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Cheesemaking Basics, Part I


Cheesemaking is a basic skill that has been lost in just a matter of a few generations to a modern way of doing things. Traditional styles of making cheese were developed as a way to preserve raw, whole milk into a form that is delicious and nutritious, and that will keep for many months.

Cheese is made in a wide variety of styles, tastes, smells, looks, and consistencies; from soft to hard, sharp to mild, and wet to dry. Traditionally, cheese is made by culturing milk either by encouraging natural enzymes and bacterial action (in raw milk), or by using the culture of your choice (in pasteurized milk). A coagulant, such as
rennet, lemon juice, or vinegar is then added, causing the milk protein casein to curdle and separate as a white, firm curd from the clear, watery whey. The curd is then cut, using a specialized curd cutter, or a really long kitchen knife, into smaller cubes (now curds), to be mashed and formed to your specific style. Next you either lightly drain the curds and crumble them to use as a soft cheese, or spread (press) the curds, using a round cheese press. Curds are compressed in a cheese press for as long as the specific style requires, then wrapped in some type of bandage or cloth, sometimes brined or rubbed in butter or lard, and put into a dark, cool environment to age naturally for as long as needed.

Steps and ingredients may vary, but the fundamentals stay the same:

If this is your first go at making cheese at home, start with small batches and basic recipes. Cheese can be finicky, reacting to discrepancies in temperature and slight variations in cooking times. There are tricks you will learn as you go, so starting with a basic soft cheese like cottage or Neufchatel or a simple cheddar will familiarize you with the essentials.  

Cleanliness and safety before, during, and after making cheese is very important. Before you begin cheesemaking, it is a good idea to boil water in your main cheese pot with the lid on for about ten minutes, ensuring the killing of any harmful bacteria. Thoroughly wash and rinse all your cheesemaking tools in hot water, even if they are new, laying them out on a clean towel and covering them with another clean towel until you are ready to use them. If you want, you can also boil your metal utensils and tools in the water you boil in your cheese pot, but that isn’t completely necessary. You should keep a clean towel with you during the cheesemaking process for help keeping your hands dry and clean and surfaces free of standing liquids. A lot of home cheesemaking failures can be attributed to insufficient cleanliness and unsanitary handling of the milk. Wild bacteria on your unwashed utensils or poorly filtered milk can add an off flavor to your end product, which can ruin a perfectly good batch of cheese. Using just common sense and basic food safety procedures, you can prevent most unnecessary failures and problems.


The main and most important factor of any cheese is milk, of course. Cheese can be made using almost any type of animal milk: cow, goat, sheep, and even mare or camel. If you have daily access to whole, fresh milk via your very own dairy animal, you already have the perfect base for loads of cheesemaking experiments. You may be able to find organic milk from a local dairy, or even a supermarket. You can even use commercial pasteurized and homogenized milk from the supermarket.

However, if you can find unhomogenized milk, it is preferable for cheesemaking. Homogenization is a process that breaks up the fat globules in the milk to such a small size that they are permanently suspended and unable to separate from the milk protein. This causes any cheesemaking using homogenized milk to produce a waxy, sticky curd with an underdeveloped flavor and less creamy texture. Some people buy dry milk, and add heavy whipping cream, to achieve an “unhomogenized” milk for cheesemaking. Any commercial whipping cream you buy will probably be homogenized too, but the fat-to-casein ratio in the homogenized whipping cream usually helps keep the fat from producing texture issues. Regardless of which type of milk you choose, experiment with small batches to find what suits your style.

The only type of milk that you should stay away from in cheesemaking is ultra-pasteurized, or ultra-high temperature pasteurized milk. This milk has been so highly processed that it will not produce a satisfactory curd. UP or UHT milk will be labeled as such on the container.

Starter Culture

There are many, many different kinds of cheese cultures available online or through cheesemaking suppliers. They are usually sold in powdered form. Culture, or starter, is a specifically selected group of bacteria that you add to warmed milk to cause acidification, making your milk the perfect environment for good bacteria growth and flavor development. The starter/culture you choose will determine the taste, texture, and aroma of your final cheese. Some cultures may help create holes, such as those in Swiss cheese, and others may help create just the right flavor for a classic Gruyère. But all cultures can usually separate nicely into two large groups:

In both types of culture, there are numerous strains ranging from moderate to speedy acid production. When you purchase the culture, you are buying an isolated, pure strain of culture optimized for the type of cheese you wish to achieve. When following a cheese recipe, look for the type of starter culture the ingredient list calls for.


Coagulants are added after the culturing of the milk and are used to solidify milk protein into cheese curds. The most common coagulant is rennet, a naturally occurring enzyme called rennin, which is harvested from the stomach linings of un-weaned calves, kids, or lambs. Some people believe that calf rennet produces better, high-quality aged cheese. There are also vegetarian rennet substitutes, harvested from safflower seeds, thistle, and fig, or grown in laboratories on grain-based substrates. Animal rennet can be purchased in tablet or liquid form. Liquid is easier to work with and usually works faster within the milk, but rennet tablets can be found easily and inexpensively at most grocery stores, and have a longer shelf life. In general, ¼ of a rennet tablet is equal to ¼ teaspoon of liquid rennet. Rennet tablets must be crushed and added to a small amount of warm water, according to the amount called for in your cheese recipe. If you dilute liquid rennet or dissolve a rennet tablet in water, make sure your water is unchlorinated, because chlorine will kill the enzyme and render your rennet useless.

Other coagulants, such as vinegar and lemon juice, are for use in specific recipes and not a substitute for animal coagulant, as the two types of coagulants work differently.


Salt is not used during the cheesemaking process merely for flavor enhancement. Salt is a natural preservative and a very important element in good cheesemaking. Salt helps to dry the curds during draining, controlling moisture and causing the curds to shrink. You should not use iodized salt, because iodine harms the growth of the cheese culture, and can slow down the aging process drastically. Specialized cheese salt, which is un-iodized and has a coarser grind, is available at cheesemaking supply shops and websites. But any coarse, non-iodized salt will work just as well.

The Tools

You will need a basic set of cheese tools. Some you might already have or can make, and some can be purchased individually or bought all together as a beginner’s kit at online cheesemaking supply shops.

  • A large cheese pot, 1- to 3-gallon capacity or larger, made of stainless steel or unchipped enamel. Not aluminum.
  • Cheesecloth, or butter muslin. 4 to 6 yards is recommended.
  • A cheese mat or some other small, nonmetal rack on which to air cheese.
  • Cheese boards, on which to air-dry or age cheese.
  • A colander or strainer, nonmetal.
  • A curd-cutting knife or other long, straight knife that will reach clear to the bottom of your cheesemaking pot with room to hold the handle.
  • A wire whisk (preferably stainless steel).
  • Large cheese spoon, or a ladle-like utensil with largish holes in it. Also called a skimmer or perforated ladle.
  • A very large bowl, 13-quart if possible, for warming pots of milk and/or salting and working with the curds.
  • Measuring cups and spoons.
  • A dairy thermometer.
  • A cheese press (optional; you may be able to improvise or make your own).
  • Draining pan in which to set the cheese press to catch expressed whey.
  • Cheese wax, if you need it.

These tools must be cleaned and sanitized before and after cheese making. You should always read over your recipe prior to beginning the process, so you can know beforehand any special instructions or tools you will need. You should also have the starter kept cool and ready so you can just grab it when the time comes. A few preparation steps can help to avoid any scrambling or frustration during the actual cheesemaking, which can be very, very helpful during important times in the process.

Click here to read Cheesemaking Basics Part II




Cheesemaking Basics I

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