Making a Mother Cheese Culture Using a Direct-Set Starter

 

By making and preserving your own mother culture (also called a prepared starter), you can effectively inoculate many gallons of cheese, with just a bit of care and know-how. 

Traditionally, a prepared mother culture was made from the leftover whey from a previous batch of cheese. Through time, starters were propagated from one batch to the next, thereby creating a distinctive strain with a distinctive taste that then became its own style of cheese. Dairies that were making good cheese isolated the strains of culture from their cheese, which are kept pure by the companies we purchase starters from in the present day. 

The powdered direct-set starters purchased through cheese supply houses have a frozen lifetime of up to two years, with a refrigerated life of as little as two months. Your own cheese starter prepared at home can be made and perpetuated by using remnants from the last batch to make the next one, much like a sourdough bread starter. Normally, a prepared starter can be continued in this manner for up to six months with proper attention to sanitation, which is very helpful for those not using a freezer or with limited electricity options.

When you make a mother culture, you are exposing a lab-treated strain to an unsterile environment, then freezing those cultures. As with any homemade starters, over time you may begin to develop a distinctive taste that will depend on the airborne bacteria found in your climate. And also like other starters, that doesn’t mean it has “gone bad”; it just gets wilder because of the all-new bacteria found in your environment introducing itself into your starter. If you like that taste, just keep it going until you don’t like the taste. While it can be a very useful skill to propagate your own mother cultures and develop your own cheese profiles, you should keep in mind that it can be a finicky thing, and if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Not all types of culture you can purchase are good choices for starting your mother culture with. You will need a good, hardy strain with which to begin your own mother. You can make both mesophilic and thermophilic mother cultures. The process of making and storing your mother culture is much like canning preserves or jelly.  You should follow the general cleanliness rules that apply to any cheesemaking or canning process, for the cleaner you keep things while making your mother culture and any time you deal with it in the future, the surer you can be that you are going to get the maximum lifetime out of the cultures. 

Making a Mesophilic Mother Culture

This recipe makes one quart of prepared starter, but it can be multiplied as many times as you like.

  • Sterilize a one-quart canning jar with its band and lid by boiling it in a covered pot for 5 minutes.
  • After the sterile jar has cooled a bit, fill it with skim milk to an inch below the rim of the jar. (Skim milk or low-fat milk must be used, for the cultures tend to rise with cream if it is present in the milk.) Screw the lid on tightly.
  • Place the jar in a water-bath canner, or a large, deep pot. Fill the pot until it covers the jar(s) by about 1/4 inch. Put the pot on the stove on high heat until it boils. When it begins to boil, start timing it, and let it boil for 30 minutes, then turn off the heat.
  • Remove the jar from the pot of water and allow it to cool to 72°F. You can remove the lid and monitor the milk’s temperature with a thermometer, but ensure that the environment stays clean during this time to avoid contaminating the milk.
  • Once the milk reaches 72°F, inoculate it with 1/4 teaspoon of mesophilic culture.  Quickly put the lid on and swirl the jar to incorporate the cultures.
  • Maintain the closed jar of milk at around 72°F for 15 to 20 hours for ripening. Check the jar at 16 hours for coagulation, and if it hasn’t fully ripened yet, leave it for another 8 hours or so. Proper coagulation has been achieved when the milk is between the consistency of pancake batter and yogurt. It may separate from the sides of the jar and be shiny. When the milk has fully coagulated, taste it. It should be acidic and a little sweet. 
  • Once the milk has properly ripened and passed the taste test, chill the jar(s) immediately. You can keep the starter in the refrigerator for up to three days without using it. But if you don’t plan on using it to make cheese within that time, the best thing to do would be to freeze it.

 

Making a Thermophilic Mother Culture

  • Sterilize a one-quart canning jar with its band and lid by boiling it in a covered pot for 5 minutes.
  • After the sterile jar has cooled a bit, fill it with skim milk to an inch below the rim of the jar. (Skim milk or low-fat milk must be used, for the cultures tend to rise with cream if it is present in the milk.) Screw the lid on tightly.
  • Place the jar in a water-bath canner, or a large, deep pot. Fill the pot until it covers the jar(s) by about 1/4 inch. Put the pot on the stove on high heat until it boils. When it begins to boil, start timing it, and let it boil for 30 minutes, then turn off the heat.
  • Remove the jars from the pot and allow the milk to cool to 110°F.
  • Inoculate the milk by adding 1/4 teaspoon of starter per quart. Quickly replace the lid and swirl the jar to incorporate. 
  • Keep the milk at 110°F for 6 to 8 hours, or until it becomes a yogurt-like consistency. 
  • Once the milk has properly ripened and passed the taste test, chill the jar(s) immediately. You can keep the starter in the refrigerator for up to three days without using it. But if you don’t plan on using it to make cheese within that time, the best thing to do would be to freeze it.

 

To Freeze the Mother Culture

  • Clean and sanitize two or more plastic ice trays. Spoon the culture into the trays with a sterile spoon, or pour it from the jar. Fill all the cube trays with your starter and freeze them solid in the coldest part of your freezer.
  • After they are solid, remove the cubes from the trays (trying your best not to touch them with your hands or anything else that is not scrupulously clean) and put them into airtight freezer bags. Label the bags with the name of the starter and the date it was made. These bags will keep in the freezer for up to one month, after which they may still be viable, but their strength will begin to degrade. Each block is about one ounce of starter. 

To make a new mother culture from a previous batch of mother culture, when the directions tell you to add the powdered direct-set culture to the cooled jar of milk, just add 2 ounces of mother culture from the previous batch, then continue with the rest of the directions. 


Troubleshooting

Sometimes you might have problems getting your mother to set properly, or it might come out tasting a bit off. Here is a quick list that may help you pinpoint the problem.

  • If the taste of your starter is slightly acidic, or sharply so, or it has a metallic tang to it, it may be over-ripened. Next time, decrease the ripening temperature by about 2 degrees, and see if that helps. If it doesn’t, you can also try decreasing the amount of starter you add just slightly.
  • If your mother ever comes out bubbly or carbonated, throw it out immediately. The bubbles are gas produced by yeasts and/or coliform bacteria, which come from unclean milk or unsanitary equipment. 
  • If you have problems getting your prepared starter to coagulate, the cause may be one or a few of the following:
    • The milk you used contained an antibiotic given to the cow that produced it, which then transferred to your milk. Some dairies are required to treat their cows with chemical medications, which then medicate the milk.
    • Bleach or strong detergent was not rinsed properly from your tools.
    • The starter you used was inactive, meaning the live bacteria in it have died.
    • The temperature was not properly maintained during the ripening period, either dropping too low (which is more likely) or getting higher.

 

Care for your mother culture and attention to the utmost cleanliness when handling or using it is very important. Usually recipes will give you a prepared starter equivalent when specifying how much starter you need for a cheese, but a good rule of thumb is that 4 ounces of a mother starter is equivalent to one packet direct-set cultures.

 

 

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Mother Culture for Making Cheese


Related Articles & Recipes

 

Related Products

Mesophilic Culture Direct Set for Making Cheese

Direct-set Mesophilic Culture

Liquid Vegetable Rennet Vegetable Rennet

 

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