And no, this has nothing to do with sports. Rather, after 2 years* hidden in the cupboard, out came Ricki's Cheese Making Kit and a true intent to create some cheese. (*OK, maybe it's 3 years. Not sure).
Issues such as food, its quality, price, sustainability and the "you can only pick two out of those three" realities are frequent thoughts lately. (For instance, I'd really like to go all-local, humane and sustainable meat. But that's another post.)
Cheesemaking isn't hard, but there are some real simple basics that can trip you up. To make cheese takes whole milk that isn't ultra-pasteurized (a higher heat process allowing milk to be trucked cross country and have sell by dates a month or more into the future), as most commercial milk is. One can find some milk that is simply pasteurized (lower temperature process), or you can use whole raw milk... if you can find it.
Figuring I'd go all the way this first time, I returned to where the kit had come from: Kookoolan Farms in Yamhill, OR. They are one of the very few outlets where you can find raw cow's milk; you wouldn't believe the regulations that forbid one from getting a simple natural product (all in the guise of protecting public health; let's not forget that for millennia this is how all milk was consumed. But our modern food system requires that milk be processed and stabilized for long trips and month-away sell by dates). After checking the hours of their unique self-serve farm store, the pups were loaded into the Beetle and we headed into a drab and foggy Willamette Valley Saturday late morning.
The drive contained side trips to oogle a nifty old church in Dayton, the water park at McMinnville, a cemetery, some wine tasting in Carlton... at each stop the dogs were less amused. After stopping at the farm to pick up two half gallons of raw milk and some other goodies, I heading back, making a detour at Willamette Valley Cheese's tasting room. The reality of the farm is there in full force; you drive down a muddy road past large shelters with lounging dairy cows, dirty and smelly as cows are. Even for someone who grew up in the midwest and is somewhat educated on the realities of where our food comes from, it had me wishing for the aesthetics of Whole Foods Market. Kudos to the staff who were there; they curated a great experience, suggesting things that I'd like, but also recognizing and suggesting I try things they had guessed I wouldn't like because of the elements that would be illustrated by doing so.
Once home, I went to work. Making fresh mozzarella is really, really easy. Despite not keeping the renett tablets in the freezer as the instructions stated (remember... we're talking 2-3 years here) they did their magic. And magic it is, really. Dissolve 1/4 renett tablet in 1/4 cup of water, small amount of citric acid in another bit of water. Warm milk and citric acid to 90 degrees, pour in renett, let sit for 5 minutes covered.
Not looking for five minutes almost killed me. Then, lifting the lid, the surface looked... not quite liquid. Tentatively I reached out to the edge, attempting to mimic the picture in the instructions showing the ability to pull a semi solid mass away from the edge of the stainless steel pot.
My hands touched something that felt utterly amazing, like touching a cloud. Warm and amazingly soft, it had worked! I had curd! A joyful shriek came out of my mouth as if I'd just created life itself. With the longest knife I had, I cut the curd, returned it to the heat, and alternated between stirring it and rushing around the kitchen to prepare the items needed for the next step (next time this will be done in advance).
Stir -- run to cupboard to get bowl out. Stir -- put bowl under water. Stir -- put ice in bowl. Stir -- get out colander. Stir -- get out bowl for colander to collect whey.
Straining the curd from the whey, I folded the curd a few times (what an amazing feeling) and let it sit as the whey was returned to the heat to 185 degrees. An error on my part was not having food grade rubber gloves. To get the best experience stretching and folding the cheese, you do it under the surface of the hot whey. That's impossible without gloves. I tried, and while not actually scalding, liquid that temperature hurts like hell. Dividing the curds up into one small and one larger blob, I worked them out of the whey, folding, stretching and kneading until it firmed up and became glossy. Salt was added in sparing amounts, and the possibilities of adding herbs, dried Italian meats, garlic, etc. ran through my head but this wasn't the time. Perfect the basics, first.
After just a few minutes of working, the cheese was firm and beautiful. I dropped the balls into ice water and they set.
Let's get down to the brass tacks of this issue: is it worth it? You can get a one lb ball of fresh mozzarella for $6.99 at Safeway (often less). Kookoolan Farm's raw milk costs... sit down for this... $9 for a half gallon. That includes a $3 deposit for the jars w/ reusable lids, so on return trips the milk would only be... gulp... $12 per gallon. I've never tasted raw milk and I admit I couldn't bring myself to drink any of it. Silly, huh? I'll eat anything from anywhere, and I'll eat cheese I made with raw milk... but raw milk is a stopper for me. Maybe next time... I'm not a milk person anyway, oddly enough. (Not milk but yes to cheese; not cucumbers but yes to pickles; not tomatoes but yes to ketchup...)
Next time I'm going to try a local organic dairy pasteurized whole milk; that'll bring the cost down to about $6/gallon. The cost of the kit is around $20 but has enough stuff in it for 30 batches of moz or ricotta. (That's next!) Might have to nix the organic part -- organic dairies tend to ultrapasteurize, from what I've read.
So you won't be saving money--you'll come up about even using store bought pasteurized milk, but the experience is fun, and would be a great one to share with friends. And if you have your own culinary spin on things to try, definitely worth it. Sundried tomatoes! Basil! Prosceutto! OMG!