Cheesemaking – Part II

February 24, 2006

This and last week’s feature articles were written and contributed by CUESA volunteer and Cheese Specialist, Laura Martinez.

This article is the second in a two-part series that looks at cheesemaking as practiced by Ferry Plaza Farmers Market cheesemakers. Last week’s e-letter, Cheesemaking Part I, explored farming and milk production, pasteurization, and milk ripening. This week’s delves into curds and whey, rennet, working the curd, salting, forming, and aging.

Curds, Whey, and Rennet
Jennifer Bice of Redwood Hill Farm relies on the milk of her own herd of goats, and Larry Peter of Spring Hill Jersey Cheese on the milk of his own Jersey cows to make cheese. Both of these farmstead cheesemakers pasteurize their milk, and then add starter cultures to promote the development of lactic acid. When the temperature and pH balance are right, the water and sugar (which together form the whey), can be separated from the protein and fat (which together form the curd).

The first step in separating curds from whey is to separate casein, the primary milk protein, from water molecules using an enzyme. Once separated, casein molecules surround fat molecules (they coagulate) and turn into a gelatinous curd. Cheesemakers initiate the curdling process by adding rennet to the milk. Traditionally, rennet was obtained from the stomach lining of slaughtered calves, kids, and lambs. Today, many non-animal sources of rennet are available. The cheesemakers highlighted here use vegetarian coagulants.

Working the Curd
After the rennet is added, curds and whey separate quickly (usually within two hours). As soon as a clean separation is achieved (most of the curd grains are clumped together and the whey is relatively free of curd grains), the curd is ready to be worked. Working the curd involves ladling, cutting, and draining to achieve desired textures and levels of moisture for each cheese. Fine-grained, even curds produce smooth textures, and coarse-grained, uneven curds produce coarser, more rustic textures. Curds surrounded by a lot of surface area (small, fine-grained curds) drain quickly, and larger curds drain slowly.

Soft cheeses such as Redwood Hill Farm’s Camellia (a goat’s milk Camembert), are ladled and drained instead of cut, so that they retain lots of moisture. Some curds, such as those going into Spring Hill Jersey cheeses, are cooked to reduce curd grain size and produce a smoother texture. Screens or stainless steel grids are then passed through the curds to cut them into smaller sizes for draining. Curds intended for cheddar cheese are cut into blocks with long-handled knives, stacked, drained, then cut, stacked, and drained again – a process known as cheddaring.

When the curd is ready, salt, other seasonings, and herbs may be added. Salt is critical, as it contributes to the evaporation of moisture, rind formation, texture, and flavor, and inhibits unwanted fermentation and microbes. Redwood Hill Farm and Spring Hill both use natural sea salt and salt the curds by hand. Herbs and seasonings are added to create flavors such as Spring Hill’s Garlic Cheddar and Redwood Hill’s Garlic-Chive Chevre.

Forming and Applications
Cheese forms are a defining factor in cheesemaking. Different shapes and forms effect the amount of moisture a cheese will retain and the amount of time a cheese has to reach its peak.

Redwood Hill’s Camellia and Bucheret are small enough to allow Penicillium candidum spores, sprayed on after each cheese is formed, to quickly penetrate the curd. The application of these spores contributes to the development of surface mold and cheese texture and flavor. The taller, mound-shaped Bucherets age a little longer and lose more moisture as they develop drier interiors underneath white bloomy rinds. Crottins have a natural rind and, once their curds are set, are released from their molds to form a natural beige, wrinkled rind. All of these cheeses ripen from the outside in, developing multiple layers of wonderful flavors and textures. At Spring Hill, Jersey Jack cheese curds are hand-tied into 8 lb. cheesecloth rounds, and Cheddar into 40 lb. rounds, then all are pressed for at least 12 hours before being vacuum-sealed and refrigerated for aging.

As cheeses age, they bloom with the essence of everything that’s come before: spring grasses, summer hay, winter grain, crushed grapes, fermented oats, brewer’s grain, fresh water, salt air, vitamins and minerals, starter cultures and coagulants.

The humidity of the aging environment greatly affects the end product; harder cheeses are created in drier aging conditions. The young cheeses at Redwood Hill Farm age in a cave-like environment that mimics the traditional technique for aging French cheeses. Spring Hill Jersey cheeses are turned regularly and aged for different amounts of time (from 3 weeks for Breeze to 2-3 years for Cheddars) in rooms with carefully controlled temperature and humidity. At Achadinha Cheese Company, featured in Cheesemaking – Part I, Donna Pacheco hand turns and rubs every 6 lb. wheel of Capricious with olive oil as it ages for 4-10 months. Javier Salmon of Bodega Goat Cheese hand-turns and repeatedly dips each wheel of Manchego in his own organic Zinfandel for 2 ½ to 3 months as it comes of age. Pt. Reyes Farmstead Blue wheels are needled to oxygenate the curd and permit the Penicillium roqueforti (which creates the blue cheese flavor) to bloom as each wheel ages for 6 months on wooden planks. The longer a cheese is aged, the sharper its flavor, and the more crumbly its texture becomes.

Like other farmstead products, the cheeses that we have explored in this article begin on the land. These mostly small-scale, handmade products represent seasonality, patience, tradition, and innovation. Bringing cheese to market is the last step in a long process. Each cheese is the product of an ancient art, melding local animal husbandry with traditional techniques that result in the exquisite aromas, textures, and flavors of farmstead cheese.