Do you know how to make cheese at home? Are you ready to move from ricotta to Reggiano? Take a deep breath. The hardest part is maintaining temperature.
Mozzarella, farmer’s cheese, paneer, and ricotta are fresh cheeses. Many goat milk cheese recipes are also considered “fresh” because they haven’t been cultured or aged. These share common traits: they’re soft, mild, and usually have to be kept in the refrigerator.
Fresh cheeses were civilization’s first dairy food. Making goat cheese was a way to preserve milk and make it digestible for adults who could no longer consume lactose. Often, goat herders in Mesopotamia soured milk and strained it into curds to carry on nomadic journeys. It was made quickly and eaten just as fast because those locations did not have the right environments to properly age it.
Paneer and labneh are spreadable cheeses with minimal aging. They come from warm regions such as Pakistan and Lebanon.
When humanity migrated from the Middle East into Europe, people discovered cool caves. Cheese making burgeoned into a long and delicious legacy. Europe is now home to spectacular hard, aged varieties which are difficult to craft anywhere else. Unless you can augment your environment to mimic those cool caves.
The reason Europe is home to the best hard cheeses is the same reason I only make Cheddar in November.
When I learned how to make cheese at home, I started with mozzarella, paneer, ricotta, and soft curds. When I wanted to move onto hard cheeses, I purchased a cheese making book. And I was disappointed. Because my specific environment couldn’t be augmented that much, I could not make Parmesan.
Crafting hard cheeses involves four steps. First, begin ripening cheese with a prepared starter culture, which introduces the right beneficial bacteria to create that specific flavor. Separate curds from whey and squeeze out any residual moisture, which can involve draining on a cheese board for a couple days. Third, coat the cheese in wax or beneficial mold to keep good bacteria inside; bad bacteria, yeasts, and molds stay out. Cheese then sits for enough time to allow good bacteria to fully ripen curds into a delectable food.
Aged cheeses need a cool, well-ventilated environment for the entire curing process. This allows for steady growth of the good bacteria without turning fats rancid. Optimal temperate is 45 to 55 degrees, which occurs naturally within those European caves but is colder than Mesopotamia allowed. It’s also colder than my historical home allows for more than four months out of the year. I don’t have air conditioning, but the heater doesn’t work within my daughter’s half-bath. By duct-taping the toilet to decommission it as a bathroom, I craft cheese in November and set it within a metal cupboard, where it can age through February before seasons warm the room again.
This doesn’t mean you can’t make hard cheeses. But knowing how to make cheese at home involves creative augmentation of your curing environment.
You may already have the right location for curing cheese. Do you have anywhere in your house, garage, basement, or root cellar which maintains 50 degrees? The length of time it remains that temperature determines types of cheese you can make. A cold garage in New Jersey may allow you to craft goat milk Cheddar, which ages four to twelve weeks. If you have a root cellar on an Alaskan homestead, you may be able to manage Romano, which must sit five to twelve months for perfection.
But technology is a wonderful thing.
Refrigerators keep food just above freezing, restricting bacterial growth; since beneficial bacteria is necessary for proper cheese ripening, refrigerators just won’t work. They also don’t allow proper airflow. But farmers and cheese makers can take advantage of air conditioning boxes and compressors. Computer units such as the CoolBot attach to standard air conditioners and can be set to 50 degrees. This turns an entire room into a meat-and-cheese-curing chamber. Add a little insulation for energy efficiency and you’re making Parmesan, even in Florida.
Other technology-minded cheese makers have refurbished old refrigerators, adding compressors to keep a good air flow while temperature controls stay optimal. Plans can be found online for converting old fridges.
But if you don’t have the right technology, you can craft a mild Monterey jack and cure it for that single month when your garage stays 55 degrees, purchasing good Parmesan from the store.
Obtain a good cheese making book and the right cultures. Then look around. If you don’t have a cool basement, would a friend allow you to use hers in trade for a wheel of homemade cheese? What varieties can you make within your own home? Though you may feel restricted by time and temperature requirements, there are still many varieties that can be made in short duration. Try feta and chevre if you only have a refrigerator to work with, manchego during a cold spell that may last a week or two, montasio if you’ve got a two-month window, and swiss if you have at least three months. Watching the weather report and estimating curing times is part of the thrill.
And what if you don’t cure it for exactly the time required? It’s usually not that big of a deal.
Sixty days is the minimum time required to nullify listeria and any other bad bacteria in raw milk. Giving or selling under-cured raw cheese falls under local raw milk laws and listeria can be disastrous to pregnant women and small children.
But if you use pasteurized milk, shorter curing times mean a milder and softer cheese that may not melt as well. Letting it sit too long makes a sharper product. Always keep cheese below sixty, or it may rancidify. But if your time runs short, enjoy what you do have.
When learning how to make cheese at home, start with simple cheese and a short curing time and go from there. Once the cheese making addiction strikes, you may find creative ways to keep it cool.