Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Cheesemaking at Oregon State University

Photo: OSU Pilot Plant.

Last month Jim and I spent a few days in Corvallis, Oregon, home of Oregon State University. We signed up for a three day cheesemaking class held on campus in The Food Science Department at Wiegand Hall.

Wiegand Hall is named for Professor Ernest Wiegand. He is a professor that made a huge impact in the science of food preservation, specifically with cherries. Cherries grow really well here in Oregon. From 1925-1931 he developed a way to preserve them in brine, trying to keep them from getting too soft and mushy. Before that, canned cherries were a European import preserved in liqueur, tasty, but expensive and mushy. Wiegand's bit in history? He found that making a brin by adding calcium chloride, a form of salt also used in cheesemaking, his cherries stayed firm. No more alcohol needed and we could preserve our homegrown cherries. The maraschino cherry was perfected! And cocktails have been thankful ever since.

His fellow professors continued his work and developed ways to bleach the cherries, and make them any color in the rainbow, blue, green, white, or red. The red ones contain the same food dye (red dye #40) used in gum or according to this website, Dorito's. A portrait of Professor Wiegand graces the lobby of the Food Science building, greeting visitors. There is an article next to his portrait, explaining his notoriety.

The cheesemaking class: The class was lead by Lisbeth Goddik, an Associate Professor at OSU. She's the dairy processing specialist for OSU's extension service. She's the person that fields all of the cheesemaking questions. There were about 25 students from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some had dairies, one was a chef with a cooking school, there were families who had goats, there was a fellow cheese monger and blogger, and several of the dairy inspectors from the Oregon Department of Agriculture were attending the class, too. The format was split between classroom lecture and hands-on cheesemaking. The mornings were spent learning about the dairy industry, how cheesemaking works, how do we keep a clean environment, and what's going on in the regulatory world. The fun stuff happened in the pilot plant down the hall.

Photo: Students gather around the vat pasteurizer.

The pilot plant at OSU is a big working laboratory for food science. There are big tanks for brewing beer, a bottling line, incubators, kettles, vats, pasteurizers, lab tables and several sinks. Stainless steel pipes run throughout the building, carrying steam, milk, or water to where it is needed. There is another lab specifically for winemaking. They were working on some Pinot Noir while we were there.


Time for some cheesemaking. There were four cheese stations set up. We split up into groups to focus on one cheese, but we still could observe the other groups and see what was going on all around us. I worked on Havarti, Jim was on Team Camembert. My team's vat of milk took forever to set up. Don't know if it was the temperature of the room, if we added the wrong amount of rennet, or what the issue was, but we stood there waiting for our cheese to have a clean break for over an hour. It should have been around 30 minutes. But, the curd dictates when to cut, not the clock, so we waited and waited and waited. Finally we cut the curd, let the curd rest and began to stir. Havarti is a washed curd cheese, so we got to heat up water, drain some of the whey off, and added warm water back into the curds. Fun! Then we got to use a mult-form system to full the empty forms full of the knitting curds. Then came the flip with the fancy draining trays that OSU recently purchased from Servi Doryl.

Photo: C. van't Reit small pasteurizer at OSU

One of my favorite lectures was on Starter Cultures and their role in cheesemaking. This is a subject that I find fascinating and am beginning to get a better idea what they actually do in your cheese. Yes they acidify the milk, but they also affect flavor, texture, as well as control how it ripens down the road in the aging cave. The starter cultures develop enzymes that produce amino acids. The amino acids give us more flavor compounds and aromas. They can be buttery, nutty, toasty, fruity, etc. This is the stuff that makes me say "Yum!" when I eat a piece of cheese. Understanding bacterial cultures can help you predict what your final cheese will taste like and what texture it will have. The good cheesemaker is an artist coaxing the best flavor out of a cheese's potential. As many have told me, good cheese is made in the vat. If you start out with great potential, your final results will be that much better.

Photo: Tools for Queso Blanco.

We mixed things up the second day of cheesemaking. In the morning we all made Queso Blanco. This is a fresh, Mexican style cottage cheese made with whole milk. Quite easy to make, with quick results that we can eat in 90 minutes. It is acidified with buttermilk and set with junket, a tablet form of rennet also used in making pudding.

Photo: Fresh Queso Blanco.

We divided up into two groups. One group tried to make a drier cheese, the other wanted a moist cheese. It was good practice seeing how curd size, as well as the firmness of the curd mass at point of cutting will determine the amount of moisture left in the curd. The firmer the curd at the initial point of cutting, the softer the cheese, the smaller the size of the curd, the drier the cheese will be. These are all decisions made every time you make cheese.

Photo: Mary and Sasha work on Havarti.

We also got to switch cheeses in the Pilot Plant. Jim moved to Team Havarti and I went to Team Mozzarella. Jim became defacto team leader and got a lot of hands-on cheesemaking. Our Mozzarella didn't turn out. We used store bought milk and didn't add calcium chloride. The curd got over stirred and the curd never stretched. A waste! I was sad. I want to practice stretching mozzarella with someone who knows what they're doing.

Our evenings were spent socializing with fellow students. Jim and I went out to dinner at a brewpub with Sasha Davies of Cheese By Hand, and Professor Marc Bates formerly of Washington State University. Had a great time talking about living in Oregon, cheesemaking, and current events.

The second night we went to Evergreen, an Indian restaurant with Sasha and fellow students Pete and Cecil. More great conversations about what we all want to do, dairying, and what it takes to get going.

There are many reasons to continue to take cheesemaking classes. Not only do I continue to get new ideas and a better understanding of the process of cheesemaking, but I always meet some really nice people with similar interests. Now that I've been following this dream for a few years, I feel more comfortable asking questions and understanding the answers. I'll keep taking classes and working with others so long as there is someone to teach me. I am happy to show others what I've learned and maybe inspire them, too.

Photo: Goat cheese with green peppercorns from River's Edge Chevre.

We ate a lot of cheese. We had a sampling of cheddars from Tillamook. We also got a nice selection of goat cheeses from River's Edge Chevre. We also got to sample some cheeses from Europe. We were never hungry.

Photo: Brian of Oregon Gourmet Cheeses in his cave.

The final afternoon was a field trip to Oregon Gourmet Cheeses in Albany. Brian Richter graciously let our group come into his plant where we heard his story, try his cheese and pepper him with questions. The scale of his cheeseroom is modest. Not small, but efficient. He uses a 500 gallon milk tank as his vat. He makes both raw as well as pasteurized cheeses. His raw milk Sublimity is dense, like an alpine style cheese. The texture is well knit and it is chewy like a tootsie roll, but not sticky. He likes to add dried herbs like lavender and herbes des provence to some of his wheels. Like most cheesemakers, he'd love to have more aging room and is at capacity. I'd like to visit him again so I can ask more questions. Albany is about an hour away. This would be an easy repeat trip.