It’s Easy Being Cheesy

My First Cheese--March 2010

I shied away from making cheese for a long time.  I thought, there’s only so much a gal can DIY, ya know?  Isn’t it enough that I grow massive amounts of veggies from seed?  Change the oil in my truck?  Can and preserve food for the winter? Make bread, for cryin’ out loud?

But we eat a lot of cheese in this house–especially when our young cheesehead is present.  You’d think he was born in ‘Sconnie rather than SoDak. The boy has a craving for mac n’ cheese like I have a craving for a summer tomato.

The way I get him to eat fruits and vegetables is to cut them up and put them on a plate with slices or chunks of cheese–not quite enough cheese to satisfy his hunger, and he knows better than to ask for more unless the fruit or vegetable is gone, too.

I also knew that my friend Susan makes cheese–she provided that element of the spanikopita I made last year.  And some of my country friends also make cheese.  In fact, I never knew just how many people around here make their own cheese (at least some of it) until I gave up my resistance to making it myself.

It’s hard to think you’re all that when everybody you tell about your cheese-making ventures says, Oh, yeah, I made a couple batches last week.  What?  You didn’t know how to make cheese?

See, I thought you had to have at least some specialized equipment.  I thought you had to have these very specific kinds of mixes or something you had to order from far away.  I suppose you could order those things if you wanted to, but it’s really not necessary.

Assembled Materials

You will need:
A gallon of milk
1/3 cup plain yogurt with active cultures
1/4 of a rennet tablet
2TB water (to dissolve the rennet)
A little salt
A stockpot with a lid (stainless, glass, or chink-free enamel)
A whisk
A measuring cup (for the yogurt)
A long kitchen knife
A good-sized strainer or colander
A linen kitchen towel that fits in your colander with some overlap

First, I take my eight-quart stockpot and toss my 1/3 cup measure and my whisk inside.  I put about an inch of water in the bottom, clap the lid on, and put it over high heat to sterilize for about five minutes.

Then I take out the whisk and cup with tongs and lay them on a clean towel along with the pot lid, dump the water out of the pot, and set it back on the burner for the residual heat to dry it out and the pot to cool off a bit (you don’t want to milk to scald as you pour it in).

Milk in the Pot

Once the pot is reasonably cool, I take my gallon of milk out of the fridge and pour it in.  What kind of milk should you use?  I have read that the fuller-fat versions are better for cheese-making, and it should not be ultra-pasteurized.  I use raw goat milk.  If you use raw milk, please get it from a farmer you know and trust. ‘Nuf said.

Once the milk is in the pot, I measure out 1/3 cup of the plain cultured yogurt (I use full-fat cow’s milk yogurt–usually organic), dump it into the pot, and whisk it into the milk.  And then I put the lid back on and leave it to come to room temperature.

If you do this step in the morning or early afternoon, you will be ready to do the next step at bedtime.  The idea is to let it sit and the cultures in the yogurt to start working on the milk.  It may seem strange or slightly dangerous to leave your milk sitting out, but I have not had any spoilage doing this.

Once the milk has come to room temperature, take the 1/4 tablet of rennet (this may be the thing you have to order–just do it–it’s dirt cheap and lasts forever) and dissolve it in your water.  Then whisk that mixture thoroughly into the milk/yogurt mixture.

At this point, you’ll put the lid back on and leave it again for a few hours.  I leave it undisturbed overnight.

In the morning, I wash my hands, then stick a finger into it to determine whether or not I’ve got a “clean break.”  The first time I tried to make cheese, I did not know what that was from personal experience, and the whole thing had to be dumped because it hadn’t full separated into curd and whey (that’s what a clean break is).

Clean Break--no doubt about it

The second time, I left it overnight, and when I stuck my finger in the curd, the meaning of clean break was obvious to me.  It will be a little rubbery-spongy, and when you lift your finger up through it, it will “break” over your finger.  Not flow gelatinously.  Not slosh.  It will break.

This is where the fun begins.  If you have little ones around who are at that darling age when “cutting the cheese” is funny and they can also be trusted to use a kitchen knife under supervision, have them cut the curd.  If not, then cut it yourself.

Cutting the Curd

You gently plunge the knife to the bottom of the pot and cut across to the other side–your parallel cuts should be about a half an inch apart, but there’s really no need to measure.  Then do it perpendicular to the first series of cuts.

Congratulations.  You have now cut the cheese.

The Cheese is Cut

Now, get your colander into the sink (or over another pot if you want to catch the whey as it drains off), and line it with your towel.  I know they make this stuff called “cheesecloth,” and perhaps once upon a time it was woven tightly enough that it could actually be useful for making cheese, but now it’s not.  A linen dish towel works well.

Turn the burner on low under your curds and whey.  Are your hands and arms clean?  Hope so.  Plunge your hands and arms down into that pot and start lifting the curds up, breaking any really big chunks, as the mixture starts to warm.

Notice that I didn’t include a thermometer in the list of what you’d need?  I don’t use one.  Basically, you want the whole mixture warm, and how warm you get it will determine how hard your curds will be.

Because I like a softer, more spreadable cheese, I only heat to slightly under body temperature (which you can determine by how hot it feels on your wrist, which conveniently happens to be in the pot of curds and whey).  Once the mixture feels warmed throughout and not cold or cool, I pronounce it ready to drain, and I turn off the heat.

Draining the whey from the curds

Much of the curd will have broken up into smaller pieces by now, and that’s OK.  Start to pour your curds and whey into the towel-lined colander.  Hopefully, your colander is big enough to contain all of it.  If not, you might have to wait a bit for some of the whey to drain off before pouring the rest in.

Once it’s all in the colander, you can wait for it to drain a bit and lift the four corners of the towel–carefully!–and hasten the process.  If you want, you can bind the dish towel together at the top and hang it over the drain or over a collection vessel.  I like to feed some of the whey to the dog, who likes it very much.

Once the curds are well-drained of whey, I use the edge of a spoon to scrape the curds out of the towel and into a bowl and work some salt (about a teaspoon or so) into them using a fork or spoon.

If you made harder curds and you want to press the cheese into a mold (a squat can with both ends removed works nicely), you can do that now, or you can simply pack a softer cheese into a bowl to use as you wish.  In either case, it’s a good idea to refrigerate your cheese at this point.

We have really enjoyed our homemade cheese since I started making it–while we still do buy some cheese from the store, I’ve found this soft goat cheese is really nice for mixing with an equal measure of plain yogurt, a little more salt, and some garlic powder to make a substitute (over whole wheat pasta) for store-bought macaroni and cheese sauce.

M loves it so much, he requested it as a lunch for his birthday–though he could have had just about anything else he wanted.  It cuts down significantly on the cost and packaging waste of buying boxed macaroni and cheese dinners–especially since we tend to buy the expensive organic ones when we do get them.

We also really like it as a spread to go along with bread for lunch or dinner–and it’s good on crackers with a bit of hot or sweet jelly as well.  A harder version is also nice crumbled over a homemade pizza.

Soft cheese packed in its bowl

Let me give credit to those who came before me and taught me that cheese was not solely the province of super heroes (which is not to diminish these friends’ other superhero qualities, which they most certainly possess):

Susan H.–who convinced me I could do it, gave me good advice, and a couple boxes of rennet tablets to start, as well as the link to Fankhauser’s Cheese Page, an excellent and informative resource;

Harry F.–whose homemade goat cheese spread I have eaten much more than my share of on any occasion he made it and I could get at it; and

Twila W.–whose goats’ milk is the source of all this wonderful cheese, and who encouraged me to make my own when I started begging her to make her own cheese plain, without any added flavorings, all the time.

3 responses to this post.

  1. It’s all part of the revolution, isn’t it?
    Now, if I could only get up the gumption (and skill) to make my own tortilla chips… simple in theory – not so simple in practice. Our family must go through 4-5 bags a week!

    Your cheese looks beautiful!

  2. Posted by flyingtomato on July 14, 2010 at 11:19 am


    If you want a partner in your tortilla/tortilla chip-making experiments, be sure to give me a call!

  3. Posted by flyingtomato on April 7, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    No, I just moved to a different state and a different blog! Come join me on Big Stone Bounty!

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