Making cheese at home in your own kitchen is a rewarding experience. Not only is it fun to do and full of endless possibilities, but the resulting cheeses are healthier, tastier, and just plain better. Making cheese relies largely on bacteria (natural, or added, as with a starter) changing and flavoring your milk. But these bacteria must be the right kind of bacteria, and you don’t want to make them have to battle against the “bad guys"; namely, the bacteria found in or on unsanitized countertops, pots, bowls, or utensils. By causing a beneficial vs. harmful bacteria “war” in your cheese, you may end up risking the health of your cheese eaters, and/or cause the resulting cheese to be bland or underdeveloped, or just plain bad. Most home cheesemaking failures can be attributed to unclean milk-handling procedures, poor sanitizing of equipment, or cross-contamination of the cheese with foreign bacteria at any stage during the process.
Following these few simple steps will help make sure that your work area is clean and sanitized.
- Fill an atomizer with water and add about 1 capful of household bleach to it. Spray this mixture onto your countertops, the stove, and the sink if you will be using it. Wait one full minute, then wipe it off using paper towels. Keep this spray and a roll of paper towels close by during the actual cheesemaking process, because they can be used to wipe up spills or to periodically re-wipe surfaces between steps.
Note: Bleach is by far the most efficient way to sanitize equipment. However, an alternative is to use 1 cup of white vinegar, mixed with 3 cups of water and a few drops of lavender, tea tree, or peppermint essential oil.
- Sanitize your pots and utensils. There are lots of ways to go about this, but it's effective to wash your pot and all the utensils you will be using in very hot, soapy water. Then rinse them in clear, cold water. Fill your cheese pot about half full of clean water, and put all the metal utensils (excluding the thermometer) into it. Put the pot on the stove and bring it just to boiling, then turn it off and cover it. Anything else that needs to be sanitized but cannot be boiled, like plastic tools, can be sterilized by filling a 5-gallon bucket about 2/3 full of clean water and adding two capfuls of bleach to it. Stick your un-boilable stuff into this bucket for about 10 minutes. After pulling your utensils out of the bucket, you will need to rinse them under clean, running water quickly, because bleach residue may harm your cultures or your rennet during cheesemaking. Keep this bucket of bleach water on hand during the entire cheesemaking process to put utensils in if you won’t be using them for a longish period of time, but if you do this you will have to remind yourself to always rinse anything that comes out of that bucket. Keep a large, clean towel spread out on the counter to place sanitized tools on until you are ready to use them.
- If you are using re-cleaned cheesecloth (meaning you used the cheesecloth previously and cleaned it), you should dip it into your cheese pot of boiling water, unless you kept it in a tightly sealed container or plastic bag. Cheesecloth dries out very quickly: you can just hang it on a cabinet handle, a towel rack, or a curtain rod and it should be dry within 30 minutes.
These next items aren’t sanitization steps, just tips to help you maintain the sanitization of your cheese work area and keep your cheese healthy and happy.
- Don’t wear any perfume, body spray, or fragranced lotions while making cheese, as they might cause an off flavor in the cheese.
- Don’t allow pets into your kitchen while you are making cheese.
- Try to keep countertop clutter to minimum. This is easy if you are rinsing your tools as you use them, and wiping down the surfaces as you go.
- Keep a few clean kitchen towels on hand for keeping your hands dry and clean.
- Don’t try to cook something else while you are making cheese. This may cause you to not pay enough attention to your developing cheese, or it may cause cross-contamination.
- Wash your hands whenever you touch something not cheesemaking-related to avoid adding any off flavor or harmful bacteria to the cheese.
By implementing a basic sanitization routine at the beginning of every cheese project and following simple rules during the cheesemaking process, you will be one step closer to assuring your ultimate success, resulting in a very tasty cheese.
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