By Martin Kouprie
At the beginning in my cooking career I was taught the simple lessons — product knowledge, knife skills, butchery, cold and hot preparations, baking, simple pastries — you know, all the stuff to get you flying. Over time I added to these lessons and grew professionally, constantly learning while developing skills and building my craft. The accomplishment of creating something new from nature is truly a “eureka” moment and can be a powerful point of pride for creative cooks. If you think slow food has a romantic appeal, then cheese-making is the ultimate slow food experience.
Making cheese for the first time is a gratifying experience that requires some trial-and-error lessons. There are many subtleties controlling the final outcome, yet there are just a few basic techniques and then a lot of room for creativity. Like anything in life, cheese-making will take an investment of time and money; but, if you’re committed, the outcome is delicious.
Education is key
Read as many books on the subject as you can. Familiarize yourself with the ingredients, processes and varieties. Compare similar recipes from different authors and make note of their differences. Learn why equipment sanitation is so important and the methods relating to proper sterilization of tools.
For equipment and tools, begin with a starter kit; there are many available on the Internet but I would recommend going to www.glengarrycheesemaking.on.ca. All their kits have everything you need to get started. If you stick with it long term, they are a good long-term source where you can buy many of your ingredients.
Next you will need a small fridge in which to age the cheese. It will need to have a thermostat able to maintain an average setting ranging from 10–13 C (50-55 F). Also, you will need small plastic container with a lid that’s big enough to fit one or two of your cheeses. It should also have a plastic grate on the bottom deep enough to catch the whey that the cheese releases when it first goes in. You’ll also want to invest in a proper pH meter.
Your first batch
Start off with regular whole homogenized cow’s milk from the grocery store; it’s less expensive than organic milk, more readily available and works fine. This is just a starting point because you probably won’t have excellent results with your first batch or two. Stick with this milk until you develop your chops. Once you have a better understanding of the manufacturing process, you can begin to refine your milk selection and move on to other types of milk (cow, sheep, goat, etc.).
Decide on what cheese you are going to make and copy the recipe word-for-word into a binder; this is an excellent way of internalizing the process and it gives you a place where you can scribble in your own notes. When you make each batch, you’ll print it out and add new notes including date, time stamps for every stage, temperature and pH readings. This is important if you plan on selling the cheese in-house as the Health Department wants compliance with food safety regulations. Use pasteurized milk and make sure all your tools and molds have been visually inspected, sanitized in the dishwasher and allowed to air dry.
Start the cheese-making process early in the day in order to give yourself lots of time for draining and flipping the cheese. If you start late afternoon, you’ll still be at work until sometime after midnight. Have all your equipment and containers laid out. If you set your pot of milk in a water bath equipped with a thermocirculator, then you can make cheese in any area of the kitchen and not be tethered to the stove. If you need to use the stove, it’s no big deal as you will only be on it for an hour or so. If you let your milk come up to room temperature first, you can then heat the milk in under 30 minutes for a 16-litre batch.
Calcium chloride and liquid rennet are two standard ingredients that you’ll familiarize yourself with. Calcium chloride fortifies the calcium in the milk which was weakened during pasteurization. Calcium is the “glue” that holds the protein structure together which means it is very important when making a solid product like cheese. The rennet is what coagulates the milk into a solid mass but it can have an unpleasant taste if overused. Don’t be tempted to use more rennet than the recipe requires. In fact, as you become more skilled you’ll probably try to use slightly less than what was called for in the recipe initially.
Once your curds are cut, stirred and shrunk sufficiently, the cheese is ready to be molded (hooped). Whether you’re making a hard or a soft cheese, the draining process is an important one. Let the cheese drain longer than most recipes suggest. The importance of flipping the cheese during this time should not be understated as it will contribute to the quality and the overall appearance of the finished product.
If you are making a hard cheese, don’t be in a hurry to apply the maximum pressure. It can contribute to premature development of a rind which will trap too much moisture inside.
Brining, dry rubbing or, by direct application, adding salt during the process of making cheese adds a barrier to unwanted bacteria. Salting regulates microbial growth, encourages moisture loss and in turn enhances the final texture. If you’re concerned about the level of salt in cheese, this is not the time to change the ratios; just eat less cheese or forget about it. That said, be sure to measure your salt carefully because over-salting can be the kiss of death.
The cheese cave
You can use a small bar fridge if you must but they can be finicky and air circulation is important. The bigger the fridge the better. Choose a fridge with wire racks – not glass – to ensure good ventilation. Air circulation removes the moisture from the cheese and with proper humidity, does so at a controlled rate. Buy a couple of good quality hygrometers/thermometers; dependable ones cost about $20 each. Equip your fridge with several, one on the top, one on the bottom, one in the cheese box. Keep an eye on the relative humidity (RH). This reading will dictate the rate at which the cheese dries. Too dry an RH and your cheese will crack; too much moisture and your cheese will not develop gracefully. Look for an ideal ratio of 80 to 85 per cent RH.
When you start putting cheese into your cheese fridge, humidity will be difficult to control and that is why I use lidded boxes initially. Just offset the lid at various degrees to create air circulation and control the humidity. As you make and fill the fridge with more of your cheese, the humidity will be easier to control to the point where you can do away with lids entirely. Remember to open the refrigerator door several times a day to allow for ample air exchange.
Now the waiting game begins. If you’ve made several small brie-style cheeses, try them every two weeks to understand the ripening process. If all the conditions are met, they will transform from a chalky fresco formaggio into a gooey unctuous cheese in six to eight weeks. With hard cheese, it’s more of a leap of faith and a test of your patience before knowing whether or not you were successful. A hard cheese that hasn’t been allowed to develop can give you the wrong impression.
Cheese-making is an individual experience and I’m sure other cheese makers will have different tips to share with you. Regardless, I hope these tips inspire you to give cheese-making a try. It’s an age-old practice that is as much art as science, which makes it a rewarding and reinvigorating project for well-seasoned chefs.
About the author:
After 20 years pleasing critics and patrons alike as the executive chef and co-owner of Toronto’s iconic Yorkville eatery Pangaea Restaurant, Martin Kouprie has moved to the country! Martin’s high standards and culinary imagination have won him accolades from near and far: Gourmet Magazine, Toronto Life, The Financial Post, and The New York Times have all given his cooking their seal of approval. He is the author of Pangaea: Why it Tastes So Good, recipient of OHI Restauranteur of the Year award in 2009 and in 2016 earned the coveted title of Certified Chef de Cuisine. In his personal life Martin Kouprie is an accomplished carpenter and a Rescue Diver.