Cheese Making 101

When folks find out I have a dairy cow, who when freshened gives me about eight gallons of milk a day, the first question I’m asked is, “What do you do with all that milk?”
My response… MAKE CHEESE!!!

Homemade cheese is probably one of my favorite abilities that comes with owning a dairy cow. The texture and flavor are unmatched, in my opinion, by any supermarket cheese.

So, how does one go about making homemade cheese???

For me, it’s all about the milk. I have a Jersey / Guernsey cross dairy cow… yes, Cookie cow… she’s the cow in the first photo on the blog. I have her bred approximately every other year and then milk for about a year and a half. Just after calving she’ll offer eight or so gallons of milk a day. That decreases as the calf gets more hungry and as she gets on in the cycle. Right now I’m getting between 2 to 3 gallons a day and milk just in the evenings. She calved about a fifteen months ago.

The milk, or more importantly, the health of the cow (or goat) is a HUGE factor in cheese making success. I am a freak for clean! I wash Cookie’s teats before milking. I will only milk into a clean, sterilized food grade stainless steel bucket. I wash Cookie’s teats again after milking and then strain the milk into sterilized glass jars. I use painters tape to date the jar of milk and rotate stock in the refrigerator. When straining her milk, I’m watchful of anything hanging out in the filter. When a cow is fighting an infection in the udder, she will have flaking in the milk. It’s like little milk clots that won’t dissolve in warm water. (Milk clumps that do dissolve are simply butter fat) The clots are created by an increased Somatic cell count (SCC) and are really increased white blood cells responding to an unwelcome guest, bacteria being the most common. If these are present… it alters the ph level of the milk and makes cheese making more challenging. So, happy, healthy cows make healthy, happy cheese!!!

Once you have your healthy source of milk you’re certainly on your way to cheese making. Now, anyone who looks up cheese making on the internet will almost certainly be overwhelmed by the pages and pages of information written for people who already make cheese. So, how to decipher all of the at information…

Cheese making is achieved by adding a culture to milk at a certain temperature and then once the milk has had time to absorb the culture, you add rennet to convert the liquid to a jello type mass. In the pre-culture days… milk was set out on the counter to clabber. What this means is that good bacteria in the air inoculated the milk and raised the acid level of the milk. That’s how different cheeses came to exist… from different bacteria (good bacteria) being isolated to a specific region of the world. Over time, these single strains of bacteria were isolated and cultures were created so you could make Provolone cheese in Texas instead of having to clabber milk in Italy. There are two basic types of cultures that are the foundation of all cheese. Mesophilic and Thermophilic… in essence – buttermilk is a mesophilic culture and yogurt is a thermophilic culture. Blending the two can create even more varieties.

Mesophilic is the foundation for Colby, Cheddar, Feta and the like… Thermophilic is geared more towards Italian cheeses like Parmesan or Provolone. Lipase powder is added for that provolone taste. There is a mold culture that’s added to create blue cheese… really the possibilities are endless! As you progress in your cheese making art form.. you sample different types of mesophilic cultures because each one does have a unique taste! We carry three different varieties of mesophilic cultures and I enjoy the Danisco the best. It’s a very mild flavor and makes a wonderful cheese quesadilla!

Now to the rennet… there are as many varieties of rennet as there are cultures! Rennet is an enzyme which turns the milk into curds and whey. According to histories of cheese making, people in Egypt carried milk in a calve’s stomach and found it to separate into curds and whey… this simple accident was the foundation of storing milk as cheese to keep it from spoiling! Due to modern science the enzymes in a calve’s stomach have been duplicated into a vegetarian form. There is still calf rennet available, but I use Fromase rennet with wonderful consistency.

So, where do you buy cheese making stuff???? Anywhere!!! Before we started Homesteader’s Supply, I bought cheese making stuff from many folks online. My biggest struggle was consistency of the final product. This was one of the reasons for creating Homesteader’s Supply! We have found, in our opinion of coarse, the best source for cheese making information. We only recommend this one book because it’s the only one we use out of probably ten we own. Why make other people buy ten books too and then only use one? Our resource isThe Cheese Makers Manual” by Margaret Morris. It covers all aspects of cheese making from large, professional recipes to home cheese making recipes. There’s a wonderful troubleshooting section that came in handy on many occasions.

I’ll share this story with you. I like to make home made bread… I posted the recipe in an earlier blog. Well, all of a sudden the cheese curds GREW once in the press… smelled yeasty and became spongy! Come to find out (from the troubleshooting section of that book)… cheese curds absorb EVERYTHING and if yeast is in the air…. it will over take any other cultures you have in the cheese! Lesson learned… I could NOT make bread and cheese on the same day!!!

Cultures were another thing we’d order before Homesteader’s Supply and get in a little ziploc baggie. Some times the cheese would turn out great, other times it would taste funny or too strong. Each time I made cheese I was careful to use exactly the same amount of culture. Our quest for consistent cultures to produce consistent tasting cheese brought us to carry Danisco, Sacco and Abiasa cultures. Each hosting a specific flavor but all very reliable for the same flavor each time!

Rennet…. I’ve tried calf rennet, Marshals, JunkIT, liquid, tablets… all sorts of rennet varieties.. The best for setting a quality curd in my opinion??? Fromase! We carry liquid and calf rennet, but the only vegetarian tablet rennet we carry is the one that works for us time and time again.

I share all of this with you so you don’t spend the money I did testing, trying and figuring it all out. It’s up to you certainly… try anything you want. Just know, I’ve done it too and these are the items I liked the best and why we carry them on the store.

Look for the next blog on cheese making for the recipe we use for a great tasting Colby cheese… my quesadilla favorite!!!!!