How long does it take to make cheese?
This seems to be the first question I am asked when I tell someone that I make cheese at home. The answer depends on the type of cheese being made.
It can take from 1 hour to 8 hours to make a batch of cheese in the kitchen, and sometimes this is spread out over more than one day. Even when you spend all afternoon making cheese, you are usually not busy the entire time. There are often 30 minute to 1 hour periods where you are just waiting for some phase to complete. If you are making a fresh cheese, then the cheese will be ready to eat when you are done in the kitchen. Cream cheese, chevre, paneer, ricotta and mozzarella are examples of fresh cheese.
Aged cheese like cheddar, swiss, and blue cheese takes much longer complete, due, of course, to the aging process. Depending on the style, you age a cheese anywhere from a few weeks to up to 12 months (and sometimes longer). Monterey Jack is ready after only one month of aging, but a Parmesan style cheese needs to age for 9 to 12 months. Blue cheeses take from 3 to 6 months to age. Camemberts and Bries are perfect after 6 weeks.
What kind of equipment do you need?
Again, this depends on the style of cheese you are making. Basic equipment for all cheesemaking includes large pots, a dairy thermometer, a long spatula or knife for curd cutting, cheese cloths and a colander. For many cheeses you will need to have cheese molds to shape the cheese. Hard styles need to be pressed with considerable force and require a cheese press and an appropriate mold with a follower.
In order to age cheese with the best results you will need an environment that can be kept at a constant temperature in the 45º to 60º Fahrenheit range and a relatively high humidity. A standard refrigerator is too cold and too low of a humidity. Most home cheesemakers use either a refrigerator built for storing wine or a small dorm styled refrigerator with a custom thermostat. Some people age in a basement at certain times of the year, with varied results. Cheese can be aged a standard refrigerator, but it takes a much longer time and results can vary.
What kind of specialty ingredients do you need?
The simplest acid-coagulated cheeses like paneer and ricotta require only milk and lemon juice to make. Most common cheeses use bacterial cultures (known as starter cultures) to acidify the milk, rennet to coagulate it, and salt to flavor and preserve it. Some specialty cheeses add blue or white mold cultures, or additional bacteria for strong flavors.
Starter cultures are a combination of bacteria stains that are added to warmed milk at the start of cheesemaking. These cultures consume lactose, a sugar found in milk, and produce lactic acid. Acidifying the milk is necessary for rennet to work well. During acidification, the starter bacteria also create flavor and if the cheese is aged the starter bacteria will continue to live and eventually die which produces additional flavors. Starter cultures that are similar to starter cultures are used to make yogurt and buttermilk. Buttermilk can be used as a starter culture for cheesemaking if cheese starter cultures can not be obtained (buttermilk bacteria produces a buttery flavor that are not necessarily wanted cheesemaking).
Rennet is an enzyme traditionally derived from the fourth stomach of an unweaned ruminant. For some this may be an unpleasant source of a food ingredient, and vegetarian rennet is available which is derived from microbial or fungal sources. Geneticists have inserted the gene for calf rennet into bacterial DNA, creating a bacterial source of calf rennet (some may also objections against using such genetically modified ingredients in their food). Traditional rennet and GM rennet tends to coagulate milk with best results, though modern vegetarian rennet is nearly as good and is perfectly fine to use.
Salt used in cheesemaking needs to be iodine free and home cheesemakers usually use kosher or pickling salt, which are readily available at grocery stores. Cheese salt is available from some cheesemaking suppliers and is very finely ground to encourage dissolving and incorporation into the cheese. Except in a few cases, specialty cheese salt is not necessary.
All necessary specialty ingredients are available from cheesemaking suppliers on the internet or locally if you are lucky. See our resources page for sources.
What do you need to make good cheese?
Probably one of the most important ingredients in making good cheese is good milk. Store bought pasteurized, homogenized milk can be used, but ultra-pasteurized milk will not work. Ultra-pasteurized milk is often not labeled as such so you may have to switch brands if you have problems. Raw milk from healthy, grass fed animals produces the best cheese, but can be hard to obtain. Depending where you live, it may be illegal to sell or buy raw milk (see http://realmilk.com for raw milk sources). I suggest that home cheesemakers start with the best store bought organic milk they can find. Once they feel like they have a handle on the hobby, they can switch to raw milk (if available) for best results.
Good sanitation and good technique are also necessary. These skills are learned over time.
Is making cheese difficult?
Changing milk into cheese requires techniques that don't show up in other cooking activities, but these techniques are not hard to learn or follow.
For non-rennet coagulated cheese, the techniques are very simple and usually only require heating milk, acidifying it and straining through cheesecloth.
When using a starter culture and rennet, the milk has to be heated to a precise temperature where bacteria grow quickly. Good sanitation practices need to be employed to keep unwanted bacteria from growing. There are some tricks to using rennet correctly, and there are tricks to keeping the milk fat and solids in the cheese rather than in the discarded whey.
Aging cheese is not difficult, but requires controlled conditions and regular monitoring. Aging specialty cheeses such as blue cheeses and washed rind cheeses can be more of an art. When making aged cheese it may be 3 to 12 months before you get to sample your results. Therefore, it can take a long time to detect problems and then repeat the process to try to correct them.
A new cheesemaker will probably be very pleased with their results when making basic cheeses. Cheesemaking will seem so easy. When attempting to make their first aged cheeses, they may have some success, but will also almost certainly have a few failed cheeses. If they research why their failures occurred, learn from others, and keep at it, they will eventually have more successes than failures.
Some styles of cheese are difficult to make. Good technique and knowledge about the cheesemaking process will help. Experienced cheesemakers will assert there is an art to cheesemaking, honed by trial and error. Successful commercial artisan cheesemakers have mastered this art, but certainly only after having quite a few failures. Persistence, accepting failures, and learning from mistakes will eventually pay off with cheese you can be proud to say you have made yourself.