Making Hard Cheese at Home

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Learn to make cheese at home. Healthy, delicious and versatile, you can use your cheese in a wide variety of recipes.
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Step 3: Mix in rennet.
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Step 2: Add starter (optional).
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Step 4: Let set until curd breaks cleanly.
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Step 5: Cutting the Curd.
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Step 6: Stir curd by hand.
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Step 7: Warm slowly for one hour.
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Step 12: Dress the cheese.
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Step 10: Salt the curd.
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Step 13: Press cheese.
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Step 9: Pour curd.
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Step 11: Form into a ball.
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Step 14: Paraffin, then store in cool place.

The recipe that follows is a basic formula for producing
natural (uncolored, unprocessed) hard cheese at home. Keep
in mind, however, that domestic cheesemaking is an
imprecise art at best. Many variables—such as how
“ripe” the milk is, the length of time (and the temperature
at which) the curd is heated, and the number of weeks of
curing — effect the flavor and texture of the end
product. As a result, you may find that you have to
slightly adjust the techniques involved to suit your own
tastes and kitchen conditions.

To begin making cheese, all you need besides milk is a
floating dairy thermometer (most any immersible type will
do), two enameled containers (one of which can “nest”
inside the other), rennet, a long-handled spoon and knife,
three or four yards of cheesecloth, a colander, a one-pound
package of paraffin, a press something like the one
detailed below … and an all-abiding appetite for good,
flavorful food.

(Our thanks to Chas. Hansen Laboratory, Inc. for providing
much of the information presented here.)

1. Prepare the Milk: Heat to
86 degrees Fahrenheit
      
Allow four quarts of the evening’s fresh whole milk (either
cow’s or goat’s) to ripen overnight in a cold place
(50-60 degrees F). Mix in four quarts of the next
morning’s milk and heat the two gallons of liquid to
86 degrees F in an enameled container.
(Note: In her
Old-Fashioned Recipe Book, Carla Emery forgoes the
night-long ripening process, and simply begins her
cheesemaking in the morning by heating all eight quarts of
raw milk at once. Still others say it’s all right to make
cheese from pasteurized whole milk or even skimmed milk,
if you add the “starter” discussed in Step 2. )

2. Add “Starter” (Optional)     
“Starters” — cultured buttermilk, plain yogurt, or milk
held at room temperature until it clabbers — are
sometimes used to increase lactic acid content and thus
strengthen cheese flavor. If you’ve “ripened” raw milk as
described in Step 1, or if you prefer a very mild cheese,
you can now add rennet to the warm liquid. If you’re using
pasteurized or skimmed milk, or desire a “zestier” product,
thoroughly mix into the 86 degree F fluid a cup and a half of
any of the above substances (or a commercial “starter”),
cover, and let the solution set in a warm shaded room for 2
to 4 hours before proceeding to Step 3.

3. Mix in Rennet
Dissolve one-quarter of a “Hansen’s Cheese Rennet Tablet”
in one-half cup of cold water (or use any other rennet
brand according to directions). Put the container of milk
in a larger pan of warm (88-90 degrees F) water, and
stir in rennet solution. (Note: Rennet is produced from an
enzyme found in calves’ stomachs, so vegetarians often use
non-animal-derived substitutes sold in health food stores.
And in Stalking the Healthful Herbs , Euell
Gibbons suggests employing the liquid from cooked stinging
nettles. “When one adds as much common table salt to this
juice as it will absorb,” says Euell. “The mixture acquires
the ability to coagulate milk, like rennet.”)

4.  Let Set Until Curd Breaks Cleanly
Once the rennet has been mixed in thoroughly, cover the
container and let the mixture stand undisturbed until a
firm curd forms (30—45 minutes). To test the
“readiness” of the concoction, slip your finger (washed, of
course) into the coagulated milk at a 45° angle and
lift up slowly. If the curd breaks cleanly on a straight
line—and leaves no residue on your finger—it is
ready to be cut. If it’s still the consistency of tired
yogurt, be patient, and try again a bit later.

5. Cutting the Curd:Slice Two Ways Vertically, Then Two Ways at an Angle
Use a clean butcher knife or spatula long enough so that
the instrument will go all the way to the bottom of the
container without the handle dipping into the “set” milk.
With the blade held straight up and down, cut the curd into
even squares of about 3/8 of an inch (as shown in Positions 1 and 2
of the illustration). Then use your knife or spatula at an
angle (see Position 3) and — starting about 1 inch from the
side of the container — carefully undercut the curd
into pieces about 1/2 to 1 inch thick. (Begin at the top and
make each slice about one-half inch to one inch lower than
the one before.) Next give the pail (or whatever you’re
using) a half turn, and draw similar angular cuts from the
other side (as shown in Position 4). You needn’t worry if
the sections are not geometrically perfect “textbook”
cubes. The basic idea here is simply to divide the
congealed mass into small pieces of relatively uniform
size, in order to help speed the separation of the curds
(the solid part of milk) from the whey (the liquid
portion).

6. Stir Curd by Hand Continuously for 15 Minutes
Stick your hand into the squishy curd (it’s fun!) and
thoroughly — but very gently — stir the cut-up
mixture with long, slow movements around the container, and
from the bottom up. Carefully cut up the larger pieces of
coagulated milk as they appear, but don’t squash the
curd
. Try to make all the chunks as nearly the same
size as you possibly can. Stir continuously with your hand
for a full 15minutes, to keep the pieces of curd from
sticking together. If your arm gets tired, just remember
that there’s nothing a child enjoys more than thrusting a
bare little hand into goo and swooshing it around a bit … which is essentially all that’s required here.

7. Warm Slowly for About One Hour to 102 Degrees F     
With the container still in a larger pan of water, slowly
heat the mixture “double boiler style” to 102 degrees F,
raising the temperature of the curds and whey about a
degree and a half every five minutes. Stir with a clean
spoon frequently (if not constantly) to keep the curd from
lumping together, and to maintain an even temperature
throughout the concoction. You’ll notice that — as more
and more whey separates and rises to the top — the
solid chunks will become firmer. Continue heating slowly
(the process usually takes about one hour) until the
curd — which should eventually look somewhat like
scrambled eggs — holds its shape and readily falls
apart on your hand without squeezing. If it appears to
still be too soupy, don’t lose patience. Heat a little
while longer — even to one or two degrees above
102 degrees F, if necessary — until the curd does
pass the test.

8. Stop Heating: Stir Occasionally for One Hour
Remove the container of curds and whey from the pan of hot
water and let it set. Stir every 5 or 10 minutes to
keep the lumps from matting together. As the curd cools, it
will contract and force out more whey. Let the solid curd
stand in the warm liquid for about an hour, or until most
of the fluid has separated. (It is important to allow the
curd to become firm, or your cheese may have a weak, pasty
body and develop a sour or undesirable taste.) To test for
“doneness,” squeeze a small handful of curd gently, then
release it quickly. If it falls apart and shows very little
tendency to stick together, you’re ready to go on to the
next step.

9. Pour Curd
Line a colander with three to four square feet of
cheesecloth, and set a pan underneath. Fasten the fabric to
the strainer with clothespins. Pour the mixture in and
allow to drain, then hold two corners of the cloth in each
hand and let the curd roll back and forth without sticking
together for two to three minutes, so more whey can run
off. When the curd feels springy and rubbery and “squeaks”
when you chew a small piece, it’s ready to be salted. (Use
the reserved vitamin-rich whey in bread recipes, as a treat
for livestock or household pets, or as a skin softener for
face and hands.)

10. Salt the Curd
Place the cloth that contains the curd in an empty pail or
pan, and sprinkle one tablespoon of salt over the white
mass. Mix well with your hands — without
squeezing — and then add an additional tablespoon of
salt, and mix again. This step is for flavoring purposes
only, so you may want to adjust the amount of salt you use
in subsequent batches to suit your taste. (Note: Carla
Emery and some others who’ve written on the subject advise
adding the sodium chloride in three portions rather than
two, in order to be sure the salt is dispersed evenly and
consistently throughout the curd.)

11.Form into Ball
Once the curd has been salted, lift the cheesecloth up and
tie the four corners together crosswise to form a kind of
elongated sack. Pat the curd into the shape of a ball, and
hang the whole works up over a pan. Allow the bundle to
drain for around one-half to three-quarters of an hour.
(Note: This step represents yet another area of
disagreement among cheesemakers. Some skip this stage
entirely, while others steadfastly maintain that the cheese
ball should hang for three or four hours. We recommend
draining your first batch of cheese the suggested 1/2 to 3/4 of an hour, and then experimenting with
longer or shorter “hangings” later on if you feel there’s a
need.)

12. Dress the Cheese
After the bundle of curd has drained sufficiently, place it
on a flat surface and remove the cloth from the ball. Take
a clean dish towel (or some other piece of fabric with a
similar “weight” and shape) and fold it lengthwise to form
a multi-layered band about three inches wide and two feet
long. Wrap the strip around the ball as tightly as you can,
and fasten the ends securely with safety pins to make a
kind of circular “girdle” for the cheese. Push the mass
down firmly with your hands, and make the top surface
smooth by crumbling and pressing the curd with your
fingers. Your round loaf of cheese should not be more than
six inches across, or have cracks extending into its
center, because either condition can make your
“masterpiece” dry out too much while curing. (Note: When
great-grandma “girdled” a batch of homestyle goodness, she
usually used a wooden hoop designed especially for the
purpose, rather than a cloth “belt” like the one you’ve
just fashioned. Unfortunately, those very handy — and
undoubtedly superior — implements have gone the way of
the buggy whip in this country. If you do happen to run
across one in your great-aunt’s attic, however, lay claim
to it pronto. You’ll find that the ingenious little device
beats the above improvised “headband” by a country mile.)

13. Press Cheese
All you need to build a good, serviceable cheese press like
the one sketched at the right is two 1x8x12-inch boards,
four bricks, and two 1-inch dowels (pieces of an old broomstick
will do). Once you have the press constructed, place three
or four thicknesses of cheesecloth on top of and under your
round of cheese. Put the covered curd on the bottom board
of the press, push the upper plank down so that it rests
squarely on the cheese, and place two bricks on top. Before
you go to bed at night, turn the wrapped round over and
weight the “sandwich” down with a total of four bricks. Let
stand till morning.

14. Paraffin: Store in Cool Place
Remove the cloths and place your cheese on a board in a
cool, airy place. Turn the loaf once or twice every day for
a few days until a dry rind has formed. (If a mold appears,
simply cut it away or wipe it off with a solution of salt
and water.) Once a hard outer skin has developed, heat some
paraffin to 210-220 degrees F in a deep pan, and
dip the cheese — first one half, then the
other — in the hot wax. (Some folks prefer to “paint”
the liquid on with a brush, while others elect to rub
vegetable or mineral oil instead of
paraffin onto the cheese’s surface.) Store the round
in a root cellar or similarly cool (45-55 degree F) area. Turn it over each day for several days, then two
to three times a week. The round is usually ready to eat
after three to four weeks, but most cheesemakers agree
that 60-90 days of aging is best for a really
mellow, well-ripened, flavor-some cheese.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
If you’d like to
learn more about cheesemaking, we recommend that you read
Making Homemade Cheeses & Butter by Phyllis
Hobson and the “Dairy
Section” of Carla Emery’s Old-Fashioned Recipe
Book
.

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