Cheesemaking: Basic Ingredients, Equipment and Tips

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Photo courtesy Voyageur Press (c) 2011
Learn how to easily craft a variety of cheeses at home in “Homemade Cheese.” The expert advice from experienced cheesemakers includes easy and basic recipes for butter, yogurt, mozzarella and chèvre as well as advanced step-by-step instructions on the use of molds and aging cheeses.

Grab a thermometer, a large pot and a gallon of fresh milk from your local dairy farmer, and jump into the wonderfully delicious world of cheesemaking. In Homemade Cheese: Recipes for 50 Cheeses from Artisan Cheesemakers(Voyageur Press, 2011), author and 20-year veteran cheesemaker Janet Hurst shows you how to easily craft your own cheddar, feta, chèvre, mozzarella and more. Learn how to sanitize cheesemaking equipment, use molds and age a variety of cheeses. Read how the best-tasting cheese comes from real milk and how recordkeeping helps you perfect artisan cheese recipes in this excerpt taken from Chapter 1, “Understanding Cheese.”

Artisan Cheese Recipes

Tomato and Goat Cheese Fondue

Small-scale cheesemaking is possible today both on a farm or in the middle of the city. Raw milk can often be purchased from local dairy farmers. Make sure the milk is clean and fresh before you make a purchase. Ask to taste it.

Off-tasting or sour-smelling milk will make off-tasting and sour-smelling cheese, so start off right! Laws governing raw milk sales vary from region to region. Check with the local health department or state department of agriculture to learn about the legality of purchasing raw milk. Pasteurization is important, as the process destroys harmful bacteria capable of causing illness and disease in humans. If raw milk is purchased, pasteurization is recommended, unless you’re making raw-milk cheese, which we will discuss later.

Harmful bacteria in milk has a phenomenal self-replication rate, and bacteria counts increase every hour. It is easy to see how milk that has not been properly refrigerated can quickly become a problem. In his report “Hygiene and Food Safety in Cheesemaking” from the Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese, Todd Prichard cites these statistics: “Temperature abuse is the #1 cause of food borne illness. Food must be moved through the Danger Zone as rapidly as possible. We must control the growth of unwanted bacteria or they will rapidly increase in numbers and potentially spoil the end product. Bacteria multiply exponentially (i.e., 1>2>4>8). It will only take 20 generations for one bacterium to become 1 million bacterium.” Proper cooling and refrigeration of milk is essential. Safety first.

Cream-line milk is available in major grocery stores. The cream has not been separated from this milk, so a thick layer of real cream rests at the top of the bottle. This milk has been pasteurized and will work well for the small-scale cheesemaker. For our purposes, whole milk (milk that has not been separated) will be used.

To further explain the chemical processes of cheesemaking is to understand the composition of milk. Basically, milk is composed of water, lactose, fat, protein, minerals, and miscellaneous components, such as enzymes, vitamins, somatic cells. The goal in cheesemaking is to isolate the solids in the milk, then to expel most of the moisture. The liquid removed during this process is whey. Whey is considered a waste product, except in the manufacture of ricotta or other whey-based cheese. It is also used within the health industry as a nutritional supplement. To make cheese, the cheesemaker brings milk to the temperature required to promote the growth of the bacteria that feed on lactose.

Do not purchase UHT milk for making cheese. UHT stands for ultra heat treated. Due to the high temperatures involved in the manufacture of a shelf-stable product, all bacteria contained in the milk is destroyed. Milk normally contains bacterial flora that can be enhanced by the addition of manmade cultures. However, when milk is exposed to the extremely high temperatures required for UHT, it is no longer suitable for cheesemaking. No bacteria, no cheese.

Sanitation of Cheesemaking Equipment

Cleanliness of utensils, work surfaces, and cooking pots is of utmost importance in cheesemaking. Bacterial contamination will occur if strict sanitation procedures are not developed and followed.

To sanitize equipment, fill your clean kitchen sink with tap water; add one cap of regular household chlorine bleach to sanitize utensils, pots, and cheese molds. Or take a tip from homebrewers of beer and wine, and use One- Step Sanitizer, an easy cleaner that requires no bleach or rinsing. Sanitize your equipment before you begin making cheese, and allow the equipment to air dry. Wash any cloth towels or cheesecloth in a mild bleach solution before and after use.

Cheesemaking Techniques

Over time you will develop specific cheesemaking techniques.

Words not spoken or performed in the cheese room include beat, whip, mash, and chop. Cheesemaking is a gentle art, especially on the home-kitchen scale. Think Zen. Milk is fragile. If it is handled roughly, the fat cells, which are needed for the creation of cheese, will break down. So gentle handling of the milk is crucial to the cheesemaking process.

Here are some general tips to guide the new cheesemaker to success:

• Use one gallon of milk as a base line. In the beginning, do not increase the amount, just in case things do not go as planned. Pasteurize the milk, as explained.

• Set aside some uninterrupted time for the first venture into cheesemaking. Have all equipment ready and milk on hand. Cheesemaking requires patience, and attempts at shortcuts will lead to failures.

• Cultures are delicate beings. Always use a clean and dry spoon to retrieve the culture from its foil pouch. Add the specified amount to the warmed milk. Immediately close the pouch, clip it closed with a paper clip, and then place the foil pouch in a zip-top plastic bag. Refrigerate.

• If the make procedure calls for more than one culture, be careful not to cross contaminate one culture with another. Use a separate clean and dry measuring spoon for each type of culture.

• When heating milk for cheesemaking, do so with a low flame, being careful to avoid scorching.

• A timer is a cheesemaker’s best friend. After you achieve a comfort level with the process, you will have other tasks to tend to instead of watching the pot. When that happens, set the timer. Time does fly, and it is easy to forget about the pot on the stove. The timer is a most valuable tool in the cheese kitchen.

• A good thermometer is one of the most helpful tools you can have. Temperature is one of the key components to good cheesemaking, so a thermometer is an invaluable and necessary addition to the basic equipment required for cheesemaking.

• Cheesecloth has come a long way. There is a synthetic blend perfect for draining curds. Traditional cheesecloth is often too thin to capture the curd, so the synthetic or a more traditional cloth, butter muslin, makes the best choice for draining. Nylon parachute fabric, usually available at fabric stores, also works wonderfully. It has the qualities of being porous enough to allow the whey to drain, yet captures even tiny bits of curd. Cheese-supply houses also offer draining bags, which provide an easy way to drain curds and whey.


Recordkeeping is essential to cheesemaking. Perhaps your first time out you create the best cheese of all time. Then what? Of course, you would like to recreate that exact same cheese. But the chances of doing that are quite slim if you did not keep records or if your recorded events and times are not accurate.

One of the primary components required in successful cheesemaking is a repeatable process. The key to this process is recordkeeping. A make sheet is the place to keep your records. This sheet will help you either avoid repeating a disaster where something went terribly wrong or provide a valuable tool for recreating a masterpiece. Expect to have both experiences.

There are some days when cheesemaking is an uphill battle. For those experienced with making yeast breads, the challenges may be familiar. There are those days when the bread won’t rise, days when the dough seems tough, or days when other critical steps simply don’t happen. Once in a while, such days will happen in the cheesemaking. The culture may not be fresh, the rennet could be old, and milk is an ever-changing palette. There are many variables, and once in a while there may be a batch that simply doesn’t go as planned. Don’t lament over it. Remember the old adage, don’t cry over spilled milk. This applies to cheese as well. Try and try again.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Homemade Cheese: Recipes for 50 Cheeses from Artisan Cheesemakers, published by Voyageur Press, 2011.

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