Like it says in the title, the point of this article is to give an overview of how we convert milk into cheese. It’s a truly amazing process, 5000 years in the making, that can be very simple, or almost as complex and detailed as you want it to be. What I’m going to do here though is give that simple breakdown of the steps involved, with a little description of each. As homemadecheese.org grows, there’ll be more and more articles covering each of the steps in much more detail.
As you read through you’ll see words or phrases underlined, this is where there are planned future articles and if you have any detailed questions or points that you would like to get across to the rest of our community, it would be great to hear from you. Where more detailed articles exist, the link is coloured like this.At its most basic, turning milk into cheese is a fermentation process like brewing or bread making, but special bacteria are used, known as a starter, instead of yeast. We add the starter to the milk and then separate it into curds and whey. We dispose of the whey, treat the curds for the type of cheese we want, add salt, form the cheese and leave the starter bacteria to mature it before enjoying; simple! Now let’s look at each step in a bit more detail.
I’m not going to write much on milk for homemade cheese here as there is a lot to consider which is dealt with in this dedicated article, but we can use cows’, sheep and goats’ milk to make cheese. The fat content is also decisive in what type of cheese we can make with the milk, as is whether or not it is homogenised.
The milk then needs bringing to a suitable temperature for the starter to do its work, which is to multiply using the sugar (lactose) in the milk to produce lactic acid, which aids clotting, and to produce flavour compounds in the maturing cheese. For this reason, temperature control is really important, as are stringent sanitary conditions.
On their own, starters would take too long to bring about clotting (although we do make yoghurt this way) so we speed the process up by using a clotting agent, either an acid or rennet. They work by pulling the milk protein casein out of solution. This traps moisture and fats and the resulting clots are what we all know as curds.
At the point we have curds and whey in our pan, we have effectively ‘made’ cheese, or at least its foundation. The next steps all determine what kind of cheese it is that we end up with. Probably the most important of these is how we treat the curds.
There are three parts to curd treatment: cutting, resting, and handling, and much more detail about them can be found in the treatment of curds for homemade cheese article. For here, what’s important to know is that large pieces of curd handled delicately keep more moisture in them, leading to a soft homemade cheese whereas smaller pieces heated (scalded) and stirred to remove more moisture will give us a hard homemade cheese.
When we have the type of curds we need for the cheese we’re making, we’re ready to salt the cheese and form our final cheese shape. The type of cheese being made will determine which way around these two steps happen in.
Salting homemade cheese can be done either dry, which is adding salt to the curds, or wet (brining) by immersing a formed cheese in a brine solution. Salting adds flavour to the cheese, controls maturation, further dries out the curds and combats unwanted bacteria.
Forming a soft cheese normally means using a mould where the last of the whey will drain out under gravity. For a hard cheese we need a cheese press which expels whey under increasing pressure over a period of many hours to form a firm, dry cheese.
When we you’ve reached this stage, all that is left is the storage and maturation of the fruits of your labours. Before putting the cheese into storage we might give it a surface treatment such as bandaging or waxing, which to different degrees protect the maturing cheese from unwanted bacteria and moisture loss.
Maturing or ripening homemade cheese is, for some types of cheese, the most important step of all. By managing moisture and temperature, we give the chance the opportunity to mature its flavour and texture. For us home based cheese makers, this can often be the most difficult stage to manage effectively. Dedication and commitment is required to manage ripening well, and slight variations in the conditions can give us a different cheese to the one we anticipated.
What is certain is that with care and attention we can make any type of cheese at home. We can spend half an hour making a creamy cheese to sprinkle on tonight’s salad, or we can spend two days preparing and two years maturing our very own parmesan style cheese.
It’s all very calming and rewarding, so why not take the next step by making your first homemade cheese?
I strongly recommend beginner’s kick off with a cheese making kit. These are inexpensive and simple to use, and I’ve rated the best of them here – you’ll have made your first cheese within a week!