Monday, July 21, 2014

Cheese-making: An Art and a Science
Written by Andrea Just for the Wagner Tales Winter 2014 Issue

Last Christmas I received a cheese-making kit and thought to myself, what a great gift! I love cheese, I love to cook, and here is everything I need to make 30 pounds of mozzarella and ricotta.  Well, not everything. If you want good cheese, you must start with good milk.

If you take a close look at the dairy case in your favorite grocery store, you will discover that nearly every form of cow’s milk has been cooked to death (literally).

Ultra-pasteurized milk, the kind you normally find at the store, is heated to 191 degrees for at least one second. This high temperature destroys all organisms and enzymes in the milk, killing any bacteria, but also damaging the protein structure.  The instructions in my kit made it very clear that using ultra-pasteurized milk would not work.

I searched at Whole Foods and was thrilled to find one brand of milk that lacked the deadly ultra-pasteurized label. I brought a gallon home and carefully followed the steps to make “30-minute mozzarella,” but it never formed a solid curd.

Twelve bucks, down the drain. What a great gift!?!

After a brief stint of despair, I realized that the source for great milk was right under my nose. I had recently accepted a job at Historic Wagner Farm, where learning to milk a cow was part of my training. I was overjoyed when I got permission to use the fresh, raw milk from our dairy cow, Lilly.

Now this would really be farm-to-table cheese! I’d like to include a big thank you to farmer Andres for expertly training me how to milk a cow. With much excitement and anticipation, I started making mozzarella cheese for real this time. First I made curds, then heated and stretched the curds, then formed the cheese into little balls.

The stretching and forming steps are rather fast-paced and this is where the recipe directs instructs you to salt each ball. I couldn’t manage all these steps at once so after the little cheese balls were formed and cooling, I mixed up a brine solution for storage.

I brought my mozzarella to the farm and asked my co-workers to give it a try.  They all smiled and said nice things, perhaps a few of them meant it. I mean it wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t truly awesome either.

The next batch of mozzarella turned out better. I remembered to add salt at the proper time and formed one big cheese log. I was aiming to get a drier cheese that I could grate and put on pizza.  It was drier than my first effort, but a little rubbery. It tasted lovely though, creamy and fresh. Had I produced this batch a month earlier, I would have enjoyed eating my cheese with homegrown tomatoes and basil.

I’m just starting to understand what they say about cheese-making being an art and a science when Lilly, my source of fresh dairy, leaves the Farm for the winter.

I guess it’s a minor setback in my quest to become a master cheese maker. It gives me time to research and explore other cheeses while I wait for fresh dairy to return in spring. I made a batch of mascarpone cheese last week. Yum! So many possibilities to dream of.