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Making Mozzarella: A primer on making cheese at home

There are few cheeses as summery and versatile as fresh mozzarella. Sliced up and served with fresh tomatoes and basil, melted on a flatbread pizza, tossed with pasta and olive oil or served on a burger, fresh mozzarella can make any meal seem a little more seasonal. But if you want to make a dish that is truly homemade, don’t go to the grocery store and buy a piece of cheese — try putting together your own batch of fresh mozzarella.

Before You Start

A quick search of the Internet or cheesemaking references will result in lots of varying recipes for making fresh mozzarella. This is no cause for concern as there are many recipes and methods for making mozzarella — and most are successful. You can use the recipe in this article, or choose another that suits you. Do not, however, combine recipes or swap out ingredients or measurements. Unlike adding a dash of “this and that” or making substitutions when cooking, cheese recipes are written to replicate certain conditions, and following the directions for a set recipe will give you the best chances for success. If, for some reason, your recipe doesn’t produce the results you want, only then should you go back and tweak the ingredients or try a new recipe.

MILK CAN BE WHOLE, LOW FAT OR SKIM, HOWEVER LOWER FAT CONTENT IN THE MILK WILL MAKE CHEESE THAT IS DRYER AND LESS FLAVORFUL.

Ingredients and Supplies

To make roughly ¾ to 1 pound (0.34 to 0.45 kg) of mozzarella, you will need a gallon (3.8 L) of non-ultra pasteurized milk, rennet (either animal-based or vegetarian), citric acid, salt and a source of non-chlorinated water. (See recipe below for the amounts). You can use a gallon of normally pasteurized, store-bought whole or low-fat milk, but be sure to check the label to make sure it is not ultra pasteurized. Ultra pasteurizing heats milk proteins too high for cheesemaking purposes and your curd will not set properly. As a general rule of thumb, the more local the milk, the less likely it will be ultra pasteurized.

Milk can be whole, low fat or skim, however lower fat con-tent in the milk will make cheese that is dryer and less flavorful. Also, if you purchase your citric acid or rennet in dry forms, dissolving the ingredients in non-chlorinated water is a must as the chlorine will break down the enzymes in the rennet and your curd may not set up properly. If you are using dried ren-net and citric acid, dissolve them in water according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

For equipment, you will need a non-reactive, 6–8 quart (~6–8 L) stock pot (stainless steel or enamel is best), a non-reactive slotted spoon (plastic or stainless steel are best), a quick-read or cheese thermometer that can measure between 80 and 120 °F (27 and 49 °C), a stainless steel or plastic colan-der, a knife (preferably serrated) that reaches the bottom of the stock pot, a non-reactive 4–6 quart (4–6 L) sauce pan that can accommodate your colander, a 2-cup (473-mL) liquid measuring cup and a set of US measuring spoons (Photo 1 below). A pair of rubber gloves is also helpful.

Clean and Sanitize

Just like winemaking, cheesemaking requires clean, sanitized equipment and surfaces. When making an unripened cheese like mozzarella, unwanted bacteria will not necessarily ruin your cheese — like getting some Brett in your Cabernet — but it can most definitely make someone sick. If you decide to go on to making other cheeses in the future, especially ripened cheese, bacterial contamination could not only make some-one sick, they can also ruin your cheese, so carry your wine-making cleaning and sanitation practices over when you make cheese. Treat your equipment and work area as you would if you were handling any other food — avoid any bacterial contamination. Wash all your surfaces and equipment with soap and water and follow up with an anti-microbial sanitizer.

Bleach diluted in water works fine for cheesemaking. Keep a cup of it handy for re-sanitizing your spoon or thermometer should they become contaminated for any reason.

For this story, I ordered a “30 Minute Mozzarella” kit from The New England Cheesemaking Supply Company in Ashfield, Massachusetts, which contains powdered ingredients, a thermometer and a simple recipe, (adapted below). A kit will make gathering your ingredients much easier, although you can purchase rennet and citric acid separately at any store that stocks cheesemaking supplies.

Troubleshooting

As simple as this recipe is, it’s safe to say that making mozzarella takes a little practice to get the hang of, so don’t feel bad about a funny batch or two. You will start to get the feel of what to look for when the curd sets up, how long to leave them in the rennet and how to stretch and form the curds as you become a more experienced cheesemaker. If you are very timid, try to find a local cheesemaker or cheesemaking supplier that can walk you through the process the first time. Just like winemaking, cheese takes a little experimentation to get it just right.

If you find that you are having a lot of trouble getting the initial curd to set up, even after a few tries, you will probably have to try a different brand of milk. More local milk tends to be less pasteurized, and you can try buying milk from a local dairy if you’re really having trouble. This recipe should work for store-bought, homogenized milk, though, so try another brand first. Another problem may be that the water you used to dissolve the rennet and citric acid could be chlorinated, which will break down the enzymes in the rennet. Use bottled water next time as most bottled waters are not chlorinated. The curd may also not set up because you could be stirring the milk too much after adding the rennet. Be sure to only stir in the rennet for about 15 seconds just to incorporate it before allowing the milk to sit very still.

If you are having trouble stretching the cheese, you may need to warm it up a little bit more by re-dipping in the water bath. If you’re still having trouble stretching, try using more citric acid in your next batch. The cheese’s acidity is what makes it pliable and stretchy, allowing you to work the curds into cheese. Too much acidity, however, can turn the cheese into a big mess. If you’re having trouble stretching the cheese with the amount of citric acid in this recipe, try increasing it by another 1 ½ teaspoons.

If your cheese seems dry, and you are using something other than whole milk, consider trying whole milk next time. If you’re using whole milk and the cheese is still too dry for you, skip the heating and stirring step after cutting the curd. You could also try adding a little bit less citric acid to the milk (about ¼ tsp.) or stretching the cheese less before chilling it down in the ice bath.

Your Cheesy Future

If you enjoy your first attempts at cheese-making and would like to learn more, there are a lot of pathways to explore. In addition to soft cheeses, like mozzarella, there are also hard cheeses, cheeses ripened by mold or bacteria and a nearly endless variety of specialty cheeses. In the future, when someone asks you how your latest batch is aging, you may have to ask, “wine or cheese?”

Mozzarella Recipe

Ingredients
1 gallon (3.8 L) of whole, low-fat or skim milk (not ultra pasteurized)
1 ½ tsp. citric acid
¼ – ½ rennet tablet or ¼ tsp. liquid rennet
1 ¼ cup water (cool, non-chlorinated)
salt
icewater bath

Step by Step
Once you have all your materials together, start by dissolv-ing the rennet tablet in ¼ cup of the water (if you started from dry ingredients).
Dissolve the citric acid in the remaining cup of water. Pour the milk into the large stock pot and add the dis-solved citric acid. Stir well.

Put the pot of milk on the stove and heat the milk to 90 °F (32 °C). Continue to stir as the milk heats. When the milk reaches 90 °F (32 °C), take the pot off the stove and very gently stir in the rennet in an up-down motion for 15 seconds. It is crucial to the curd that you don’t over stir during this step as you may inadvertently cut the curd with your spoon, which can prevent your initial curd from setting up properly. Cover the pot and allow it to sit very still for about five minutes.

After five minutes have passed, remove the lid and check on the cheese curd. The curd should have set up in a solid, custard-like mass in the pot and you should be able to see a clear separation between the curd and the whey around the edge of the pot. You can put your spoon into the pot in between the edge of the pot and the curd and pull the curd away. If the curd has-n’t set up firmly, cover the pot again and let it sit for up to 15 minutes. If the curd still doesn’t set up, try heating the milk to 95 or 100 °F (35 or 38 °C). If the curd is still not setting up properly (i.e.: grainy and looks like ricotta), your milk may have been pasteurized at a high heat and the proteins will not form a curd. (If this happens, see the section on troubleshooting found above.)

Assuming your curd set up properly, the next step is cutting the curd. Take your knife and cut the curd in a checkerboard pattern from top to bottom and side-to-side, making cubes of about 3⁄8 of an inch. The curd should resemble a firm yogurt.

Once you’ve cut the curd, put the pot back on the heat, warm the curds and whey up to 110 °F (43 °C) and remove from the heat again and gently stir the curds for two to five minutes. This allows the curd to firm up a little bit more. The longer you stir, the firmer the finished cheese.

Now ladle your curds into the strainer to separate them from the whey. If you have a purpose for using the whey, such as making a batch of ricotta, reserve it to the side and store for another time. Otherwise discard the whey.

In the smaller sauce pan, heat a few quarts of water to 185 °F (85 °C). You may salt the water if you would like your finished cheese to be a little salty. Dip the colander of curds into the hot water bath, heating them up to about 135 °F (57 °C) or until they become gooey and stretchable. If you have a pair of rubber gloves, this is a good time to put them on as you will be working the hot curds with your hands.

When the curds get stretchy, start out by kneading them like a piece of bread dough on a clean surface, working gently at first. When the curd cools down and becomes less pliable, put it back in the colander and dip it in the water bath again. After a few cycles, you will see the cheese starting to get smooth and shiny. Drain off the whey as you work the cheese. At this point you can start stretching it like taffy instead of kneading. Alternately stretch the cheese and bring it back together until it becomes white and shiny, dipping back in the hot water bath as needed. You can add salt during the stretching process, as well as herbs or spices, if desired.

When you achieve a good stretchiness and a shiny look, form the mozzarella into a ball and plunge it into a cold water bath to cool and set for about ten minutes.

After the cheese is cooled and set, you can slice it up and enjoy it right away or wrap it in plastic wrap and store it in the refrigerator for up to three to five days. Mozzarella also freezes well in an airtight plastic bag with the air removed.

Mozzarella Preparation Photos (photos below)

  1. All the ingredients —milk, citric acid and rennet — and all the equipment you need for making mozzarella cheese at home.
  2. The milk and citric acid are heated to 90 °F (32 °C), then the rennet is folded in. The rennet causes the curd to coagulate. At the side of the pot, you can see the curd pulling away from the whey.
  3. Once the curd begins to set, it is cut with a large knife into cubes with roughly 3⁄8 inch (~1 cm) sides.
  4. The cubed curds and whey are heated to 110 °F (43 °C).
  5. The curds are transferred to a colander, separating them from the whey. They should be heated, in the hot water bath, to around 135 °F (57 °C) before kneading.
  6. The curds are then kneaded and later stretched to develop
    the cheese.
  7. Once the cheese has been kneaded and stretched until it reaches the proper consistency, it is made into a ball and submerged in a cold water bath for cooling.
  8. The finished product, ready for cooking — or just slicing and enjoying with a nice glass of wine.