Cheesemaking: Tips from the Pros

You make your own wine, but have you tried making cheese to go with it? Use these tips to get started on a new hobby or expand your cheesemaking skills.

sarahSarah Carroll: Head of Operations at the New England Cheese Making Supply Company, South Deerfield, Massachusetts.

If there’s a dairy product you enjoy on a regular basis, you can make it. We often hear apprehension when someone is new to cheesemaking and that’s understandable. We’re here to say, you can do it! A simple batch of yogurt is quick and easy plus you’ll gain an understanding of what you’re consuming. Do you enjoy a bagel with cream cheese in the morning? Try making cream cheese; perhaps you’ll enjoy it even more without all the preservatives and thickeners. Have you always wanted to make Feta? You can, right in your own kitchen, and it’s amazing!

If you’re new to cheese making, I would suggest starting with a simple soft cheese, such as Fromage Blanc, Cream Cheese or Mascarpone. These are easy to make and provide almost instant gratification. Not to mention, fresh soft cheese tastes amazing! With a gallon of milk, about thirty minutes, simple ingredients and a quiet place for your cheese to set overnight, you’ll become a cheese maker in your own kitchen.

If you’re looking for the next step, Colby is a great choice since the make process is straightforward and only needs a short aging time. A cheese like Colby will walk you through the cheese making process and get you hooked on the whole experience.

One other important thing to remember is to pick a cheese that you enjoy eating because that’s truly the best part of home cheese making. I don’t have a particular favorite because there’s just too many to choose from. If I’m short on time soft cheese is my top choice, but what I really enjoy is experimenting with new recipes. There can be so many different outcomes with the same recipe just by using a different type of milk, adjusting the culture, having a curd with more or less moisture, the possibilities are endless. I love tasting a new homemade cheese for the first time and making it again to see how the flavor changes as I continue to work with the recipe.

The most important principles of cheesemaking are having fun, cleanliness and taking notes. Similar to home brewing, you will want to have a clean surface and sterilized equipment while making cheese. Providing an optimal environment for healthy bacteria growth from start to finish will help your cheese to flourish.

There may be some trial and error as you perfect a new recipe. Taking good notes will help you track what worked and what didn’t from one batch to the next. To create a fantastic cheese more than once, you should keep track of your milk and ingredients, any recipe alterations, what the curds looked and felt like, etc. For many cheese makers taking notes is one of the most important steps to making great cheese.

Since we started selling supplies in 1978, having fun has been one of our top priorities. We truly love making cheese at home because, well, it’s amazing! So have fun, get your hands in the whey, eat squeaky curds, share your cheese with a neighbor, and don’t forget to visit a local farm to pick up fresh milk. Cheese making is an experience you can have fun with and share with others.

Some of the other most common problems we hear about are issues with milk, usually due to purchasing ultra-pasteurized milk. Many times customers select Organic milk assuming it’s a superior product. Unfortunately, we’ve noticed that Organic milk is often ultra-pasteurized which won’t work for most cheese making. Our general rule of thumb is to buy milk as close to home as possible. Finding milk that was bottled within your own state rather than across the country usually means it had gentler processing. We have a great source for finding good milk on our site, “The Good Milk List.” It’s a list of suggestions from home cheese makers who have found good milk locally.

Mary Karlin Mary Karlin: Cooking teacher, cookbook author, and freelance food writer, Arizona.

I’ve seen a lot of carryover between making wine and making cheese. Learning basic principles of fermentation in one discipline, say winemaking or beer brewing, helps an enthusiast transition to other genres of DIY such as cheesemaking. Generally, the cheesemaking enthusiasts I’ve encountered are also making their own wine, or beer, or into baking bread. Of course, if one has a dedicated wine cave or beer aging environment, there’s an opportunity to age cheese as well!

When I teach “Beginning Cheesemaking” either in the book or in-person classes, I include simple fresh cheeses such as ricotta, mascarpone, panir, and chevre, which are easy to make successfully with minimal skills, in a short amount of time. When you start with simple basic cheeses you’ll have success, feel accomplished, and want to make more! If you set your goal too high at first by maybe wanting to jump in to a more complex aged or blue cheese as your first venture, you may not have positive results and won’t have the knowledge base to assess what took place in the cheese’s development. You first need foundational skills to be a successful home cheese maker. Fresh basic chevre is very versatile. It can be enjoyed plain, flavored with fresh or dried herbs, encrusted or coated with peppercorns or powdered spices, or wrapped in grape or fig leaves and grilled.

When you get more experience, my favorites to make are pepato asiago, cabra al vino, and farmhouse cheddar. These require minimal attention once they are in the ripening stage and they don’t need to age for very long to taste delicious. I’m also crazy about blues but more time is required to oversee their development successfully.

For the best results, as with any cooking, start with the very best quality, freshest ingredients you can procure. Use the recommended equipment such as the heating pots. Also, treat equipment and supplies sanitation seriously so that what you make is safe to eat. Dedicate enough time to your cheesemaking session to have success. Stick with the timelines stated in your recipe. Do not try to speed the process by raising milk temperatures or pushing ripening times!

Cheesemaking will attempt to teach you patience. Slow down, honor the process, and learn to assess what is happening in the pot. Over time you’ll become more intuitive with your cheesemaking based on what you see and smell. Other mistakes beginners make are: Not reading through the directions/recipes before starting a cheesemaking session, and attempting to make batches that are larger than they can successfully handle. I always promote starting with small, manageable batches that take no more than 2 gallons (7.6 L) of milk. You’ll have plenty of delicious cheese to share.

My other advice? Approach your cheesemaking with dedication, but remember to have fun in the process.

VineyardNancy Vineyard: Owner at The Beverage People, Santa Rosa, California

Successful cheesemaking starts with the milk, your attention to sanitation, and following a quality recipe. Buy local whole milk if possible, raw or pasteurized, but not ultra-pasteurized. Pay attention to the sanitation of all equipment in contact with milk. Protect utensils from potential contamination with a new sheet of aluminum foil on the counter as a place to set your supplies. Work from “vetted” recipes from a reliable supplier of cheesemaking cultures. Avoid recipes from the Internet, especially YouTube videos, which are often flat-out wrong.

There are parts of winemaking that relate well with cheesemaking, but there are inherent differences too. The mantra of cheesemaking and winemaking are the same: Take your time, take the temperature, take notes, and sanitize everything you possible can. Winemakers always say they get better every year. Well, we don’t have to wait a year to make a new cheese. Each year of winemaking you do almost the same thing with a few new wrinkles. Each cheese brings a new ingredient or technique. But you are still practicing the successful techniques you learned from the very first batch.

Your notes will really help you as you build the repertoire of cheeses you make. For instance, milk from goats in later lactation in the fall will yield less than spring milk. As the solids content of the milk, i.e. the protein diminishes in later lactation, add more rennet to improve curd formation and setting. Other remedies to keep in mind: adding a bit more culture, increasing the “make” temperature or waiting longer. Choose one or more of these remedies for success in fall and winter cheese making.

One of the biggest mistakes I see from beginners is getting the right temperature. Temperatures for making and culturing cheese are critical. You must use a thermometer that you can recalibrate. An error of 3–5 degrees °F (2–3 °C) could cause curd formation to fail. Most failures happen with Mozzarella making. The Pasta Filata — pulled curd cheeses — demand a lot of the proteins in the milk. Not only do you have to rearrange the proteins to make the curd, but then you stretch them out again to make the cheese strings or balls, which is done at very high temperatures. This is the source of most failures. The basic remedy for success with these cheeses is to add dry milk powder to the milk to improve the protein to fat ratio, leaving additional protein that isn’t all denatured to help with successful stretching. Using 1 Tablespoon per gallon (4 L) of milk should always be practiced as a preventative measure.

Start with quick, fresh cheeses that are easy to make and give you results in a matter of hours and days. Your success will motivate you to try blooming and cave ripened varieties, too. Invest in a real cave (wine cellar) or wine bottle refrigerator. You can make any cheese once you have access to storage with temperature control.

Take the time to lay out the supplies and a timeline, so you have an idea what will take place and when it may happen. Be prepared to wait and revise the timeline. If the recipe says to “test for a clean break” at 30 minutes and the milk isn’t forming curds yet, don’t try to cut the curds, WAIT!

Once you have gained more experience you can branch out. Some of my favorite cheeses to make are Chèvre, Mascarpone, and Crème Fraiche. These three fresh cheeses are always favorites and all almost make themselves. Bring the milk to temp, add culture, rennet and calcium chloride, and wait 12 hours. Drain in molds or cheesecloth. Salt and refrigerate. You also get a developed cheese flavor from the bacteria culture, like Mesophilic Aroma B instead of only a milky character like with Ricotta or Paneer, which are really acidified, boiled milk.