How to make cheese at home: setting up your own cheese-making room

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About six months ago my new wife and I upped sticks from the heart of South East London, to a small market town in Hertfordshire called Berkhamsted.  Having moved into a new house, I took the opportunity to re-evaluate my cheese making set up.  It’s taken a couple of months, but I reckon I’ve now got the best home cheese-making setup possible.

Having been making cheese at home for 5 years now, and having had various home cheese-making setups, I have quite a clear idea of how I like my kit laid out, how I like the space to work, and an even clearer sense of what mistakes to avoid.

  1. No highly-customised small-scale cheese making equipment.  There are two reasons for this, both of which are well illustrated by my old vat.  It was designed as a “experimental vat” for industrial scale cheese makers, which could take around 20 litres of milk.  It worked perfectly well, up until the day I knocked the drainage tap while cleaning it, and found the seal was no longer water tight.  After finding out about food-safe solder, I managed to bodge a fix, however it never sat right with me.  Also, when people asked me about how I made cheese at home, replying with “oh, I have a customised cheese vat” automatically turns them off the idea that they can do it themselves (something I’m passionate about). The perfect home cheese making setup should consist of off-the-shelf products, which can easily be repaired and replaced.
  2. Everything needs to be super easy to clean.  In the early days of my home cheese making, my biggest enemy was contaminants.  I was recently asked by someone looking to start making cheese themselves whether they should be worried about dodgy moulds making them sick.  My response was that in the first year of home cheese making, I made myself sick twice, but both times were entirely my own fault.  Poor attention to cleanliness is the enemy of cheese making.  I always liken cheese making to those early school experiments where you grow cultures in a petri dish.  That agar jelly, and your “blank” cheese is a perfect place for moulds to grow, good or bad.   So minimising the “bad” is of paramount importance.
  3. The whole setup needs to be relatively compact.  This is partly for ease of access, and also because I’m not about to turn my entire house over to cheese making (well, that’s the line I’m going with anyway!), so it needs to fit neatly into a small space.

So having unpacked all the rest of the house, and done all the boring but fun stuff like painting, I then turned my attentions to my cheese corner (my wife won’t let me call it the cheese room!).  I spent ages poring over the Nisbets catalogue (highly recommended!), weighing up various options, and thinking back to what frustrated me about my previous setup, and I ended up with what I think, is the perfect home cheese making setup.

The complete home cheese making set

The complete home cheese making set

Any room will do for a cheese room, although ideally you’d want it to be uncarpeted and easy to clean.  My cheese corner occupies an area of around two metres in length, and one metre in depth.

Storage & Sanitation

Wire shelf

Wire shelf

Starting at the top, I needed somewhere to put moulds, racks and bits and bobs.  A normal shelf isn’t really good enough, as it needs to be easy to clean, and be food safe.

Sterile gloves

Sterile gloves

In my old cheese making setup, after washing my hands I used hand sanitiser before handling the cheese, however it always worried me that the residue would taint the taste.  Powder-free gloves, although not exactly natural, are the best way of reducing contaminants.  Obviously wash your hands first!

Towel dispenser

Towel dispenser

Staying in the exciting world of hygiene, next up is a centrefeed dispenser.  This might sound dramatic, but having easy access towels has literally revolutionised my home cheese making.  Cleaning up simple spills, and even patting down overly wet curd is now a complete breeze.  I didn’t quite read the description when buying the rolls themselves, so was a bit surprised when a box of twelve turned up, but with the amount I use them that’s a good thing!

Milk Transportation

Milk containers

Milk containers

Now hygiene is out of the way, let’s move on to the bits needed to actually make the cheese.  First of all, getting the milk from the vat (or cow, if you’re lucky enough to have access to some).  Food-safe containers.  Not very exciting, but worth getting a few good ones, in a variety of sizes up to around 10 litres, otherwise it’ll get too heavy to carry.  I got these ones in Dunelm, but similar ones are available from any supermarket or DIY shop.

Measurement Tools

Thermometre

Thermometer

Once the milk is in the vat, having an accurate temperature measurement is extremely important.  Just a few degrees too high can send acidification out of control – too low a temperature and progress will be slow.

Titration kit

Titration kit

Speaking of acidification, having a titration kit or pH meter is vital throughout the cheese making process.  Most industrial cheese making recipes use titratable acidity measurements rather than pH in their instructions, and for good reason.  Titratation using sodium hydroxide and phenolphthalein measures the acidity of a solution, whereas pH measures the concentration of free hydrogen ions.  There is no direct relationship between the two, and the milk acidity is what you’re trying to measure, pH changes are just a by-product, which can be otherwise impacted by the specific buffering capacity of the milk sample.  Well, that’s what A-level chemistry taught me anyway!

Do I Need A Section About A Spoon & A Pallet Knife?

Spoon and palette knife

Spoon and palette knife

Well, yes actually!  When I started making cheese at home, I had no idea how much a proper spoon and pallet knife would be! Stirring the milk to make sure any separated fat is thoroughly mixed through is a job for a decent perforated spoon.  I can’t say for certain that perforation makes a difference, but it seems easier to stir.  A palette knife can be used to cut the curd, ideally a completely stainless steel one for easy cleaning.

Moulds & Starters

Moulds and starters

Moulds and starters

All home cheese makers need a variety of moulds in their freezer on hand to innoculate milk depending on what’s being made.  I usually have the full colour spectrum available, to ensure I can make whatever takes my fancy: blue (top right), white (left) and orange (centre) covers just about everything.

Made up starter

Made up starter

As well as having packet DVI starter in the freezer, I also have a variety of liquid starters frozen from previous successful batches of cheese.  These can be used to innoculate future batches, and require food-safe freezable containers which hold around 150ml.

Natural rennet in tablets

Natural rennet in tablets

Since I haven’t been making cheese much recently, I’d started using rennet tablets rather than liquid, and have found them fantastic.  The strength seems much more consistent, and their expiry date is years away rather than a few months with liquid rennet.

Stainless steel jug

Stainless steel jug

Rennet tablets need to be dissolved in cold, filtered water, so what better to use than a stainless steel milk jug, similar to those used to froth milk in coffee shops.

Curd-handling Tools

Curd scooper

Curd scooper

Once the milk has set, and the curd has been cut, it needs to be scooped out into moulds.  Having tried various types of perforated spoons in the past, I found that just using a small soft cheese mould actually works better than anything else.

Cheese draining system

Cheese draining system

The curd, now in moulds, needs somewhere to drain.  A perforated gastronorm, sitting on top of a clear gastronorm is the perfect solution.  It’s sturdy enough to allow reasonable amounts of pressure should the cheese need it, and the clear gastronorm makes sure that you never end up overflowing.

Storing Young Cheeses

Cheese storage

Cheese storage

Once the cheeses are drained, pressed and fully formed, they need somewhere to live.  I’ve found clear gastronorms the best way to go, since they’re food safe, easy to clean and fit in the fridge easily.  They’re also useful for brining, as shown above.

Gastronorm shelf

Gastronorm shelf

The best bit about these gastronorms, is that they have a little shelf inside meaning the cheese doesn’t sit in it’s whey, as well as giving the possibility of adding a little bit of water to the bottom which with the addition of a lid, creates a nice humid little box for cheeses to live in.

Cheese Fridges! (yes, I definitely need two…)

Fridges for cheese making

Fridges for cheese making

Now the cheeses are ready for storage, it’s time to look at the cheese cave.  I’ve got two ordinary household fridges sitting on top of each other.  While using one fridge is fine, having two gives you the opportunity to reduce mould cross-contamination by physically separating your cheeses.

And finally… the all-important vat!

Bain marie for cheese making

Bain marie for cheese making

Saving the best for last – the vat.  A simple bain marie, with a single full-sized gastronorm immersed inside.

Bain Marie for cheese making

Bain marie for cheese making

With temperature control up to 90C, the bain marie heats the milk up with quite incredible speed, and accuracy.  With a capacity of 20 litres, it’s the perfect size for home cheese makers.

What’s Next?

So, what’s left to do?  Well, I need to sort out the temperature and humidity controller so it’s constructed from off-the-shelf components, and also gives some historical information about how those parameters have changed over time.

Also I need to construct a press.  I’ve tried traditional Dutch presses in the past, but the cleanliness was always questionable, and the ability to apply the large pressures required for cheddars and the like just wasn’t possible on such a small piece of kit.  I’ve got a few ideas, and am planning on starting construction in the next couple of weeks, so I’ll follow up with a post once it’s complete.

DIY Food on the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme

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If you happen to be listening to the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme today, you may hear me talking to Tim Hayward about making cheese at home!

DIY Foods – Tim Hayward meets the people taking ambitious food production into their own hands. Andy Mahoney makes his own cheese in the spare room of his house in South London. Hannes Viljoen makes his own biltong to give the taste of his native South Africa to his friends and family. And three friends in Guilford – Nick McDuff, Dick Nevitt and Nevin Stewart – have invented a new method for making cider in your kitchen.

Have a listen here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b039bg57

Some cheeses such as camembert need to be stored in fridge, but others like halloumi can be made in a couple of hours, Mr Mahoney explains. In this picture he shows a home-made blue cheese. "I do quite like knowing how things work," he says. "It's quite a journey going through the process of making something like that."

Crazy blues

Some cheeses such as camembert need to be stored in fridge, but others like halloumi can be made in a couple of hours, Mr Mahoney explains. In this picture he shows a home-made blue cheese. “I do quite like knowing how things work,” he says. “It’s quite a journey going through the process of making something like that.”

Cheese fan Andy Mahoney has his own "cheese lab" in his spare room in south London. "If you look at some of the cheeses, people do get scared of them," he tells food writer Tom Hayward (left). He uses pans (one that fits into the other); milk; rennet; a dairy thermometer and two fridges to make his own cheese.

Tim & I inspecting the cheese

Cheese fan Andy Mahoney has his own “cheese lab” in his spare room in south London. “If you look at some of the cheeses, people do get scared of them,” he tells food writer Tim Hayward (left). He uses pans (one that fits into the other); milk; rennet; a dairy thermometer and two fridges to make his own cheese.

Update: pictures have now gone up on the BBC website here.

The cheeses pictured are a couple of blues I’ve been working on for a few weeks.  The rind is very rough and dusty, but the paste inside is nice and soft.  They were pierced a few days ago, and should be ready (along with a blog post!) in the next few weeks.

How to make your own halloumi cheese

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For those of you who found your way here from the Guardian article How to make your own halloumi cheese, you might want to check out some of these previous posts:

http://handyface.wordpress.com/tag/halloumi/

Halloumi

Halloumi

Halloumi is really easy cheese to make, as it’s very difficult to get wrong.  Plus, it’s much cheaper and tastier than supermarket halloumi!

Cheese wedding cake

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I’ve been getting a fair few emails recently asking whether I’m still making cheese, and the answer is YES!  However in the past few months, @heatherrhian and I have been somewhat distracted by our wedding.

And what would you expect at an amateur cheese-maker’s wedding?  A cheese wedding cake of course!

Cheese wedding cake

Cheese wedding cake

After much deliberation I decided not to risk making the cheese cake myself, mainly because the work required would’ve been way too much, and I would’ve stressed myself out completely if anything went wrong!

Instead, I went to the fantastic Neal’s Yard Dairy and with the help of Katy Fenwick decided on the following assortment, from top to bottom:

  • Stawley – an unpasterised goat milk cheese, made by Caroline and Will Atkinson.  As well as being a beautiful, delicate cheese, I was lucky enough to visit the dairy about a year ago, when I was looking to turn my hobby professional.
  • Tunworth – a pasteurised cow milk cheese, similar to camembert.  @heatherrhian first introduced me to the joys of a baked camembert, and my life has never been the same since.
  • Feallan – originally planned to be a Brother David, this little washed rind stole the show in my opinion.  Oozing and decadently meaty, people were scooping it up with their fingers, the more adventurous people mixing it with the Tunworth.
  • Spenwood – usually I wouldn’t go near a hard ewe’s milk cheese, as I’d get my hard cheese quota from Montgomery’s cheddar, or a Comte, however the practicality of keeping cake-shaped meant I had to branch out.  I was pleasantly surprised – smooth and nutty with bags of flavour, it ended up proving very popular with those more wary of cheese.
  • Colston Bassett Stilton – another last minute substitution, in this case for Stichelton, but there were no complaints from me.  Colston Bassett is pretty much the gold standard of Stiltons, and this chunk was no exception.  My only regret of the wedding was not thinking to add a big chunk of this to the top of the burger I ended up eating at the end of the night!
Cutting the cheese cake

Cutting the cheese cake

Cutting the cake was brilliant – we went through the Feallan with ease, then got completely stuck on the Spenwood.

Trying to cut through Spenwood

Trying to cut through Spenwood

We eventually managed to get through it, fingers all intact.  The cheese was in absolutely perfect condition.  I would heartily recommend Neal’s Yard Dairy to anyone looking to get a cheese wedding cake.  Many people have said it was the best cheese they’ve ever tasted, so I’d consider that a success!

Washed Rind Cheese

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Inspired by my experience washing Bermondsey Spa cheese in Kernel Brewery ale with Mootown Cheese I decided I wanted to try and recreate it’s oozing, meaty goodness at home.

At the heart of any sticky, orange-coloured cheese like Milleens or Stinking Bishop is the bacteria brevibacterium linens.  This naturally occurring bacteria is present on human skin at an incredibly high concentration, and if left unchecked, can start to smell – especially on your feet!

Smelly feet or good cheese?

Smelly feet or good cheese?

Just as the blue of Roquefort cheese comes from naturally occurring spores in the Roquefort Caves, washed rind cheeses are also a product of their surroundings.  Historically, sweaty cheesemakers unwittingly transferred their own strain of bacteria to the cheese which, with the right environment, caused a sticky, pungent orange rind to form.  As the cheese matured, the bacteria ate into the cheese paste, causing it to break down into a soft, meaty cheese.

Brevibacterium Linens

Brevibacterium Linens (apparently)

Nowadays of course, the bacterial strain has been isolated and cheese is innoculated directly during the make, or propagated from an existing cheese through washing.  Even though cheese making is a sanitary process, the “smelly feet” odour remains, which sadly turns a lot of people off washed rinds.  It’s unfortunate because many – such as Stinking Bishop – actually have quite a mild flavour.

24 pints of raw Ayrshire milk

24 pints of raw Ayrshire milk

I picked up my usual 24 pints of Redlays Farm unpasteurised Ayrshire milk from Blackheath market on Sunday and got cracking!

Three cheese moulds

Three cheese moulds

Having not had much success with making washed rinds in the past, I asked around a few cheese making friends and forums for any tips.  A fair number of people recommended innoculating with geotrichum candidum to create a “clean layer” for the brevibacterium linens to grow on.  So, after heating the milk to 31C, I added these, plus some DVI starter and left to acidify for 30 minutes.

Adding the animal rennet

Adding the animal rennet

Previous experiments into how much rennet to use indicated I should use around 0.06% animal rennet, diluted in four times as much water, to achieve a set in around 60 minutes.

Curd giving a clean break

Curd giving a clean break

In reality the curd took around 20 minutes longer than expected to give a clean break – I think this may be down to natural degradation in strength of the rennet, as I’ve had the same bottle on the go for quite a while now.

Cutting the curd

Cutting the curd

Using a palette knife, I cut the curd into roughly 1cm cubes, starting with large blocks vertically, then smaller and smaller, angling the knife to try and cut through the blocks.  Cutting the curd allows whey to be released from the curd, and slows down the rennet acidification.

Stirring the cut curd while heating

Stirring the cut curd while heating

Once the curd has rested for a few minutes to allow it to heal (i.e. recover from the cutting), it’s time to get stirring and heating in order to slow the rennet action even further and release more whey, making a less squidgy curd.  I heated to around 35C over the course of 20 minutes or so.

Getting rid of the whey

Getting rid of the whey

Here’s where my lovely vat becomes really useful.  Having the tap at the front allows whey to be drained off much quicker and easier than ladelling out by hand.  Once the whey had been completely drained off, it’s time to carefully squash the curd into the moulds and add some weights on top for around 24 hours.

Curd in salt water

Curd in salt water

Then it’s time for the salting to start!  In the past, I’ve mostly used dry salting (i.e. applying salt directly to the cheese), however washed rinds are generally initially bathed in salt water to allow the salt to permeate throughout the cheese.  In this case, the cheeses floated around in a 16% brine solution for 12 hours, after which they were given a bit of a drying off, then placed in a fridge at 16C at over 90% humidity.

Unwashed cheeses

Unwashed cheeses (note the propagator cheese on the right)

After about a week, a light fluffy covering of geotrichum candidum had appeared, so it was time to start washing, to keep the surface moist and salty to encourage the brevibacterium linens growth.

Washing the parent cheese

Washing the parent cheese

First up for a wash was the parent propagator cheese.  This is one from a previous batch of cheese I’d made which had ended up with a great flavour and texture, so I wanted the strain to continue.  Washing consisted of a couple of drops of 10% salt water solution and a bit of gentle smearing.

Damp cheese

Damp parent cheese

Washing continued roughly every couple of days.  As my experience with Bermondsey Spa had taught me, if the texture of the surface was any more moist than a postage stamp, I postponed washing till the following day.

Fully ripened homemade washed rind cheese

Fully ripened homemade washed rind cheese

After about three weeks I cracked them open and had a taste.  They were really, really good!  So good in fact that I actually allowed other people to have a taste, including washed rind cheese king, Bill Oglethorpe of Kappacasein, who said:

Just polished off the cheese, it’s really good! I thought there might be too much salt and a hint of bitter but on second thoughts its fine. The contrast in textures is really nice, oozing on the edges and slightly chalky in the middle. I left it at room temperature for a couple of days and it survived very well.

I’m very happy with this recipe and the feedback.  Next time I might try to go a little lighter on the salt concentration to address Bill’s concerns, but other than that it seems like a winner!

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