Most cheeses you’ve ever eaten are made with the same four basic ingredients: milk, culture, rennet, and salt. Sometimes additional ingredients are added, like annatto for color, or a flavor mix-in like chili peppers. However, it’s how we manipulate the four basic ingredients that get us all the wonderful varieties of cheese that we know and love. Here’s a breakdown of the basic steps of cheesemaking, and some info on how they may affect the final cheese.
- Culture – The first step is to heat the milk to 70 degrees and add starter culture, or good bacteria specific to cheese. There are two main types of culture: mesophilic- warm loving, and thermophilic- heat loving. Mesophilic culture is typically used for soft cheeses like chevre, and thermophilic is used for aged cheeses like parmesan. You can dive deeper in our Advanced Culture Class or learn to make your own culture in our Kefir/Clabber Class. Store-bought cultures come freeze-dried, so we sprinkle them on the surface of the milk and allow a few minutes for them to rehydrate before stirring up and down. We like to add culture at 70 degrees because this is the temperature that bacteria become really active. The general rule with bacteria is whoever has the bigger army wins. Of course, we are using clean equipment and clean milk, but just in case there are any “bad guys” or bad bacteria lurking out there, we want to add the good bacteria early on so they can get a head start. We like to think of it as a little insurance policy. If you are pasteurizing your milk or starting with fresh raw milk that is already warm, you don’t have to cool down to 70 and then reheat to the next temperature target, you can just add culture at the higher temperature.
- Ripen – Once you stir in the culture, most recipes call for a ripening temperature that is somewhere between 85 and 90 degrees. Once you reach your target temperature, put the lid on the milk and let the starter culture go to work. Ripening is when starter culture begins to convert lactose (sugar in milk) to lactic acid, dropping the pH, creating the perfect environment for cheese. This initial ripening can be anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours depending on the recipe. There are a few cheeses that skirt the rules by using direct acidification, like our 30-Minute Mozzarella.
- Coagulate – If you are using an additional ingredient, like annatto or calcium chloride, add it before coagulation. To coagulate the milk, mix non-chlorinated water and rennet. Coagulation can be 30 minutes or overnight depending on the recipe. Recipes with more rennet and a shorter coagulation time are typically for firmer cheeses, and those that use little rennet and a long coagulation time are for softer cheeses. At the end of coagulation, check for a clean break by sticking a knife in the cheese and lifting up. There should be a clear separation of curd and whey where you cut.
- Cut – The curd mass is cut to allow the separation of solid curds from liquid whey. Generally, the smaller the curd size, the firmer the final cheese because there is more surface area for the whey to escape. The goal is to get even pieces of the same size so whey can be released at the same rate for each curd. Once cut, allow the curds to “heal” (or rest undisturbed) for about 5 minutes. This allows them to firm up slightly so they can be handled in the next step.
- Stir/Heat – This is one of the most important steps for determining the final texture of the cheese. The more the curds are heated and stirred, the firmer the cheese. This is because as the curds are stirred, they knock up against each other, knocking out more of the whey. The curds also release more moisture the hotter they are heated. Additionally, the culture will become more active and continue to create acidity during this step. Each cheese has its own target time and temperature based on the desired result. This step may last a few minutes to a few hours. Some things we like to do while we stir: phone a friend, listen to music or a podcast, meditate to the sound of the spoon against the pot (gong!).
- Scoop and Hoop – Before “scoop and hoop” or putting your cheese into a form or cheesecloth, I like to feel the final texture of the curd. I do this by taking out a few curds and gently pressing them between my fingers. Based on how they feel, I know whether they are ready to scoop and hoop. This takes practice, but it’s a nice way to get in touch with your curds. Sometimes curds will be scooped straight from the pot, other times a recipe will require you to drain the whey off first to allow a “pre-press” in the bottom of the pot.
- Press, Flip – Some cheeses are simply drained, like camembert, but many cheeses are pressed. The more weight applied, the firmer the final cheese. It’s important to add weight gradually. If the cheese is pressed too quickly, whey can be trapped in the cheese causing problems during aging. Be sure to follow the recipe and use the recommended increments. Flipping the cheese during this step will ensure even pressing and draining. This step lasts a few hours to overnight and is done at room temperature. You can learn to make your own press for free here.
- Salt – You can add salt directly to the cheese or through a brine. Dry or direct salt is typically only for soft cheeses. A brine is preferred for hard cheeses because it’s easier to penetrate evenly through the cheese. Salt adds flavor and acts a preservative. It’s crucial to the final flavor and texture of the cheese. You can learn more in our class on Salt & Its Role in Cheesemaking.
- Air Dry- The cheese must be air dried for proper rind formation. This is done at room temperature and takes 1-2 days depending on your environment. If your air is naturally humid, you may want to air dry in the refrigerator, which has low humidity. Make sure the cheese has airflow on both sides. You can also use a clean paper towel to dab dry as needed.
- Age – Once your cheese is matt or dry to the touch, it can be aged anywhere from a few days to a few years! This is done at 50-55 degrees and 85-99% relative humidity. We like to use a dedicated “Cheese Cave” like a wine fridge. We also recommend using an aging box to better control humidity. You can learn about fun aging techniques in 9 Ways to Age Cheese.
Last, but certainly not least- eat and enjoy your wonderful homemade cheese!
Can’t wait to get started? We recommend starting with our 7 Day Cheese Challenge if you’re a beginner. Use coupon code Basics$10 to take $10 off this course!
~ submitted by Kelly Liebrock April 2022