Making Cheese, Part I / by Anne

IMG_7501 A couple of days ago I made mozzarella cheese for the first time as a homework assignment for a cheesemaking class.  It was a thrilling and satisfying experience to make my own cheese (pictured, above on the right, dipped in herbs and olive oil).  At this point my brain holds about a pamphlet's worth of knowledge in the vast Library of Cheese in the sky.  Can you get a doctorate in cheese?  Here are a few of my favorite concepts and tidbits from this teeny store of cheesemaking knowledge.

Oh, but first, a quick synopsis on cheese, which you know if you’ve ever seen a cheese-making show on PBS.  Cheese is essentially coagulated milk solids. People accomplish this coagulation by using acid, bacteria, and/or rennet, which separates the milk’s solids from the liquid whey (these solids are treated, shaped, or aged in thousands of different ways, depending on the type of cheese).  This coagulated solid is called “curd.”  The whey is a by-product with many potential uses, though sometimes it is thrown out.

  • After the culture/acid/rennet is added to the milk, and the curd first separates from the whey, that curd has a dreamy, creamy texture to touch.  Like perfectly soft flan meets a baby’s cheek.  “Curd” is a horrible name for something so luxuriously silky and supple.  It’s a joy to pour off the whey; it’s an excuse to get your hands on that tender heft of softness.
  • Whey makes a great fertilizer for the garden, especially for acid-loving plants and squash plants.  I poured it on my blueberry bushes the other night.
  • Cheddaring is a verb.  To “cheddar” your curd means to cut it up and stack up pieces of it to help it expel whey using its own weight.  Curd that has been cheddared becomes tough, like chicken breast.  I’m not sure yet how cheesemakers get rid of that toughness.  Does aging soften it?  Talk to you later about that.
  • The holes in Swiss cheese come from a bacteria culture added to the milk that produces carbon dioxide gas bubbles.  This is the case to a lesser extent with cheeses with tiny holes, like Havarti.
  • The higher the acidity in a cheese’s cultures, the lower the moisture and stronger the flavor.  Why?  It’s not just that acidic cultures are so flavorful.  Acidity speeds the removal of the liquid whey from the solid curd.  Less moisture means more concentrated flavors.  This seems like common sense, but I never put it together before--that a relatively moist and bendy Gouda or Swiss is so much milder in flavor than dry, crumbly, pungent parmesan.  Or, say, provolone versus sharp cheddar.  Cheeses that age longer also lose more moisture and allow more time for cultures to develop, which equates to even more flavor.
  • Okay, but what about blue cheeses?   They’re intensely flavored but not dry.  They have their own unique bacteria, penicillium roqueforti, which introduces the flavor force of that is The Blue.   
  • It seems like summer’s a great time to make cheese.  Your local farmers are trying to get rid of extra milk because that’s when cows are making more and people are drinking less.  And then you have all that extra whey to go out and fertilize your squashes.