My flatmate Becky and I met a small cadre of friends (and fellow cheese-lovers) in Kathmandu last weekend with the express purpose of making cheese. It’s part of my fascination with the “back-to-basics” lifestyle I’ve referenced previously, and it’s also been on our To-Do list for months.
Fortunately, we had the seasoned expertise of our friend Simon, a British farmer who managed the Denhay dairy farm in Dorset, UK for twenty-five years, before moving to Nepal to help with quality standards in the dairy industry here. (Incidentally, this award-winning farm won the “World’s Best Cheddar” gold medal in 2012. It’s cheese-making at a whole other level…)
If nothing else, it promised to be a fascinating day with an eclectic bunch of widely-traveled people, listening as they spoke of the sorts of challenges that arise in a world entirely different from my own.
Did you know, for instance, that a dairy cow needs to calve annually (literally, delivering on schedule every 365 days) in order to maintain optimal milk production? Or that there’s something called a “Maiden Milker” — the phenomenon of a cow that produces milk even having never calved? (If you grew up on a farm, this is probably not earth-shattering news, but for this life-long city dweller it was a real jaw-dropper.)
We then covered a spectrum of
factors — types of rennet, starter cultures, acidifying techniques, and molds or gas-forming bacteria — that conspire to produce the many varietals of cheese available worldwide, each with their own particular taste and character — swiss, camembert, cheddar and chevre; roquefort, gruyere, gorgonzola and stilton; brie, bleu and boerenkaas gouda…
But best of all, over the next ten-plus hours we learned how to MAKE cheese (specifically, a kind of generic “hard cheese” that we hope turns out something like cheddar…) Until last weekend, this was a process entirely shrouded in mystery for me.
I will now reveal the secret of this not-so-intuitive process, in ten not-so-easy steps, should you wish to try this at home:
STEP 1: Bring milk (we used 40 liters, but less is also fine) to exactly 72°C for 25 seconds to pasteurize, stirring constantly. [Skip this part if starting with already-pasteurized milk.] Then cool to 34°C and add cheese starter culture (100 mL per ten liters, or as directed).
STEP 2: Let sit for one hour, then add rennet — approximately one drop per liter for soft cheese, three or more drops per liter for hard cheese. But it also depends on your rennet; I’m told that “You’ve GOT to know your rennet.” (That may be, but you probably do NOT wish to know from whence your rennet cometh…) Stir for two minutes and let sit undisturbed for another hour, keeping at around 34°C.
STEP 3: “Test the set” by sliding a knife blade (or your hand) down along the inside of the pot, watching to see if it splits as you lift it up. If so, then you’re ready to “cut the curd” into blocks, using a sharp, long bladed knife (lengthwise & widthwise). Be careful not to mash up the curd too much, as this lowers the yield of cheese.
STEP 4: SLOWLY heat back up to 40°C over ONE HOUR (best done in strict bursts of two degrees every 15-20 minutes), then keep it between 39-40°C for yet another hour, stirring gently the whole time. You’ll notice the curds (solid part) and whey (liquid part) separating. (You’ll also notice that we’ve accumulated quite a few hours by now…)
STEP 5: “Pitch the curd” by straining the whole mixture through fine cheesecloth, then return the solid curds to one side of the pot and place it at a slight incline to allow the rest of the whey to drain out. (NOTE: Whey is high in protein, and can be used to make ricotta cheese, baked into bread, or mixed into your morning smoothie.) Let sit for around 30 minutes, constantly cutting and turning it over to dry, and prevent it from congealing into a single lump. (This also gives time for bacteria in the culture to ferment and acidify the curd.)
STEP 6: After removing all excess whey, add non-iodinized salt — 2% of the curd-weight, or 20 grams per kilo of curd. (Assuming a 10% yield, you should get about a kilo of curd for every 10 liters of milk.) Stir vigorously, mixing the salt thoroughly throughout the curd.
STEP 7: Tilt the pot to the side once more for another few minutes to drain any extra whey produced by the salt’s drying effect, then pack the dry curd into cheesecloth-lined cheese moulds (plastic sieve-like containers with little holes for draining out the rest of the liquid) and place weights on top of the moulds (100-120 PSI, if you care about things like that). After 20 minutes, remove and re-pack as before (in order to get out all the cheesecloth-wrinkles). Then leave under the weights at room temperature overnight, or 10-12 hours.
STEP 8: In the morning, gently remove the pressed curds from the mould and pack in cling-wrap, then double-bagging in zip-loc (or vacuum) bags to form an airtight seal. Alternatively, you can try the old fashioned way: wrapping the curd in ghee-soaked cheesecloth scraps cut to size (and then no zip-loc or vacuum bags).
STEP 9: Place in a temperature-controlled fridge at 10°C for 4-6 months (or longer).
STEP 10: Enjoy your hard-earned cheese! (FYI, don’t be put off by mold growing on the outside, especially if you tried the “old fashioned ghee-and-cheesecloth” technique, which is practically guaranteed to mold… It adds character!)