Adventures in Cheese-Making

Sometimes I have a cheezy thing or two to say here, but usually it’s not about something edible. And I’ve never wanted to stray too far into the realm of food blogging. There are people – some of whom I count as friends – that do that far better than I can.

But I got a wild hair and decided to make mozzarella cheese. I was inspired by two things: a comment from my friend Dana (who remarked she wanted to try making her own mozzarella) and a bumper crop of tomatoes. The more things I can find to eat with tomatoes, the better. What’s better than fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil?

Fresh mozzarella

To make mozzarella (and I gather other cheeses, as well) you need a few basic ingredients – calcium chloride, citric acid, rennet, cheese salt and milk. For me, the timing of making cheese came as a gallon of organic whole milk was passing its sell-by date in our refrigerator. Normally, this wouldn’t phase me much, but I don’t drink whole milk – it’s for Lukas.

Rennet – a complex of enzymes used to curdle milk and traditionally taken from calf stomachs and now often made from plant sources – is a little hard to come by if you’re just relying on normal, local stores. Wheatsville, Sprouts and Sun Harvest don’t carry it. But a helpful lady at Wheatsville (and, come to think of it, my friend Phoebe) mentioned she thought Austin Homebrew Supply carried it.

Living close to their store, I dropped by. I hadn’t been in their new location on Metric, but the shiny gadgets, the yeasty smell in the air (or was it malty?) and the bins of chocolaty grains all took me back to the times I made a few batches of yummy brown ale. But I was there for cheese, and cheese-making stuff I found in their coolers. A $4 kit contained everything – plus instructions – I would need to make four batches of fresh mozzarella.

Other junk you need are a non-aluminum 6-quart stock pot, a kitchen thermometer (I used an analog candy thermometer), and a couple 5 quart microwaveable bowls. I didn’t have a stock pot big enough, but I found a nice enameled steel one at Target that wasn’t too expensive.

I could post all of the instructions for doing this, and rehash what’s already out there. The printed instructions from Homebrew worked well enough, and they have a helpful Youtube video for those of a more visual bend. I used both, and found the video a little lacking toward the end in terms of getting the cheese to the shiny, smooth, elastic ball it is supposed to become. At first I worried my analog thermometer had been too inaccurate during the curdling phase. My ball of curds remained crumbly and wet for some time until I figured out getting the whey completely drained helped, as well as making sure the curds reached a hot enough temperature to become elastic during the microwaving phase. Basically, when it was almost past my ability to stand the temperature while hand-folding the ball (about 140 degrees), the curds became elastic and the cheese was finished.

I ate some immediately, while warm. It was chewy, a little salty, and just a touch on the grainy side. But the graininess didn’t detract, and the warmer the cheese, the less grainy it feels in the mouth. With the rest of the cheese, I followed a suggestion to throw it in an icewater bath to help it maintain a smooth consistency. (This is a theme that seems to repeat itself in home cheese-making – rapid cooling.)

While straining the whey was tedious, I had already learned it was important to save it. It contains enough solids to make more cheeses – ricotta and a peculiar Norwegian cheese called mysost.

Returning it to the stove, I brought it back to a boil. Temperature and timing here are not all that critical. After boiling, I let it cool to 140 degrees and then used a metal coffee filter to strain the solids from the whey. The resulting solids are ricotta. Simple!

The third cheese, mysost, takes more work. Mainly, it takes about 5 hours to boil down (over medium heat) the gallon of whey into a mixture with a fudge-like consistency. Being vigilant about not scalding the contents towards the end is especially crucial, as is some vigorous mixer action before the mixture cools too much. Again, rapid cooling helps this cheese remain smooth, too.

But the resulting cheese is like nothing I’ve had. Pale orangish-yellow, salty with a strong sweet-sour overtone, and slightly chalky. I had cooled it rapidly in a cold bowl I had buttered, and the cheese became a solid block I was unable to carve out. 30 seconds in the microwave made it spreadable, but I don’t know if it will remain so at room temperature yet. It would be good spread on some sort of unsalted or lightly-salted cracker or a crusty bread. Jury is out on this one, though I’m sure some would love it.

But three distinctly different cheeses, all from one common gallon of milk. That alone impresses me. All said and done, I got 12 ounces of mozzarella, 1 ounce of ricotta, and perhaps 4-5 ounces of mysost.

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