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Home cheesemaking has been in practice for thousands of years and comprised nearly all cheese production until the 19th century. While factory cheese production has taken over the majority of the market, many people still make cheese in the traditional fashion.
General cheesemaking details
Milk contains a wide variety of fats and proteins. Some of these are suspended solids and minerals; others are liquids. The process of separating the solids from the liquids is curdling; the white solid remainder is known as curds, and the greenish liquid remainder whey. Cheese is curds in a wide variety of forms. Soft cheeses are little changed from the original curd; they are typically drained but not pressed, and are usually unaged. Semisoft (or semihard) cheeses are drained and lightly pressed, and may be aged. Hard cheeses are drained and well pressed, and are almost always aged.
To cause milk to curdle requires a curdling agent. There are a wide variety of curdling agents available in nature, both plant and animal based - a quick search of the Internet will show some to you. In practice, only a few are regularly used in cheesemaking. Vinegar and lemon juice are commonly used in soft cheeses, and also assists in making ricotta; it creates a sticky curd in small flecks. Tartaric acid is the sharp, lemony curdling agent that makes mascarpone cheese, and creates a very fine sticky curd. For most semisoft and hard cheeses, rennet is used. There are three types of rennet in common usage. The most traditional rennet is an animal rennet; this is an enzyme taken from the digestive tract of mammals. For vegetarians, more companies are producing a "vegetable" rennet. These are not truly vegetable, but are microbial based. There are two types of vegetable rennet. The more traditional rennet is based on non genetically engineered bacteria. Unfortunately, its curd is often ill-suited for many hard cheeses. Typically used in modern times is one made from genetically engineered bacteria that make the animal-rennet style enzymes. In addition to being vegetarian, It has a higher degree of reliability and consistency than animal rennet, and is widely recommended for use in home cheesemaking.
Aged cheeses change flavor due to the microorganisms that metabolize the sugars and produce by-products (typically bacteria related to lactic acid creation) whose taste people enjoy. Note that having the wrong kind of microorganisms, while unlikely to ever be dangerous, will leave your cheese tasting like vinegar or alcohol, which generally tastes quite bad. Both bacteria and molds are used in cheeses for aging. Bacteria are used in almost every aged cheese. There are two main types: thermophilic (which are found in yogurt) and mesophilic (which are found in buttermilk). There are various species that belong to each category, but as an amateur, one probably doesn't need to worry about that. As for molds, there are a wide variety that are used, and each has its own unique properties and flavors. Some of the more widely used ones are Penicillium roqueforti (blue cheeses) and Propionic shermani (swiss cheeses). Molds, unlike the bacteria used in cheeses, can often spread from cheese to cheese, and thus should be isolated as much as possible when aging. The longer a cheese is aged, the stronger it tastes; this is why Parmesan and Pecorino Romano cheese have such strong flavors. Additionally, cheeses with molds, such as blue cheeses, often develop their flavor faster than those without molds.
Color is related to two things: the natural color (which is usually a creamy white to pale yellow), and additives. The most common color additive is annatto, an extract of the dark red seeds of plants in the Bixacae family, typically grown in South America. Their dark red/orange color dilutes into the typical cheddar-yellow that we're all familiar with. Annatto coloring is generally available in two forms: powder and liquid. The powder can take time to dissolve, and should be added as early in the cheese making process as possible (preferably during pasteurization, as the heat helps it dissolve). The liquid extract is easily mixed in, and can be added at any point before the curdling agent is added.
Traditional food coloring does not work well at all for coloring curds; it tends to remain in the whey instead of the curd. However, adding food coloring to uncolored curds after they have been drained but before they have been pressed leads to an attractive mottled pattern rarely found in commercial cheeses.
Stages and timing
Timings on most stages of cheese preparation can vary, and are listed in the cheese tables below. Some cheese timings will get you the same effect, however, regardless of which kind of cheese you're making.
The first stage is pasteurization. There are two standard types of pasteurization that can be done: cook the milk at 145°F (63°C) for 30 minutes, or 161°F (72°C) for 15 seconds. In both cases, one must be very careful not to scald and must stir regularly.
The second stage is cooling. For home cheesemaking, this is most easily done in cold water or snow.
The third stage (in all cheeses that age except surface-ripened cheeses) is inoculation. This involves stirring in the cultures (both non-surface molds and bacteria); if yogurt is the source of the bacteria, make sure it is completely dissolved in the milk. The milk should have between 30 and 60 minutes to allow the cultures to spread. Be sure to maintain the desired temperature during this time.
The fourth stage is curdling. A curdling agent is added to the milk and stirred in. For rennet, 30-60 minutes should be allowed with the milk undisturbed; the cheese is ready when you can pull the thermometer out of the cheese and it retains a hole in the shape of the thermometer without trying to fill the hole back in. Other curdling agents tend to require 5 to 15 minutes.
The fifth stage (for cheeses that require it) is cooking. This typically is only rennet-based cheeses. The curd is cut up with a clean knife into ¼ to ½ inch pieces. Stirring rates, cooking temperatures, and cooking times vary depending on the cheese, and are listed in the table. A longer, hotter cooking makes a stretchier cheese, but cooking too hot risks killing any added cultures.
The sixth stage is draining. More on that is below.
The eighth stage (on most semisoft cheeses and all hard cheeses) is pressing. More on that is below. Pressing times vary between cheeses depending on the desired texture. Some cheeses are only "gravity pressed" - allowed to compact under their own weight.
The ninth stage, on brined cheeses, is brining. More information on this can be found in the brining section. Brining times vary. Cheeses that are brined are rarely salted as well.
The tenth stage, on aged cheeses, is aging. Conditions and times vary.
The curds, when they come out of the pot, contain a large amount of whey. Soft cheeses often contain some or all of the whey, but are usually drained enough to rid of any poorly-retained whey. Semisoft cheeses are gravity drained, and sometimes lightly pressed. Hard cheeses always need to be gravity drained, and then are pressed.
To drain the cheese depends on the type of curd. Cheese made from milk using rennet or lemon juice can typically be drained into regular cheesecloth (note: real cheesecloth should look similar to a net). Recipes for other cheeses often state that one should drain them into a double layer of fine cheesecloth. A much easier solution is to use a single layer of sturdy, clean paper towel. The cheese comes off easier, and the dirty towel can just be tossed.
If your curds don't need the fine cheesecloth, the easiest way to drain them is as follows. Line a colander with cheesecloth. If you want to save the whey (recommended ? see the section on ricotta), place the colander on top of a wire cooling rack over a large bowl. Pour the liquid into the colander. After letting the bulk of the liquid drain out, pick up the cheesecloth by the corners and hang it on anything in your house that you can hang things from, with something beneath to catch the remaining dripping whey. After this, the cheese is generally pressed.
For soft or semisoft cheeses that need fine cheesecloth, you do not press, and instead just wait for it to stop dripping extensively. This may or may not be followed by a drying process.
Hard cheeses need to be pressed to make them live up to their namesake. While commercial cheeses sometimes use centrifuges for draining and even pressing, the easiest way to press cheese at home is to get a cheese press. Simple modern presses tend to be shaped like old-fashioned top hats made of a solid mesh plastic. Inside of it is placed the gravity-drained curds in their cheesecloth. On top of that goes the other part of the press: a cylinder of plastic on which weights are placed. One should start with no more than 5 pounds of weight. After 30 minutes, if desired, one can flip the cheese and increase the weight up to 2½ times as much; after 3 hours, one can flip the cheese again and increase the weight twofold; again, if desired, once can double the weight after 8 hours. The cheese should always be flipped at least once during pressing. Pressing too hard too fast or not flipping enough can make the cheese stick to the cheesecloth when removing it.
One significant obstacle when pressing in a conventional press is balance. Since the still-soft cheese is easily pliable, it is quite easy for the cylinder to tilt, causing the weight to shift and allowing for further tilting. In addition to the possibility of placing external influences to help prevent it from falling over, I found an effective solution: warp the mold itself. If you heat the mold in a large pot of boiling water, it becomes easily warped (and may even warp itself). You should warp it to the extent that the cylinder can still fit into the mold, but has a somewhat hard time of it and takes pressure to do it. This will cause it to help balance itself and even help it hold pressure down on the cheese when some weight is removed. The only downside is that you occasionally need to help the weight by pushing down on the cylinder a bit yourself. As for weight, a large mixing bowl filled with water is recommended: one gallon weighs eight pounds.
If you don't have a cheese press and don't want to purchase one, anything with small holes (such as a colander) works. Weight is applied to a flat object (such as a plate) that fits over the top. If the "press" is not cylindrical but instead tapers, the weight bearing object needs to replaced regularly with a smaller one.
Pressing is one of the most important factors in determining the texture of the cheese. Lightly pressed cheeses are soft and creamy. Firmly pressed cheeses are hard.
Mold growth on cheese is not a rare occurrence even when cheese is kept for a relatively short period of time. Without a rind, the concept of aging cheeses without mold infection—some of which age as much as two years before use—is unrealistic. The number one key to preventing unwanted mold growth is the development of a good rind.
After hard cheeses are pressed, they are dried. Do not rush this process. Your cheese should not be prepared for storage until it has a solid rind on its outside. If you do anything to damage your rind, re-dry it until a new rind is present. Otherwise, you're almost guaranteed to have a problem with mold.
Salt is important in cheesemaking. Some cheeses have the salt mixed in with the curds; others have the salt coated on the outside, and some cheeses are brined. Salt not only adds flavor, but also acts as a desiccating (drying) agent. Salt on the outside helps with this even more. Brined cheeses often have the best rinds; it also makes them crumbly (has a stronger effect than cooking style).
Brine is salt-saturated water. Some cheeses, after being pressed, are soaked in brine for one to two days. To make brine, dissolve salt in water as much as you can until the water won't take any more. Use it cold. Water used as a weight in pressing can also be reused for the brine water.
Ricotta: a special cheese
Ricotta is Italian for "recooked", and its invention was a boon to cheesemakers. Since cheese is the curds of the milk, the whey is normally a waste product - but it still contains a good bit of nutrients. To waste it has never been desirable. However, ricotta (and similar cheeses, such as Brunost) salvages most of the rest of the minerals using heat far greater than you normally would ever apply to milk. Since most of the fat and protein have already been taken out of the whey in forming the curd, there isn't nearly as high of a risk of scalding the milk. Additionally, the heat is high enough to sterilize the whey, so regardless of what cultures you added during preparation, they will be killed in the preparation of the ricotta. One thing that does not change, however, is color: if your cheese was yellow to begin with, the ricotta will be yellow as well.
To make ricotta, put a pot of whey from any cheese over medium heat for an hour. Then, if it hasn't reached about 200°F (93°C), increase the heat until it reaches this temperature. This helps denature the proteins that suspend the remaining particles in the liquid. Sometimes the heat alone is enough to encourage the separation; often, however, you will need to add a quarter cup of vinegar to the whey from making two gallons of cheese to speed the process (the taste won't be detectable). Cook at this temperature for at least 15 minutes (the longer the better). In the end, you will have the ricotta floating on the top of the remaining whey. Once you let it settle, you will find that the whey looks like slightly murky, slightly greenish water; over 90% of fats and proteins have been removed from it at this point.
Strain the ricotta from the whey through a paper towel-lined colander, and add salt to taste. Once drained and salted, it is ready for use. If you want to make use of the little bit of minerals that still remain in the whey, it can be used as fertilizer.
General rules for making all cheeses
1) Always pasteurize your milk - even if you bought it from the store. Leave your utensils in it while you do this. This will sterilize your pot and utensils, and guarantee that the only things in the milk are going to be what you put there.
2) When pasteurizing milk, do not forget to stir. If you're forgetful, set a timer. If you forget to stir, the milk will scald; scalded milk should never be used.
3) Do your best to avoid contaminating your sample ? try not to put anything that's not clean (including unclean hands) into your cheese.
4) Make milk-cheeses in batches of at least two gallons to save time (requires a large pot). All listings of ingredients and quantities in here will be per two gallons of milk. Cream-based cheeses have a higher yields, and so making batches using one quart or more of cream is generally acceptable (this guide will assume one quart).
Additional rules for making hard cheeses
1) Always use the freshest, most reliable cultures that you can get. That means that you should use freshly purchased yogurt and buttermilk for your thermophilic and mesophilic cultures (respectively). Try to use online supply sites only for your mold cultures.
2) Try to avoid junket. It works for making cheese but is unreliable, and it's hard to tell how much you'll need. Using real, microbial (?vegetable?) rennet works best for most cheeses. It has the advantage that you don't really need to dilute it first.
3) The rind is critical. Nothing prevents unwanted mold growth better than a good rind. Don't consider your cheese ready to age until it has one (some cheeses only have minimal rinds, but it is better than no rind). This means thorough drying and salting. Even mold-containing cheese should have a good rind to prevent growth of unwanted molds. Salt acts as a desiccating agent and helps inhibit mold growth on its own, and should almost always be added.
4) If unwanted mold does grow on the cheese, the standard remedy found in recipes is to "wipe it off with vinegar". More generally, one must first wipe the mold off (damaging the rind as little as possible). Then one needs to sterilize it (while vinegar is traditional, hydrogen peroxide is just as effective). Finally, the cheese must be dried with a clean cloth or paper towel and allowed to re-dry and repair any rind damage. Mold thrives on moisture.
5) Don't wrap aging cheese in plastic wrap - that is a good way to encourage mold growth. If you formed a good enough rind, you can wax it. If you find waxing unreliable due to mold, wrap in aluminum foil. Humidity can be controlled by what you wrap in/seal in - in order from most humid to least humid, plastic wrap 100%, a closed plastic container, a loosely closed plastic container, wax, aluminum foil, paper, or nothing. If your cheese is on a perforated rack, a bowl over the cheese can help maintain humidity. Aging cheeses should be regularly inspected for mold.
6) Bacteria can handle almost any conditions; molds like it moist and cool (not cold). The ideal temperatures for aging most cheeses ranges from 45-60°F (7 to 16°C); however, if one wishes to stop the mold from developing further but allow the bacteria to age more (such as to stop hole expansion in Swiss), it needs to be kept in a colder location at ~40°F (4°C).
Common curdling agents
|Rennet||¼ tsp / ¼ tsp||Coarse / Fine||90-100°F / 90-100°F||> 30 min||Creamy, bulky||Plain|
|Lemon||¼ cup / *||Coarse / Fine||~160°F / *||5 min||Creamy, bulky||Lemony|
|Vinegar||¼ cup / *||* / Fine||~180°F / *||15 min||Grainy, sticky, fine||None to weakly vinegary|
|Tartaric Acid||* / ¼ tsp||* / Fine||* / ~180°F||15 min||Creamy, sticky, fine||Lemony|
(* - in the format "2 gallons milk/1 quart cream")
Lactic acid bacterial culture types
|Name||Inoculation Temperature||Preferred Aging Temperature|
Other common cultures
|Brevibacterium linens||Provides a reddish smear coating and pungent aroma. Surface-coated.|
|Penicillium camembert / Penicillium canidium;||Provides a white fuzz coating. Cultured in the milk itself.|
|Propionibacterium shermanii / Propionibacterium freudenreichii||Develops holes and a sharp Swiss-cheese style flavor. Cultured in the milk itself.|
|Penicillium roqueforti / Penicillium glaucum||Provides the characteristic blue cheese color and flavor; on the rind, eventually turns white in color. Cultured in the milk. Initially produced in Roman times by adding moldy bread to the milk when making cheese.|
|Very stretchy||Initial temperature, 30 min, stirring; raise to 105°F; 15 min, stirring; drain to curd level; 3 hours, no stirring; recut; place in 170°F water; work with spoons to stretch. Work with gloved hands until smooth and shiny, rewarming as needed.||Only with care|
|Stretchy||Initial temperature, 30 min, stirring; 100°F, raise to 45 min, stirring; 30 min, stirring; drain to curd level; 30 min, stirring;||Yes|
|Average||Raise to 100°F, 30 min, stirring; cook, 30 min, stirring||Yes|
|Crumbly||Cook, 30 min, stirring||Yes|
|Name||Final Pressing Weight|
|Creamy||Its own weight only|
|Semi-creamy||5 lb (2 kg)|
|Average||20 lb (9 kg)|
|Firm||40 lb (18 kg)|
|Cottage Cheese||Whole||Rennet||Mesophilic||Set for 20h; raise temp to 110°F over 30m, stir occ; cook at 110°F for 45m, stir occ.||5 minutes, then dunk in ice water for 3 minutes; drain again.||Salt; herbs (opt).||None|
|Overnight Yogurt Cheese||Yogurt||None||None||None||Overnight||None||None|
|Lemon Cheese Spread||Whole||Lemon Juice||None||165°F||Hang for 1h||Salt||None|
|Queso Blanco||Whole||Vinegar||None||180°F (stir often!)||5-7 hours||Salt||None|
|Mascarpone||Cream||Tartaric Acid||None||180°F||1 hour out of the refrigerator, overnight in the refrigerator||Sugar (opt)||None|
|Cream Cheese||Cream||Rennet||Mesophilic||Set for 15h; raise temp to 110°F over 30m, stir occ; cook at 110°F for 45m, stir occ.||6-8h hanging, then mix till pasty||Salt, herbs (opt)||None|
|Neufchatel||Cream||Rennet||Mesophilic||Set for 20h; raise temp to 110°F over 30m, stir occ; cook at 110°F for 45m, stir occ.||8-10h hanging, then mix till pasty||Salt, herbs, fruits, or vegetables (opt)||None|
Semisoft and hard cheeses
|Bel Paese||Cow, Part Skim||Thermophilic||Stretchy||Semi-Creamy||Air||3mo|
|Brick||Cow; Whole||Mesophilic; Brevibacterium linens (opt)||Average||Average||Either air or lightly brined||0-3mo; Traditional brick has B. Linens added before aging.|
|Brie/Camembert||Cow; Whole||Mesophilic, Penicillium camembert and/or Penicillium canidium; Brevibacterium linens (opt) when aging||Crumbly||Creamy. Brie is large wheels, camembert is small.||Air||1-2mo, high humidity. Overaging liquifies the cheese. Traditional brie has B. linens added before aging.|
|Cheddar||Cow, Whole||Mesophilic||Average||Average. Note that it needs to be "cheddared" - press it, then break it up, then re-press||Air||3-6mo|
|Colby||Cow; Whole||Mesophilic||Stretchy ? but replace whey with water.||Average||Air||3mo|
|Edam||Cow; Skim||Mesophilic||Average?||Average?||Air||1½mo +|
|Feta||Goat; Whole||Mesophilic||Crumbly||Creamy||Wait 90m; brine 5-30d||As desired|
|Fontina||Cow, Whole||Thermophilic. Others? P. shermanii?||Very Stretchy||Creamy||Brine, 1d||3mo|
|Gorgonzola||Cow; Whole||P.enicillium roqueforti; Penicillium glaucum (opt)||Average?||Firm||Brine, ½ to 5d||6mo|
|Gouda||Cow; Whole||Mesophilic||Stretchy||Firm||Brine, 3h; exposed, 25d||3-6mo, as long as 2 years|
|Gruyere||Cow; Whole||Thermophilic; Propionibacterium shermanii or Propionibacterium freudenreichii||Average?||Creamy?||Brine, 3h?||3-6mo; various substances be rubbed to the rind, including (in Le Marechal gruyere) Herbs de Provence|
|Limburger||Cow; Whole||Mesophilic; Brevibacterium linens||Average?||Average?||Brine, 1d||3-6mo?|
|Monterrey Jack||Cow, Whole||Mesophilictilsit mesophilic rennet||Stretchy||Semi-Creamy||Air||3mo|
|Mozzarella||Water buffalo or Cow; Part Skim||Thermophilic||Very Stretchy||Creamy||Immediately brine, 60m||0-3mo|
|Muenster||Cow, Part Skim?||Mesophilic; Brevibacterium linens (opt)||Stretchy||Semi-creamy||Brine, 1h?||3mo|
|Parmesan||Cow; Skim||Thermophilic||Stretchy||Average||Brine, 30h||Low humidity; 5-18mo; coat in olve oil every 3mo|
|Provolone||Cow, Whole||Thermophilic, Penicillium glaucum||Stretchy||Average||Low humidity, 3-6 mo|
|Romano||Cow; Whole||Thermophilic||Stretchy||Firm||Brine, 12h||Low humidity; 5-18mo; coat in olve oil every 3mo|
|Roquefort||Sheep; Whole||P.enicillium roqueforti; Penicillium glaucum (opt)||Average?||Average?||Air, but salt well.||High humidity; 3mo+|
|Stilton||Cow; Whole + 1pt Cream||Mesophilic, Penicillium roqueforti||Crumbly||Creamy||Air||Punch holes large enough that they don't close back up; High humidity, 60d+|
|Swiss||Cow; Whole||Thermophilic; Propionibacterium shermanii or Propionibacterium' freudenreichii'||Average of Crumbly||Creamy||Brine 6-48h||1-2m at 60-70°F, 4-12m at 45°F.|
(Due to the difficulty in obtaining recipes for a number of cheeses, this table may be incomplete and/or contain inaccuracies in some cheeses; it should not be used as an authoritative guide. Additionally, traditional batch size and packaging are not covered.)