After the New Year, it is sometimes a challenge to keep your spirits up on the farm. The days are short, but filled with lots of work. The temperatures are still cold and you find yourself dreaming of warm Springtime days and the sprouting of plants in the garden and greenhouse. There are some transitional things we do during these months that sometimes get crowded out during the busier times. When we have a little extra milk on hand, everyone loves the special blessing of homemade cheese. We have come to learn to make some basic types of cheese with the dream of having a dedicated place to age a greater variety of cheeses in the coming years. Some of our family’s favorites are mozzarella, ricotta, cottage cheese, and farmhouse cheddar. Our special love however is a fresh Manchego.
Manchego cheese originated in Spain and gained its name from the fact that Manchego sheep’s milk was used to make this cheese. It can be eaten as a “fresco” or fresh cheese with little aging or can be aged for 3 to 12 months. The flavor of the cheese changes as the cheese ages. Our family enjoys ours fresco as we are both lacking a facility to properly age cheese and are also anxious to enjoy it.
The process of making cheese is very similar from one variety to another. The differences in the flavors are largely attributable to the aging process, the type of milk used, and also any cultures or herbs added to the cheese.
Step by Step Cheesemaking
- The first step is to warm the milk. It is generally brought to a temperature of around 86 degrees. Warming the milk creates the environment that allows the milk to transform into cheese as we continue through the next steps. The milk we are using is raw milk from our farm. We prefer non-pasturized milk as it still contains all the rich microbes that not only make it wonderful for cheese making, but a live food. The recipe we are making calls for 2 gallons of milk to be used.
- After the milk is slowly brought to the desired temperature, we gradually add in the cultures that will be used for the variety being made as well as the rennet. This is usually done in a staged process with the cultures being added first and then about 30 minutes later adding in the rennet. The rennet will help the milk to begin changing into curds with the whey separated off. Yes, you heard me right curds and whey. Did you realize that Little Miss Moffit was actually eating cheese rather than some sort of porridge?
- After the milk has set from the acting of the rennet, the curds will be cut and then gradually heated to about 104 degrees. This heating is done so slowly that the goal is for the temperature to rise only 2 degrees every 5 minutes. The slow heating allows for the proper amount of moisture to be maintained in the curds. Throughout this time the curds are stirred every few minutes to prevent them from matting together. After the desired temperature has been reached, the curds will be drained through cheesecloth.
- The next step is to put the curds into a cheesepress. The cheesepress will have varying amounts of pressure applied for different lengths of time to help the curds form into a block. The length of time in the press as well as the amount of pressure applied will determine how dry the cheese will be.
- A lot of cheeses will have different types of salt or herbs added to the curds before being put in the cheesepress. There are times that our family will add herbs to the curds before pressing them. However, the salting of manchego cheese is done by soaking the block of cheese in a salt water brine for 6 hours after it has come out of the press. This part of the process must be done in a container or vessel that is not corrosive due to the strength of the brine.
The final result of this process is a wonderful round of cheese as well as the whey that is a byproduct of making cheese. This particular round of Manchego was left in its plain form. Our family does enjoy adding different herbs to it for different flavors, such as garlic, horseradish, dill, and onion. Manchego is a great all purpose cheese. It melts well so can be used on grilled sandwiches and in recipes. Its soft moist texture lends itself well for snacking.
The whey is a wonderful protein rich liquid. It can be added into smoothies for the additional protein. We have also found it to be a wonderful replacement for milk or buttermilk in baking. The texture and flavor of the baked good is out of this world. An additional use of whey is in making cultured vegetables. The culturing of vegetables adds probiotic content that helps to skyrocket their nutritional value.
Much of what we have learned about cheesemaking has been learned through cookbooks and videos by Ricki Carroll. Ricki is the owner of the New England Cheesemaking Company. We find that they have great retail and wholesale pricing on cheese salt, rennet, and all types of cultures. I encourage you to explore the world of cheesemaking. It is important to remember that there is a lot of science behind cheesemaking, but it is also an art. Artisan cheesemakers understand the science so that they can then use their own variations to come up with some of the most delicious varieties of cheese.
Don’t be afraid to give it a try!