Like many of us, for the longest time I knew of only one celery. It's the one you fill with peanut butter for an after-school snack, the one that has hardly any flavor and serves as a vehicle for...
building a better pantry: simplest cheddar
Now that we've journeyed through homemade butter, ricotta, crème fraîche, buttermilk, mozzarella, and yogurt, I think you're ready for something more challenging and enriching.
Making a wheel--an actual wheel--of cheese feels momentous. It's a whole of something we normally see slices or wedges of. It is evidence of one of the supreme heights of culinary prowess--the cheese maker's ability to transform milk into one of the world's consummate comestibles.
For a good cheese is something that needs no further transformation. We do cook with cheese, but the most sublime examples of it are best tasted as they are, without embellishment. An époisses needs only ooze itself onto a plate, perhaps beside a voluptuous piece of fruit or a humble slice of rustic bread, to be fabulous. A clothbound English cheddar of mighty stature can do without accompaniment, being pitch perfect from first note to last.
We won't be discussing a particularly lofty cheese today. In truth, most of the very finest cheeses are nearly impossible to reproduce in a home setting. But as you may have experienced with the mozzarella or ricotta, your homemade cheese is better than the status quo, and that's saying something.
If making any of our previous Perfect Pantry items has made you feel like a kitchen whiz kid, making cheddar will give you guru status. And, I will reiterate, it is so easy you'll probably wonder why you haven't done this sooner. Of course, there are some difficulties to be considered: molds, pressing, aging. But those are surmountable.
The short list of things you will need is a mesophilic starter culture, a cheese mold of some kind, a follower, some stand-in for cheese cloth, and some weights.
The mesophilic starter culture is something we have discussed previously. See the post on making mozzarella for more details. The cheese mold is very simple. You need something round in which to shape your curds so the cheese is actually round when it's done. You can of course buy expensive cheese presses, and if you think it will be worth it to you, go right ahead. But for practical purposes, I love my little plastic 2-pound mold.
I have seen homemade molds online, made of PVC in many cases. I do not recommend using PVC for cheesemaking because, even though our drinking water is channeled through PVC, milk is not the same as water. Milk is slightly acidic, and cheese is even more acidic. In fact, as your cheese ages, even over the span of a few hours, it will become significantly more acidic. I recommend that you buy a foodsafe plastic cheese mold for your cheese experiments. Mine cost less than $20, and the peace of mind is worth it. You can also buy stainless steel molds, but these are more expensive.
With your cheese mold, you need a follower. This is simply a small plastic piece (although you can use untreated, oiled--with foodsafe oil--wood) that fits snugly inside the cheese mold to aid in pressing. My cheese mold came with a follower, but you can make your own from plastic cutting boards by using a jigsaw to cut out a circle that will fit just inside the mold.
You will need some cheesecloth for wrapping the curds in. I use flour sack towels, which are inexpensive and widely available.
As for weights, you can use actual weights that you might buy at a sports store, but I go even more low-fi. I use heavy books. I hope no actual cheesemakers read this because it will drive them crazy, but until I can afford a small home cheese press, I'm just dealing with it in my own way, and for cheeses as small as the ones I make, heavy books seem to work quite well. This is a very imprecise method, but one that I have had measured success with.
If you would like to build a modest cheese press out of inexpensive parts, there are how-tos out there by enterprising individuals. Some of my favorites are listed in the resources section at the bottom of this post.
This recipe is based on Ricki Carroll's Farmhouse Cheddar recipe in her marvelous book, Home Cheese Making. If you have any interest in making cheese from time to time (or often), I highly recommend this book.
Makes about one pound
Bring to 90°F in a large saucepan:
1 gallon whole milk (not ultra-pasturized)
Turn off the heat. Add, stirring for a minute:
1/8 teaspoon mesophilic culture
Cover the pot and allow the milk to ripen for 45 minutes.
Add, stirring for one minute:
4 drops liquid rennet dissolved in 2 tablespoons cold water
Cover again and let the curd set for 45 minutes.
When the curd is ready, it will pull away from the sides of the pot when you gently press the back of your hand to where the curd meets the pot. The curd will be fairly fragile at this point regardless, so be gentle. If the curd breaks easily or is still runny, let it set for 15 minutes longer or until set.
Cut the curd into 1/2-inch cubes and let rest for 5 minutes. Fill a sink with 102°F water. Place the pot of curds in the water, and stir frequently until the curd reaches 100°F. This will take between 15 and 30 minutes.
Drain the whey from the curds, saving the whey for another use, if desired. In a flour sack towel or similar fabric (the "cheesecloth" you can buy at the grocery store is too porous), hang the curds to drain for 30 minutes. You can hang the curds from a wooden spoon that spans the diameter of a stock pot, or if you have a hook somewhere in your kitchen, you can hang it from that, with a pot beneath it to catch the whey as it drips. After 30 minutes, remove the curd mass from the cloth, flip it over, and hang it again for 30 minutes.
Remove the curd mass from the cloth and break it into quarter-sized pieces. Place the pieces in a bowl and toss with:
1 tablespoon kosher salt (do not use iodized salt, which will kill the bacteria cultures you added to the milk)
Now for molding and pressing. My mold is as shown: a small baking sheet underneath to catch the whey; a bamboo cutting board (not a cutting board used for meat!) above that; a two-pound plastic cheese mold and follower; small cans of tuna (I'll explain); heavy books.
Again, this is not an ideal situation, but I do what I have to in order to make cheese. It works, oddly enough. The cans of tuna are ideal for this particular mold because they fit perfectly inside the follower, and you can stack one can of tuna on top of the other to reach a desired height. As you press your cheese, the level of the curds will grow shorter, necessitating perhaps three cans of tuna so that as you press the cheese, the weight will actually have some impact.
With a square of flour sack towel inside the mold, pack the curds into the mold. As you add curds, tamp them down to even them out. When all the curds are in the mold, fold one corner of the cloth over the curds. Try to get the cloth as smooth as possible because when you press the cheese, any wrinkles will be imprinted on your cheese.
After one corner of the cloth is folded over, place the follower down inside the mold and press it gently until it is flush with the level of the curds. Place the cans of tuna on top of the follower. The reason you want whatever cans you use to fit snugly into the follower is because, if they are off-kilter, your cheese will be lopsided. Not the end of the world, but an important detail nonetheless.
When the cans are in place, set your weights on top. I use copies of the Joy of Cooking because we have several lying around.
Ricki Carroll recommends 10 pounds of pressure for 10 minutes; then 20 pounds for 10 minutes; finally, 50 pounds for 12 hours. I have made this recipe several times and have never actually used 50 pounds of pressure. For such a small cheese, I do not think 50 pounds necessary. I have used up to 30 pounds pressure.
I recommend pressing the cheese at 10 pounds for 10 minutes. Then, remove the cheese from the press and the cloth, flip it over and rebandage it so that what was the top of the cheese is now the bottom. Place the cheese back in the mold and press at 20 pounds pressure for 10 more minutes. Again, remove the cheese from the mold, flip and rebandage it, and put it back in the press at 30 pounds pressure for 12 hours.
When you rebandage and press the cheese multiple times, you are essentially trying not only to press the cheese evenly, but also to remove any surface wrinkles caused by the cloth. This increases the integrity of the rind and prevents future cracking or infiltration by "bad" bacteria.
After 12 hours, remove the weights, and take the cheese out of the mold and cloth. Place on a wooden cutting board so the surface can dry out. Flip the cheese occasionally so that both sides have a chance to dry. Leave the cheese out in this manner for 2 days.
Once the surface has dried to the touch and is beginning to form a stiff rind, rub the cheese with olive oil, place it in a plastic zip-top bag, and place it in your refrigerator. The home refrigerator is not an ideal place for a cheese to age. It is too cold and dry. However, you can achieve commendable results all the same. Your cheese will start to grow mold. This is fine. Simply scrub the cheese under cold running water to remove the worst of the mold, dry the cheese, and return it to the refrigerator. The only things you should worry about is if your cheese "bloats" (just what it sounds like--puffs up and the sides bulge out) or if black, slimy mold grows on it. In either case, just throw it away. It could be very dangerous to eat.
This is why cleanliness is so important in cheese making. Every time you touch your cheese, your hands should be immaculate. Your equipment--from the spoon you stir with to the cheese mold--should be sterilized (spray it with a bleach solution and rinse well or run it under boiling water). Milk is a great environment for bacteria to grow in--this is why your cheese cultures do so well in it. But just as controlled cultures can grow and thrive in milk, so can harmful intruders. Be safe.
This YouTube video shows how to construct a very simple and inexpensive cheese press. I recommend watching this even if you're going to imitate my spectacularly lo-fi system.
Fias Co Farm also has a great tutorial about building a simple cheese press. Also check out their site for good cheese making recipes.
Also try googling "homemade cheese press" and look at the images generated. I guarantee you'll see some innovative ideas and plans.