Correct Cheese Maturation at Home

When I built my first cheese press, I noticed that the cheese I was making ending up drier than it should have been. Obviously, with the pneumatic cylinder and calculations I used, I was applying too much pressure on the follower. Then I discovered the Tomme style cheeses with its moderate acidity and pressing equal to its weight. It was an enlightenment for me and returning back to fundamentals moment. I tried many hard cheeses at home and settled on Tomme style as it requires not much pressing and easy to make in our busy family life.

pressFor a hard cheese to ripen properly, it needs to have certain moisture in it and the cave should have so much humidity that the released moisture from the cheese can be slow.

Well, moisture control starts with the FLOC, from the moment rennet hits the milk till you cut and eat it. Flocculation being the start of moisture control, cooking, milling if required, pressing, drying, salting and aging stages requires understanding of the moisture control.

If you don’t want to end up with a rock-cheese, there are steps (and devices) you need to adhere. As I said before flocculation method is your start point. Higher the floc time gives you more moisture in the curd. Lower floc times, you will get less moisture in the cheese. As we do not want high initial moisture in the hard cheeses, their floc multiplier usually 3 to 4 but like Camembert with lots of moisture in the curd is 6.

Of course the curd cutting size also matters here. Smaller pieces will have more surface area to release the whey in them. The look and feel of the cooked curds will tell you the pH and moisture left in them. Usually recipes talk about springy, sticky, shiny, shrunk curd while they are explaining the recipe.

Once the curd cut and the cooking starts, acidity also increases (pH drops). The stirring here is the way to keep the curds as a single piece as they are cut. If you don’t stir, they will gather at the bottom, stick together and ruin the end product. Continues stirring, letting them loose whey till they reach to the shrunk, shiny, springy look and feel. At this moment, they are ready to transfer to baskets and press.

Once they are in the baskets let them sit for about 5 minutes so that they settle and stick together. Add more curds to the baskets to fill in the spaces and make sure the outer edges filled nicely. Measure roughly the weight of the curd. Apply like quarter of its weight as a pressure. If we apply the entire weight as the pressure, the outer edge of the cheese will lose the whey and form a barrier for the inner pieces. Inside of the cheese will stay moist because the whey has nowhere to go. This may lead to further problems during the maturation. Also the holes on your basket is another determining factor. It is artisan cheesemaker’s job to find the equilibrium between the weights of the press, correct basket holes, time to press and flipping intervals.

Increase the weight gradually at 1 hour intervals and flip the cheese at 15 minutes intervals. This will make sure both sides of the cheese is smooth, lost moisture from both sides equally and the future rind that will protect the cheese is developing correctly. Try not to pierce the rind and make sure the cloth peels away without tearing the rind. The rind is the first defence against the bacteria and other contaminants.

At the end of the pressing, the cheese is now ready to be salted. Salting again is an exchange of moisture with salt. Salting helps the aroma to develop and protects the cheese. I always do saturated brine salting and I think it is the most cost effective method for home cheesemaking. The industry standard is 4 to 6 hours per 500g of cheese. I never throw away my brine may be boiling it from time to time and top it up with salt. Cheese swims in this brine flipped regularly. I also sprinkle salt on top of the cheese where the brine doesn’t cover for a protective measure.

The brine infuses into the cheese replacing bit of moisture with salt. The rind is developing at this stage and already thickened. Initial drying of the cheese happens in room temperature. I remove the cheese and position on top of a clean wooden cutting board, with a tray underneath to catch the salty whey coming out. I also use an umbrella fly screen that we use at picnics so that it is free of things flying in the air. Once it is dry to touch that is when you poke the cheese you should have a bit of shiny oil at your fingertip and visible moisture; it is ready to go into the cave AKA refrigerator with an external thermostat and a wet towel inside.

IMG_20160128_081008Cheese dries on the outside with a considerable moisture inside. It’s a living, breathing thing and it needs time to serve you that beautiful aroma and texture. It needs to release the moisture slowly over a long period, the starter bacteria inside the cheese dies releasing the crucial aroma compounds when the moisture levels dropped under a certain level.

I have a fridge that I am using as a cave but found that the individual plastic boxes with a tray inside is a better solution for the humidity. There needs to be about 85% humidity so that the cheese can release the moisture in it slowly. The plastic boxes inside the cave gives me the best solution to ripening problems. Regular airing, taking away excess moisture collected in the boxes and checking the cheese rind are other jobs. I may wash the cheeses if there is need be with a morge solution to create a rind that I like which also helps with the bacterial ripening.

If there are no mishaps, electricity failures and other difficulties, in about 6 months you will end up with a beauty that is not available anywhere else on Earth. The rind is edible, the inner pieces of the wheel is yellow and soft, melts in the mouth like a Turkish delight and if you are lucky, you may even feel the amino acid crystals that are formed during the ripening. Open a homemade mead next to it and you are in heaven.

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Getting Consistency in Cheesemaking

The seasonal differences in the milk flora sometimes create unwanted results in the end product. There are things you can implement other than changing the name of the cheese by dancing around the cheesemaking steps. A good artisanal cheesemaker should always be on top of the recipe but also react to the sudden unforeseen changes and adjust along the way. It is like continues improvement and risk mitigation process for the engineer minded cheesemakers out there. It is mindfulness for Zen minded people too. (Hi James)

First of all, our parameters to measure the quality of the end product is slightly wider than the commercial production. Your customers should have already learnt that. And to be honest, I would prefer slightly different aroma and texture rather than buying a factory cheese that is consistently sh**ty. Excuse the French but they have good cheeses.

Every time you take your milk in the vat, there are certain amounts of lactic bacteria, mould and yeast already exist in it. As you are the master of this vat, you conduct your orchestra to play a tune that you want by controlling the acidity, time, moisture levels etc.

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If you have developed a strong starter culture and trust that it will give you the acidity curve you wanted, heat your milk gently to 67C and keep it at that for 30 minutes. This gentle pasteurization technique kills many of the bacteria while keeping the enzymes mostly intact and opens up space for your local and strong starter culture. Cool it down quickly to desired temperature and pitch your culture.

If pasteurization is not your cup of tea, than add some starter culture to your milking bucket. At the milking temperatures they will thrive and out win the local guys. They will increase the acidity creating a hostile environment for E.coli. If you are not making cheese soon after milking, store it at a cool room or a fridge but not freeze it. Ideally, you should be making cheese immediately after milking with this technique.

Flocculation technique is one to be mastered if you want to hit consistent moisture levels at every make. Combined with mother culture preparation, you will get your consistency.

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Flocculation determines when the milk is starting to coagulate after adding the rennet. Prepare your chronometer and a sterilized little cup to float on the milk. Add the rennet at a desired pH level and start the chronometer. Put the little cup on the milk. Nudge the cup every minute once and you will notice it will glide across the milk without any friction. At around 15 minutes mark, the cup will not glide easily and you will see a stopping action like the cup is on brakes. Check the chronometer and note the time, do not stop the chronometer. That is your flocculation time. Based on the cheese you are making, find the floc multiplier and multiply the floc time with it. Let say 15 minutes passed till you added the rennet and flocculation happened. You are making feta so floc multiplier is 4. 15X4=60 minutes. At 60 minutes mark, you should cut the curd. You didn’t stop the chronometer which is a good thing because the 60 minutes cutting time starts when you add the rennet to the milk.

I usually leave the cup on the milk and that is why I have this circle indentation mark on the curd photos from time to time.

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Legendary floc mark

Patience. Acidity is not developing, temperatures are not rising, curd is looking sad or acidity going haywire and you are worrying. Should you increase temperature just a little on the stove? Should you remove some whey and add hot water? Should you fill the sink with icy water and dunk the vat in it? Should you go into draining the curds and press quickly? All these methods will have some effect on the cheese for sure. Have patience young Skywalker. Just watch the curd. Take notes. Learn from your mistakes. Before taking any action, think about why it happened and what mitigation strategies you can implement now. What you should do or shouldn’t do next time to end up at the same crossroad.

If you are using store bought pasteurized, homogenized milk there are things you can do as well. First of all I hope your milk is unhomogenized. If you can’t find unhomogenized and if your only option is P/H milk then do this:

  • Add Calcium Chloride to the milk when it is cold.
  • Add some butter milk or cream. Make sure you write down how much you’ve added.
  • Heat to slightly higher then rennetting temperature. Note the temp in your notebook.
  • Transfer it from bucket to bucket from up high by splashing a little. Do this about 10 times. Make sure buckets are sterile.

This procedure will reduce the water just a little (evaporation), it will mix the cream with milk, it will oxygenate the milk and it will get the broken protein chains to fix with the CaCl2 action. And your cheese will have a better texture and aroma at the end.

Preparing mother culture also gives you consistency and makes sure that your cultures are still alive. If you are buying sachets of cultures or prepared your own and froze it, you can still do this. Just buy a good organic goat’s milk. Pasteurize it in the boiler in its original packaging. Cool it quickly in ice water and pitch your desired thermo or meso cultures at their working temperature. Incubate it overnight and start making cheese the next day. Some of my cultures are in the freezer and way passed their expiry date. If I don’t prepare mother culture like this, I have no idea if they are working or not. Also using active, live cultures at their peak gives you the best results and reduces the milk ripening times about 15 minutes.

Mentioned couple of times above is the note taking. It is your Dairy Diary, write as much detail as you can like pH, TA, temperatures, milk source, starter cultures, times, processes and everything. Only then you can refer back and continuously improve the recipe, notice differences and achieve success (meaning “perfect cheese” and following that is “happy customers” if you are selling).

Happy Cheesemaking

Basic Principles of Home Cheese Making

The basic principle involved in making all natural cheese is to coagulate or curdle the milk so that it forms into curds and whey. As anyone knows who has left milk un-refrigerated for a period, milk will curdle quite naturally. The milk sours and forms into an acid curd.

Today’s methods help the curdling process by the addition of a starter (a bacterial culture which produces lactic acid) and rennet the coagulating enzyme which speeds the separation of liquids (whey) and solids (curds). There are two basic categories of starter cultures. Mesophilic starter cultures have microbes that can not survive at high temperatures and thrive at room temperatures. Examples of cheeses made with these bacteria are Cheddar and Gouda. Thermophilic starter cultures are heat-loving bacteria. They are used when the curd is cooked to as high as 55°C. Examples of cheeses made from these bacteria are Swiss and Italian cheeses.

The least sophisticated cheeses are the fresh, unripened varieties typified by Cottage Cheese. These are made by warming the milk and letting it stand, treating it with a lactic starter to help the acid development and then cutting and draining the whey from the cheese. The cheese can then be salted and eaten fresh. This is the simplest, most basic form of cheese.

Acidification

Generally, cheese making starts with acidification. This is the lowering of the pH (increasing acid content) of the milk, making it more acidic. Classically, this process is performed by bacteria. Bacteria feed on the lactose in milk and produce lactic acid as a waste product. With time, increasing amounts of lactic acid lower the pH of the milk. Acid is essential to the production of good cheese. However, if there is too much acid in the milk the cheese will be crumbly. If not enough acid is present the curd will be pasty.

Rennet

After acidification, coagulation begins. Coagulation is converting milk into curds and whey. As the pH of the milk changes, the structural nature of the casein proteins changes, leading to curd formation. Essentially, the casein proteins in the milk form a curd that entraps fat and water. Although acid alone is capable of causing coagulation, the most common method is enzyme coagulation. The physical properties of enzyme-coagulated milk are better than that coagulated purely with acid. Curds produced by enzyme coagulation achieve lower moisture content without excessive hardening.

Enzymes used to coagulate milk come from a number of sources: animals, plants, and fungi. The traditional source of enzyme is rennet. Rennet is a preparation made from the lining of the fourth stomach of suckling calves or kids. The most important enzyme in rennet is chymosin. Today, most chymosin is a recombinant product made possible by genetic engineering. Until 1990, the only source of rennin was calves. Around 1990, scientists created a system to make chymosin that doesn’t require calves. Using genetic engineering, the gene for chymosin was cut from a calf cell and inserted into the genomes of bacteria and yeast. The microbes make an exact copy of the calf chymosin. Microbes replicate and grow rapidly, and can be grown continuously. Thus, the supply of rennet is assured. Approximately 70% of the cheese made in the U.S. is coagulated using chymosin. The chymosin made by the yeast cells is the same as that made by the calf cells.

Cutting and Pressing the Curd

After the coagulation sets the curd, the curd is cut. This step is usually accompanied with heating the curd. Cutting the curd allows whey to escape, while heating increases the rate at which the curd contracts and squeezes out the whey. The purpose of this stage of the process is to make a hard curd. The term hard curd is relative; the cheese at this stage is still quite pliable. The main difference between a soft curd and a hard curd is the amount of water remaining in the curd. Hard curds have very little water left in them.

Once the curds have sufficiently hardened, salting and shaping begins. In this part of the process, salt is added to the cheese. Salt is added for flavor and to inhibit the growth of undesirable microbes. Large curds are formed as smaller curds are pressed together. This will often involve the use of a cheese press.

cut curd
Cut curd ready to stir

Ripening

The shaped cheese is allowed to ripen or age for various periods of time. During this time, bacteria continue to grow in the cheese and change its chemical composition, resulting in flavor and texture changes in the cheese. The type of bacteria active at this stage in the cheese making process and the length of time the cheese is aged determine the type and quality of cheese being made.

Sometimes an additional microbe is added to a cheese. Blue veined cheeses are inoculated with a Penicillium Roqueforti> spore which creates their aroma, flavor and bluish or greenish veining. Such cheeses are internally moulded and ripen from the inside out. On the other hand, cheeses such as Camembert and Brie have their surfaces treated with a different type of Penicillium spore which creates a downy white mould (known as a bloomy or flowery rind) this makes them surface ripened cheeses.

Many surface ripened cheeses have their surfaces smeared with a bacterial broth. With others the bacteria is in the atmosphere of the curing chambers. These cheeses are called washed rind varieties as they must be washed regularly during their ripening period (longer than for Camembert or Brie) to prevent their interiors drying out. The washings also help promote an even bacterial growth across the surfaces of the cheeses. As this washing can be done with liquids as diverse as salt water and brandy, it also plays a part in the final flavor of the cheese.

Ripening cheeses in the fridge
Ripening cheeses in the fridge

Rinds

The rinds of the cheeses are formed during the ripening process, many quite naturally. Some are created artificially. Rinds may be brushed, washed, oiled, treated with a covering of paraffin wax or simply not touched at all. Traditional Cheddars are wrapped around with a cotton bandage. The rind’s basic function is to protect the interior of the cheese and allow it to ripen harmoniously. Its presence thus affects the final flavor of the cheese. Salting plays an important role in rind formation. Heavily salted cheeses develop a thick, tough outer rind, typified by the Swiss range of cheeses. Cheddar, another natural rind cheese, is less salted than the Swiss varieties, and consequently has a much thinner rind.

Naked Rind
Naked Rind

I hope this introduction to principles of cheese making has been interesting and informative. As you begin to make home made cheese, I would advise to start with the simple quick cheese recipes. Then, move on to the soft cheeses and finally the hard cheeses. You’ll find that you learn more about the process every time you try a recipe. Your final cheese is affected by many factors. I would advise using a log book in which you can record such factors as starter type and amount, inoculation time, temperature, etc. Each recipe will have different factors you’ll need to look at. The use of a log book will help you reproduce your outstanding cheeses on command, while avoiding the many pitfalls that can ruin your hard work.