Don’t Throw it A-Whey

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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

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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

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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.

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!

Your Cheese Ain’t The Rage If It Ain’t Got That Age

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What is this thing called cheese? Cheese can be defined as coagulated milk solids that have been drained, pressed and aged. A simple broad definition that barely scratches the surface, because cheese is so much more than that. And what makes it so is that last part of the definition — aged. It is aging that gives the product its flavor and character.
While most of the soft cheeses such as Cottage Cheese, Mascarpone, Neufchȃtel, etc. can be enjoyed immediately after making them and do not need to be aged, hard cheeses such as Cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan, etc. have to be aged to develop the flavor that makes them what we expect from, Cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan, and any other hard cheese. If they ain’t aged, then they’re not really cheese. They’re just compressed curd.
So how do we go about turning compressed curd into cheese.
To properly age cheese, it must be placed in a temperature and humidity controlled enclosure for a length of time. The ideal temperature and relative humidity for aging cheese is 45-60ºF and 75-95%, respectively. These conditions allow for optimum exchange of ripening gasses from the cheese (e.g. carbon dioxide and ammonia) with oxygen from the air, all of which is highly important for flavor development.
If your aging chamber is too cold, the cheese will not develop the proper amount of acid for a safe and flavorful product. If the temperature is too warm, then the cheese will develop a sharp and pungent flavor and/or undesirable microbial growth. If the humidity of the aging chamber is too high, then undesirable mold will grow on the cheese and it will have to be checked more frequently. If however, the room is too dry, then the cheese will shrink and crack.
So where do you find a place that meets the aforementioned temperature and humidity requirements? Many home basements will satisfy this requirement. If necessary, you can purchase a small humidifier or hang wet towels in the basement to control the humidity. You can also purchase a second hand refrigerator or a small dorm-sized refrigerator. Your regular kitchen refrigerator is usually too cold and dry for aging cheese, but with a second refrigerator, you can set the temperature where you need it and then place a small bowl of water or damp paper towels inside to raise the humidity. Lastly, you can purchase a wine cooler. These are specially designed for precise adjustment of temperature and humidity.

Cheap-Mini-FridgeWine Cooler
How long should you age cheese? That depends on the cheese and how strong a flavor you want. Cheese can be aged for as short as a few days to as long as a few years. The longer a cheese is aged, the sharper and stronger is its flavor. The difference between a mild Cheddar and a sharp cheddar is simply the length of time which it is aged. Most hard cheeses should be aged for a minimum of sixty days. Some hard grating cheeses like Parmesan and Romano may be aged for years to develop a very strong flavor.

 
With an enclosure set at the proper temperature, you too can turn your compressed curd into flavorful, delicious, honest to goodness cheese!

Dipping a Toe in the Cheesemaking Waters

So, you’ve decided that you want to start making your own cheese. However, the thought of spending lots of money on cultures, molds, a press, etc. is making you pause and wonder if it’s really worth pursuing this.

Cheese Culture Cheese Molds Cheese Press
Let me ask a question. Do you work out on a regular basis? If so, how did you start? Did you right away spend money on a pricey health club membership and sign up to compete in your local triathlon? Did you spend big bucks on expensive workout clothing? My guess, is that your answer to my questions is no. You probably first visited your doctor to make sure that you were physically capable of starting a workout program. Then you started out slowly — perhaps with a few simple exercises at home. running a mile or two, purchasing a workout CD, etc. As time went on, and you got yourself in better shape, then maybe you found a health club whose membership fee fit your budget and began regular workouts there. Then as you continued to get healthier and stronger, then and only then did you start thinking about triathlons and 5K runs, etc.

Cheesemaking or any other hobby works the same way. If you want to begin making your own cheese, you don’t have to start by purchasing expensive equipment, cultures, and chemicals. There are some very simple cheeses you can make that won’t cost more than a few dollars for material that you can purchase at your nearby grocery store. Queso blanco, for example, is made by heating milk to 185-190oF, adding 1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar, and straining the coagulated liquid through fine cheesecloth. No fancy equipment required there. If your first batch of queso blanco is successful, then you can start trying some other simple cheeses that perhaps require cultures or molds. If these work out well, then perhaps you’ll want to attempt making a hard cheese like cheddar or manchego. Then you can justify purchasing more advanced equipment or more delicate cultures.

The whole key is moderation and starting slowly. Just as you wouldn’t jump into the deep end of the pool if you’ve never learned to swim, you wouldn’t start making Jarlsberg if you’ve never made cheese before. Start simply. Decide whether or not you’re enjoying this new hobby. Are you gaining in skill and knowledge? Are your efforts to make cheese successfully rewarded? If so, then you can justifiably spend whatever is necessary (within your budget of course) to advance to the next level.

And if you need some assistance, there are plenty of resources available — books, websites, classes. In fact, classes are an excellent way to learn — and I just happen to know of some that will be starting soon, and there just may be room left for a few more students. Yes, I know, this is a shameless plug. But then again, I never claimed to have any shame.

No Cow? No Problem!

Up until now, I have written countless blog posts on gardening and music. However, I have yet to post anything having to do with my other favorite pastime — home cheese making. So now, I’m going to fill that hole. Here comes my very first Garden Troubadour blog post referencing this wonderful dairy delight — and please don’t tell me that this is cheesy or an udder failure!

When most of us think about milk for making cheese, our first thought is of cows. And why not? The vast majority of the fluid milk in the US dairy industry comes from high-yielding dairy cows. But when it comes to milk, cows are not the be all and end all. Here in the United States, cheese is also made from the milk of goats and sheep, but throughout history, man has obtained milk from a wide variety of mammalian species. Can you imagine making cheese from the milk of a mare? How about from a camel? A zebu? A yak? An ass? (Okay, get your minds out of the gutter)!

The truth is that all of these animals and many more have been used throughout the history of mankind to produce milk for drinking and cheesemaking. Mozzarella cheese was traditionally made from the milk of the water buffalo. The Laplanders of Finland used the milk of the reindeer. (And you thought they were only useful for pulling Santa’s sleigh!)

On one occasion, in one of my classes, I had a student ask me if human milk could be used to make cheese. In my opinion, that would be a waste, since human infants need the milk more than we need cheese. It could be done, I’m sure, but why?

Here in the US, we are pretty much limited to the milk of cows, goats, and sheep. Here are some tips on using all three.

Cow’s Milk: Cow’s milk will produce a firm curd when properly renneted. Since it’s the most prominent dairy species in the industry, cow’s milk is abundant and relatively inexpensive.If you plan to buy a cow to produce your own milk, Jerseys or Brown Swiss are the best species to purchase. Both produce milk with a high butterfat content and both animals have a sweet temperament that makes them easy to manage.

Jersey CowBrown Swiss Cow

Goat’s Milk: Goat’s milk has smaller butterfat globules than cow’s milk, so it tends to be naturally homogenized (as opposed to cow’s milk which must be heat-treated and pressurized to homogenize it). As a result goat’s milk tends to produce a slightly softer curd when renneted, so they must be treated a bit more gently during th cheesemaking process. Goat’s milk also contains no carotene, so it produces a much whiter cheese. Because goat milk contains naturally occurring lipase enzymes, it produces cheese that has more of a pepper hot pungency to it. If you wish to purchase your own goat, recommended breeds include the Nubian, Alpine, Saanen, and Toggenburg.

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Sheep’s Milk: Sheep’s milk tends to have a higher vitamin and mineral content than goat’s or cow’s milk, making it a more nutritionally dense liquid. Sheep’s milk contains about ten percent less water than either cow’s or goat’s milk. Because of this, it nearly twice as high in solids and tends to produce two and a half times the cheese yield of the milk from the other two species. Sheep’s milk can also be frozen until you obtain enough to make cheese; freezing will not adversely affect the quality of the milk or the cheese. When making cheese with sheep’s milk, use three to five times less rennet; make larger cubes when cutting the curd; use half the amount of salt called for; and exert light pressure when pressing your cheese. The most common breed of sheep for milking is the East Friesian.

East Friesian Sheep

So if you find that you do not have access to the right kind of milk, don’t have a cow! Wipe that sheepish grin off your face, and don’t let it get your goat!

Presenting – The Garden Troubadour!

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Mark Lyons, a.k.a. The Garden Troubadour. I’d like to welcome you to my blog. For the next… oh, let’s say five years (that’s as good a length of time as any), I will be sharing my thoughts on a regular basis (i.e. whenever I can think of something to say) about three subjects dear to my heart – gardening, cheesemaking, and music, with occasional forays into anything else I feel a need to turn into bits and bytes and launch into the cyber-ether. My reason for blogging is to share the joy I feel for the aforementioned topics and to provide tips, information, and useful advice that readers can use in their own gardens, kitchens, and musical performances.

Me with Sue and Judy's Gardenmark-lyons-gardening-coachMe with Huge Zucchini

Gardening is something I’ve happily enjoyed ever since I was, pardon the cliché, “knee-high to a grasshopper.” My parents had a vegetable garden on the south side of our home in Arlington Heights, and every summer, my sister Susan and I would help my parents plant tomato plants. My folks would always allow Susan and me to “sharecrop” a section of the garden for our own use, and we would eagerly plant corn, carrots, onions, and even flowers. My favorite flower was the four o’clock. I loved the way the buds would always open around 4:00 in the afternoon (hence, the name), and I even tried my hand at cross-pollinating them. I was always thrilled when I collected the seeds at the end of the season; little did I know that the flowers would have produced seeds without my help. But that doesn’t tarnish the wonderful memories one iota.
fouroclock flower

Music – ahh, I could write volumes about the wide variety of music I enjoy and my second pastime as a musician and entertainer. But that would turn this into a bloated, voluminous soliloquy as well as leaving no material remaining for future blogs. So I’ll just present the executive summary and say that my tastes in music are wide and varied. I enjoy country-western; bluegrass; western swing; folk; 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s pop; 40’s and 50’s big band jazz; 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s rock ‘n’ roll; and Hawaiian. I also have a special love of novelty tunes, because they fit my dry and warped sense of humor. As a musician and entertainer, I perform at folk festivals, private parties, farmers markets, nursery schools, open mics, and miscellaneous places, sometimes with my singing partner Jean and sometimes solo. I play guitar, ukulele, jews-harp, kazoo, and I even have a washboard (I prefer the Stradivarius model.). It’s my fond ambition to someday be first washboard chair in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

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Cheesemaking is a fairly new love of mine. I first developed an interest in cheesemaking while on a two-week vacation in Vermont in mid-July, 2005. I visited some of the farms that were open to the public, and while browsing through the gift shop at Sugarbush Farms in Woodstock, Vermont, I came upon a book entitled Home Cheesemaking, by Rikki Carroll. As my eyes fell on the cover and my fingers touched the spine, a spell came over me and a voice seemed to whisper, “Wouldn’t this be fun to try?” Next thing I knew, my hands were one book heavier and my wallet was a few dollars lighter. When I got home, I ordered the 30 Minute Mozzarella Kit from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company and made my first batch of mozzarella. I’d love to be able to say that it was a smashing success that was enjoyed by one and all, but I’d be lying through my pearly whites. Let’s just say there was lots of room for improvement. But improve I did, and since then, I have made more (and better) batches of mozzarella, marscapone, quark, frommage blanc, manchego, feta, and several others. Last January, I made my first block of parmesan, which I aged for ten months, and shared with my family at Thanksgiving. I’m proud to say it was a hit!

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I’ll wrap this up by mentioning that this is my first blog and my first time blogging. I sincerely hope that you’ll find my content interesting and exciting and will continue to stay tuned for more exciting episodes of The Garden Troubadour!