Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Making Cheese

We've been getting about four gallons of milk per day (two gallons per milking, two milkings per day: Once before I go to work, and once in the evening. You do the math.) This is approximately two gallons too many for what we consume as a family. Yes, we have a family of six (two adults, four children... or maybe we should count that as one adult (my wife) and five child-like people), but we aren't big dairy consumers. Not enough chocolate chip cookies, I guess, for dunking.

So... what to do with the extra milk? Well, we do lots of neat things, but this post is going to focus on how I make cheese with it. So far, I have made several batches of Feta cheese and am trying out some Amish Roquefort, but that last one requires some time to age. I'll keep you updated.

First, I went to the grocery store and found myself some culture in the form of some crumbled Feta cheese that still looked pretty active. This process wasn't painful. I like to buy cheese!

Second, I got out my Large Orange Pot, a three gallon ceramic coated pot I located in some bygone era at TJ Max, nicely colored a pumpkin orange. This is what I use for large amounts of cooking, usually chicken stock, but in this case, it works great for cheese. I placed it on my most powerful burner on the stove, poured in two and a half gallons of goat milk, and lit the flame!

Oh, but first I put a digital thermometer in the milk so I can keep track of the temperature. A digital thermometer is the most useful kitchen device I can imagine, outside of a good chef's knife. I own several, with one still in its packaging, so I can properly grow culture(s) in my kitchen, such as bread, yogurt, and CHEESE! And you thought culture was something you had to go to finishing school for. Wrong! You just need a little starter and the right temperature. And time. And medium to grow it in. And patience... Ah, just keep reading!

I set the alarm on the digital thermometer for 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Hot enough to kill off any competing bacteria, but not hot enough to break up or denature the sugars and proteins my culture will feed on. Once that alarm went off, I turned off the stove and let the whole thing cool down.

I look for everything to get down to 100-105 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a perfectly cromulous temperature for bacteria to grow in. This also happens to be the temperature at which I start the yeast for my bread making, but that is a different post (and maybe a different blog). This cooling takes a while. Go do something else and walk by the stove now and again.

Once you are at 100-105 degrees, pull your starter out of the fridge. I took out about a fourth of a cup and mashed it up into a bowl so all potential culture was exposed, and then whisked it into the warm milk. The pot then went into my oven, a Kitchen Aid (oh, fancy!) that has an outstanding feature: a bread proofing setting! Yep, I can set my oven to stay at 100 degrees, although it only stays on only for twelve hours at a time. For bread making you I can't see why you would ever proof for more than a hour (pizza dough?), but for cheese making this is wonderful!

If you don't have such an oven on hand, I have heard of other cheese makers using a heating pad, placing the pot on that, and then fiddling with the heat settings to keep it right in that sweet zone of bacterial happiness and growth (the SZOBHAG ("zop hag") for those of you following along at home).

I often put the milk in the oven before bedtime, and turn it off and then back on again in the morning so I can get a full twenty four hours in as a minimum. Sometimes I've let it go up to thirty six hours of SZOBHAG.

Here is the cool thing about this method: most cheeses require an acid (rennet, lemon juice or vinegar, usually) to clot or curd up. If I let my Feta culture go this long, it curds up nicely all on it's own, and when I remove the pot I find an island of raw cheese floating on the top of a couple gallons of whey. Sweet! No extra ingredients! No extra expense! Cheap cheese with no additives!

I now set out a mesh colander, set inside a large bowl or five gallon bucket. If the grating is too wide on your colander, you might need some cheesecloth, but mine is fine enough that it catches the curds just fine. I scoop the cheese out using a "spider" I also use for pulling stuff out of broths and hot oil. But in this process I have also used a large kitchen spoon and just let the extra whey drain through. I find that I can get 98% of the curds out this way, and I just leave the rest of the curds in the whey, still in the big orange pot.

I now need to let the curds drain for at least a half hour. But since cheese without salt is really bland, and since I've been known to forget to add salt until it is much too late, I sprinkle on some kosher salt at this point; the ratio that works for me is one teaspoon of salt per gallon of goat milk. But I only want to add salt at this point (after the culture has grown) because bacteria generally don't like salt and if the milk is too salty, they won't grow, with the result that you have no curds, and no curds means no cheese.

So go do some other stuff (the bees need tending to, don't you know), and when you next drift past the cheese, you can give it a light stir to mix in the salt and let it drain more.

Once it is dry enough for your taste, you can sprinkle in some herbs (basil, thyme, mint, and oregano all are nice), and then do one of two things:

Put it in an airtight container, and store it in your refrigerator. Crumbled Feta is lovely in a salad.


Put it in a cheese press, compress it, and make a nice round cake of cheese, perfect for your next social event along side some crackers and fresh sliced vegetables.

You'll want to keep this cheese in the fridge, because it has no preservatives, and although you pasteurized the milk by bringing it almost to a boil, I do note that it does tend to go bad rather quickly (within three weeks) in my fridge. That is, if it lasts that long before being consumed.

And that whey? Gold, baby!

Use it to feed your chickens or pigs. Use it to water your garden. Use it (instead of water) to make some lovely tangy imitation sourdough bread. Feed your house plants. Grow your vineyard. It is packed with protein and nutrients that other living things just love. Heck, I know someone that sweetened it up and made something kinda like lemonade. But that last idea sounds pretty nasty to me, so I just convert it into other food (eggs, grapes, tomatoes, bread, etc.). I might make some whey-ade if I have a visitor that is staying too long, though. Nothing like the tangy smell of sweaty feet to drive the unwanted away!

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