Cheesemaking is a complex and subtle process in which every variable seems to matter. Cultures, which I had simply lumped into two categories—mesophilic medium temperature incubation and thermophilic higher temperature incubation actually come in several blends, similar to the variations found in brewers yeast. Along with the lactose-eating cultures, which expel lactic acid and acidify the milk, certain styles of cheese require white or blue molds, which are also added during the cheesemaking process. There are even variations and blends of these molds. All cheeses age comfortably at cellaring temperatures—from 50-58 degrees. A good temperature-controlled wine refrigerator will do the trick. To keep humidity high enough, simply place small cups of water in enclosed containers in the wine refrigerator, or just make cheeses that can be waxed or vacuum-sealed.

There are other subtleties that matter too, namely controlling the temperature during setting and curd separation. Cheesemakers are after a “clean break”—that moment after rennet has been added when the curds cleanly break apart and begin to separate from the whey solution. These setting periods can range from 30 minutes to nearly two hours. Of course, direct heat to the kettle creates a heat gradient in the milk, and can scald the milk or curds which cannot be stirred during the set. A double-boiler/warm-water bath is a must, and essential in holding the milk at temperature during longer setting periods.

How curds are handled post-break is important too. In most semi-hard and hard cheese styles, the temperature of the curd is usually raised by ten to twenty degrees, depending on the style. If the temperature is raised too quickly, the curds expel whey too quickly and the final yield will be too dry. Sometimes—in the case of Gouda styles—the curd temperatures are raised slowly by removing a precise amount of whey and then adding a precise amount of heated water back to the vat. This is called a “washed curd” cheese, and for those familiar with the brewing process, is very similar to a decoction mash.

And then wait. Like most culinary hobbies that involve making a living food, waiting time can be the most difficult part, because one must wait to sample the successes and the failures—and then try to figure out what went right and what went wrong. My first Derby I made, which I believed went horribly wrong, was just fine. My second try, which seemed to come together better during the five-hour cheesemaking process, didn’t turn out as well, but that was most likely due to temperature fluctuations in my cheese cave. Some people keep detailed notes, but I have never been one to do that. Instead, I pay close attention to the experience and make slight changes each time. Right now, enjoying the process of hobby and gaining new insights into a food I didn’t think much about before is reward enough.

The Home Wine, Beer and Cheesemaking Shop

22836 Ventura Blvd. #B
Woodland Hills, CA 91364

DeJong’s Cash and Carry Dairy

31910 Corydon Road
Wildomar, CA 92595

200 Easy Homemade Cheese Recipes: From Cheddar and Brie to Butter and Yogurt second edition

By Debra Amrein-Boyes