Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour.
The back rooms of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in New York City smell like toasted cheese and barnyard. That’s because 52,000 pounds of fresh milk arrive at 2 a.m. every day from local farms to be made into 5,000 pounds of cheese. I had arrived at Beecher’s on a Monday in early March to meet Andrew, the head cheesemaker, and try my hand as a guest cheesemaker for a day.
After dressing in a hair net, rubber gloves, a smock, and a pair of slightly-too-big galoshes, I stepped into a room of stainless steel and ruthless sanitation. Over the next six hours, I helped an extremely muscular team of cheesemakers transform that farm-fresh milk into a cheddar-like cheese known as Beecher’s Flagship. The milk was pasteurized before bacterial cultures and rennet were introduced, to add flavor and and curdle the milk. I used a cheese harp to slice the semi-solid milk into jiggly, finger-like curds, which slowly drained of their liquid whey. Finally, the curds were cut apart again before being salted and compressed into molds to be aged for 18 months to four years. Your arms, shoulders and back don’t know pain until they’ve spent a full day’s shift leaning over metal troughs to shovel curds into 60-lb. cheese molds
Exhausted but intrigued at day’s end, I wanted to bring the cheesemaking experience home with me — only on a much smaller scale and without the need for secondhand galoshes. Luckily, that’s possible with a kit from Green Cheesemaking or Urban Cheesecraft. The Deluxe DIY Cheese Kit from Urban Cheesecraft includes supplies and instructions to make mozzarella, ricotta, goat cheese, queso blanco and paneer. Unlike the cheddar I had made at Beecher’s, these are all known as “fresh cheeses.” They originate from climates where it’s too warm and humid for cheese to age; they are designed to be made and consumed right away.
I decided to start with paneer because, according to the kit’s recipe booklet, it is a “non-fail cheese.” (I needed to start simple, since I had already shattered the thermometer that came with the kit by dropping it on the kitchen floor.) It’s also a fun cheese to cook with: paneer doesn’t melt and can be fried until crispy, but it absorbs sauces well.
To begin, I heated one gallon of non-homogenized and low-temperature pasteurized whole milk, bought from a local organic grocery. When the milk reached 200 degrees, I stirred in crystals of citric acid to curdle the milk. The curds formed immediately, big and fat, and smelled very cheesy. I pressed the curds together in a cheese form to drain, then set it aside to be made into a traditional Indian curry, saag paneer.
Feeling confident, I gathered the ingredients for mozzarella. Unlike the other cheeses in the kit, Mozzarella is curdled with rennet, rather than with citric acid. After the curds cook, you stretch them by pulling on the cheese with two spoons and folding it over. But when I heated my milk, I wasn’t paying attention, and the temperature got way too high. My mozzarella never quite formed into a satisfying ball; it was more like a cheese puddle. But the instructions that came with my kit were very supportive — they basically said, “That’s okay! Just eat it.” It tasted like mozzarella, even if it didn’t look like it.
For my final attempt, ricotta, I went off-book. Although most ricotta is made from whole milk today, Andrew had told me that ricotta is traditionally made from whey, the liquid left behind after the cheese curds have formed. It’s watery, milky-tasting, and loaded with protein and calcium — and I had gallons of it left over from my first few batches of cheese.
I heated the whey to 170 degrees, added salt, then citric acid when the temperature reached 185. It was amazing to see the curds rise; you really do get the last bit of oomph out of the whey. After I strained the liquid, I had about 3 tablespoons of ricotta to smear on my breakfast toast and drizzle with honey.
Making cheese at home was fun and easy — if not all that practical. At the end of the day, it’s simpler and more cost-effective just to buy cheese from the store. But that’s not really why we take on projects like this, is it? It’s the thrill of discovery and the special pride of presenting something unusually homemade (and delicious) to our friends and family.