Homemade cheese and cheesemaking

This page contains a short introduction to making cheese at home.

A little introduction.
I owe all I know to various people form it.hobby.cucina, in particular Faromagio (www.faromagio.it). Also, there are a few books around on cheesemaking, the last one I read is "Cheesecraft: A Manual for Cheesemaking" by Rita Ash and Susan Cutting (mainly on English cheese), but you can find many others around. All the "scientific" information you can find here comes from discussion on it.hobby.cucina (especially with Marilus), or form other sources, such as Professor Fankhauser pages on cheese.

What is cheese?As you know, you cannot keep milk for more than a few days, especially if it is untreated: you can imagine cheese as a way to preserve the nutrients of milk for longer. You can think of cheese as the "solid" version of milk. If you are interested in the composition of milk, have a look at this page. Milk can go through a number of steps before it is converted into cheese: for instance, remove cream to make butter, then make cheese, then make ricotta. In this page I take a simpler approach and I start from whole milk to make cheese.
Essentially, there are two ways to obtain a kind-of-solid product from milk:

  • Acid coagulation: the proteins of milk (casein) are soluble for moderate values of pH, but they are insoluble in an acid solution. So, if you manage to make the milk acid, casein tends to "fall" (precipitate) and separate from the liquid component: this is what happens for yogurt and other kinds of cheese (like paneer, labneh, mascarpone, ricotta, etc.). Also, if you leave yogurt in the fridge, you'll notice that it tends to separate further.
    Milk becomes acid by fermentation: appropriate bacteria are inoculated in milk and they convert the sugar of the milk (the lactose) into lactic acid, thus making the solution acid. This is what you do when you want to make yogurt: you add appropriate bacteria (such as lactobaciullus termophilus, acidophilus, bulgaricus: read the label of any yogurt on the market), they "eat" the sugar (lactose) and they produce lactic acid. These bacteria are particularly active at around 36C, and this is the reason you need a constant temperature to make yogurt in a reasonable time.
  • Rennet: the proteins of milk can coagulate even in a non-acid solution, if an appropriate enzyme is present. The name of this enzyme is chymosine, aka rennet. A scientific explanation of what happens when rennet is added to milk can be found here (in the paragraph starting with "In order to understand how chymosin coagulates milk,..."). For the purposes of this page, it is sufficient to know that rennet modifies casein in such a way that casein coagulates. The solid part of the coagulation is called the curd, and the liquid part is called the whey. Some people call cheese only the product of coagulation of milk with rennet. In any case, coagulation with rennet is the starting point of the majority of cheeses. The common steps to make cheese in this way are listed below

Let's make cheese, finally! This is the procedure for nearly all cheeses made with rennet, the different parameters to obtain different cheeses are explained later.

  • The main ingredients: milk and rennet. The problem is that the milk you can buy in supermarkets has been heavily processed. It is usually pasteurised (meaning that all the bacteria has been eliminated via pasteurisation) and homogenised (meaning that the milk has been pumped through a small hole at a high pressure, to omogenise its consistency and colour, and the fat content has been normalized to something around 3.5%). Especially the homogenisation process is a problem for the coagulation using rennet. Therefore, you should look for unhomogenised milk if possible. I can find unhomogenised and pasteurised milk in Sainsbury's supermarket in the UK, and raw milk in most farmers markets.
    Rennet might be a problem: I can easily find vegetable rennet in the UK, and I can find standard animal rennet in Italy (from "consorzi agrari" and "farmacie"). You can find solid rennet in the US. These are my ingredients:
  • The tools: it easy to make a big mess when making cheese, especially the first times... So, get ready with appropriate tools. You need strainers, a few of them. You probably need 2 litres in volume of strainers for around 4 liters of milk (after draining the final volume will reduce to less than 1 liter). I make my own strainers out of plastic milk containers or other light plastic boxes. You can also buy strainers for cheese on the web, or you can look for them from cheesemakers close to you. Avoid wooden strainers or the cheese will taste like wood... These are my strainers: homemade on the back and donated from a cheesemaker in front.
  • Let's start: place 3 liters of milk in a large pan and bring it to 36C slowly (or it will stick to the bottom):
  • If the milk was pasteursied, you'll need to add active bacteria to develop the taste of cheese. You can buy bacteria from the web, or cultivate them from a cheese you like. Essentially, the curd is a bed for the growth of bacteria; this is what makes each cheese different (apart from the milk!). I use Total Fage greek yogurt (3 spoons) to make soft cheeses like crescenza. Add some milk to the yogurt and stir well, then add the yogurt to the milk, before warming the milk:
  • While the milk warms up, dilute the rennet with water. Follows the instructions for the dose. You typically need only a few drops of rennet. For 1:10000 animal rennet, you need 1g of rennet to coagulate 10000 grams of milk (10 litres) at 36C in 40 minutes, but even if you use 2g it's not going to hurt... In these pictures I used vegetable rennet, a bit less powerful:
  • Add the rennet to the milk, cover the pan with a lid and keep the pan in a warm, draft-free place, for around 40 minutes. The curd should form, you can check if the curd is ready using a toothpick: it should remain vertical if you place it in the curd (the whey is on the bottom of the pan):
  • At this point the curd is ready to be cut. Use a long knife or some other long object (it doesn't need to be very sharp)
  • Keep cutting in perpendicular cuts, in cubes more or less 3cm each side:
  • The size of the cut is one of the parameters that affect the final result. For crescenza, 3cm cubes is what you need. For dry cheeses, you need smaller cuts. In this case I want to make a simple caciotta-like cheese, so I cut the curd further to the size of corn grains:
  • Leave the cut curd to rest for 15 minutes or so, then start removing it and place it in the strainers (this is a tricky point, do this operation close to the sink):
    Notice: if you keep the whey you'll be able to make ricotta (see later on).
  • Leave the curd to drain, you will see it reduces its volume considerably:
  • After a couple of hours or so, you can turn the strainer upside down, with the help of another strainer:
  • From now on, you can turn the cheese upside down once in a while, usually once a day, for the next two to three weeks. In the first three days, spread some salt on the top surface (another technique to salt the cheese would be to soak the cheese in 1l of water with 130g of salt for around 1 hour). After three weeks you should obtain something similar to this (the bread on the left is homemade, see this link for Homemade bread recipes):

How to make crescenza: Crescenza (aka stracchino in some Italian regions) is a soft, creamy cheese, with high water content. Follow the procedure as above, but cut the curd in 3cm cubes, not less. Strain the crescenza and try to keep the humidity as high as possible (for instance by covering the strainer with cling film), and salt the surface every day (you can obtain a better result if you soak the crescenza on salted water the first day). Crescenza is ready after 5 days more or less, it should be creamy and slightly acid (acidophilus is the kind of bacteria you need). If you wait two days only and you do not soak the curd in water but only sprinkle salt on top, you'll obtain the so-called primo sale. Crescenza is typically square, so use a square strainer if possible.

How to make ricotta: Coming soon! :-)