Gouda, brie, cheddar and ricotta. Havarti, stilton, roquefort and feta. Manchengo, gruyere, camembert and Mmozzarella.
Isn’t cheese the greatest? I love it all, from stinky runny epoisses, to hard and gritty parmesan. I have been known to order a cheese plate at brunch or at the end of a meal instead of dessert, and have harbored dreams of owning a cheese-making farm, or selling cheese in my own shop, since before I could remember.
I spent this past week trying to make my own mozzarella, and as it turns out, it is probably best that I just stick to eating it.
Day after day, for hours at a time, I practically ignored my family as I hovered over the milk, checking temperatures, squeezing whey, and watching pots that never curdled. It is more difficult than I thought, and I might not have the knack for it.
At first, it seemed like an easy recipe. Sure, there are about 10 steps, but there are only four ingredients in mozzarella cheese making: milk, citric acid, rennet and salt.
People have been creating this milk by-product for thousands of years. Archeological evidence shows cheese making in ancient Egypt and Arabic cultures, and legend has it that the first cheese was made in ancient times when people would use a sheep’s stomach to carry milk. The naturally occurring rennet in the belly coagulated the milk, and cheese was born.
Of course, milk was different back then—raw and warm straight from the cow, rather than the ultra-pasteurized versions we have in our supermarkets today. Giving it a longer shelf life, and killing bacteria like staph, E coli, listeria, and salmonella, pasteurization may make milk safer, but it inhibits the cheese making process.
The few batches I tried with whole milk (Rosenbergers and Wawa) had poor results.
Raw milk is available right here in Willow Grove, but it has to be pre-ordered from Nature’s Harvest on Moreland Road for delivery every Friday. Alternatively, reconstituted dry milk works well (10 quarts for $7.35 at Giant).
Once you have your raw or dry milk, head to Acme on Street Road. Although I looked high and low, and asked just about everyone up the corporate ladder at our local Giant, they didn’t carry rennet. I found the small box containing eight tablets at the Acme on the top shelf in the aisle with the spices ($2.29).
The last ingredient you’ll need is citric acid. For quick curdling, citric acid is best. I found it in powdered form at Nature’s Harvest ($4.99). Lemon juice will work as an alternative, if you wish.
Now you have driven all over town for the ingredients, including two places that sell fresh mozzarella, here’s how I tried to make it at home:
1 gallon milk
1 ¼ teaspoon citric acid dissolved in ½ cup cool water (or ½ cup lemon juice)
½ rennet tablet dissolved in ¼ cup cool water
½ teaspoon salt
- Gently heat the milk in a large pot to 88 degrees Fahrenheit. (It will still feel cool to the touch)
- Take it off the the heat, add the citric acid mixture (or lemon juice), and stir well
- Add the rennet, and stir well
- Allow it to sit undisturbed until the whey separates from the curds, and it solidifies to the consistency of firm tofu or jello. This is called a “clean break” and takes about two hours.
- Cut the solids into cubes with a long knife by cross hatching—cutting long rows in both directions.
- Gently heat the curds and whey to 108 degrees and hold it there for 30 minutes. (I had to turn the burner on and off throughout the time.) Stir occasionally.
- Drain the curds through a strainer, and let them drip for about 10 minutes.
- Mix in 1/2 teaspoon of salt.
- Microwave the curds for 45 seconds, stir, and microwave again for 20 seconds. Pour off the excess liquid.
- Knead and stretch the cheese. (Be careful, it will be very hot!)
- Form into a ball, and place in salted water.
Time consuming, but simple enough, right? I always knew cheese making was a science, but I didn’t realize until I tried it myself that it is closer to an art form.
As I stood sweating and frustrated over a pot, the contents of which more closely resembled a thick milkshake than the necessary curds floating in greenish whey, I shook my head and sighed loudly, telling my husband, “I think this might work,” knowing full well it wouldn’t. Cheese is not made by willing it so.
The two batches I made with whole milk from the grocery store (one with 1 ½ cups lemon juice and a whole tablet of rennet, and one with citric acid and a half tablet of rennet) failed to produce anything but tiny cottage cheese-like curds, and never solidified into anything thicker than pudding.
Two dry milk batches were successful in producing cheese, though of poor quality. The first batch (in which I used ½ cup lemon juice and 1 tablet of rennet) was tough and sinewy, like string cheese, rather than the smooth and silky cheese I was hoping to produce.
The next day, when I threw it away, I heard the loud thud it made, crashing like a rock to the bottom of the trash can, my failure reverberating throughout the kitchen.
The second dry milk batch (in which I used the citric acid and ½ tablet of rennet) was smoother, but it tasted awful, and also turned to stone overnight in the fridge.
I have the utmost respect for artisan cheese makers, and appreciate their success even more now.
I imagine they spend years perfecting their craft, and I am not going to give up. Perhaps a call to Nature’s Harvest to put in a special request for raw milk is in order. In the meantime, I’ll settle for store-bought fresh mozzarella.