Three Days of Cheese-making

This past two weeks I have been running trials for Sunday’s Farmstead Cheese class. And if I have learned one thing from all this trial and error, it’s that cheese is not magic. Now I know from teaching other cheese-making classes that I’m not the only one to suffer from cheese failure, so for all you home cheese-makers out there, I present to you Three Days of Cheese-making, and how it all pulled together.

Part I: On the First Day of Cheese-making…

It seemed easy enough: follow the recipes, configure the timing, presto! cheese. Imagine my surprise (and foot-stamping frustration) when all three of my cheeses failed. All three cheeses failed. Even fool-proof paneer. It was maddening.

frustrated kid

Even more maddening was the lack of definitive answers. I wanted someone to tell me, “THIS is why your basket cheese never coagulated, and THIS is why your cottage cheese turned into gritty goo, and THIS is why your paneer took twice as much vinegar to curdle.” I turned to head cheesemaker Paul, and through our conversation started to grasp that there are a lot (and I mean a lot) of variables that factor into whether a cheese succeeds or fails (newsflash: even professionals don’t succeed 100% of the time), and if I was going to successfully and simultaneously execute these cheeses with a class of students, I would have to Dick Tracy the situation.

Cottage Cheese
Of the three, this cheese takes the longest to make, so I started it first: heating the milk, adding the culture and rennet, letting it rest. When I returned hours later, I still had milk – the cheese didn’t coagulate. I did exactly what Paul told me was the one thing I shouldn’t do, and added more rennet. When I heated the resulting curds, they seized into a gritty, squeaky, stretchy mass – not cottage cheese.

Basket Cheese
This cheese requires only rennet in order to coagulate, and I found myself with the same problem as with the cottage cheese: the milk didn’t coagulate.

The easiest of the three, paneer requires a simple acid to separate the milk into curds. Not able to find any apple cider vinegar (I swore I had some somewhere…), I used the only acid I had on hand: a homemade wine vinegar from a corked bottle of expensive French red. After nearly a cup, the milk still hadn’t curdled.

Now I remember from high school science class that the key to troubleshooting any experiment is only changing one variable at a time. Change multiple and you won’t know which caused the original problem. I knew my paneer problems had to do with the vinegar I used: there wasn’t enough acidity in the homemade vinegar to cause the milk to curdle. Change the acid, and the cheese should succeed.

It was also fairly obvious with both my cottage and basket cheeses that the rennet was too weak to coagulate the milk, so I started looking for a local place to buy rennet. I ended up with Junket Rennet from Whole Foods, a standard custard and dessert rennet that’s been used by our mothers and grandmothers for decades. New England Cheesemaking Supply frowns on using this for home cheesemaking (in fact, they deny that it even can be used successfully), but I’m a chef, and believe food rules were made to be broken. Naturally, I plowed ahead anyway.

To Be Continued…

Did I make the right adjustments? Does Junket work to make cheese? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post: A Tale of Two Cheeses

1902 - Family purchased farm

1910 - Leased land to dairy farmer

1987 - Hamill Brothers inherit farm

2002 - Started as a family business

2003 - Started a beef herd, laying hens, and pigs

2004 - Added sheep and attained organic certification of pasture land

2005 - Added dairy herd and began making fresh cheeses like mozzarella

2006 - Built aging caves and began making aged cheeses

2012 - Grid Magazine’s Cheese of the Month (Nov – Full Nettle Jack); Finalist at the Good Food Awards (Toma)

2013 - Won 2 blue ribbons from the American Cheese Society(for Buttercup Brie and Lawrenceville Jack Reserve); Added second cheesemaker

2014 - Broke ground on additional aging space and began process of getting AWA certification for our chickens