I learned how to make cheese the other day. Or rather, I learned some things about how cheese is made. It’s yet to be seen if I can actually make it happen myself.
Seems fairly easy on paper:
Step 1. milk a cow
Step 2. heat the milk
Step 3. add culture and rennet…
What’s rennet? I’ll get to that. But first: I learned what “whey” is. I learned what Little Miss Muffet was eating while sitting on her tuffet! When you add acid/culture/heat to milk, it separates. The curds are what form into cheese. And the whey is simply the liquid that’s left. Whey tastes kind of like the most amazing macaroni & cheese on the planet. A real comfort flavor. Who knew?
Back to rennet.
I learned that rennet comes from rennen, an enzyme found in the stomach of a young animal that hasn’t been weaned and so still digests its mother’s milk. There’s a vegan version too, but I don’t know how that happens. Rennet—the enzyme—does something to help the curds form bonds and thus become CHEESY (not the term used in class, but it works for me!).
For as many different cheese flavors and colors and consistencies that are out there, it’s a rather amazing fact that they pretty much all have the same ingredients, with only minor tweaking. Yes, it’s an art. And a science.
We made two kinds of cheese in class: a batch of ricotta and a hard cheese. Ricotta isn’t actually a cheese, as it doesn’t require rennet, just heat and acid. (Citric acid that is, not one of the scary kinds.) The curds are delicate, and they form all of a sudden as one gently stirs the pot of heated milk and drizzles the acid in. One minute you’re stirring warm milk, and the next thing you know, you’ve birthed curds! If you blink, you just might miss the magic moment. But whether you saw it happen or not, once it does you simply strain the curds, ice it all, and voilá: lasagna innards!
The hard cheese is a little trickier than the ricotta. It involves carefully managed step stages of heat and stirring: 10 degrees over minutes, stir off the heat, then more heat over 10 minutes, all the while stirring… Our teacher that day was distracted—by our questions, by the new calf being born(!) in the barn right across the path from our classroom window, by our whining about the heat in the small room filled with bodies and warm milk with windows closed to the flies, by yet another pass-around of the next cheese sample—and so she kept missing the time marker, and the pre-cheese mixture kept overshooting the ideal next temperature stage. But in the end, a decent ball, then “wheel” started to form in the cheesecloth, pressed between two buckets. The ricotta was immediately done, but the hard cheese takes some ripening. I didn’t get a picture of the hard cheese, but we all go back for a reunion in two months to see how it turned out, so I’ll try then.
In the end, no spiders came alongside us to surprise us. But one on-looker did:
And yes, you read that right earlier: a new calf was born while we were there: