Home Cheesemaking

My name is Karen Pease; I'm a 23 year old computer programmer with a hobby of cheesemaking. I've been doing home cheesemaking on and off as a hobby (and, in some cases, as money saver) for 2-3 years now. Most of my work has been on soft cheeses, but I am currently working on getting better at semisoft and hard cheeses.

I created this page to discuss my process for the major steps in making cheese. Today (March 9th, 2004) I will be creating three cheeses: ricotta, mascarpone, and a marbled cheddar. First, a quick look at the refrigerator that I use for my cheeses.

It was free, so I immediately jumped at the possibility of getting it; of course, since it wasn't new, I peroxided the inside of both compartments and the top to make sure that they were sterile, since fighting mold is one of the hardest parts to making hard cheeses.

The refrigerator compartment is kept around 55F. The freezer compartment is kept around 35F. The refrigerator compartment is used to age cheeses, while the freezer compartment is used to (briefly) store milk and cream picked up at the store. The temperatures are regulated via a power switching device connected to my computer which times the on/off cycles.

Onward to the cheesemaking. First, I take two gallons of whole milk. It's already pasteurized, but for several reasons (it's an easy way to sterilize my utensils and the pot itself, it helps ensure that the milk is 100% clean, etc) I pasteurize it again myself. I generally do a 140F/30 minutes pasteurization instead of the 161F/15 seconds pasteurization because it seems to have less risk of scalding, in my experience.

Meanwhile, with the first batch of cheese that I make in a day (this was the first), I sterilize my cheesecloth and the press (seen here is the cheesecloth). When doing multiple batches in a day, I don't consider there as having been enough time to risk any bacterial or mold buildup, so I simply clean them with hot water. I pour the residual boiling water from the sterilization slowly across all parts of the sink (both sides) to help ensure a clean environment for draining and pressing.

When the milk has been at the desired temperature for the desired time, I take it off the heat and place it in a bath of cold water to help cool it down quickly and minimize its exposure to potential airborn contamination while cooling. On the left in the picture, the cheesecloth is hung to dry. From this point until everything is done draining and pressing, the kitchen is off-limits for purposes other than cheese (besides, the cheese and related preparation tools take up a lot of the area, so it would be hard to make use of the kitchen anyway).

Next is innocculation. Since I'm making a cheddar, I innocculate with buttermilk. I've tried using starters that you can order from online cheese supply stores, but found them unreliable. Buttermilk is consistant for a mesophilic cheese. When making italian cheeses, I use plain gelatin-free yogurt for the thermophilic bacteria. My mold cultures are from cheese supply stores (naturally, none of them are used in here)

After the bacteria have time to become established in the milk, I add rennet and let it set. After the rennet is well set (I use as a standard, if you can take the thermometer out and the curds don't try and fill up the space at all, it's ready), I cut it. Depending on the type of cheese determines how it is cooked next; here, I let it set for 10 minutes to mat slightly, then steadily raised the temperature to 115F over 30 minutes, stirring regularly.

Next, the curds are drained and the whey is saved. With my setup, I use a clean mixing bowl with a clean cookie sheet resting on top (note: not sterilized, as the whey will soon be brought to near boiling temperatures, so it isn't needed). On top of the bowl is a sterilized collinder with the sterilized cheesecloth draped over it.

The next step is pressing. The curds, once thoroughly drained, are placed into the sterilized cheese mold. I've actually modified the generic cheese press to make it better balanced: I left the mold in boiling water for a protracted period of time, and then warped it to be dented inward. The net effect is that now the press part fits tightly into the mold. While this means that gravity alone often isn't completely enough to compress it (you regularly have to push it further down into the mold), it has the big advantage of greatly improving the stability of the system - the press can't shift its weight around on the still maleable cheese and fall over. Seen here, the press only has a minimal amount of weight on it to start (a small amount of water inside the press).

While it's pressing, I went ahead and started the ricotta. At this point, the whey just needs to cook for a bit, so I just get it to an initial temperature. Note that I don't clean the pot out first, as it's going to get very hot shortly.

I increased the weight on the cheddar slightly, and then started the mascarpone. The cream is poured into a clean pot and heated over medium heat. This, too, need not be sterile as it is going to get quite hot.

At this point, the cream has reached 180F. I now add tartaric acid. Depending on how sharp of a flavor I want, I add between 1/4 and 3/4 tsp. I prefer 1/2 tsp - it has a lemony tang, but it's not overpowering. Once added, I'll maintain the temperature for 15 minutes, stirring regularly.

In between stirrings, I take a break to cheddar the curds (thus making it a cheddar cheese ;) ). I begin by washing my hands thoroughly, since I'll be directly handling the curds and do *not* want to get any mold on them at this point (or I'll be paying for it through the aging process by having to try and stop mold growth). This is "marbled" cheddar - it's an invention of mine. Instead of adding annatto to the milk before the curdling, I add it after the curdling when cheddaring. Not only does it take less annatto, but it gets an attractive "marbled" appearence. At this time also, I add the majority of the salt. After cheddaring, the curds are placed back into the cheesecloth and re-pressed, this time at a higher pressure (I use bowls of water as weights).

After cleaning off my hands, I go back to the mascarpone. After a little longer, it is ready to be drained. I used to drain through the standard substance (a double layer of fine cheesecloth), but found this to be awkward. Instead, I have found that clean paper towel (I keep a roll specifically for it) works better - the mascarpone doesn't cling to it, and slides right off once thoroughly drained, and the paper towel can be composted.

Back to the whey, I raise its temperature up to 200 degrees, stirring regularly. I then add in white vinegar, which causes it to immediately begin to curdle. I stir regularly for 5 minutes, until it seems to not be separating any more and the whey is now easy to see through - a faintly greenish liquid.

Next, I drain the ricotta (normally I use the same collinder that the mascarpone is currently in, since I normally don't make them at the same time). If I feel up to it, I save the remainder of the whey for my garden in a similar manner to how I saved the initial whey from the cheddar. I drain the ricotta through paper towel as well.

The ricotta finishes draining first. I salt it and store it in a sealed plastic container, and it's done. I end up with a ton of ricotta when making hard cheeses, so I end up eating italian a lot and giving a lot away to friends. ;)

The cheddar is set to dry on a peroxide-wiped cooling rack, after having its outside salted. The window on the right is open to allow thorough air circulation to help it develop a rind as quickly as possible (the salt helps this as well). A good rind is important to reducing mold and retaining moisture. Once I'm satisfied with the rind, I wrap it loosely in aluminum foil (too tightly and it will mold), label it, and put it in the refrigerator to age.

After two hours of draining, the mascarpone's collinder is put in a pot and left to drain in the cold compartment of the refrigerator (what is usually the freezer compartment, but what I keep at refrigerator temperatures). In the morning, it is completely drained.

While mascarpone is sold unsweetened, for my personal use I always mix sugar into it first. It's probably my most widely used cheese - I use it on everything from dipping fruit to serving with tart desserts to mixing with whipped cream for a great topping (especially in tiramisu). Store mascarpone doesn't even compare, and it's really expensive by comparison.

So, in short, this is a sample of how I make cheese. The precise methods vary depending on the type of cheese (for example, none of these cheeses were brined - I have, in the refrigerator's inside picture, two small batches of feta brining on the lowest shelf); however, this gets you a general idea. At least initially, I'd only be selling soft cheeses (I think I've pretty much perfected making them). While my success with hard cheeses has generally been of the caliber that we eat at home, and the taste is quite good, I'm still working on getting nice attractive rinds and getting better at preventing mold, so I wouldn't be putting any up for sale yet (although some of my more recent batches are looking pretty nice! I've got a soft cheese that I coated in Herbs Du Province that makes the refrigerator smell really nice, and I'm just dying to try it...).