The Coagulation Situation

The process of making cheese is quite simple. Take some milk, separate the solid portion from the liquid portion, compress then age the solids, and ta-da! You have cheese.

But now comes the tricky part. Just how do we separate out those milk solids? The answer – use a coagulation agent.

A coagulation agent is any substance that, when added to milk, causes the calcium to unite with the casein (milk protein) to create calcium caseinate, an insoluble solid, better known as curd. The curd is then separated from the liquid portion of the milk, better known as whey. The curd is then compressed and aged to create the wonderful food we know as cheese.

But what kinds of substances exist that coagulates milk in this manner. There are several.

Bacteria – will chew up the milk sugar (lactose), convert it to lactic acid, and expel it back into the milk. This lowers the pH of the milk (makes it more acidic) and creates the right conditions for the calcium to unite with the casein.

Acid –Instead of waiting for the bacteria to create acid, you could instead add some of your own. Acids used to coagulate milk include citric, acetic, and tartaric.

Rennet – the most common coagulation substance used to make cheese. Rennet is a combination of enzymes – pepsin, lipase, and chymosin, the latter being the key component. Rennet comes from the stomachs of ruminant animals – usually slaughtered cows.

Other substances – several different substances have milk-coagulating abilities. These include vegetable rennets (derived from the Rhizomucor miehei mold), thistle (first used by the Romans), and chymosin (the main component of rennet created by laboratory fermentation)

Various combinations of the above – for some cheeses, you have to first add the bacteria and give it time to lower the pH of the milk. This will prepare the milk for coagulation and multiply the coagulation effects of rennet or other coagulation substances. However you do it, if you want the affectation of coagulation, you will need to use one or more of the above if you want to make cheese.


Milk It For All It’s Worth

Milk. It’s the major ingredient in cheesemaking. Without milk, there can be no cheese. But when shopping for milk, the home cheesemaker will find him or herself confronted with a wide variety of different milk and milk derivatives that can potentially be used for making cheese. So which kind is right? Which milks will give you a smooth, firm, and flavorful cheese and which will result in a whole lot of nothing? Well, allow me to help sort this out for you.

Raw milk – this is the milk that comes directly from the animal and is filtered and cooled. Think of it as “milk on tap.” Because it has not been subjected to the heat of pasteurization, all of the protein, vitamins, minerals, etc. are intact. Some will claim that raw milk has a flavor that is fuller and richer than that of pasteurized milk. These same folks will also claim that raw milk gives you a much better cheese. Raw milk, however, can also harbor some nasty bacteria — Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Brucella abortus, Brucella melitensis, Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria, so you have to be very careful when using raw milk. Under US law, raw milk cheeses must be aged for longer than sixty days before they can be sold commercially.

Homogenized milk – is milk that has been heat-treated and pressurized to break up the fat globules. This keeps the cream in solution and prevents it from rising to the top. If you use this kind of milk to make cheese, it will produce curds that are smoother and less firm than those from raw milk.

Cream-line milk – the opposite of homogenized. Here the cream portion separates from the rest of the milk and rises to the top.

Pasteurized milk – milk that has been heated to 145oF and cooled quickly. Pasteurization kills all bacteria, both the harmful ones and the natural microflora that are useful in cheesemaking. This is why, when making cheese with pasteurized milk, we have to add our own starter cultures. Pasteurization also denatures proteins, and denatures some of the vitamin and mineral content of milk.

Ultrapasteurized milk – has been heated to 191oF for at least 1 second. This is done to give the milk a longer shelf life, but it absolutely destroys everything within – protein, vitamins, minerals, etc. As a result, ultrapasteurized milk is worthless for making cheese!

Ultra-Heat-Treated (UHT) milk – This product is created by flash-heating milk at a temperature of 275-300oF. This is the milk that you see packaged in foil-lined containers on grocery shelves. Unlike ultrapasteurized milk, UHT milk can be used for cheesemaking, but only for making soft cheeses.

Whole milk – contains all of its original ingredients and has a fat content (from cream) of 3.5-4%. This is the most typical milk used in cheesemaking.

Nonfat (Skim) Milk – Most of the cream has been removed from this type of milk, which reduces the butterfat content down to 1-2%. Skim milk does have uses in cheesemaking, including making prepared starter culture, as the main ingredient in hard grating cheeses such as Romano and Parmesan, and for making lower-fat soft cheeses, In addition, skim milk can be used to make other dairy products such as buttermilk, kefir, yogurt, etc.

Dry Milk Powder – these are dehydrated milk solids. This product is useful if you happen to find yourself someplace where you cannot get access to fluid milk. Simply mix 1-1/3 cups of dry milk powder in 3-3/4 cups of water, and you’ll have one quart of fluid milk. And there’s no need to worry about bacterial contamination, because the dehydrating process inactivates any bacteria that may have been present in the milk solids.

Nut and Bean Milks – are processed liquids made from beans such as soy and nuts such as almond and cashew. Nut and bean milks can be used to make soft cheeses and other dairy products, however, final products from batch to batch are much less consistent than those of mammalian milks.

Buttermilk – Buttermilk was originally the liquid drained from a churn after butter was made. The buttermilk purchased in stores is a cultured buttermilk that is made by adding bacterial starter culture to pasteurized skim milk. This cultured buttermilk can then be used to make soft cheeses.

Cream – This is the fatty portion of milk. For cheesemaking, only two kinds of creams are useful – light whipping cream and half-and-half. Do not attempt to make cheese with heavy whipping cream; the excess fat will interfere with the cheesemaking process. And there you have it – a guide to the right milk to use for the kind of cheeses you wish to make. I hope you’ll find this information udderly delightful.

Don’t Throw it A-Whey


Those of you familiar with the cheese making process know what happens to milk when we make cheese. Broadly speaking, when me make cheese, we call upon the activity of bacteria (to chew up lactose and turn it into lactic acid, thereby lowering the pH of the milk), acid (direct addition of substances such as citric acid, tartaric acid, or vinegar (acetic acid)), rennet, or some combination of all of the above to cause the milk protein (casein) to unite with the milk minerals (mostly calcium) to create calcium caseinate (curd). The curd is then separated from the liquid portion (whey) and then is compressed and aged to create cheese, which we then serve to our family and friends, or eat it all ourselves. But we’ve forgotten about that liquid portion of the milk – the whey. What are we supposed to do with that?

Many years ago, the answer would have been “dump it down the sewer.” But then in the 1970’s the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency came along and said, “Bzzzzzzzzzp! Wrong answer! This caused much consternation and head-scratching among commercial cheesemakers as they attempted to figure out what they were going to do with this stuff if they couldn’t toss it. Then someone discovered that if you spun the whey down in a centrifuge and concentrated it down to 85% protein, you now had a substance that they named whey protein concentrate. If you further concentrated it down to 90% protein, you had a substance that they named whey protein isolate. Food processors then discovered that you could use these substances to make a diverse array of products such as sports beverage mixes, baby food formulas, baked goods, salad dressings, emulsifiers, etc. Food processors liked using these substances because whey lacks the strong beany taste of soy protein. As a result, these food processors didn’t have to spend money on flavorings to cover the beany soy taste. Whey is also a good source of the branched-chain sulfur-containing amino acids methionine and cysteine, as well as many of the other essential amino acids.

You, the home cheesemaker, however, probably do not possess a centrifuge. But there are still many things you can do with that whey.

Drink it – pour yourself a glass of whey and mix in a powdered beverage mix (lemonade, Kool-Aid, Tang, etc.) You now have a flavored beverage that is healthier for you than if you used just plain water. Remember that the whey still contains protein and minerals. Just be careful if you use Kool-Aid; you don’t want that smiley pitcher guy to come crashing through your walls. (Note: those of you under forty may have to ask your parents or grandparents to explain that one to you.)

Bake with it –the 30-Minute Mozzarella Kit from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company comes with a recipe for Italian Feather Bread. One of the ingredients used in the bread is whey. The bread is very tasty, by the way; I recommend making it.

Feed it to your plants – remember that whey contains protein. Protein is made up of amino acids. Amino acids contain amine (NH2) and carboxyl (COOH) groups. Plants will use the amine portion of the whey as a source of nitrogen. One hundred gallons of whey contains approximately 1.22 pounds nitrogen (N), 0.40 pounds phosphorus (P), 1.46 pounds potassium (K), 0.29 pounds calcium (Ca), 0.05 pounds magnesium (Mg), 0.42 pounds sodium (Na) and 1.00 pound chlorine (Cl). In addition, certain plants such as azalea, rhododendron, and blueberry require more acidic soils (pH 4.5-5.5). They will not grow if soil pH is higher than this. Whey is an excellent substance for lowering the pH of alkaline soils, with the whey from making cottage cheese being most effective.

So use it, don’t lose it. It’s the whey to go!

Aging in Place – the Right Place, That Is



When it comes to making cheese, the making portion – heating the milk, adding the starter culture and rennet, cutting the curd, etc. is only part of the process. If you’re making a hard cheese, then once it comes out of the press, all you have is a block of curd, which is edible, but rather flavorless. In order to turn that block of curd into cheese, you have to age it. Aging is what gives cheese its flavor and character. When you age cheese, you set that block of curd in an environment that will allow the bacteria in to roam throughout that curd block chewing up lactose and other material and expelling waste products. It is these waste products (a.k.a. bacterial poop) that makes cheese look and taste so good.

But what exactly is this “environment” of which I speak? Simply put, cheese must be set in a place where the temperature is 46-60oF and the relative humidity is 75-90%. If it’s too cold, the cheese won’t develop the proper level of acid and flavor. Too warm, and the cheese will develop a sharp and pungent flavor and/or undesirable microbial growth.

So how do you create this environment? There are several ways.

Caves – In Europe, where they have been making cheese for centuries, there exist various caves where the conditions are just right for aging cheese. Here is the United States, cheesemakers will build warehouses where they can artificially create the proper conditions. But since most of you who are reading this probably do not own or have access to a cave or have the time, money, and materials to build your own warehouse, there are other ways of creating the proper aging conditions

Basements – Many home basements, since they are below ground, are often much cooler than the house and land above ground. Temperatures in most home basements are usually right in that 46-60oF range. Moisture levels can be increased by hanging wet towels or using a portable humidifier.

Wine coolers – Wine coolers are ideal for aging cheese, because they have controls for both temperature and humidity.

Small, dorm-sized refrigerators – These work well for aging cheese, however, the built in temperature control dial is often not very precise. Turn it a notch one way or another, and the temperature is either too high or too low. You may have to purchase and hook in a thermostat that allows you to control temperature with more precision. Humidity can be maintained by setting a bowl of water on the bottom shelf and/or placing wet paper towels at the bottom.

Though the aging requirements for cheese are precise, they are not impossible to attain. With the proper equipment and locale, be it basement, wine cooler, or dorm-sized refrigerator, you too can age cheese in your very own home. A homemade Cheddar, Swiss, or Manchego can be a reality!

Store That Cheese


You’ve done it! You’ve succeeded in making your very own delicious cheese! You’ve carefully coagulated the milk, separated the curd from the whey, compressed the curd, soaked it in brine, and aged it under just the right conditions of temperature and humidity. You’ve tasted it and it tastes delicious. You’ve shared it with friends and family and they also think it has a wonderful flavor. Now you’re ready to store what’s leftover so you can serve it again – and again, and again until it is finished. Now comes the deciding moment. How do you store this cheese so that it remains as flavorful later as it is today?

First of all, it is important to remember that cheese is a living food. Those same bacteria that you used to make the cheese are still in there and still roaming around inside. You may be done with the cheese creation process, but the bacteria are not. Your cheese will continue to ripen and age, even in your refrigerator. The firmer the cheese, the longer it will keep. If properly stored, cheeses like Swiss, Manchego, Blue, and other hard cheeses can be stored for many months. Softer cheeses such as Cottage Cheese, Mascarpone, and others can only be stored for about two weeks before they have to be discarded.

Temperature and moisture are the critical factors that determine how well a cheese stores. Cheese should be stored in your refrigerator at a temperature of 38-42oF in one of the vegetable bins or elsewhere on the bottom of your refrigerator so that it is out of the airflow as much as possible. Wrap your cheese in aluminum foil, plastic wrap, or wax paper to further seal in the moisture. And check your cheese frequently to make sure that the cheese hasn’t dried out or become moldy.

If you see mold on a soft cheese, then throw it out immediately, since that mold will be all the way through. On a hard cheese, however, you can merely cut off the moldy part, since that mold will only be present on the surface.

If your cheese dries and cracks, fret not. All is not lost. It is possible to re-moisten the cheese by wrapping it in a damp towel for 1-2 hours. You can also cover it in a cheesecloth that has been soaked in wine or salt water and wrung out.

Follow these guidelines, and you can be assured that your carefully made cheese will continue to delight you and your guests for many months.

Your Waste is My Bread and Butter

poop equals bread and butter

Waste. The very word implies something that is unwanted or not needed. Call it leftovers, trash, byproducts, garbage – it all means the same thing – something left over from something else after all of the useful elements of that something else have been extracted.

What do we do with that waste? Well, most of the time, we discard it. We throw it away without a second thought and feel assured that it’s gone forever. Not so. As Mike Nowak, a Chicago radio gardening show host once stated, our planet is a closed system. Everything you discard still remains on Earth somewhere. There is no such thing as “away.”

Much of this waste also ends up back in our bodies, sometimes indirectly in the air we breathe or substances we absorb through our skin, but sometimes directly and by design. What do I mean by this? Allow me to elaborate.

What do we mix into our soil to help boost the growth of our vegetables? Manure. What is manure? You know good and well what it is. It’s POOP! Yes folks, cows and horses are excreting the unusable portions of the food they eat (a.k.a. poop) out of their butts. And we willingly collect it, dry it, spread it onto our vegetable gardens, grow vegetables, put those vegetables in our mouths, chew them up and swallow them. This is considered a good thing – and it is. But whether it’s via tomato road or jalapeño highway, in the end, we are still eating poop.

Nauseated yet? Well, to paraphrase that tune by the Carpenters, I’ve only just begun. Do you like cheese? You know how cheese is made, of course. Bacterial culture is added to milk, which causes the milk to separate into curds and whey. We then extract the whey, compress and age the curds, and that gives us cheese. But what do the bacteria do? Some bacteria is used to start the cheesemaking process. They will chew up the milk sugar (lactose), convert it to lactic acid, and excrete that lactic acid into the milk. The acid lowers the pH of the milk and creates the right conditions for coagulation of the milk. Other bacteria roam through the ripening curd, chew up the material inside and excrete salts and other acids. Well what is all this stuff that the bacteria are excreting? You can call it salt, acid, whatever pleases you. But bottom line, it is still waste product that the bacteria expel from their little bodies. In other words – bacterial poop! And we consume it with gusto!

Now I tell you all this not to disgust you. Well, maybe a little. Fine, I admit it. I’m rolling on the floor as I imagine the looks on all of your faces as you’re reading this! We all need a hobby, and I’m working mine. But all kidding aside, it’s important that we remember that food – real, honest to goodness food – does not spontaneously erupt from the shelves of your local grocer in neat and pretty packages. There is real work, effort, and ancient knowledge that goes into the development of that food long before it ever reaches the grocery store. To the urbanized eye, it is not all neat, pretty, and sweet-smelling. But without it, we would all have no choice but to eat the packaged, artificially created, chemically laden stuff that’s already a large part of most of our diets. And what those excuses for food can do to our bodies is a lot more disgusting than a little poop could ever be!

Cheese Cheese Everywhere


“How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” – Charles de Gaulle

Ah, cheese. That decadent, delicious dairy delight that we all love to consume. But how many of us have really experienced the world of cheese? How many of us have truly all the different varieties of cheese that are out there? Very few of us, I’d wager. When it comes to this culinary delight, the majority of us are trapped in our own little bubble of cheddar, American, Mozzarella, Parmesan (usually in pre-grated form), and a few others. And this is unfortunate because there’s a whole world of cheese out there just waiting to be enjoyed. And when I say world, I mean all around planet Earth. Nearly every nation around the globe has one or more cheeses that are unique to their piece of geography. You’re probably familiar with Gruyere and Emmental from Switzerland, Parmesan and Romano from Italy, or Brie from France. But have you ever tried Vacherin Fribourgeois? That’s another cheese from Switzerland. How about Accasciato and Bel Paise from Italy or Cendre d’Olivet from France? Or why not get really crazy and serve Ackawi, Baladi, Kanafeh, Kashkaval, and Shanklish at your next dinner party. Those cheeses are all from Lebanon.

Okay those last few are a bit exotic and probably not available here in the US. But it still illustrates my point – that when it comes to cheese, there’s an infinite number of ways to provide some new sensations for your palate.

So if it’s cheese you want and love, then I encourage you to think outside the cheddar box and try some new varieties. Your palate will thank you. Note: if you have to think outside the Velveeta box or the Chez-Whiz can, then you’re beyond help.

All Together Now


On a few occasions I’ve been asked, “Mark, I know that you do both fruit and vegetable gardening and home cheeesemaking. Are those two distinctly separate topics, or can they work together?”

Most definitely, yes, they can work together! In fact, if you combine the two just right, you create wonderful foods that can enhance your dining experiences for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Here are some suggestions.

Salads – You can enhance a salad of homegrown garden greens by sprinkling it with some of your homemade Feta cheese. Or how about using your homemade Blue cheese to create your own Blue cheese dressing to pour on your salad?

Infusing cheese with herbs – When making your own cheese, how about creating something distinctive by mixing some herbs into the curds before putting those curds into your cheese press? Some typical herbed cheeses include Caraway Swiss and Havarti with Dill.

Incorporating vegetables into cheese – The sky is the limit when it comes to making vegetable infused cheeses. How about adding some sun-dried tomatoes to your homemade cream cheese? Or a cheddar cheese infused with finely-chopped onions?

Wine-infused cheeses – At first glance, this sounds off topic. What, you might ask, does making a wine-infused cheese have to do with incorporating fruits and vegetables into cheese? Well, if you grow the grapes yourself, make your own wine, and soak your newly-pressed cheese in the wine for a few weeks, then, in a roundabout way, you are combining fruit and cheese. And if you substitute vodka for the wine you now have infused your cheese with a potato byproduct.

“Gee Mark, I’m not sure about this,” you say. “This sounds rather unusual.” Well, I have a one word answer for you – experiment. Try different combinations of fruits, vegetables, and cheese. After all, that’s how new foods are discovered.

“But what if I create something that looks awful and tastes worse?” Seriously? What if you create something that looks pleasing, tastes even better, and wins Cheese of the Year? Isn’t that worth the risk of maybe creating something awful? And if the worst happens, and your Limburger with Brussels sprouts tastes like the inside of a garbage truck? Then you simply toss it away and try a different combination. No one has to know about it but you.

So go ahead. Experiment with different fruit-cheese-vegetable combinations. And embrace the results – good, bad, or otherwise!

The Food Of The Gods



In many of my classes and presentations, I often refer to cheese as “the food of the gods,” and not just because of its wonderful and complex flavors, aromas, shapes, and colors. While not on par with ambrosia, the drink enjoyed by the gods of ancient Greece that also had the power to confer immortality on any mortal who drank it, cheese has indeed played a part in the rituals and ceremonies of the many religions that have been part of the history of mankind.

In Greek mythology, the god Aristaeus, son of Apollo and Cyrene, was taught by nymphs the art of cheesemaking and beekeeping. After mastering these arts, he then passed this knowledge on to mankind.

Homer’s sang the praises of cheese in his Odyssey and describes how the Cyclops was producing and storing sheep’s and goat’s milk and cheese.

In ancient Britain, the architects of Stonehenge would offer cheese, milk, and yogurt to their deities as part of their religious ceremonies, while keeping meat for their own consumption; meat was viewed as impure and not suitable for deities. Milk itself was viewed by many tribes around the world as being a symbol of purity because of its white color.

Cheese is also mentioned three times in the Bible.

And Jesse said unto David his son, Take now for thy brethren an ephah of this parched corn, and these ten loaves, and run to the camp of thy brethren. And carry these ten cheeses unto the captain of their thousand, and look how thy brethren fare, and take their pledge. — 1 Samuel 17:17-18

And honey, and butter, and sheep, and cheese of kine, for David, and for the people that were with him, to eat: for they said, The people is hungry, and weary, and thirsty, in the wilderness. — 2 Samuel 17:29

Hast thou not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese? – Job 10:10

So if you ever questioned whether or not you should be eating cheese, I’m here to tell you that the answer is most emphatically yes. If it was deemed worthy of being offered to the ancient deities of Britain, given to man by a Greek god, and served to the armies of the biblical Israelites, then it should be good enough for us.

If You’re Not Elite, Then Your Cheese Won’t Be Sweet



Cheese is a living food. No, I don’t mean that cheese is capable of rising up off the plate and dancing the mambo. And if your cheese is dancing the mambo, then you may want to consider cutting back on the wine you’re drinking with it.

By “living” food, I’m referring to the thousands of microorganisms (bacteria and mold) that play a part in turning milk into cheese. Nearly all types of bacteria will coagulate milk, but not all will produce a coagulated product that will look, smell, and taste good enough to become cheese. So you have to be selective about the kind of bacteria you allow into your milk.

When you make cheese, you are, in a way, hosting a very exclusive party. Sound silly? Well then let me ask you this. When you throw a party at your home, do you throw open your front door and shout to the neighborhood, “Hey, I’m throwing a party here! Everybody’s invited, and be sure to bring along your friends and relatives!” No, of course you don’t. Because if you did, then God knows what kind of riffraff and miscreants you’d be allowing into your home. When you throw a party, you privately invite the “right” kind of people – friends and family members whom you like and whom you trust will contribute to a fun evening without drinking all your booze or wrecking your home.

The same concept holds true for cheesemaking. If you left a carton of milk setting around for two weeks, you’d have a carton of coagulated milk, but one that would look awful and smell worse. It would not be something that you want to even attempt to turn into cheese. That’s because when you opened that carton, you invited every kind of bacteria in the air — the good, the bad, and the mightily awful — to come in and coagulate your milk. Any good bacteria that coagulated the milk into something tasty were overshadowed by the bad bacteria turning it into something disgusting.

When you make cheese, you only allow in certain kinds of bacteria – bacteria that have been scientifically proven will coagulate milk in such a way that it will produce curds that look, smell, and taste good. That is why we add starter cultures to our milk. These cultures contain these scientifically-tested microorganisms that will contribute to the look and taste of the finished product. Furthermore, certain kinds of cheeses require other types of bacteria or mold to make them into specific cheese. If, for example, you want to make Blue, Gorgonzola, or Stilton cheeses, you will need a mold — Penicillium roqueforti. Only Penicillium roqueforti can provide the bluish color and specific flavor that turns your block of curd into blue cheese. Want to make Swiss, Gruyere or Emmenthal cheeses? Then you’ll need Propionic shermanii bacteria, because they are the ones that form the holes.

So if you want to make cheese, then you have to become a bit snobbish. Don’t allow just any bacteria into your milk-house. Only allow the elite bacteria. The “correct” bacteria will give you the right cheese.