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Cheesemaking Basics, Part II


In addition to the standard, individual ingredients and basic concepts of cheesemaking, there are some general techniques used in making cheese at home, from start to storage. 


The Process

The recipes for special and individualized cheeses will call for variations on the basic procedures, but the fundamental set of steps will usually apply to most hard cheese recipes: 

  • Warming (or “ripening”)
  • Culture addition
  • Coagulant addition
  • Curd handling (cutting, cooking, salting, and drainage)
  • Pressing
  • Preparation for aging (such as dry salting, brining, or bandaging)
  • Aging
  • Storage


Warming or ripening the milk is the initial heating of the milk before the addition of cheese cultures. Your recipe or culture will call for a specific temperature to be reached and held for a specific amount of time, enabling the cultures to do their job. Generally, you would pour the specified amount of milk (room temperature, preferably) into a sterilized cheese pot, stick in your dairy thermometer, put the pot on the stovetop, and watch and stir until the desired temperature is reached. You must provide a slow, steady increase of temperature so as not to harm the milk proteins and flora that you are relying upon to help you make wonderful curds and fantastic cheese. About 2°F per minute is a good rule of thumb, so adjust your stovetop accordingly. Keep a very close eye on the milk while it is warming on a stovetop! 

Some people like to warm their milk using a water-bath technique, which heats evenly and reduces the possibility of accidental scorching or rapid heating. To do this, put the cheese pot, with the milk and thermometer, into a deep sink or large bowl, and pour hot water in around the outsides of the pot, about up to, but not over the level of milk inside the pot. Keep the water 10 degrees warmer than the milk temperature you are trying to reach. Slowly stir the milk and watch the dairy thermometer, adjusting the heat of the surrounding water as needed. This is a gentler, safer way to ripen milk, and helps guard against mistakes. After you have added the starter culture, you can keep adjusting the water temperature to maintain the desired milk temperature.

Culture Addition

Once the desired milk temperature has been reached, it is time to add the cultures. The general practice is to slowly sprinkle the specific amount of culture on top of the warm milk, then wait a few minutes to allow rehydration of the powdered cultures. Then slowly and gently incorporate the culture into the milk with your whisk, making sure it is stirred in all the way to the bottom of the pot. A good way to do this is with an up-and-down motion that reaches to the bottom of the pot. Keep an eye on the milk temperature, maintaining that desired level of heat for the entire incubation. Once you have sufficiently stirred in the cultures, don’t stir the milk any more for the duration of the incubation period. Over-aerating the milk at this point could disturb the natural acidification happening within the milk.

Coagulant Addition

After the cultures have been left alone for as long as your recipe tells you they should be, it is time to add the coagulant. Depending on what type you have chosen, add according to the recipe’s direction, stirring slowly with your wire whisk in the same fashion you used for incorporating the cultures, or using a gentle up-and-down motion. After it is stirred in, cover the milk, keeping the thermometer in and at the specified temperature for the specified time period, or until the curds and whey have separated completely. Don’t stir or mess with the milk after you have incorporated coagulant. When the time is up, begin by checking for what is called a “clean break,” which is the point when you can stick something (a spoon, butter knife, or your finger) into the very top of the milk, and the cut or break made there is clean and defined, and the liquid whey that fills the cut is clear, not milky. If you are able to make a clean break at the top of the milk, you are ready for the next step.

Curd Handling



Once complete separation and coagulation has occurred, check your recipe for special instructions on curd cutting. The standard curd-cutting procedure is to take a curd knife and begin making vertical cuts the desired space apart all the way through the curd, from the top of the pot right down to the bottom. Make the cuts across the entire curd, then turn the pot 90 degrees, and do the same cutting motion, top to bottom, all the way across in the other direction. Now, turn the knife to a 45-degree angle and begin making cuts using the straight lines you have already made as a pattern. Once you have finished, turn the pot again, 45 degrees this time, and make the same angled cut going diagonal to the checked pattern of cut curds. Turn it 45 degrees again and make another set of angled cuts. Turn it 45 degrees one more time, making the last set of angled cuts. Some recipes will tell you a particular size to cut the curds, depending on the finished product you are striving for. Once you have cut the curds, gently stir them to bring the bottom curds to the top, checking for any large ones and cutting them down to size. 

Cutting the Curd for Cheesemaking



You may have to cook the curds at a higher temperature than they were coagulated at, so keep the dairy thermometer in the pot. If you used a water-bath method thus far, you may want to transfer your pot to the stovetop for this step, but some people keep the water-bath style throughout the entire cheesemaking process. If your recipe says to stir the curds while they are cooking, do so very, very gently. Cooking curds causes more whey to be extracted out of them, making them a bit smaller and firmer, and you don’t want to make them start sticking together prematurely during the cooking process. Keep a steady eye on the temperature and the clock. After the cooking, the curds may have formed a mass at the bottom of the pot, with the whey floating on top. This is perfectly normal.


Your recipe may instruct to “mill” the curds. This consists of spooning the curds into the mixing bowl using the cheese spoon to drain off the whey, then softly breaking them up with your hands once they are all in the bowl. Be careful not to squeeze any more whey out of them, as this can cause extraction of essential butterfats. Break them to the desired size, striving to achieve uniformity throughout.


If your recipe calls for direct salting of the curds, adding salt to the newly milled curds is the general practice. Sprinkle the salt over the bowl of curds, then work it in gently, making sure to distribute the salt evenly. (Some cheeses are soaked in salt brine after being formed into a wheel, and some molded cheeses are rubbed with salt after pressing.) 


To drain the curds: Line a colander with two layers of cheesecloth cut sufficiently larger than the colander so that the sides may be drawn up for drainage. Using your cheese spoon, gently begin scooping out the curds from the pot and tranferring them to the colander, leaving the whey. Transfer them to the colander. Once the curds are all in the colander, draw up the sides of the cheesecloth, tying up the edges to form a bag that you can hang above a bowl or other whey-catching receptacle. The cheese may be first drained by hanging the cheesecloth bag, then transferred to the press, or it can be put directly into a cheesecloth-lined press, depending on what kind of cheese you are making. Discard the pot of whey, or save it for further use.


After you have allowed the curds to drain for the time given in your recipe, it is time to put them into the press. Always line the press with cheesecloth first, then place the drained curds into the press, folding down the edges of the cheesecloth over the surface of the curds after you are done. Put the top pressing piece on, then evenly distribute the weight of the press across the top of the cheese. Crank down a handled press to the desired or specified pressure, or stack on the weight and press your cheese to the pressure amount, and hold for the duration of the pressing period according to the recipe instructions. You will need to flip your cheese a few times within the press during the pressing time to ensure even moisture and drainage. To do this, release the pressure on the cheese in the mold, pull out the cheese, carefully invert it, rewrap it in the cheesecloth and replace it in the press, restoring the desired amount of pressure. If your recipe does not specify pressing time or a certain pressure, a good rule of thumb is to apply enough pressure to compress the curds without causing them to squeeze out of the press. When the whey stops coming out of the cheese, release the pressure, flip the cheese, restore adequate pressure, and keep an eye on it. The fallback rule for pressing a hard cheese is: one hour at about 5 pounds of pressure, flip, then press overnight at 20 pounds, flip, and press again at 20 pounds for 8 to 10 more hours.


Click here to read Cheesemaking Basics Part III




Cheesemaking Basics Part II

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