Part III: If at First You Don’t Succeed…You’ll Figure It Out Eventually
There are a lot of factors that contribute to cheese-making: temperature, time, fat content, and especially acidity. When our cheese intern, Vince, told me that a high acidity level might have contributed to my failed cottage cheese, I needed to know what jacked the level to begin with. The answer? Too much enzyme.
For this last trial, I broke my own rule of not making more than one substitute at a time: I was pretty sure I knew exactly what the problems were, and how to fix them all at once. I started by seeking out stronger rennet. Keystone Homebrew Supply was the only (argh!) shop in the area to carry liquid rennet, and though I called ahead and was assured it was in stock, when I arrived they were out. Luckily the sales associate helping me makes his own cheese, too, and directed me to bacterial tablets. Onward and upward.
The original recipe called for one packet of mesophilic starter, available from Cheesemaking Supply. Since we use starter culture to make cheese at the farm, all I had to do was figure out how much culture is in each packet, and measure out the corresponding amount. I was using bunk information, however, and had been using way too much starter. In my third and final try, I substituted a half cup of buttermilk, which contains its own live culture, for the powdered starter. Because of the mildness of the buttermilk culture, the coagulation took longer than the other recipe – about double – but the results were pillowy curds that, after being washed several times in cold water (no heating required!), retained the firm, yet soft texture described in the original recipe. Success!
As I was calculating the conversion from liquid rennet to tablet, I discovered something that made the problems with my second attempt at basket cheese crystal clear: tablet rennet is only effective for the first half hour after it’s been dissolved. I had waited three hours before using in my second batch – no wonder it didn’t work! Knowing I had to dissolve rennet right before I used it, the coagulation problem with this cheese was an easy fix. Success!
Here’s a recap of the factors that contributed to my initial failures. If you recognize in your own cheeses some of the symptoms I described, perhaps this will help you out of your cheese-making slump.
In simple fresh cheeses (ricotta, paneer) acid is the only ingredient required to curdle the milk and give you cheese curd. Use too little acid, and the milk won’t curdle. Conversely, use too much acid and the cheese curds seize too quickly, resulting in a dense, squeaky curd (see enzyme, below). This I knew from making ricotta many times over, so the problem was easily recognizable in the paneer.
Rennet is a specific enzyme that causes milk to coagulate. Too little rennet, and there’s no coagulation. The general consensus with my first attempt is I didn’t dilute the commercial rennet properly, making it too weak to do its job. In my second attempt, my first cheese coagulated while the second one didn’t, even though I used the same rennet tablet for each. Tablet rennet is only effective for the first half hour after it’s diluted; I waited several hours before using the second half of what I dissolved, which by that point was no longer active.
Starter culture is another enzyme that regulates the acidity of the milk, allowing rennet to do its job in a certain amount of time. Too much culture results in a high level of acidity, which causes the cheese to coagulate too fast, resulting in a gritty, squeaky texture. In the first two batches I used too great a quantity of commercial enzyme, and got the same results both times: undesirable texture. The milder culture of the buttermilk used in the third test caused the rennet to take longer to coagulate, but yielded the soft, pillowy curds desired from the recipe.
When I first started making cheese at home, I knew only that it worked, not necessarily all the factors to why it worked. Had I bothered to do more research before beginning, I could no doubt have thwarted these problems in the first place. But though I’m a chef who likes to read, I also like to play with my food. And when I can physically see the science in what I’m doing, I understand it all the more…the better to teach you with, my child.
Join us on Sunday for a “magical” day of cheese-making: cottage cheese, basket cheese, and paneer. Who knows, maybe I’ll throw a little ricotta lesson in there, too. Click here to reserve your spot. Happy cheese-making!