Friday, February 13, 2015

Pure Cheenius (cheese making 101)

As you may know, I’m an Israeli living in the USA. There’s a certain type of cheese which I love, called “Tsfatit” (or Tzfatit) that’s very common in Israel, but does not exist in America. As a result, I had to learn how to make it myself (same reason I learned to cook and make most of the things I do…). I also realized that there are many others who are interested in this cheese and learning how to make it. I also learned that many people are publishing misleading info about cheese-making, making it sound more complicated or difficult than it really is. Here’s my guide to making cheese.

While I’ll be talking a lot today about this Tsfatit cheese, it’s important to know that the basics of making cheese are common to almost all kinds, so this guide isn’t only about the Israeli cheese, but many others as well. The basic idea of cheese making is taking some milk, and causing it to coagulate into curds. Then, these curds can be turned into various types of cheeses based on certain steps and processes. For example, adding just a little salt and applying low pressure to the cheese leads to the creation of Tsfatit, but simply adding more salt and pressure would make it a Feta cheese. If, on the other hand, you add less salt and do some kneading on it, it would become Mozzarella.

The basic ingredients for cheese are:

1. Milk

2. Coagulating agent (Rennet)

3. Additional flavorings, if desired (salt usually, and other stuff at will)

You’re also going to need at least one special piece of equipment – a cheese cloth. It’s a type of cloth that’s specially designed to allow you to press the cheese curd into a final density and texture. Cheese cloth can be purchased at most supermarkets for about 2.5$ per square yard, and naturally, cheaper online. Essentially, you can wash the cloth after making cheese and reuse it, but I find that to be very difficult. You can’t simply put it in the washing machine with cloths, and hand-washing might leave some cheese on it, which would spoil, stink and might be risky for your next batch of cheese. Since it only takes about ¼ Sq. Yard for a batch of cheese, I just discard it after a day of cheese making and use a new piece next time around. Note that not all cheesecloths are created equal. Many are very fragile, which would mean you’d need two layers to hold the cheese together. This also makes them harder to clean and re-use. I recommend this brand: . At $7.5 for 4.8 square yards, your cost would be only about 38 cents per batch even if you don’t reuse the cloth at all.

Another specialty hardware that’s not strictly required, but highly recommended is a cheese mould. This is a plastic cylinder which helps press the cheese into its desired form. A skilled person can simply squeeze the cheesecloth with his bare hands, but the mould gives it a better form, and makes for a consistent and nice looking piece of cheese. A basic mould costs about 20$, such as this one: . Its size is targeted at making about 1-2 pound piece of cheese from 1 gallon of milk.

The coagulating agent used in cheese-making is Rennet, which is a group of enzymes that cause the proteins in the milk (kappa casein molecules) to stop binding to the water molecules in the milk, and instead, bind to each other, forming the curd. Rennet is usually made from meat, but there’s vegetable based Rennet, which is suitable for vegetarians, as well as kosher observant Jews (the Jewish religion forbids mixing of dairy and meat products). Rennet is available in many supermarkets in tablet form, as well as online ( ), typically at around $10-12 for 10 tablets. Only ¼ tablet is actually needed to make a batch of cheese, so those ten dollars go a long way. There are some recipes that call for using various acids (citrus juice, vinegar etc.) instead of Rennet, but my experiments with this didn’t lead to good curding, so I recommend sticking to Rennet. Rennet is also available as liquid, which is a tad more convenient, but its shelf-life is a lot shorter, so I’m not a big fan.

Other items you need, and should be available at any kitchen is a pot to heat the milk, a colander to filter the curds out and a stirring spoon. Here’s how it’s done:

Step 1 – choose and get milk

1 gallon of milk typically makes 1-1.5 pounds of cheese. If you press the cheese more, you will squeeze out more water, making for heavier, denser cheese (and less of it, of course). I advise working with half a gallon, as it’s easier to work-with. You can use any milk, except milk that’s ultra-pasteurized (the ultra-pasteurization prevents the coagulation of the milk into curds). Since most of the milk is water, and the resulting cheese is about 1/5 of the original milk volume, low-fat (1%) milk will product cheese that’s around 5% fat, while whole milk (3%) will produce cheese with around 15% fat. You can also use half-and-half (10% fat) to make 50% fat cheese (YOLO, MOFO!!!).

Step 2 – make the curds

To form the curds, the milk needs to be warm. Various guides out there spit out crazy complicated heating-and-cooling, but I find that it doesn’t need to be crazy hot or crazy-accurate to work. Heat the milk up in a pot to somewhere around 90-110 degrees F. If you are using Rennet tablets, crush and dissolve them in a little (teaspoon or tablespoon) or luke-warm water, and then pour that into the milk. If you’re using liquid Rennet, just drop it in. Mix it up a little and gently. Put aside and wait 10-15 minutes. Once you’re back, the milk should have curded and the entire pot would be like white soft jelly.

Step 3 – slush the curds

Use your stirring spoon or a knife to cut the curds vertically and horizontally every inch or so, to end up with a sort-of “salad”. Don’t be rough or over-do it, because we want to have big chunks and not tiny ones (those will simply squeeze out of the cheese cloth and leave you with little to no cheese). If, for some reason, the curd you have is so soft that it falls apart to tiny curds, dump it and start from scratch. This could happen with certain types of milk and there’s nothing you can do other than get another type.

Step 4 – dry the curds

Use a colander or straining-spoon to filter the curds from the water. I like using a pot with an attaching colander-lid, but you can use any way you like as long as you’re gentle enough not to crush the curds. Don’t feel that you need to filter it COMPLETELY. That’s hard and not necessary, as long as you got most of the liquid out. The curds typically sink in the fluid, so usually swirling it in the pot would send more fluid up for you to spill out until the curds are fairly dry.

Optional: expedite the reduction

If you want to hasten the completion of the cheese, you can warm the curds a little, which causes them to expel their water faster. You can stick them in the microwave for 30-45 seconds, or if they are still in the pot, put it back on your stove for a minute or two. Doing this makes the pressing part a bit easier, as you’ll have less water to squeeze out in the mould. Just be careful when heating to not burn the curds. With careful warming and experience, you could get to a level where the cheese is almost fully done in minutes.

Step 5 – flavor the cheese

At this point, your cheese will have ZERO flavor, so now is the time to add some taste. One table-spoon of salt for ½ gallon of milk produces Tsfatit. Two table-spoons will produce the saltiness of Feta (Bulgarian cheese). Other interesting additives are ground Pesto, crushed Garlic, sun-dried tomatoes or shredded Salmon.

Step 6 – press the cheese

Assuming you have a mould, line it with a ¼ square yard of cloth (about 20”x20”), and pour the curds into it. Now “close” or fold the cloth over the curds (they would still be very soft and gelatinous). Place the mould’s follower (the flat plastic disc it came with) over and press down to compress the cheese and squeeze out more liquid. THIS is the important part…the more you squeeze, the denser the cheese (and less of it you’ll have). If you started with ½ gallon and using an 800 Gr mould like I suggested above, an ideal target would be about 1 ¼-1 ½ “ thick. If it’s thicker, it might be too soft and fall apart. Thinner might be tough to chew. Squeeze gently, and if you reach a point where the cheese resists and you see it extrude through the mold (instead of water coming out), don’t push more. Simply leave the mould in a bowl, with some weight (like a large can of tomatoes) on it, and it will slowly leak out more water and squeeze on its own. I recommend putting the whole thing in the fridge over-night, and by morning, you should have perfectly formed and shaped cheese.


Don’t have a mould?

If you elect not to use a mould, you can simply dump the curds into the cloth, and then tie it around the curds and squeeze it by hand. It’s a lot messier as your hands will be covered by the white whey-water. This also tends to get the cheese-cloth stick, so that when you open it, it will peel off some of the cheese. However, it’s a reasonable alternative if you need to save money.

Step 7 – other types of cheese

Other types of cheese start out almost the same, but additional steps are taken onward. Yellow cheese typically require the curds to be pressed for an extended period in a humid and warm place (3 weeks for simple yellow cheeses and up to several years for advanced stuff like Swiss and Gouda). Mozzarella is another alternative where the cheese is kneaded like dough until it gets to the right consistency and texture. For Bree, parmesan, blue cheeses and other, special types bacteria is added, which gives the unique tastes of these cheeses over a number of weeks to years.

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