Whey Cool: Hard cheeses aren’t too hard to make at home

When I made the leap from crafting soft cheese in my home kitchen to working with drier styles like Gouda and Cheddar, I feared they were called “hard” for a reason. These cheeses are more advanced than the ricotta and mozzarella I’d started with and the chèvre and feta I’d moved on to, but I soon realized I didn’t need a mature cheese cave or a degree in microflora to turn out hard cheese at home. Clearly, though, I did need professional help – and a cheese press.

When you consider that all cheese starts the same way – a pot of milk and some bacteria – it’s astonishing that there’s such variety. Cheese, an accidental discovery that was quickly adopted as a way to extend milk’s shelf life, predates recorded history. Industrialized in the 1800s, it’s really only in the last 10 years that cheese making has begun migrating back to the home kitchen. “Homemade craft cheese is where craft beer was 20 years ago,” said Steve Shapson, cheese-making instructor, self-appointed gourmet cheesehead and founder of TheCheeseMaker.com. “Home cheese making is where all the creativity and inspiration is happening. It’s a very exciting time in cheese.”

Many home cooks have tried making “acid plus heat” cheeses like mozzarella and ricotta, but the idea of making hard aged cheese is a bit more intimidating at home. Though cheeses like Cheddar, Monterey Jack and Gouda are entirely within the grasp of the home cook, there’s a period of trial and error. That’s because the art of cheese making lies in visually recognizing what’s going on with the science.

When I dove in, it was hard to know what I was watching for, so I took a hands-on class from Merryl Winstein, cheesemaker at Alpine Dairy Goats of St. Louis, and recently I attended a weekend workshop that Shapson taught in Wisconsin. “I feel very strongly that you can’t make good cheese by following a recipe in a book,” said Winstein. “While the basic concepts are there, proper techniques are hard to convey. Also, there are many stages where you have to make judgments about things like moisture level and curd texture. A teacher can show you how to recognize subtle changes.”

Cheese happens. Milk naturally contains lactic bacteria and enzymes, the things that interact to make it ripen, curdle and set, and given enough time, it will do just that. In cheese making, the process is controlled. Milk is warmed to a specific temperature, then lactic-acid bacterial culture is added. When the milk ripens to a specific pH, rennet gets stirred in. Rennet is the enzyme that causes the protein solids (casein) to coagulate into one solid curd mass. Animal and vegetable rennet are available; I’ve used both and can detect no notable difference in the cheese’s flavor. The curd, which contains the butterfat, is then gently cut into smaller pieces and stirred to separate it from the liquid whey (though we know from our nursery rhymes that they’re sometimes served together). At this stage, other techniques may be employed to extract additional whey. And thus you have cheese, which may be eaten fresh or aged.

All the variations in bacterial culture, ripening time, temperature, stirring method, curd size, straining and aging determine the style of the finished cheese. What distinguishes hard cheese like Cheddar from soft cheese like feta is the former’s low moisture content. “Hard cheeses are heated to higher temperatures to expel more whey,” explained Shapson. “Then they’re pressed to further reduce moisture, giving them a drier texture and a more intense flavor.” Because hard cheese contains less water and therefore more milk solids, it also has much higher calcium than soft cheese.

Intrigued? You’ll need a cheese press. A good one will have a mechanism for measuring the pressure applied to the cheese. Presses are available for purchase online, as are instructions for building one. You’ll also need shaping molds and, if you plan to age it, cheese wax made from food-grade paraffin. Vital specialty ingredients include the proper starter culture, rennet and noniodized cheese salt. And let’s not forget milk.

Raw milk is considered desirable by professional cheesemakers because the active cultures and proteins have not been destroyed by pasteurization. The sale of raw milk is governed by state statutes; in Missouri it’s absolutely legal to buy raw milk directly from a farmer for personal use and consumption. If you can’t find that, then vat-pasteurized milk (which has been heated to 145 degrees for 30 minutes and which is sometimes referred to as “minimally pasteurized”) will work, though the flavor and texture will be compromised. Ultrapasteurized milk, which is sold in most grocery stores, coagulates poorly and yields few solids – it can’t be used at all, Winstein noted.

If talk of introduced bacteria, unpasteurized milk and 30-day-old cheese leaves you feeling queasy, take comfort. Hard cheese has very low moisture and high acidity, making it unfriendly to invasive bacteria, and the live cultures dwindle as the cheese ages. “In aging, bacteria break proteins and fat into smaller and smaller particles, creating flavor,” said Shapson. “The culture produces acid and consumes lactose, thereby removing the food source for pathogens.” By the time a cheese has aged 60 days, all pathogens have died. And many cheeses are heavily salted, further inhibiting bacterial growth.

Perseverance and practice, of course, constitute two unspoken ingredients in making any hard cheese. Add them to the recipe, and soon enough, you, too, can be crafting uncommon wheels.

After a year of making cheese, I’m still in the early days, but some things I’ve figured out so far:

1. A notebook is as essential as the cheese press. Tiny changes in ingredients or technique can have a dramatic effect on cheese texture and flavor. In homemade cheese, it all happens faster because the scale is much smaller. Keep notes, and you’ll begin to see patterns.

2. The longer you stir, the drier and firmer the cheese. In general, the higher your cooking temperatures, the firmer the curd.

3. Cleanliness is next to godly cheese. Most of what goes wrong in home cheese making can be traced to contamination. Sterilize equipment, wash your hands frequently, and store milk properly.

4. Whey is a great addition to homemade bread, but don’t make bread and cheese on the same day. Yeast in the air can cause cheese to crack, dry out and sour as it ages.

5. Herbs or spices should be added to the curds before pressing rather than to the milk.

Rebecca Pastor is a freelance writer and a fledgling cheesemaker. She uses unpasteurized milk to make pastor-ized cheese. She also sometimes updates her Web site, beckyandthebeanstock.com.