Cheese · Cheesemaking

Stirred-Curd Cheddar – Batch #1 – Part 1

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The loud crash I heard through the kitchen window while I was gulping down my cheeseburger and potato salad politely suggested that I might want to figure out a better way of weighing down my curds.

Fortunately, nothing was broken.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Yesterday I embarked on my next foray into the wild world of making hard cheese.  Last week I put together my first batch of Farmhouse Cheddar, as described in Ricki Carroll's fabulous book Home Cheese Making.  This time I flipped a page and followed the instructions for Stirred-Curd Cheddar.  It's a step closer to traditional cheddar – more involved (and, yes, time-consuming) than the Farmhouse version, but still not the all-out, full-fledged traditional version I'm working toward.

And while we're on the subject, maybe you're wondering what I'm talking about.  Isn't cheddar cheddar?  Well, yes and no.  The word "cheddar" is actually orginally a verb.  To cheddar.  Cheddaring refers to the method used in making the cheese, which involves, in a nutshell, slicing your mass of drained curds into strips and then holding them at 100 degrees F for TWO HOURS.  And that, of course, is in addition to all the other steps in the process. 

In the stirred-curd version, you hold the curds for an hour at 100, so it's kind of similar, but not the same.  And in the Farmhouse version, you don't hold the curds (drained of their whey) at 100 at all.  

The ingredient list is nearly the same as well:

2 gallons whole milk (cow's or goat's) (I used cow's)

1 packet direct-set mesophilic starter

2 drops cheese coloring per gallon of milk  (didn't use this)

1/2 teaspoon liquid rennet (or 1/2 rennet tablet) diluted in 1/4 cup cool, unchlorinated water

2 tablespoons cheese salt

Anyway, the process starts out much the same way as the farmhouse version.  I warmed the milk to 90 degrees F and added the packet of direct-set mesophilic starter, stirred it well, put the lid on the pot and let it sit and ripen for 45 minutes.  (See photo above.)

Then, after making sure the milk temp was still at 90F, I added the rennet and gently stirred that in.  Then I put the lid back on the pot and let that set (wrapped in a towel so it would maintain the right temperature…of course, it was sunny and felt like summer yesterday, so I don't know where I thought the milk would get a chill from, but oh well.  Fortunately I'm not so crazy with my kids – they were allowed outside without sweaters.) for another 45 minutes. 

At the 45 minute mark, I checked the curd development, hoping for that all-important clean break.  Not there yet.  I put the lid back on, wrapped the towel around the pot again, and set my timer for another 45 minutes. 

That was enough. 

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Yay!  By the way, yesterday was also different because I had an audience, of sorts.  A friend of mine (Rosa's foster mom) came over and hung out with me for the afternoon while I worked on the cheddar (well, while I let the pot sit on the counter, mostly) and during those 45 minute periods of down time we made a batch of mozzarella.  I'm happy to say Rosa's foster mom is hooked and will be making her own mozzarella once she gets her own citric acid and rennet. 

Anyway, once the clean break (the milk splits cleanly apart when you poke your VERY CLEAN finger in at a 45 degree angle and lift up, leaving no residue behind) is achieved, it's time to cut the curds.

Now, with the farmhouse cheddar, I cut them in half-inch cubes.  (Well, mostly.  And they were more like pieces than cubes.  But I quibble.)  This time around the instructions called for 1/4 inch cubes.  I started out slicing parallel strips with my curd knife (aka spatula i use to ice large cakes) but then I remembered reading that you can use a stainless steel wire whisk for this size cube, so I switched to that.

I felt like I was being kind of lazy and sloppy, using a whisk.  Just in case you were wondering.  I guess because even though my precision in cutting the curds is sorely lacking at this stage of the game, using the whisk felt…like cheating. 

But use it I did.  Here's how the curds looked:

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After the cutting, the curds have to sit for fifteen minutes and then you put the whole pot in a sink of 100 degree water and slooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwlllllllyyyyyy heat the curds to 100 at a rate of NO MORE THAN 2 degrees every 5 minutes.  That took about half an hour, and then after that, I held the curds at 100 for another half hour, stirring gently the whole time.

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During this, the curds tend to sink to the bottom, for the most part. 

And you might be thinking "jeez, stand there and stir for an hour????" but the thing is, my kitchen sink is right below the kitchen windows that overlook the back yard.  And yesterday was a very warm, summer-like day, and my kids and some friends were outside playing in the pool while I was stirring, so I had plenty of entertainment.  Time passed pretty quickly.  Actually, during the first half hour, when I was gradually raising the temperature, I was pretty focused on the thermometer and making sure the curds didn't get too warm too quickly.  So I only needed a half an hour of visual entertainment.

For whatever that's worth.

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After that half hour of stirring, I let the curds set for five minutes and then drained the curds.

Now, in the past, I've scooped the curds out of the whey.  But it's not a very efficient way of doing things because invariably some of the curds spill back into the whey, they break up into smaller pieces, and so on.  But I'd seen an image somewhere, probably on the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company's website (they have tutorials for some of the cheese recipes, and there are lots of pictures), of the whey being removed from the curds, rather than the other way around.

Aha.  That makes sense, doesn't it?  I think so.

Anyway, I ladled off most of the whey from my curds, and let me tell you, when you're using 2 gallons of milk, you get a lot of whey.  I saved about half of that so I can make bread with it later in the week.

And yes, if I was a cheesemaker worth my cheese salt, I'd have made ricotta with the whey.  But to tell you the truth, by that point it was close to dinner time, I needed to make potato salad, saute brocolli rabe in some bacon fat and garlic, slice a tomato, cook the french fries, and get all the other stuff ready while Bill fired up the grill and shaped the burgers.  I was hungry.  And all my big cheese-making pots were either in use or dirty.  And I couldn't use my sink to wash them because I needed it for the batch of cheddar.  You're supposed to use fresh (no more than 2 hours old) whey to make the ricotta, by the way, so if I was going to make it, I'd need to it relatively soon.  And I just wasn't going to be able to.  I thought about it, and decided to wait and actually PLAN to make ricotta after a round of cheddar making or whatever other hard cheese I make. 

But back to this cheddar.  After I ladled out most of the whey, I started scooping out the curds and placing them in a colander (which I'd lined with muslin because I didn't want any of the curds to escapt) to drain briefly.

Here are some of the curds…

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And here are the rest of them.  I let them sit there for a few minutes while I emptied and refilled the sink with water that was 100 degres F.

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Next step is to pour the curds back into the pot, stir them around with my fingers to break them up again, and add the salt.  You don't really mix the salt in, you just stir the curds and salt all around to help distribute the salt evenly throughout the curds.

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And once the salt is mixed in, you set the pot of curds in your 100 degree F water and, in this manner, hold the curds at 100 degrees for an hour, stirring every five minutes.  I set my oven timer for an hour, and used a little kitchen timer to mark off the five minute increments.  I'd stir, reset the timer, cut up potatoes for potato salad, stir, reset, mince onions for the potato salad and mix them and salt and pepper in with the potato salad, stir, reset, check on the french fries (for the kids), and on and on.  I actually got a lot done in those little segments of time.

Once the hour was up I drained the water out of the sink.  Here's how the curds looked at that point:

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The bit of whey in there would disappear while the curds sat in the water.  The curds would kind of mat together in the pan, I'd stir, they'd release this bit of whey, I'd reset the timer, and the whey would seep back into the curds.  It was kind of like a game of hide and seek.  Only with cheese.

Anyway.  While the water drained from the sink, I lined my round cheese mold with cheesecloth, set it on top of two bamboo sushi mats in a baking sheet with a lip (to catch the whey) and had my plastic Chinese take-out container follower ready, and some weights.

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I spooned the curds into the mold… 

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And then I folded the ends of the cheesecloth over the curds, pressed them down a bit, placed the follower on top, added 15 lbs of weight, and watched the small river of whey drain out.

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Here's how the setup looked at that point:

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At this point the burgers were just about ready, and I was handing plates and side dishes out the window to Bill, who was setting the table on our deck.  After 10 minutes, it was time to remove the weights, unwrap the curd mass, flip it over, rewrap it, put it back in the mold, put the follower back on and this time place 30 lbs of weight on top. 

This was a bit more precarious than the 15 lbs.

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I hurried outside, my little kitchen timer set for another 10 minutes, to eat with Bill and the kids. 

The crash occurred at about the 6 minute mark. 

I imagined the destruction: glassware, dishes, thermometers…and I dashed into the kitchen…and nothing – not a thing – was broken.  A glass containing all my thermometers had fallen into the porcelain sink – nothing broke.  Other bowls were upended – nothing was broken.  I thanked the cheese gods and picked up the weights and re-stacked them, this time surrounding the cheese with heavier objects that might (I hoped) help support the weights if the whole thing tipped again.

I'm not surprised there was a fall. If you take a look at that picture above, there's a small plastic container mostly filled with a wet, squishy subtance, and on top of that a plastic dish filled and topped with really heavy weights.  As the weights press down on the curds, compressing them and expelling liquid, the curds, because they are wet and still relatively loose, shift and slide, and if the weights are at all off-center (which they must have been, even just a bit) more pressure will push down on one side and eventually everything will lean and, because the whole thing is so top heavy, it will fall.

And it did.

After the 30 pounds, the next jump was to 40 pounds for 2 hours.  In the picture below, you can see my cheese mold under a bunch of weight and buttressed on three sides by the wall and windowsill, a huge bot of water, and a couple smaller pots and a collander nested together and filled with water.  The fourth side was rather narrow so I leaned a baking sheet against it, figuring maybe I'd hear it start to go before it went too far.

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I left it there overnight, and am happy to report that I was not awakened at any point by another crash.

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In the morning, before we headed off to my Dad's Rotary Club's May Breakfast, I moved the whole set-up to the pantry, where it's a bit warmer and out of the way.  I rearranged the weights and stacked them in what looked to be a safer, sturdier arrangement, and we went on our way.

Several hours later we returned home and went about our various activities – Bill and the kids headed out to weed one of the gardens (Bill, because it was necessary, and the kids, because they'd been slapping each other in the car on the ride home) and I went upstairs to grab laundry to throw in the wash before getting started on dishes, bread and cookies and, eventually, waxing my original wheel of cheddar.   I was upstairs putting some of Julia's dirty clothes in a cloth hamper when – you guessed it – there came a loud crash.

Again, nothing broke.  The top tier of weights had fallen from the cheese and landed on a bunch of stuff on the floor of my pantry.  I restacked it and hoped for the best.

As of this writing, it is still upright.  It's nearly 4:30 as I type – five hours to go and I can dismantle the sculpture and start to air dry that cheese.  I'll be very, very glad when I get to that point.

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