Friday, January 12, 2007

Q&A time: So what's in that cheese, anyway?

It is time for another episode of "Ask Sarah." Today we look at cheesemaking from another angle.

I received the following email recently:

I am interested in learning how to make cheese, but the “kits” I have seen in my limited research all have additives I don’t want to use. Any advice on where to get recipes of how to make it like they did way back when, before additives? We have lots of farms around and I get my milk from a small Jersey operation.

You're lucky to be able to buy milk directly from a farm. And Jersey milk, too. Try making clotted cream. Jersey and Guernsey milk works best for clotted cream. Try the recipe on Dr. Fankhauser's website (see below) or try this one:

A great place to get cheesemaking info is from ,, and . They all have good resource pages as well as recipes.

One of my favorite books is by Ricki Carroll, "Home Cheese Making." She runs The New England Cheesemaking Supply Company as well as the website She's been doing it for years and is a great teacher. She even tells you how to make your own rennet.

I agree, I don't want to put additives or dyes in my cheese and I want to honor traditional ways of cheesemaking. The additives in the kits are not strange substances but usually include some form of acid like citric acid or tartaric acid. Citric acid is used as a substitute for lemon juice. The acidity in lemons can vary a lot, so using something with a consistant level of acidity can be easier when you're making cheese. You can make ricotta with either lemon juice or citric acid, or you can even use vinegar. It is the addition of acid that gets the milk to separate into curds and whey when making soft cheeses.

Most cheese is made by taking milk, heating it, culturing it, adding rennet, cutting the curds (if called for), draining the whey, pressing the curds if needed, and then aging the cheese in a humid environment.
Pasturized and homogenized milk has been cooked and beaten up in transit. It gets a bit of help by adding calcium choride in order for the curds to set properly.
Cultures and molds are selected strains of beneficial bacteria that produce and regulate acidity and give milk a nudge in the right direction for the style of cheese that you want to make. If you have access to raw milk and you want to find out what the flora is like, don't add the starter culture and just add rennet and see how it turns out. If you're lucky, it just might be something that tastes good.

That being said, if you want to make certain style of cheese, like a brie, you've got to innoculate your milk with P. candidum in order to get the fluffy, white mold to grow. The mold gives it the flavor of brie and helps the enzymes break down the curds and make it soft. Many European cheesemaker make their own cultures such as traditional cheddar makers in England. They've been using the same culture for generations. It is like sourdough bread starter. It is a critical part of the flavor of cheese and they take great care to keep their starter strain alive.
Don't be afraid to give cheesemaking a try. It is a slow process, but the results are so tasty and gratifying.

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