Picture courtesy of Wendy Chamberlin.
It began, as so many bad ideas do, as a chemistry experiment.
During my last year of high school, I took chemistry at home in our kitchen. I was homeschooled until college, so this wasn’t a sign that my school had messed up—it was an inventive way of meeting the state’s requirements. The book I used, Culinary Reactions by Simon Quellen Field, offered recipes to illustrate the chemical concepts it explained. In the chapter “Colloids, Gels, and Suspensions,” the example it used was cheese. So that was my homework: Make cheese.
No problem, I thought. I’ve made cheese before.
The basic principle behind making cheese is that it’s just fermented milk. When milk begins to ferment, its whey separates from its fat. Unlike other forms of fermented milk, such as yogurt and kefir, cheese has as much whey squeezed out of it as possible before eating. This is what makes it solid. While thick Greek yogurt has been strained, most cheese is strained, then pressed under heavy weights. Only the loosest cottage cheese skips this step.
So—oversimplifying a little—cheese is cultured, squished, and sometimes aged milk fat. To get the fermented milk to a point where you can strain it, however, you have to make sure its whey has separated enough that you can cut the milk fat into curds. Before that point, it’s still essentially a single liquid solution—there’s a little whey on top, sure, but what remains underneath that layer is impossible to strain, because you can’t use cheesecloth to separate a liquid from more liquid. You need to achieve curd consistency.
How do you do this?
In the fall of my senior year in high school, I began my chemistry experiment. I sterilized a pot, to make sure the only cultures that got into the milk were the ones I had put there. Then I filled it with milk, which I cultured with a heavy dash of buttermilk, and left it in the oven with the door open—where it was warm enough that the bacteria could do their work—for thirty-six hours. At the end of that time, I dissolved a quarter tablet of rennet in water and mixed it into the cultured milk, then went back to waiting. This time, the wait was shorter: By the end of two hours, the book promised, the rennet would have separated my milk into whey and curds. Two hours at most.
Reader, I waited for eight.
That evening, forced to confront the fact that my milk was not, in fact, going to separate into whey and curds, I poured it down the drain.
What had gone wrong? Had the oven light, which automatically goes on when the door opens, killed my bacteria? Had I re-contaminated the pot after sterilizing it and introduced a microorganism that competed with Lactobacillus? My milk had smelled warm and fermented, so I didn’t think that was the case. Then what had my mistake been? I didn’t know, but I wasn’t ready to give up.
During my second attempt, I stored the pot in the oven again, but used less rennet. This time, my milk fat solidified—not as much as the demonstration in Culinary Reactions had showed, but enough that I was able to cut it into curds. I warmed them to coax out as much whey as possible, then began straining, a process that took all day. It was nine at night by the time I performed the finishing touches: salting the cheese, then microwaving some dried cherries with sugar and water and stirring them in.
At this point, the recipe called for a 50-pound weight. I was supposed to press the cheese to drain out extra whey and age it in the refrigerator. I didn’t feel confident enough with power tools to make myself a cheese press, however, and to prepare my cheese for aging, I would have to roll it in melted wax, which meant melting wax in an aluminum container on the stove. That just seemed like a waste of resources. What I had approached cottage cheese consistency, which seemed cheese-like enough to me to pass muster. Skipping the last step, I covered the bowl of cheese and put it in the refrigerator.
The next day passed without an opportunity to share my cheese with my parents presenting itself. And the day after that, my parents came upstairs with some bad news.
“Honey,” said my mother, “about your cheese?”
They were both standing on the stairs, watching me, which meant it was serious. “Yes?”
“Apparently homemade cheese has a shorter shelf life than other cheeses,” said Mommy.
“It’s covered in these lumps of brown mold,” said Daddy helpfully. “I didn’t know mold came in that color.”
Here’s the silliest mistake I’ve ever made in the kitchen: I mourned all day and ignored the tickle of intuition telling me to check my parents’ work. The next morning, I uncovered the bowl, which my parents had left on the stove overnight to save fridge space. You’ve guessed: It looked exactly how it had looked when I’d put it in the fridge three days prior, except that a little bit of whey had separated because my parents had taken it out of the refrigerator.
“Mommy? Daddy?” I said. “Are these your lumps of mold?”
Mommy leaned over and peered into the bowl. “Yeah, those.”
“Those are cherries.” (See photo above)
My cheese had been fine when my parents had well-meaningly removed it from the fridge the previous day. My inaction, however, had led to it being left out on the counter for too long. None of us dared eat it now. That evening, I carried the bowl of cheese outside with the air of a funeral procession and scraped it onto the grass, where my cat tried to eat it.
For the next nine months, my priority was finishing high school. I graduated in June, receiving an Advanced Studies diploma despite having gotten uninspiring results in my cheesemaking chemistry lab. With three months before college stretching ahead of me, I decided to try one last time to make cheese.
I checked my old textbook/cookbook out of the library. I went back through the steps. Sterilize the pot, check. Culture the milk, check (but this time, to avoid wasting money if something else went wrong, I used a cheaper milk and made a half batch). Because I’d been worried that the oven light had killed the bacteria during my first try, I left the pot on the stove this time; since it was summer, the air was warm enough. After thirty-six hours, the milk was ready for rennet—in fact, it had already curdled, but I didn’t know what would happen if I tried to cut the curds without adding rennet, so I dissolved a half tablet of rennet in water and left it for an hour.
At the end of the first hour, my cheese-to-be was more liquid than it had been before I’d added rennet. Feeling the first stirrings of foreboding, I let it sit for another hour. When two hours had gone by without change, I summoned reinforcements.
“How much rennet did you put in?” said my mother.
“Half a tablet. The recipe called for a quarter, but it said half would make it curdle faster.”
“Did you remember you were making a half batch?”
We sat with the enormity of that. Could four times the necessary proportion of rennet have made my cheese refuse to curdle? That didn’t seem right. Rennet is supposed to make cheese curdle, not give up on curdling.
“Can I make a suggestion?” said my mother, when it became clear that we were stumped.
I said reluctantly that suggestions were allowed.
“Give up,” she said. And I was so tired of making cheese, I agreed. Instead, since I had made quite a lot of perfectly good yogurt, I ate it unstrained with jam for the next two weeks.
What did I learn? Well, I got one in a long line of lessons from the universe telling me to trust my intuition—and take responsibility for errors when they happen. Although my parents apologized for their part in ruining my second batch, I was responsible for it, and it was my choice not to verify whether my parents’ “mold” was supposed to be there.
As for the technical craft of cheesemaking, research after the fact tells me that moving the cheese out of the oven during my third try may have been the wrong decision. Cultured cheese refusing to set “is most commonly caused by the temperature being too cool at the fermentation stage,” Cultures for Health tells us. “If you have let your cheese ferment for 12 hours and there is no firming up or change in the texture of your milk…move the cheese to the oven and turn on the light.” In other words, don’t be afraid of warming up your cheese as it curdles.
But perhaps the most important lesson I learned was that even when things don’t work out according to plan, the world doesn’t end. After all, I made some awesome yogurt. Particularly for those of us who take responsibility for our own food, and consequently run into all sorts of misadventures the rest of the world just doesn’t experience, laughter is an essential skill. So is moving forward: Even though I’m sick of making cheese after this experiment, I still prioritize eating real food and building a relationship with the earth. And ultimately that’s the important part: looking forward to the next adventure.
Claire E. is a college student interested in sustainable development, independent living, and the stories and music that connect us. You can read more of Claire's blog posts here.
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