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Home :: Cheesemaking Basics

Cheesemaking Basics

What is cheese?

In its most basic form, cheese is simply curdled milk. It is generally believed that cheese was "born" about 10,000 years ago when someone discovered that their liquid milk changed into a solid mass when stored in a common vessel of the time, the stomach of a ruminant animal (most likely a goat). It seems that some brave person tasted this mysterious solid substance, and cheese was born. Now we know that it was the rennet, which occurs naturally in the stomachs of ruminant animals, that caused the milk to transform into curds and whey for those first cheesemakers. The process has been refined over time, of course, but the basics are still the same: milk, with the addition of coagulant (such as rennet), specific bacteria, and variations in the make procedure, results in the amazing array of cheese types available today.


Where do I start?

If you are new to cheesemaking, you may want to start with a very basic cheese. Most people new to the process find it is easy to start out with a soft fresh cheese such as chevre, queso blanco or cream cheese. These cheeses require little in the way of ingredients and equipment and are eaten fresh, never aged. Though these are very basic cheeses with typically simple flavor profiles, they can easily be enhanced with the addition of herbs if so desired.


Equipment you will need to get started

It's likely you already own several pieces of the equipment you will need to get started in cheesemaking. Below is a list of the basics. Stainless steel or glass is always recommended over aluminum equipment since aluminum is easily damaged by many sanitation methods. For sanitation tips, please visit our Sanitation Guidelines page.

  • Large stainless-steel pot(s): your cheese pot should be large enough to comfortably hold at least two gallons of milk. It's even better if you have two pots, because it is best to heat your milk using a double-boiler method to heat the milk evenly and to prevent scorching. If you don't have two large pots, another method is to use your kitchen sink basin as your water bath; this method requires only one pot.

  • Food thermometer: your thermometer should be able to accurately read up to 220ºF. Calibrate your thermometer by placing it into a glass filled with mostly ice and some water; after a minute or so, make sure your thermometer reads 32ºF. Most analog thermometers can then easily be adjusted by twisting the nut found on the back of the head. With your thermometer in the ice water, turn the nut until the temperature is correct.

  • Stainless steel or glass measuring cups and spoons

  • Large stainless steel spoon, preferably slotted, for stirring and scooping

  • Knife with a long blade (12" minimum) for cutting your curd

  • Colander

  • Fine-weave cheese cloth, butter muslin or draining bag. Most "cheese cloth" sold as such is not adequate, nor made, for actual cheesemaking. Look for a finer weave cheese cloth and avoid the typically loose-woven fabric sold under the name cheesecloth.

  • Molds or forms: these are available in a wide variety of shapes and sizes that are usually specific to the type of cheese being made. Once you move on to the more advanced types of cheeses (pressed and/or aged), you will need  molds with followers and a press.

 

Ingredients

  1. Milk

To make cheese, you need milk — preferably fresh, good-quality milk. The quality and characteristics of your milk will have a major impact on your final product. Some people are lucky enough to have access to milk close to the source or even straight off the farm; others (most of us) must buy our milk at the grocery store. Unfortunately, milk from your local grocery is likely so processed that it isn’t optimal for making cheese. Therefore, when making cheese, it is important to know how your milk has been processed before it gets to you.

For legal sale in most states, milk must be pasteurized (heated to a specific temperature to kill bacteria). Legal pasteurization has a minimum legal requirement, but some milk producers surpass these minimum temperatures in an effort to extend the shelf life of their product. The more highly heat-treated your milk is, the more difficult it will be to get it to coagulate properly when making cheese. For best results, look for milk that is not ultra-heat-treated or ultra-pasteurized (UHT or UP). Such milk has been heated at such high temperatures that its protein structure is affected (denatured) and it will not coagulate very well — even with the addition of calcium chloride (calcium chloride assists with coagulation). By federal law in the U.S. (FDA), milk that is ultra-pasteurized must be labeled as such. Avoid using milks with ultra-pasteurized, UHT or UP on the label if possible.

Though less critical, it is also better when making cheese to use non-homogenized milk (sometimes referred to as “cream-top”). Lastly, you should opt for whole-fat milk for best results for most types of cheeses.

Many of our customers have luck finding good cheesemaking milk by sticking with milk producers that are local or at least regional, as these producers are less apt to ultra-pasteurize their milk and may even offer the non-homogenized variety of their product.

 

  1. Other ingredients

The other ingredients you will need vary greatly according to the type of cheese you are making. Every type of cheese has its own requirements for type of culture (bacteria), coagulant, salt, etc. Below are links to our recipes for a few types of cheeses. Please consult these recipes to create your shopping list.

IMPORTANT: Please read your recipe completely before starting your cheese make.

Easy/Beginner Cheeses

Chevre (traditionally made with goat milk but can be made with cow milk)

Cream cheese (requires cream instead of milk)

Queso blanco

Intermediate/Advanced Cheeses

Feta (traditionally made with goat milk but can be made with cow milk)

Mozzarella

Cheddar/cheddar cheese curds

Brie/Camembert

Gouda

Swiss

You may note that pH (acidity of the milk/cheese) is often mentioned along the way in our recipes. We encourage cheesemakers to monitor pH during the process because it can help troubleshoot if there are problems, but it is not absolutely necessary in most cases.

 

Basic Steps to Cheesemaking

Below we offer a quick primer outlining the most basic steps to making cheese. THIS IS NOT A RECIPE. Please consult your specific recipe(s) to learn the ingredients and procedure needed for the style of cheese(s) you want to make. Note that approximately 10 lbs. of milk = 1 lb. of cheese, depending on the milk used and cheese type.

Step 1: Heat milk slowly and evenly to temperature specified by your recipe (usually between 75-90ºF) and add freeze-dried culture. This is best done using the double-boiler method.

Step 2: Allow bacteria in the culture adequate time to grow in your milk per your recipe. This ripening period varies greatly by culture and type of cheese; it is during this ripening period that the pH of your milk begins to drop and flavors are already beginning to develop.

Step 3: Add diluted calcium chloride (optional, assists with coagulation when using store-bought milk) and then diluted coagulant/rennet as directed by your recipe. This will cause the curd to form and begin to separate from the whey. Allow milk to coagulate completely per your recipe.

Step 4: Cut the curd: With a long knife, gently cut your curd mass into equal -sized cubes. This is easily achieved by cutting in two directions at a 45º angle. Allow cut curd to “rest” (heal) for a bit; this resting time allows the curds to release more whey and to toughen up somewhat.

Step 5: Drain whey off of curd. This is done many different ways, but for fresh, unpressed cheeses this is usually achieved by ladling curd into cheesecloth-lined forms. Allow to drain naturally. You may wish to save the drained whey, as it can be used to make ricotta. The curds will compress under their own weight as the whey drains, so fill your forms to the very top — you can expect the mass to shrink as it settles in. Allow to drain for the amount of time specified by your recipe, usually about 12 hours. Some cheesemakers like to flip the cheese (remove from form, flip, place back in form) halfway through the draining period for a consistent drainage and appearance.

Step 6: Remove your cheese from the form and allow to dry on sanitized draining mat. Note that this part of the process varies significantly between the different types and styles of cheese. Some cheeses are pressed in a mold with a follower and weights, etc.