of the pot to the other. For some ornery reason, I started in the middle.
Now at this point you've got half inch strips of curd – the tops are on the surface and they extend all the way to the bottom of the pot. Got that? Okay. Next, in order to make little curds, you angle your curd knife at 45 degrees or so, and slice – at an angle – through all the lines you've just created. So you're re-slicing through everything, but on an angle.
I kept trying to do this but it felt like I was blindfolded the whole time, and I had no idea if I was cutting at the right angle most of the time. But I did it. I think. Pretty much.
Ideally, I shouldn't have the smaller, thinner slivers of curd. But it was hard to see the lines some of the time. And it's the first time I've ever done this. I think I'll do better next time around.
After cutting them, you let them sit for five minutes, covered.
The reason you cut them is to create more surface area through which moisture can be released. If it's one big curd, then the moisture (whey) is released slowly. If it's a bunch of little curds, lots more moisture is released, and more quickly.
Now, once your curds have rested, it's time to sloooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwwwly cook them until they reach 100 degrees F. Now, when you warmed them up and mixed in the starter and the rennet, the temp of the milk was about 90 degrees F, so getting back to 100 shouldn't be much hassle, right?
Ha! Wrong. Remember I said sloooooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwwwly? That's the kicker. You can't heat your curds and whey up any faster than 2 degrees every five minutes. If you go faster, the outside of the curd dries out faster and traps moisture inside too early in the game. At this stage, you want the curds to be releasing moisture, not hanging on to it. So you can't just set your pot on the stove and crank the flame.
To heat the pot slowly, I used the method recommended in the book (Home Cheese Making, by Ricki Carroll), which is to fill your sink with hot water and set your pot of curds in the water. I read (either in the book or online somewhere), that you want the temperature of the water to be about 10 degrees (or fewer, depending on who you read) above the temperature you're shooting for. Or something like that. I don't know – it was very complicated in my mind. I was worried I'd cook the cheese too fast and have to dump it all or suffer the shame of drippy cheddar or something.
But as it turned out, it really wasn't that difficult or stressful. Just time-consuming. The pot of curds was around 87 degrees by this point. I ran water in the sink and got it to around 100 or so. Then I set the pot in the sink and held a thermometer in the curds for about 40 minutes all told. Well. Not constantly.
You're also supposed to gently stir the curds around. This encourages them to give up whey and it also helps distribute the heat evenly throughout the pot. I used my curd knife (aka my spatula) to stir, since the spoon and the ladle I tried seemed (to me) to break curds in the process. I may have been imagining that, though.
So, anyway, my goal was two degrees every five minutes – or no faster. And, for the most part, I achieved that goal. At some point it looked like the temperature was going up too fast, so I took the pot out, set it on the counter, stirred to bring the temp down a bit, and then, when the temperature of the curds was stable, I put it back into the water and brought the curd temp up another slow couple of degrees. Sometimes I had to add more hot water to the sink.
It was a learning experience, and by the last few degrees, I felt like I knew what I was doing, which is a nice feeling to have, let me tell you.
Okay, now once you've reached 100, you let the curds rest again. After all, it's hard work, shrinking and eliminating liquid like that.
While the curds took their break, I got my butter muslin (cheesecloth's finer-woven cousin) and a collander so I could strain the curds.
Anyway. First, let's have a look at the curds AFTER cooking. Oh – wait – first, scroll up a bit and look at them when I first cut them. See how big and squared off they are? Okay, now you can look at the "after" picture.
They look like large cottage cheese curds. And they're not squisy and delicate like they were when I first sliced them. Now they're rather firm and hold their shape even when you squeeze them.
I lined the collander with the butter muslin and poured the curds and whey through. Here's what I ended up with:
Next, I tied the corners of the muslin, ran a wooden spoon handle through the two knots, and suspended the bag of curds from the top of my cheese pot so it could drain for an hour.
That became this:
An hour later I'd eaten 6 little necks (Alex had 7, Bill had 5 and Julia had one and tasted a second one with her tongue and decided she didn't like them. Bill was not pleased. A little neck is a terrible thing to waste).
And it was time to unwrap my curds!
I'll be back with the rest. Right now I have to put the kids to bed.
Okay, well, that took longer than I'd expected.
Anyway, back to the strained curd. I unwrapped it completely and set it in the bowl and just looked at it for a couple of minutes.
But no, it was time for milling.
Milling is when you break up the strained curd into pieces – in this case they needed to be roughly the size of walnuts. You're also supposed to do this pretty gently, so as not to squeeze moisture out of the curds at this point. That's what I read, anyway. So I was careful in my milling.
Next, you directly salt the curds by sprinkling a tablespoon of salt over the curds in the bowl and gently mixing it in. I used Kosher salt, because I always have plenty of it around, but you can also buy cheese salt from cheesemaking supply companies.
I used my hands and carefully tossed the curds around a bit to distribute the salt. When I was done, I noticed a little more whey in the bottom of the bowl, which is completely normal.
Then, while I was reviewing the section on molding and pressing the cheese, I read that ideally the temperature of the curds needs to be 70 or lower, otherwise the curds will loose too much moisture when you start pressing them.
So much depends on temperatures!!
Anyway, I wondered just what temperature my curds were, so I stuck a thermometer in one of my curdy walnuts, and I was mildly surprised at what I saw.
Eventually I hit 70 and it was time to start molding the curds.
First, I lined my plastic cheese mold with butter muslin (didn't have normal cheesecloth, but I believe you can use that at this point if you prefer) and set it on two sushi mats in a rimmed cookie sheet. The mats help raise the mold off the cookie sheet, so that as the cheese is pressed and the liquid seeps out, the curds are not sitting directly in the liquid. I hope that made sense – it's getting late and I'm tired.
Next, I spooned the curds into the muslin-lined mold.
(By the way, I'm making cheddar! Can you believe it? Me neither!)
Initially it looks like you've got too many curds for the size mold you're using, but just press down on the curds with a spoon (or your very clean hands) to flatten it down to about the level of the rim of the mold.
Next, you need to place a flat round something on top of the wrapped curds. This is called a follower (I think. I'm sleepy.) because it basically follows the curds down during the pressing. (Or at least that's my take on things.)
You can use a small plate, or a piece of untreated wood cut to fit, or…in my case…the food grade plastic takeout lid from last night's Wings with Sticky Sauce that we ordered from the Chinese restaurant up the street. The wings are really good, and even better, the container they were in was perfect for my cheese pressing purposes.
I cut the flat part of the lid to use as a follower (it might just be called a "follow." I'll check on that tomorrow and let you know if I'm wrong.) and then I used the bottom of the container to hold my weights.
(Update, Sunday morning: It's "follower.")
But I am jumping ahead.
To press the cheese, you start with a moderate amount of pressure – ten pounds – for a relatively short period of time – fifteen minutes. I think this is because at this stage the curds are pretty loose, and you're just getting them mushed and squished into place and releasing the major liquid.
I don't have a cheese press, though part of me wants to order the blueprints and make one, but we do have weights. Nice flat, round little weights that I removed from the dumbells in the basement and brought up to the kitchen. They're the perfect size for pressing cheese.
Almost immediately the curds started to release more whey, as you can see below.
Fifteen minutes later it was time to remove the first set of weights, take the cheese out of the mold, flip it over, and increase the weight.
Here's the cheese after I took it out of the mold. It's still wrapped, of course.
At this point, I pressed the cheese down into the mold and moved the whole thing into the pantry.
Because of creatures like this one:
Low light and a fast, bold, brazen cat and you get very blurry shots like this. That's Softie, in case you were wondering, but Blur is even worse about trying to get scraps of people food. She'll hop up on the table WHILE YOU'RE EATING. Softie, at least, waited until the dishes were cleared and the table was wiped down. She got nothing, but can you imagine the havoc if I left my weighted curds out somewhere in the kitchen? It would be bad.
So here, for tonight, is the cheese pressing set-up:
And there's more to come after that, but I'll stop now and post this, and then post short updates as the cheese moves into the drying and aging phases.
But for now – I've started my first batch of cheddar. Yay!