Thursday, February 4, 2010

of curds and whey, poetry and chemistry...

half of cheese-making is washing dishes. and it's all about timing and temperature (and milk and mould and bacteria and...)

okay, cheese lesson! for all of you who want to try this at home. There is so much to learn and I am just getting my feet wet, but I wanted to share a few of the basic things from my notes on The Cheesemaker's Manual by Margaret P. Morris, an awesome reference and full of recipes. A very good place to start. A friend of mine recently asked me in a letter, "How long does it take to make cheese?" and I realized this question has a lengthy answer, dependent upon the type of cheese and the stage in the process-- all cheese is a process of transformation. It begins to be cheese when the curds set up, and you may eat a cheese when it's still quite young, or age a cheese for many years. I guess that's why someone said that cheese is milk's leap towards immortality.
To make cheese, you need milk! Milk is mostly water, but also composed of important fats, proteins, sugars, enzymes, vitamins and minerals! It is pretty much the perfect food, as far as baby mammals are concerned, anyway. So simple yet mysterious. The basic cheese-making ingredients which are added to the milk are:

1. Lactic starters-- these are friendly lactic bacteria that digest lactose to produce lactic acid. They are naturally present in raw milk, but because we must pasteurize for commercial production of cheeses aged less than 60 days (according to the State Department of Health), we add these starters. They can be homofermenters, which means they only metabolize lactic acid, or they can be heterofermenters, which means they produce other compounds that add different aromas and flavors to the final product. They can also be mesophilic or thermophilic, which means the bacteria have different ranges of optimum temperatures for growth-- the thermophiles like it hotter, so they are used for cheeses that have to be cooked at higher temperatures (above 102 degrees F).

2. Maturation and Ripening cultures-- these can be moulds, yeasts, or bacteria-- used in cheeses that are aged or "ripened," not in fresh cheese like chevre or cream cheese. (The language we use for this is so great, no? it's all poetry and chemistry... never thought I would get excited about the latter).

3. Rennet-- often comes from the stomach of a calf, it is a "complex of enzymes" that helps a young mammal digest it's mother's milk. In cheese-making, rennet is used to coagulate the proteins in the milk by cutting them up into smaller pieces-- it gets used up in this process, and a little goes a long way.

After you have added these ingredients at the appropriate time intervals and milk temperatures given by your recipe (sometimes you add cultures and rennet at the same time, sometimes there can be 8 hours between adding cultures and rennet), you will hopefully have some beautiful curd that breaks cleanly if you part it with a finger or a knife. Depending on the cheese, the curd will be cut and ladled into molds, or just ladled in layers, or in the case of a hard cheese like cheddar, cut and cooked and put into molds and pressed and probably some other things I don't remember... Cathy made some cheddar recently, but I haven't been a part of that process yet, just a couple of the "soft-ripened" cheeses such as Chaource and Camembert (yes, this is all very French).

Anyway, if we were picturing a little branching tree diagram of the cheese-making process, there are many points of diversion that arrive at different products and types of cheeses. From here, the cheeses in the molds must drain further whey for some number of hours, again specified by the recipe (usually 24-48 hours). When they are firm enough, they are salted-- to activate those ripening/maturation cultures that will produce the rind-- if these are a mold, then that growth of the mold is called "blooming." Other types of hard-rind cheeses are washed with a salt brine of the various bacteria, yeasts, and/or molds called for in the recipe to produce that particular cheese rind. So it can get complicated fast.

By the way, Cathy gets her cultures (and other cheese-making paraphernalia such as molds and utensils) from this lady in Canada (Glengarry Cheesemaking).

So that's what I know thus far-- there will be more to come for sure. Magic and mystery!

Sleep tight and sweet dreams!

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