Theory of Raw-milk Cheesemaking 101
Last weekend Mamma and Papa went to Pennsylvania to attend the Mother Earth News fair at Seven Springs. Funny – we don’t take the Mother Earth News, associating it as we do with articles on how to save on your electric bill by installing a fifty-thousand dollar solar plant, and we never visit resorts, having no reason in the normal way of things to do so. But we heard good things of this event last year, and when we saw that several of the workshops were cheese-making related, we decided to give the thing a whirl.
As an effort to learn more about home cheese-making, the trip was a failure; but as date with spouse, it was a great success. We came away, as it happens, with the idea that maybe no one is teaching the skills we want to learn, because no one is practicing them. Not that there aren’t people making cheese at home, but it does seem as though the paradigms for both the process and the product are the factory models. That is, it seems as though the goal is to produce cheese like you buy at the supermarket, and the method for producing such cheese is borrowed directly from the industry, requiring special tools, special work spaces, and bought-in ingredients that fail the Michael Polan test: roughly, don’t eat anything that wasn’t invented before your grandmother was born. We make cheese in our five-gallon stock pot, on the kitchen stove, with raw milk straight from our cow Isabel, who makes the milk out of grass. We add to the milk only three things: culture, in the form of either buttermilk or yogurt; rennet, from calves’ stomachs; and salt. Grass, cow, salt; there you have our cheese industry. Our product is sometimes inconsistent, but seldom falls outside of the usable range. We make lots of good mozzarella and parmesan; our cheddar is less predictable. We expect to get it under better control some time in the next ten years or so.
Actually, I have a working theory about home cheese making. It is my own, and I have never seen it advanced anywhere else, but for what it’s worth, it is my theory. I offer it as an explanation for the gradual improvement of our cheese that has occurred without any corresponding adjustment in our methods.
I believe that any kitchen, any space where water is used and food is processed, is inhabited by its own populations of micro-flora and -fauna, particular to the foods, cooking methods, cleaning agents, and other incidentals of that kitchen. These are the little airborne and surface-borne bugs that sooner or later spoil any foods kept in that kitchen too long; and they are by simple logic the ones that best flourish on those foods. In the average kitchen, they are not usually going to be lactobaccilli of the kind that we like in our dairy products, like buttermilk, yogurt, and various cheeses. How could these microbes get the advantage over, say, yeasts, bread molds, and fruit molds, all of which have plenty of food and housing in a normal kitchen?
In the normal kitchen, the bugs that live in raw milk are not introduced, let alone cultured. Where there is no raw milk, there will be only small populations of the bugs that live best in raw milk. Into such a kitchen, introduce raw milk. Keep it warm. What will grow there? The milk has, it is true, come in with its own cargo of lactobaccilli, straight from the cow; but these are being placed in competition with a whole kitchen full of other bacteria; and milk is a perfect petri dish. Not only the native lactobaccilli will reproduce in our raw milk, but with them all the airborne gremlins and gnomes already in your kitchen. Our milk cultures will be fatally outnumbered. Little wonder if we produce a cheese curd riddled with bubbles, that floats in its whey bath instead of sinking; these bubbles are probably carbon dioxide, which we welcome when yeast produces it in our bread doughs, but which are pretty much doom to a nice cheese curd.
To broaden the field even more, take a look into the milking stall. If you have only recently begun milking in this space, reflect for a moment on its denizens, the bacteria presently thriving there. It is these which every eddying breeze carries over your bucket and deposits in your milk. Molds from dirt, molds from decaying animal manure, molds from musty hay. These have the ascendency over your milk bugs, until long use of the space as a dairy infuses it with ambient benevolent lactobaccilli. When the milk bugs have competed with and to some extent replaced the bacteria previously ascendent in your milking stall, they, and not the other sort, fill the living air in the space and inocculate your raw milk. In the early stages of our dairy project, though, the cultures we use in our cheese making are in hot competition with legions of unfriendly bugs, and small wonder if they often lose the battle.
This, I admit, is only the theory of one kitchen dairywoman, but as a theory it offers an explanation for a lot of early dairy failures: yeasty curds; cheesey butter; unpleasant molds on hard cheeses, rather than the tasty blue and white ones we now get, the ones associated with Roquefort and Brie; and mozzarellas very quick to spoil. When these things happened, we looked to our hygiene in kitchen and dairy, and began using teat dips, foaming rinses, and other nasty chemicals; and we began pasteurizing our milk for cheese making. These changes in our methods, surprisingly, did not appreciably reduce the number of bacteriological failures we experienced, nor even change the nature of them. It was discouraging how often our curds would fail us, and what we had hoped would be a nice cheddar or parmesan would end up being chicken or pig food. It was enough to make a sensible person give up the project and go back to buying her cheese.
But we are not sensible people; if we were, we would not be milking our own cow. Sensible people prefer the liberty of going where they want, when they want – within the limits of their wallets and obligations – to the restriction of having always, and no matter what, to be home every twelve hours, to relieve a cow of her lactose burden.
Sensible people must be having a lot of fun with that liberty, but we wanted something else, and we settled down to milk our cow. And, consequently, to do something with all that milk. We were not going to give up on cheese making just because we failed miserably, about fifty percent of the time, to produce anything desirable for human consumption. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again – and again – and again – and again.
If you have ever taken up a musical instrument, you know how it is. At first, you sound terrible. The noises you make aren’t melodious; often they aren’t even musical: more like the snorts, gasps, and wheezes of a dying javelina. You try again, adjusting fingers, breathing, strumming, and still there are these ungodly sounds. Nothing you do seems to give you more control over the noises coming out of your instrument, and you might just give up hope of ever learning to play music, except that experience, your own or other people’s, gives you reason to believe that with perseverence, the product of your efforts will improve.
So, probably with irresistible encouragement from some parent, you persevere, and sooner or later, and most likely when you are not noticing, the sounds coming from your instrument take on the recognizable characteristics of music. Not, we admit, very good music at first, but music of some caliber or other. Just so did it happen with our cheese-making. Onerous, and odious, it was to us at first. Messy, time-consuming, and all-absorbing; a labor-sink with no reward. It took up ridiculous amounts of time, and the result was often uneatable. Just to continue trying to become a cheese-maker was an effort of the will.
Perhaps it was this effort which distracted us at the moment when things got better; I don’t know. But when we turned the corner, we must have been looking the other way; because just when we do not know, but some time in the second year of our Big Dairy Adventure, we realized suddenly that we hadn’t had to throw curds to the pigs for a long time. There were still mistakes, yes, and mistakes in plenty; things which, although they might not be disasters fit only for the pig pen, were definitely mystery cheeses not recognizable as belonging to any class of cheese we were accustomed to using. Yet even these were consumable, even tasty, if sliced and fried in butter and garlic: “fried curds”, the Queen of Minnesota farmwives told us, a delicacy when purchased at the county fair. Of floating curds, we had not seen any in we couldn’t remember how long. What had changed? Our methods were, if anything, less exacting, since we had given up pasteurizing when it was clear that doing so hadn’t eliminated our contamination problems. We couldn’t honestly chalk the improvement up to experience, since the results of our cheese-making were still so random we could draw no logical conclusions from them, make no logical adjustment to our processes. We were using the same tools, in the same spaces, with the same materials, and the same methods, that we had been using from the first: the same cow, the same hands, the same farm wife. But our results, like the tootling from a school-child’s first recorder, were unmistakeably recognizeable. What we were now making was cheese.
Obviously, something had changed. That something, according to my theory, would be the ambient air- and surface-borne bacteria in our kitchen and in our dairy. Time was on our side. The extended period of exposure to raw milk in our milk-handling spaces will, logically, have changed the ambient bacterial populations in those spaces, and the passive innocculation of our milk will now introduce more desirable bacteria than previously. That is, of course, according to my intuitive and unscientific theory. Yet not so unscientific, either. Why do so many cheeses bear the name of a place, rather than a name descriptive of the qualities of the cheese? Centuries of milk-handling in the same place, generation after untold generation of lactobaccilli in that place, responsive to the ambient temperature – remember, cheese is traditionally aged in caves, where the temperature fluctuates only a little from summer to winter – ambient humidity, and naturally-occurring molds, result in flourishing populations of bacteria genetically adapted to that dairy, that kitchen, and that cave. Manipulated by the cheese-maker through variations in introduced culture, culturing temperature, duration of heating the curds, etc., these lactobaccilli are the bacteria which produce the cheese particular to that dairy or that region. The place itself produces the cheese.
If this is so, why should it be surprising that one’s first efforts at cheese making should produce such unpredictable results? And who will wonder if, over time, the process should yield itself to more control? As the menagerie in the dairy and kitchen becomes a cooperative, beneficial menagerie, there will be fewer casualties, and more happy generations.