The Greater Culture: Cheese Making Basics

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The Greater Culture: Cheese Making Basics
Over my years as a home brewer, I've found that both myself and many others in the hobby have an insatiable desire to make things themselves. It comes from the deepest part of our genes. It's in our blood and bones. We all were driven to make things with our hands. Whether you grow your own hops, or rewire your entire house to better suit an electric brewery in your basement, it's that inner drive that compels us to push our DIY attitudes to the next experience. In this case, I'm talking about cheese, and the process of turning liquid milk into hard milk.
The earliest parts of cheese making history (like most ancient traditions) are a bit clouded by a lack of dated transcription. We do know that during the height of the Roman Empire, cheese was a big deal. Given milk's shorter shelf life, milk had to be consumed or preserved quickly. Cheese was how farmers preserved their milk for food stores. Since then, cheese in Europe and America has become a staple food for many families, and its styles vary greatly by region despite it being made from the same main ingredient.
Getting Started and Basic Equipment
The actual making of cheese is something that you should allow yourself a day or half day to do (similar to brewing beer). Most of it is passive (waiting), so if you have a show your binging on Netflix, it would be good to do that while you make your cheeses. Some of the basic equipment you'll need are:
  • A mold of some kind - Even if you aren't making a hard cheese, you still need something to put your curds in, as there is usually always some form of light pressing or at least settling in a mold.
  • Cheese Cloth - This will keep your curds together in the mold and make removing your cheese from the mold much smoother.
  • Calcium Chloride - This gets added to all milk that isn't from a farm. This helps store bought milk coagulate into curd later in the process, and adds additional calcium.
  • Rennet - Rennet comes in liquid and dry forms as well as from plant and animal sources. All are fine for cheese making.
  • Bacteria Cultures - These are like the yeast in your beer. They are mostly made up of different lactobacillus strains (not the same ones mostly found in beer however). The main types are Thermophilic cultures and Mesophilic cultures, each with sub strains within them. They contribute flavor, acidity, and aroma to your cheese.
  • A pot to hold 1-5 (or more) Gallons of milk - 1 Gallon of milk produces roughly 1 pound of cheese. There is only mild stirring and heating, so the milk can get pretty close to the top without worry.
  • Thermometer and Sanitizer - These are a couple things you likely have from homebrewing. Star San works great to sanitize your cheese making equipment as well.
  • Cookie Rack/ sushi mat or both - If or when air drying cheese, you want even drying on top and bottom. If moisture can't escape from the bottom of the cheese it can get trapped.
Most of these things can be obtained from a starter cheese making kit, and some homebrew stores even carry these kits as well.
Your First Cheese
If you're feeling ready to jump into the world of cheese making, I'll go over how to make a quick snack that can be eaten right after it's made. This may not be a particularly exciting type of cheese, but making it goes into all other cheese recipes, and the fast turnaround can help stem the idea of waiting 4 weeks or longer. I'm talking cheese curds. Make sure to buy whole milk. Pasteurized is OK if you have calcium chloride, but you should avoid ultra-pasteurized. There are a lot of directions, but just take it one step at a time and you can do it! Remember to sanitize your equipment.
Step 1: Add your milk to your pot and heat your milk slowly to 96F, In this time stir in your calcium chloride. Once it reaches that temperature, you can kill the heat and stir in a Thermophilic cheese culture. Once the culture is mixed in, set your timer and wait for 30-60 minutes (less time less acid). 45 minutes is a good jumping off point.

Heat Slowly To 96F
Step 2: Add your rennet after the time you chose is up. If you have a dry rennet tab, you can dissolve it in a bit of water before adding it in. Once the rennet is mixed in, it's time to get the timer out again and set it for 30 minutes. Leave it be in this time. The rennet is working with the milk and separating it into whey and cheese curd. After the 30 minutes, go back to your pot and it will look like milk. It will look like nothing happened. But if you take a knife and turn it in the milk, you'll see the surface (and below it has become a gel like consistency). This is your curd, and is the base of all cheese making.
If the curd isn't like a slippery gel, you can leave it for another 15 minutes and remember to either add more rennet next time or wait the 45 minutes.
Step 3: Now it's time to cut the curd. With a knife make a straight line through the curd from one end of the pan to the other. Keep making lines in the same direction about 1/4 to 1/2 of an inch apart. The do the same thing in the opposite direction so it looks like a grid. Lastly, you need to cut them from underneath. Use your knife or a large metal spoon to cut the curd underneath the surface, which will leave you with cube-ish pieces of curd. It doesn't have to be perfect, so don't worry if they all don't look ship-shape.

Cut Curd Into 1/4 To 1/2 Inch Pieces
Right now, the cubed curd is full of whey (the yellow-ish watery leftovers). In order to get this out, we are going to slowly heat the curds to release the whey. If they are cooked too quickly, the outside with firm up and the inside will not be able to release as much whey.
Step 4: Turn your heat on low. The goal here is to raise your temperature to 106 over the course of another 30-60 minutes (The longer the cook the dryer the curd). Again 45 minutes is a good jumping off point. Slowly stir the curds around every 10 minutes or so to further help whey release.
Step 5: After the curds are done cooking, pour everything into a colander lined with cheesecloth and let them drain for 30 minutes. After the 30 minutes is up, move your curds in the cheesecloth to your mold (if they weren't already. Sometimes people drain their curds in the mold), keeping it in the cheesecloth and fully surrounding the curd with cloth. If you have a cheese press, press them at ten pounds for 90 minutes (flipping once at 45 minutes). If not that's ok, you can jerry rig something to put that pressure on your cheese. A gallon jug should do just fine.

Let Drain For 30 Minutes

Step 6:
After the 90 minutes are up, you can unwrap your cheese. Next break up the cheese into a container and add salt to taste. The final cheese should be a lite tasting cheese similar to mozzarella in flavor (but not texture).
Finally, I'm just going to break things down a bit as to what is happening during some of the different steps.
  • In the time that you add the culture but before you add the rennet: During this time, you are giving the culture more or less time to create acid. The more time you give, the more acidic it will be. The bacteria will continue to work throughout the day as well.
  • In the time that you are cooking your curds: the longer the cook the dryer the curds will be.
If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask and I hope you continue to read future cheese articles, where we'll get into so more techniques and cheese recipes.
Thanks for the write-up. I've made paneer a few times since it's tough to find in stores, but I've been interested in progressing to something a little more technical.
Nice writeup. I've always wanted to make some cheese, but had no idea what was involved. This helps demystify things a bit.
Great. I had been trying to rationalize not getting goats, because "hey, I am not huge on goat milk, what else am I going to use them for".
Grrrrrr, goat cheese of course.
One thing at a time. Chickens first, the goats can come in a couple of years.
Thanks for the write-up. Now I really want to try making some cheese.
Thanks! I got a starter kit for my daughter at the LHBS. We'll be tackling this soon.
Thanks for this. My wife has always said she wants to make cheese...
One question. If making a gallon batch, how much calcium chloride and rennet?
Hey @hb2p ,
Calcium Chloride, I use 1/4 teaspoon per gallon of milk.
Rennet comes in tablet form and liquid form. Liquid rennet is also 1/4 tsp (but some home brew supply stores sell double strength in which case use 1/8 tsp).
In tablet form, I use half a tablet per gallon.
Nice article! My wife started making cheese this past year and is loving it. In fact, I'm currently eating some of the mozzarella she made over the weekend!
I need to move her onto the hard cheeses. Daddy wants some gouda.
Awesome stuff. I've wanted to make cheese for a while. This is a nice set way into getting into it. My only complaint was with statementsaid like this "Add your milk to your pot and heat your milk slowly to 96F, In this time stir in your calcium chloride."
How much milk are we talking (I'm assuming 1 gallon)? How much bacteria.calcium chloride per gallon?
That said, we can all do a bit of legwork and find the answers I'm sure. Thanks for the nice write up.
Effing THIS!
Old Self: I like beer, maybe I should make some....
New Self: I like the beer I make.... But something's missing... PIZZA!
And now I guess I'm gonna have to make my own cheese too?
Hells yes!
Thanks for all the great feedback everyone!
@electrolight youre absolutely right. In the future ill focus on being more clear about volume and additions. But yeah its all equally scalable by the gallon.
Very interesting article. Thanks. Makes me want to give cheese making a try!!
Great article. I've made a few cheeses and looking forward to plenty more. It's not a difficult process, but depending on the cheese, plan to devote 4-5 hours for some of them.
A simple cheese like Mozz might only take an hour, maybe less.
And remember, Riccota can be made with the leftover whey, but you only get a little bit unless you add a bit more milk back into it.
"An insatiable desire to make things themselves" is sooo right!
Beer, wine, mead, cider, sauerkraut, sourdough, and now I am going to have to try cheese. Maybe a sourdough crusted sauerkraut and sausage pizza with homemade cheese, paired of course with homebrew.
Great article, you have inspired me!
thanks for this article - you've inspired me to try and make cheese this weekend