I entered Shed of the Year recently, and recorded this little video of where I make my cheese at home:
A key part of the cheese making process is pressing the cheese – particularly if you’re making a harder cheese. The purpose of pressing is to force any remaining whey out of the curd, as well as give the cheese its required texture. At first glance it seems like a simple enough problem – you’ve got your cheese in its mould, which may have a bottom and a removable top, so exerting pressure on it is simply a case of putting enough weight on it. But pressing cheese at home is actually quite a difficult task.
On an industrial scale, purpose-built hydraulic cheese presses exert huge amounts of targeted pressure with ease, however during my own home-cheese making experiments I realised pretty quickly that this wouldn’t be a possibility for me.
Early Cheese Pressing Experiments
My first attempts at making a cheese press were fairly basic. Two planks of wood, held together with copious amounts of glue and a few bits of dowel, using some free weights (and apparently a couple of mugs filled with pennies!).
As you can see from the picture, there were clear physical limitations on how many weights you could actually pile on top of the cheese, and when the stack inevitably toppled over, the results were pretty disastrous.
I was never going to be able to exert the kind of pressures required for a cheddar.
Back To School
It was clear that I would have to go back to my cheese-making books and see what they advised – but the process ended up taking me back to GCSE Physics!
The cheddar recipe from Cheesemaking Practise (a fantastic, although expensive, book) mentions a final pressure of 200kPa. Put simply, the pressure required to press a cheddar effectively is absolutely immense.
So what’s a “kPa”? Well, it’s kilo Pascal. And what’s a Pascal you might ask?
Pascal is a unit of pressure (named after Blaise Pascal, above), which can be broken down into Newton’s per square metre. Newton’s are a measure of force which, using Newton’s second law of motion (see, physics in school did have a use!) can be broken down into mass multiplied by acceleration. On Earth, where gravity exerts an acceleration on objects close to the surface of 9.81 metres per second squared, this ends up meaning that a mass of 1 kilogram exerts a force of 9.81 N downwards.
That’s the Newton covered, but we still need to think about the denominator, that is the surface area on which the Newton is being applied. An average cheddar cheese is around 30cm in diameter, so it’s surface area (school maths and physics in one post, how exciting!) can be calculated using pi (remember “pi r squared”?) to be 0.07metres squared.
Now we’ve got all the components of Pascal broken down, let’s get back to cheese making. A cheddar needs a final pressure of 200kPa. That means 200,000Pa of pressure, which equates down to almost 1,500kg of mass on our little 30cm cheddar! Clearly we’re not going to be able to load over a ton of mass on top of a little cheese, so we need some help in the form of mechanical advantage.
Mechanical advantage means a small amount of force can be multiplied through the use of levers, gears or pulleys. Which leads me on to Dutch presses.
The Dutch Press Dilemma
Many of the cheese-making websites and books I read suggest you invest in one of these contraptions (see the one I bought above).
Traditional Dutch cheese presses use a lever to create a mechanical advantage high enough to exert sufficient pressure on the fulcrum (the cheese, in this case) using a small amount of mass at the end of the lever.
Which all sounded great – so off I went and ordered one of these Dutch presses and carefully assembled it at home. But I soon found out that it wasn’t the perfect solution it appeared to be.
Firstly, the mechanical advantage is all well and good, but the practicalities of a free-standing press mean that dangling any serious amount of weight from the lever puts the whole press off-balance, and liable to topple over at any moment (which did happen!). Secondly, the construction of most Dutch cheese presses means the whey dribbles out onto the wood base, which is quite difficult to clean without taking the press apart.
The Customised Solution
So after a lot of consideration and planning, I decided to build a cheese press that would lever directly from the wall of my cheese room, with the ability to lengthen the lever and add multiple weights to the end. That way I could exert all the pressure I wanted, without any concerns about stability.
The general idea was to replicate the lever mechanical advantage of a Dutch cheese press. I sketched out a vague idea on the back of a beer mat with a mate at the pub, then headed to B&Q to scout out what bits I might need. As usual, I wanted all components to be easily accessible, without any need for custom parts.
I wanted something that had minimal impact on my existing setup, so I decided to use different sized square-moulded steel to interlock with each other, cobbled together with a few long screws, washers and nuts to ensure the joint allowed sufficient movement.
Exerting pressure on the cheese would be done by another square steel rod, with some of the pressure being spread out using right-angle brackets. The steel rods needed to be sufficient in size and strength to not buckle or warp under pressure.
After much hacking, sawing, drilling and filing I had what I wanted. Smooth running joints, and a nice long, strong lever to add mechanical advantage.
Attaching the wall piece was pretty straight forward. The walls of my cheese room sadly aren’t brick, but with a couple of good-sized screws it seemed solid enough for some serious pressure. The main lever piece slots into the wall piece smoothly, meaning I can store it separately without interrupting my cheese making.
In testing, laden with 1.25kg of mass, the press exerted 4.528kg of mass on the scales, so a mechanical advantage multiplier of just over 3.6. Not a huge result, but I have plenty of good-sized 1.25kg weights, and the slot-in system has the advantage of being easily extendable with longer bits of steel if required. I could also easily saw off a bit of the short end of the press to increase the advantage easily.
And here’s the finished press in action! So far it seems to operate very well indeed. I’ve just finished making a cheddar with the new set up, and have high hopes. Will post results… in about 6 months! (that’s a cheddar joke, that is!)
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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…)
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!
Saving the best for last – the vat. A simple bain marie, with a single full-sized gastronorm immersed inside.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
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!