We begin with: Making Raw-milk Mozzarella in Real Time
We usually make mozzarella with from two to five gallons of milk. We use skim milk only, for two reasons: we like the mozz we make with skim milk; and when we have used whole milk for mozzarella, we have felt that all the cream was lost in the stretching process. This is not to suggest that someone else might not make superior mozz with whole milk; in fact, no part of this is intended as instructions for other cheese makers. Here is the rough and-ready, “good enough is perfect” way that we make mozzarella.
Skimming with a dipper is something that anyone can do. One tries to let the cream flow into the dipper without dipping deeply enough to get milk with it. You get some anyway. It doesn’t matter; a little milk won’t prevent your cream from churning. In fact, the Foxfire cookbook says you could churn whole milk into butter; it just takes a long time. We’ll take their word for it; churning in the winter takes a long time anyway.
General proportions for mozzarella making are as follows: two ounces of thermophilic starter (yogurt) and one quarter teaspoon rennet per gallon of milk. Ideally, one gallon of milk will give you one pound of cheese. That’s the ideal, but we hasten to add that we seldom achieve the ideal, considering the savings of time in our method more valuable to us than would be the slight increase of yield we might experience were we to adopt more time-consuming, finnicking methods. Let us say that one gallon of milk should yield somewhere between three quarters to one pound of cheese.
In a vessel of adequate size, we warm the milk on the stove to ninety degrees farenheit (that’s the last time we’ll try spelling that word; take it as given), and add two ounces – that’s one-quarter cup – yogurt for each gallon of milk we are working with. We are aware of the quick and easy citric acid methods, and have no gripe about them, but we prefer to culture our cheese, partly because when you culture milk it increases in food value, and partly because we like to work as much as possible without off-farm inputs, and we don’t grow citric acid powder. The yogurt added, we mix it in, pretty vigorously, since we know what we ought really to have done is to have mixed the yogurt with a little milk in a bowl, before adding it to the milk in the pot. This would assure even and complete assimilation of the starter culture. But we need shortcuts. So does everybody; not everyone uses the same ones, that’s all.
Once the starter is mixed in, we put one-quarter teaspoon liquid rennet for each gallon of milk, into about one-quarter cup cool water. We don’t measure the water; we just use a small cup and guess. Doesn’t make any difference. The rennet, on the other hand, we measure, because it matters, but not so much you have to get uptight about it. Dilute the rennet in the cool water and stir it into the milk, too. Stir for a while; ancient recipes used to time this process by the saying of Paters and Aves. you might stir for about as long as it takes to think about what else you have to do today, and wonder how you are going to fit this cheese into it. Stir too long and your curd, when it sets, will have swirling cracks in it, but then this doesn’t seem to hurt anything. We stir about twenty strokes.Then we set the lid on the pot, the pot to the back of the stove (or anywhere else you can put it where it will stay warm and won’t be disturbed), and go away for half an hour or so.
What you are waiting for when you go do something else for half or three-quarters of an hour, is for the milk to clabber into a big, shiny cake or slab, floating in a very thin layer of whey. The whey will be clear and light yellow, and the clabber, or curd, white. To see if it has set a firm enough curd, you stick your clean finger into the curd at a forty-five degree angle, and lift it straight up. If the curd is of the desirable firmness it will make a clean break over your finger, not leaving blobby bits of soft mush. Well, maybe just a few little ones. This is not an absolute condition. If you test your curd and it seems to be mushy, just give it another fifteen minutes or so and try again. You might also test the temperature, and if it has dropped significantly from ninety degrees, you can set the whole shootin’ match in a sink of warm water to help it along a bit. The rennet enzyme doesn’t work efficiently if the temperature is much below ninety.Depending on a number of factors, like season and weather and how acidic your yogurt was, this could take as long as an hour and a half or so. Maybe longer. Sometime after thirty minutes after you add your rennet, you should get a more or less clean break.
This initiates the next step, cutting the curd. That great big, white, slightly revolting curd you have made has to be cut into smaller curds, which will shrink and allow the whey to escape, preserving most of the protein from your milk in the curd, and releasing most of the water. Cheese curds are cut different sizes depending on the type of cheese you are making; for mozzarella, one inch squares is the recommended size. There are fancy and expensive cheese knives you can buy for this job, if you have as much money as Croesus and an enormous kitchen in which to store one-use gadgets. As we have neither of these things, we use the longest of our sharp kitchen knives, and make cuts about an inch apart, first going across the cheese pan, then perpendicular to our original cuts, then at a slant downward, trying to visualize angles and spaces that will produce at least some inch-square curds, but knowing as anyone would that what we’ll end up with will be a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Not to worry, we’ll remedy that in ten minutes, which is how long we’re going to let the curds sit undisturbed to shrink.
Ten minutes passes. Now it’s time to cook the curd. The books say to use a hot water jacket and slowly raise the temperature of the curds and whey from ninety to one hundred degrees, taking five minutes for each two-degree rise. Stirring, we add, constantly, and preferably with your bare hand. Let’s do the math: that’s ten degrees, at two per five minutes, twenty-five minutes they want us to spend with our bare arms in a vat of curds and whey, stirring constantly. Well, there is nothing we’d like better, but the morning is passing, and we’re just getting started with the chores. Forget the water jacket; forget timing the temperature rise with too slavish care. We have found that we get completely satisfactory results by warming the curds and whey directly on the stove, smallest burner, lowest setting, using what we have always known as a “flame tamer” between the pot and the burner. A flame tamer is an invaluable gadget like a sort of metal baffle, meant to be placed between the bottom of the pot and the burner flame. It is used to keep things from scorching if they have to be on the stove unattended for a long time. We remember one back in the seventies and eighties that was made of asbestos, and wish we could find another; the rusty one we have is just fine to be getting on with, though. We use a nicely worn wooden spoon – the rounded edges are gentler on the curd — and stir very slowly and gently, pulling the curds up from the bottom to distribute the heat, and, incidentally, to give us a chance to further cut the giant curds inevitable when you cut them on the diagonal. We stir not constantly, but about every three minutes, and the first two or three times we stir, we have a knife in the other hand for cutting the oversize curds. You could break them smaller with your fingers and no harm done, but curd cut cleanly gives a higher yield. On the other hand, the whey is going to the pigs anyway, who love it and fatten on it beautifully, so there’s no real waste however we do it.
When the curds and whey reach one hundred degrees, we shut off the heat, shove a lid on the pot, put it in a warm place, and go do something else for forty-five minutes or so. While you are drinking a cup of coffee, staring out the window, or whatever, your curds will be settling to the bottom of the pot. If they don’t, but instead float to the top, you have yeast in your curd. This is not punishment for your sins, but in our experience has something to do with making cheese with utensils and a kitchen not yet saturated by long usage with beneficial lactobaccilli. See Theory of Raw-milk Cheesemaking 101 for our further thoughts on this. Probably, however, your curds will have settled to the bottom of the pot and matted into something resembling a thick, white, rubbery impact mat like the black ones you sometimes see on playgrounds. The individual curds will be distinct, but all stuck together, which is fine, whatever you may read to the contrary.
After forty-five minutes of this, you should begin testing your curds for stretch. What we are waiting for now is for the thermophilic culture – the yogurt – which we have added to the milk, to reproduce sufficiently to lower the pH of the milk just so much. How much, I could go look up and give you in round numbers, and I would, only we don’t use them. They are for people who make cheese with litmus paper, and we are practicing the intuitive, experience led, seat-of-the-pants, good enough is perfect variety of dairying. When the pH is just acidic enough, the cheese will aquire that stretch which we are accustomed to associate with mozzarella. Not acidic enough, and the cheese will just be lumpy; too acidic, and it will turn into white liquid when it’s heated.
So we check the acidity often. This is done by scooping out a small amount of curd – maybe half a walnut-size bit – and heating it very hot to see if it melts together and gets stretchy and stringy, or if it just makes rubbery lumps. This heating can be done in a number of ways. The traditional old wood cookstove method was to touch a lump of curd to the hot stove top for a second or two, then pull it away. If it stuck and formed strings, the cheese was acidic enough. Very easy and convenient, if you happen to have a hot wood cookstove handy. If, however, you have not, other options are open to you: you may pour a little boiling water over your curd, if you have a little boiling water handy, or, if you have not, you may use the method I am avoiding admitting to using myself, since this method is about as far from off-grid slow-cooking homestead as you can get. I shove it in a pyrex one-cup measure, nuke it ten seconds, and mash it with a fork. This is not arcane; there is no secret knowledge required here; if the curd gets soft and shiny and stretchy, you have successfully reached the stretching stage of your mozzarella. If instead you have rubbery or gelatinous lumps, check to make sure your curds haven’t cooled much below one hundred degrees. If they have, shove the pot in a sink of warm water again and recheck after fifteen minutes. On the other hand, if you heat your curds and end up with thin white runny stuff, you have overacidified your cheese, and you need to give this batch to pigs, chickens, dogs, or cats – you probably have too much for the dogs and cats, unless you keep a large kennel – and start over with new milk.
But if your curd is about right, the white lumps of curd will mash together and take on a consistency somewhere between that of taffy, and that of silly putty. It will stretch nicely, and should be shiny and smooth. When you have heated your curd and found it will form a soft, stretchable lump, you are ready for the last step in mozz making: stretching the cheese. Simple. Only, if I say that, you’ll probably find it impossible, and then get discouraged. Okay, not too simple, because of course there are fine shades of readiness for curd, and you won’t always hit it just spot on. Sometimes – these are the perfect times – you will heat your curds and the result will be something smooth and shiny and abolutely yielding in your hands; and sometimes you will instead find yourself working with something rather tough and rubbery, or else with a tendency to be grainy, as though someone slipped a little tapioca into the cheese pot when you weren’t looking. There are many variations on this, but the essential thing is all that matters: if the curds can be heated and gathered into a cohesive lump which you can knead or stretch, you are a successful mozzarella maker. All you have left to do is stretch the curds.
Here is where I prove I really have the microwave dependency under control. Get this: I don’t use the microwave to stretch my mozzarella. Many respectable recipes call for heating your mozz in the microwave preparatory to stretching it. I kid you not. Go look up some if you don’t believe me. Hobby cheesemakers all over the U.S. are busy at this moment nuking mozzarella curd in order to stretch it; and once it is made they will wow the neighborhood with their old-time skills and ultra-natural homemade cheese. And yet, please note, I don’t use the microwave for stretching my cheese. I could, and then cite all those cheese-making websites out there, but I can use my microwave or leave it alone. I don’t need any twelve-step program to keep my little addiction under control.
What I do is to dump most of the whey in the pigs’ bucket at the foot of the basement stairs, leaving just a little bit more whey in the pot than than it will take to immerse the curd. The curds I then take out of the pot and place in a colander or steamer rack, which is in turn set in a bowl to catch the whey draining out of it; the pot of whey I put over heat on the stove. Then I try to remember to come back before the whey gets too hot – here’s where a kitchen timer comes in again. You want your whey hot, but nowhere near boiling. Opinions on temperature here vary; I find that at about one hundred-fifty degrees, my whey is just about right for heating curds. After the curds are in the hot whey, I lower the heat as far as it will go; or if I’ve overheated the whey, I shut it off completely, and add to it the whey from the bowl where the curds have been draining, just to cool it a bit. Then I set my timer for five minutes or so, and at the end of that time, I pull out my lump of curd and see how soft it has gotten.
Usually the outside is beginning to be soft and stretchy, and it may be that I can now fold the mat of curds over and mash it together, to begin to distribute the heat through the whole mass; but if it is still so firm it won’t fold without cracking, I turn it over and put it back in the pot to warm some more. It will probably go back into the pot several times, heating, kneading, folding, heating some more, kneading again. The goal is to heat the curds thoroughly, developing stretch by pulling or kneading the curd until the whole mass looks kind of like taffy, if you’ve ever stretched taffy, or kind of like silly putty, and hasn’t everybody stretched silly putty at some time in his life? The silly putty state reached, you are morally done. Mozzarella has been achieved. If you want it to eat fresh, you can pinch it into little balls, smooth these by sort of stretching the skin back and tucking it under (if you’ve ever made clover leaf rolls, you already know what I mean), and set them to cool in a bowl of chilled water, salted if you want your cheese salty. If you plan to use this cheese for pizza, just smooth the whole thing into a lump, chill it as above, and then set it out for a few hours on a rack to dry before you try to grate it. Sandra Callens of Silofence Farm in MN puts her mozz back in the colander and sets a small thick china plate on it, to express any whey that might not have been expelled in the kneading process. This is often a good idea, because, speaking for those of us for whom “good enough is perfect”, our mozz often may need a little help this way. When we go to grate it, it might be a little soft, the texture a little loose and stringy, and a little whey may gather in our bowl of grated cheese. On the other hand, if we stretched our cheese too much, it may be rather firmer than we were hoping. These eventualities, unless you are hopelessly uptight, are no problem at all; you just make your pizza, shove on the grated cheese, and when it cooks, it will be just as good as it should be. And, leaving aside those periodic failures which are so good for our characters, every time you make it it will be better and better.
Thus we make cheese in real time.