Adventures in Home Cheesemaking

Last summer, we put up a display that included some Urban Cheesecraft cheesemaking kits and some books on cheesemaking. I felt compelled to try out the deluxe kit at home, not just to make sure I could accurately sell the kits or help customers troubleshoot, but also out of a genuine interest in learning how to make my own cheese.

This desire grew in part from some of the reading I’d been doing on the cheesemaking process and the biology behind cheesemaking. I find it fascinating that you can take milk, curdle it, add some salt and maybe some flavorings, and have cheese.

Of course, the process is a bit more complex than that, and there are a lot of factors that can make or break a cheese.

I found that out the hard way last summer, when I decided to start out with my cheesemaking journey by creating my own mozzarella curd. Since we stretch fresh mozzarella in the shop, I figured mozz curd would be a cinch for me. I know what the curd is supposed to look like, how it behaves, and I could turn it into beautiful, luxurious, homemade balls.

Well, it wasn’t meant to be. At least not that first time.

I got the best milk I could easily find—Twin Brook Creamery’s pasteurized, cream-top whole milk—bought myself some stainless steel bowls and food-safe gloves, and got my kit out. While I followed all the directions, I ended up with a handful of really hard curds and a gallon of hot whey.

It was a major disappointment, to say the least. I am not ashamed to admit that I pouted and sulked about it for a few days. Secretly, of course.

I consulted with my cheese mentor, and she figured that perhaps my materials weren’t clean enough. She suggested that if I had washed things in the dishwasher, they may still have soap residue on them that could interfere with the delicate chemical reactions of curdling the milk. So, she said, I should rinse everything extra-well in hot water next time.

I also asked my boss for help with troubleshooting, and she thought that perhaps the rennet could be old or no longer as active as possible, and that maybe I should try a different rennet with the next batch.

Despite these good ladies’ sage advice, I waited half a year to try again, because I was sufficiently demoralized from that one afternoon of failure. I’m an overachiever; what can I say?

As I pointed out recently on Instagram and Facebook, I took a trip this past weekend to Sound Homebrew Supply. The excursion was meant to help educate my boyfriend and get him pumped to start making beer with the homebrew kit I bought him for Christmas.

While that was a success, visiting the store also rekindled my interest in cheesemaking—because OF COURSE a shop that carries beer-brewing equipment and supplies would also carry winemaking things and cheesemaking things. Beer and wine are best with cheese, and all three are, essentially, fermented foods.

So the other night I dusted off the ol’ cheesemaking kit, got another gallon of Twin Brook’s milk, and rinsed all of my equipment in very hot water for a very long time.

And then I made ricotta.

It was a success. Not a huge success, but a success.

I temper my successfulness by noting that while the recipe said I should end up with a pound and a half of ricotta, my yield was only 10.5 ounces. I don’t know what happened, but the little bit I got sure tasted great. (My boss has since noted that she once ruined a batch of ricotta in a cheesemaking class by over-stirring it. Maybe that’s what went wrong? More research to come.)

The boyfriend balked at the prospect of ending up with so much ricotta. “What are we going to do with that much ricotta?” he had asked before we ended up with a lot less than we were supposed to make.

While I listed off things like lasagna and cannoli, which would both have involved the added labor of making pasta or making pizzelles, I was also dreaming about smearing ricotta on bread and drizzling it with honey.

What we ended up doing instead was making a pot of spaghetti, then using some of the pasta water to make a pasta sauce with olive oil, garlic, lemon zest, salt, and my fresh ricotta, topping it with chili flakes and shredded fresh basil, and serving up a steaming plate of awesome pasta with the last of our homemade hot Italian sausages.

The ricotta that remains will be eaten on bread, with honey. Or alone on a spoon. It turned out so well, I’m not even kidding.

I guess the moral of the story is twofold.

One: don’t just give up; keep trying. Unless you really suck, you’ll succeed eventually.

Two: home cheesemaking kits are a great way to dip your fingers into the science and traditions of making one of life’s best simple pleasures. (CHEESE!)

So there you have it.

(Also, you probably don’t suck, so you will eventually succeed at making cheese.)

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