“This book is dangerous,” I wrote on Facebook. “It’s giving me all kinds of ideas.”
I was about halfway through Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, and I had already read about eating locally, avoiding GMOs, and how much fossil fuel was involved with most of our produce. Then she wrote about local cheese, and how she attains it: her husband makes it in their kitchen.
A year previously, I had expressed my desire to learn cheesemaking, and my husband vetoed it. He claimed it smelled. So I put the dream off, until I had a conversation with my older sister about Indian paneer. I made the paneer out of 2% milk and some lemon juice, then used it in palak paneer with some of my spring spinach, and was delighted with the ease and success. Within a few weeks of that, I started to read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. When Barbara Kingsolver gave the recipe for 30-Minute Mozzarella, I told my husband that he was wrong. I would be making cheese, whether he liked it or not. This has since evolved from paneer, to mozzarella and ricotta, then feta and fresh curds, and now to the 3-month cheddar that I cut into last week. So far, no smell. And yes, he is now totally on board with my cheesemaking efforts.
Of all the cheeses, mozzarella is the quickest and easiest. A few weeks ago, my husband wanted pizza and the local pizzeria was packed with customers. We walked home, and I kneaded up some crust dough. While the dough rose, I made the pizza sauce and the cheese. It was finished in time to toss the dough and load up the pizza.
30-Minute Mozzarella (recipe originally from Ricki Carroll of the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company)
- 1 gallon milk – NOT ultra-pasteurized
- ¼ tsp OR ¼ tablet cheesemaking rennet – NOT Junket
- ½ Tbsp citric acid OR 1/3 cup lemon juice
- about 1 Tbsp salt
- ½ cup non-chlorinated water
- cooking thermometer that reads low temperatures
- large pot
- slotted spoon
- large microwaveable bowl
In a pot that holds at least a gallon, add the milk. This can be cow’s or goat’s milk, raw or pasteurized. Do not use ultra-pasteurized, because the process of ultra-pasteurization heats the milk so high that the proteins get damaged and do not curdle right. If you choose to use raw milk, please be aware that temperatures may not rise high enough to kill any existing bacteria. Because cheese is butterfat, whole milk will yield the most cheese. Lowfat milk can be used, but you will get very little cheese from it. (I used whole milk for this post, and got over a pound of cheese.)
Turn the burner onto medium-low while you prepare the other ingredients, occasionally stirring the milk gently. If you garden or compost, keep the milk jug. I’ll explain later.
In two separate cups, measure out ¼ cup non-chlorinated water into each cup. Chlorine affects the curdle, so if you have municipal water, you might want to use bottled or distilled water. I use white and red prep cups for this, so I don’t accidentally add the ingredients in the wrong order.
Into one cup, dissolve either ½ Tbsp of citric acid, OR add 1/3 cup lemon juice. I find citric acid in the canning section at Walmart, and it’s not even $3 for an entire container. You can also find it at some health food stores, or on Amazon. Because of my sister’s dietary intolerance to citric acid, I made this recipe with lemon juice instead.
Into the other cup, add ¼ tsp liquid rennet, or crush ¼ tablet rennet. Always use cheesemaking rennet. This is the only ingredient I buy online, though it’s probably available at specialty stores in town. You can set up to 90 gallons of milk for as low as $7. Junket, though available at grocery stores, is not strong enough for cheese. You can use animal or vegetable rennet, liquid or tablet, with great results. If you use a tablet, the powder may not dissolve completely. Don’t worry about it. I’ve never had cheese fail because of this. (Note: The rennet I used for this recipe is double strength, so I only needed 1/8 tsp.)
When the milk reaches about 55 degrees, add the acid water and stir it in gently. (That’s either the citric acid or the lemon juice.) (Also, temps don’t have to be exact. Get as close as you can to recommended temps.)
When the milk reaches about 88 degrees, you should see it curdle. Add the rennet at this temperature, even if you only have a little bit of curdle. Again, stir gently. If your milk has not curdled at all, check the carton to be sure you didn’t use ultra-pasteurized.
Allow the temperature to rise just above 100 degrees. In that time, you will see the curds separate from the clear, yellowish whey. Remove the pot from the heat.
With a slotted spoon, lift the curds from the whey and put them into your microwave-safe bowl. Try to drain as much whey out of the curds as you can. You can also run the whey through a sieve or a cheesecloth to catch all the curds.
I always save all of my whey. Acid-loving plants like tomatoes thrive on whey. It’s great to balance out compost. My chickens love it. Some people use it as a base for vegetarian soups. I just funnel it back into the milk jug and set it in the fridge for later.
Gently press as much whey as you can out of the curds, and pour the whey off. Set the cheese back in the bowl and microwave on high for about a minute. Knead and press the curds to release more whey. Squeeze all the moisture you can out of the curds, and set them back in the bowl.
Microwave the curds for 30 seconds. Knead the curds, stretching it and folding it over itself, as if you were making taffy. When the curds start to break, microwave it for another 30 seconds then knead again. Be careful: this can get hot! Rubber gloves may help.
This is a picture of curds breaking, because they aren’t heated enough. The strings will snap into jagged-looking edges. When this happens, microwave another 15-30 seconds then knead again.
Heat and knead 3-4 times, until the cheese is smooth and stretchy. You’ll probably notice it has taken on the texture of string cheese. There’s a good reason for that. It is string cheese!
Add enough salt to taste. I use about a tablespoon. Save this step for the very final knead, because the salt interferes with the stretch of the curd. Using non-iodized salt can help retain some stretch. Heat and knead the dough until the salt is well incorporated.
Your cheese is done! Now you can either pull it into string cheese, roll it into little balls, or roll it into a big ball for slicing/grating. If you plan to use it soon, immerse it in ice water to solidify the curd.
A note on fresh mozzarella: it does not melt the way aged cheese does. It gets soft and stretchy. I like to slice it into coins to adorn a pizza, or long slices for paninis. Or I’ll roll it into little balls and toss with pesto, then give it to my friends to impress them.
And they are impressed. Mostly because they have no idea how easy it is.
If you try this recipe, please give me your feedback. I’d love to see pictures, too, so I can post a cheesemaking gallery in the future.