Farm Kitchen Colby
Warm two gallons whole milk (half skim, half whole if using Jersey or Guernsey milk) to 86 degrees, add 3 oz. mesophilic starter (live buttermilk culture) and stir thoroughly. Cover and allow to ripen for one hour, and it doesn’t hurt at this point to stir several times to prevent the cream from rising. We wrap the cheese pot in towels to keep the temperature constant but you don’t have to.
Check the temperature of the milk, and if necessary warm it back to 86 degrees. Dilute 1 tsp. of rennet in ¼ cup cool water and stir slowly into the warm milk. The cheese books all say to stir for several minutes, but my experience is that if you stir for more than about thirty seconds you are going to be breaking up the forming curd, so my protocol is to stir for about thirty strokes in a figure eight so you aren’t just setting up a whirlpool, then to top-stir about thirty more strokes. (‘Top-stir’ means stir the top inch or so with an up-and-down motion using a slotted spoon.) Cover the cheese pot, wrap in towels or set in a sink of warm (90 degree) water for thirty minutes.
Check for a clean break, that is, insert your clean finger into the curd at a 45 degree angle and lift straight up; if the curd cracks cleanly over the finger leaving only a few small blobs of curd on it, you have a ‘clean break’. If you don’t get a clean break after 30 min., give it another ten and check again. (If you still have a soft curd you can give it as much as an hour, but after that I would just go ahead regardless and live with the results.)
Using a long sharp knife cut the curd all the way to the bottom of the cheese pot, making parallel cuts 3/8 inches apart. Turn the pot a quarter turn and cut again the same way. Now, holding the knife at an angle, slice across below the surface of the curd in gradually increasing angles with the intent of making curds about 3/8 inches square. Naturally it cannot be done, but we act as though it can and make slices first from one side of the pot, then the other. Clear as mud. Or, find a cheese harp somewhere and make real horizontal slices.
Allow the cut curd to rest 5 or 10 minutes undisturbed.
Place cheese pot on a flame tamer or on a rack in a skillet of hot water and turn the heat to low. With a clean arm and fingernails cut short, reach to the bottom of the pot and slowly bring the bottom curds to the top. You are going to be as gentle as you can so as not to break curds; it’s fine to cut curd, but breaking it results in dry curds that lose their butterfat. In your other hand keep a sharp knife, and as you bring curds to the top, cut them to a closer approximation of the target size of 3/8 inches. At first you will be doing a lot of cutting. Precision and accuracy are of no importance here; what is important is that the curds be more or less the same size, so that they will shrink at more or less the same rate; and that they be not overly large, in which case they will retain too much whey.
As you are stirring, you are watching the clock and the thermometer. The goal is to warm the curds 2 degrees every five minutes; the reality will be less precise. I check the temperature every five minutes, and adjust the flame as it seems the curds are warming faster or slower than the ideal. Stir, lifting the curd and cutting over-large curds, checking the temperature often, and if you do it perfectly the cheese will have reached 102 degrees in thirty minutes. I never do it perfectly, but after something like thirty minutes I have something like 3/8 inch curds at something like 102 degrees, and that’s just fine.
Now put the lid back on, wrap with a towel, and hold for 30 minutes, stirring with a clean hand every five or ten minutes to prevent the curds from matting together.
After thirty minutes, drain the whey off to the level of the curds, remembering all the excellent uses for whey and being sure to save it. Now place the pot under the tap and slowly begin adding 60 degree water (that’s what temperature mine comes out of the tap anyway), stirring constantly, until the contents of the pot reach 80 degrees. Hold 15 minutes.
Pour curds and whey into a cheesecloth-lined colander and allow to drain 20 minutes.
Put the curds back in the cheese pot and break them up gently with your fingers. You are not to crush the curds, only to separate them one from another. Sprinkle over them 1 ½ tablespoons non-iodized salt (I use canning salt, but am going to experiment with celtic sea salt because it’s chi-chi) and toss gently with your hands to mix.
Line a two-pound cheese ring with clean wet cheesecloth (if you are using real cheesecloth, use the butter muslin kind, not the loose stuff they make bouquet garni with), place it on a cheese board set in a shallow baking pan, and pile the salted curds into the ring. Fold the cheesecloth somewhat neatly over the curds, place the follower on top, and apply 20 lb. pressure for 20 minutes. Don’t just shove the weight on and walk away; stick around for a while and see that the cheese isn’t going to topple over. After 20 minutes remove the weight and cheese ring and unwrap the cake of curds we must now call a ‘cheese’. Flip the cheese and rewrap it (if you are using butter muslin, rinse this before rewrapping the cheese); fit the mold back over the cheese, or the cheese into the mold, insert the follower, and apply 30 lb. pressure for 20 minutes. Again flip, rewrap, and press the cheese, this time at 40 lb. for one hour; and a final time flip, rewrap, and press at 50 lb. for 12 hours.
Remove the cheese from the press, unwrap it, and set it on a wooden cutting board, a cheese board or a cheese mat to dry. It needs to be set in a place with good ventilation, but you will want to protect it from – everything. Flies, crumbs, fingers, splashes, all the vagaries of life in a busy kitchen. You want good air flow, but if you have to, drape it with clean dry cheesecloth or a fly net (the kind that look like handless umbrellas) or cover it with a wire sieve or something to keep off the things that will make it more liable to mold later; this is just going to make your job easier in the long run. Turn it every couple of hours or whenever you think of it for the next few days until the surface is completely dry (naturally I don’t mean get out of bed every two hours to do it). In hot humid weather you may need to place it near a fan.
At some point you will also have to trim the sharp edges off the top and bottom of the cheese, because as they dry they can make the cheese crack, and also because if you are going to wax the cheese you don’t want places where the wax cover will be too thin, like over those sharp edges. I usually try to trim it after it has dried a bit, but before it is all the way dry, so the trimmed surfaces will dry too. Just trim it back with a paring knife and your better judgment and don’t worry about it too much.
Now in the ideal world you have a place in which to age your cheese at 55 degrees, with slightly humid air and a little circulation. This is not the ideal world. The basics are that you want to hold your cheese at a middlin’ temperature and humidity, turning it every day for several weeks and several times a week thereafter. Some experts would say it is better to age your cheese at 65 degrees than in the refrigerator, and no doubt they are right, but mine goes in the frig until I build a mouse-proof box for it in the basement, and it seems to turn out pretty well. If you wax your cheese, make sure the wax is 240 degrees when you put it on to kill any molds on the surface of the cheese; waxed cheese does not need to be aged in a humid environment. If you don’t wax it, you can put it in an upside down plastic storage box (please put a paper plate or a piece of waxed paper under it so it is not in contact with the plastic) with some holes drilled in the box and put it somewhere, turning it every day and wiping any accumulations of moisture off the cheese and the box with a dry paper towel. Or you can put it on a cheese board which is more authentic, or a cheese mat, and put it in a dorm frig set to 55 degrees with a bowl of water in the bottom; or dig a cheese cave in the back yard.
Experiment. Cheese wasn’t invented by people who were afraid of a little mold; don’t you be either.