Sunday, December 9, 2007

Cheese Making

Through the forums at Beer Advocate, I recently came across a fellow home brewer's blog and saw that his interests, like mine, extend to several types of fermentation (including sour Belgian and Belgian-style ales), so I thought a post on my cheese making experiments would be fun. I became interested in trying cheese making some time in 2006, but it wasn't until about May of this year that I talked Keri into letting me buy the ingredients to make it.

For the most part, cheese is made with milk, a starter culture, rennet (a coagulant). Several types of soft cheeses are made without rennet (fromage blanc, yogurt cheese, buttermilk cheese, mascarpone, cream cheese), and some cheeses use an acid in place of both rennet and the starter (panir, queso blanco, ricotta). However, these cheeses that do not use rennet (and soft cheeses in general) are typically meant to be eaten while fresh, and do not keep for more than a couple of weeks. In the most common varieties of cheese, the three ingredients of milk, starter culture, and rennet are used. Some cheese varieties that use these three ingredients also add additional mold and/or bacterial cultures as ripening agents.

I was most interested in mold and bacteria ripened cheeses. Being a reasonably experienced home brewer, and having made yogurt a couple of times, I figured I could begin my cheese making with a more "difficult" variety and have some hope of success. I was very pleased with the results.

As my textbook, I used Home Cheese Making by Rikki Carroll, proprietor of the New England Cheesemaking Supply. In my opinion, this is a good book for a beginner who is generally comfortable in the kitchen, and particularly someone with experience home brewing because many of the cleaning/sanitizing procedures will be familiar. After reading through most of the book, I decided on the Camembert, a white mold-ripened cheese, for my first try. Camembert is similar to Brie, but is ready to eat in 4-6 weeks instead of the 3-5 months required for Brie.

The basic setup required is a two gallon stock pot, a larger pot or sink filled with hot water, a good thermometer (electronic thermometers are highly recommended for accuracy and ease of monitoring) and a timer, and the cheese ingredients. Later, some means of draining the curds is required, which for camembert style cheese means food-grade polypropylene molds (forms), reed mats to facilitate draining, and small cutting boards. Although optional, a glass of tasty beer is as highly recommended as the electronic thermometer.

The process is simple. The milk is warmed in a hot water bath to raise the temperature to 90 deg F. The Flora Danica starter is added, stirred in, then the milk is left undisturbed for 90 minutes (holding the temp at 90 deg F). After 90 minutes at 90 deg F, the rennet is added to some water to ensure even distribution when it is added to the culturing milk (similar to the reason you add cornstarch to water before adding it into a sauce to thicken). The milk is stirred with an up and down motion to ensure that the fat is evenly mixed in, otherwise it won't set up with the rennet and will be poured off with the whey and the cheese will not have the appropriate fat content, flavor, and texture.

After 60 minutes at 90 deg F, the cultured milk should be set into curd, giving a "clean break" when a knife or clean finger is inserted. Unfortunately, I neglected to get a photo of curd cutting, but it's a neat process that is used to drain the whey out of the curds. The texture is similar to a soft/medium tofu. During the ripening time, the milk has acidified and the acidification affects curd formation. Timing is important so that the curd does not become too firm and rubbery.

After the curd is cut into 1/2" cubes, it is allowed to continue to ripen in the whey for 15 minutes, during which time there is a noticeable change in the firmness of the curd. It really is a fascinating process to observe and feel (with well washed and sanitized hands). Once the curd is cut and resting, the polypropylene molds and matts can be sanitized in boiling water, and the "sandwich" assembly can be started.

First the cutting board, then the reed matt, then the mold. The batch size I used required two molds, but I placed them next to each other on the same matt and cutting board. The curd is then ladled into the molds, the sandwich is completed by placing another matt on top of the molds, then the cutting board on top of that. The completed assembly looks like the picture at the left. Keep in mind that the curd has already drained quite a bit, as it starts near the top of the polypropylene mold.

Neat, isn't it? This assembly is carefully flipped over once an hour for the next 5 hours. I let mine sit overnight after they had been flipped 5 times. By morning, after the molds were pulled off, the cheeses were well formed, the curds knit well together, which is important if you want your cheese to stay together.

After this, the cheeses are lightly sprinkled with cheese salt or another non-iodized salt, on all sides and left to sit for 10 minutes. The salt will inhibit unwanted bacterial growth, and create a hospitable environment for the crucial ingredient--Pennicilium candidum, a freeze dried white mold, rehydrated with dechlorinated water in a spray bottle the evening before, and now ready to be sprayed on the cheese.

The cheese is then placed on a matt to facilitate further loss of moisture, in an environment that can sustain 45 deg F and 95% relative humidity. Since our refrigerator can't be set that high and would dry out the cheese if left uncovered, we just had to make due by keeping the cheese in a sealable container big enough for the two rounds of cheese and still have some airspace for the cheese and starter bacteria to respirate and for the white mold to develop on the outside of the cheese, all of which means that the cheese changes from tangy, spongy curd into delicious, aromatic, molten camembert.

After about 18 days, the cheese had developed most of the white mold which does the majority of the ripening of the cheese, working from the outside to the middle. Because of the cooler than desireable temps, the cheese took a couple weeks longer than anticipated. When I have the means to do so, I will modify a refrigerator with a thermostat override, available for about $70, which will allow me to keep it at the proper 45 deg F. Also, the pan I used for the refrigerator the first time was metal, which rusted quickly. For later attempts, I used plastic containers.

Still, the result was delicious (no pictures unfortunately). Not a cheese for those who have issues with gooey textured cheese, but for those who are not off-put by such things, it was a very respectable first attempt. The photos of the cooktop and the formation of curds and the curds in the forms and in the state the morning after are ACTUALLY from my second attempt at cheese making, this time a French Munster style cheese, which is ripened by Brevibacterium linens (a reddish colored and stinky bacteria) rather than Pennicillium candidum, but the process is nearly identical right up until the P. candidum is added.

Good night.

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