Witness Post: Curds & Whey
I love a good cheese. Not being particularly picky, any blue cheese, sharp cheddar, brie or Jarlsberg will do just fine. When a friend of mine sent me a “thank you” box that said cheese on it, I was happy. Opening the box, I discovered that it contained cheese cloth, a thermometer, some white tablets and instructions in the making of cheese. Really, making my own cheese? I had never considered it.
The ancient craft of cheese-making should be reserved for old French men who collect pure cream and work alone in caves, or for Italian women with goats in the yard and time to age the cheese wheels. Can cheese making be a neighborhood craft exercise, like beer making or bread machines? Time to give it a try.
The art or science should be left to those who know what they are doing, right? Opening the box and reading the instructions, it seemed pretty straight forward. I had to decide the firmness that I wanted, because the ingredients (milk and the enzyme, casein or rennet, and salt to taste) were nearly identical.
After reading the instructions, choosing whole milk, gathering the stainless steel pot and wire whisk, and slotted spoon, and taking a deep breath, the project was under-whey. (Luckily my wife gave me a wide berth in the kitchen and watched the thermometer for me.)
While the milk was warming, ever so slowly, I read up on cheesemaking.
The Ancient Craft
The Egyptians (it always seems to go back to the Egyptians) made cheese which dates back over 5,000 years. They seemed to produce cheese, or a yogurt type of ingredient, to preserve the nutritional and economic value of the milk to last longer than the pure liquid. Picturing camels walking across the desert with raw milk, that became stale and smelly after a few hours, is not pleasant. Cheesemaking seems a brilliant solution. Apparently goat and sheepherders and originated the craft by taking sheep and goat stomachs and storing the liquid in the resulting sack. The linings of the stomachs contain a mixture of lactic acid and wild bacteria, which act like rennet to ferment the liquid and cause it to coagulate. As their beasts of burden walked across the desert, through gentle agitation and separation, the herdsmen were able to produce cheese curds and could strain off the whey.
Back to the Cheese Factory
Having never heard of rennet, it seems to be an enzyme which is readily available in most grocery stores. The rennet is critical in the process, because it performs the chemistry part of cheesemaking, by causing the milk, at just the right temperature, to gel or clot and form a clean break from the solution. The herdsmen in Egypt had the stomach of the animal, the modern cheesemaker has distilled rennet and are thus able to separate the curds from the whey.
Once separated, the curds can be ladeled out of solution with a slotted spoon, but since much of the curd material was smaller than the slots on my spoon, I reverted to the “cheese cloth” method of pouring the solution through the cloth, over another pot.
Granted, the cheese I made was not a fine Camembert, nor a sharp cheddar, but it tasted pretty good on crackers and made me a believer that even the craft cheesemakers in Portland can be proud of their efforts.
Another lesson in combining science and art of the kitchen learned and enjoyed!