Dining

Adventures in Cheese Making

A lifelong love of curds and whey led me to try crafting my own.

March 2010

If I weren't married, I'd probably never eat anything more complex than cheese and crackers for dinner. Even now I make the simple pairing a staple at least once a week. I mix it up, of course—throwing in some olives, maybe some onion, a little mustard, a baguette in place of crackers. But truly, I could live on the stuff. I'm an equal-opportunity cheese eater—hard, soft, nutty, creamy, stinky. But for as much as I dig my feta, blue, and cheddar, I'd never thought about making my own.

That is, until my husband bought me a cheese-making kit, complete with equipment and instructions. Opening it up, I had visions of my own small cheese business—maybe LBK's Artisanal Cheeses or the Park Hill Cheese Company. I wondered if my dog would mind sharing the backyard with my newly acquired dairy goats. I even thought about how we could convert the basement bedroom into a cheese cave for aging my soon-to-be award-winning farmhouse cheddar.

Filled with enthusiasm, I bought gallons of Horizon organic milk, put a pot on the stove, and threw myself into the process—and quickly realized that my dream business had one major drawback: Cheese making is wicked tough. Not impossible, but certainly more involved than I'd anticipated. There's a lot of chemistry to ponder; some seriously intense temperature monitoring; and a ton of waiting around before you can slap that queso on a cracker.

My first efforts in the kitchen left a lot to be desired. But there's nothing like education through mistakes: I learned that leaving ricotta to drain for too long produces a cheese that's not unlike chalk dust. I figured out that if the recipe says the mozzarella should stretch easily it's not an altogether good sign if yours snaps in two like an old rubber band. I also relearned a critical culinary lesson: Never begin a recipe before reading the whole thing through, because you could end up separating curds and whey at 3 a.m.

Of course, I've had some successes: My third batch of comparably easy-to-make ricotta was spot-on smooth. My second attempt at mozzarella yielded a firm and milky-tasting product that fared well in a Caprese salad. And I have high hopes for my slightly odd-looking farmhouse cheddar, which is still aging.

Although I'm barely able to contain my excitement over my new hobby, I can imagine many folks might not "get" the thrill. So, allow me to explain: Just like home-brewing beer, making wine in the basement, or growing tomatoes in the backyard, cheese making offers that rare satisfaction of having created something from nothing. If you're not that into the whole idea, I'd suggest forgoing the hard cheeses like Parmesan and cheddar, and instead trying an easier and quicker-to-make softer variety like ricotta, mozzarella, or feta. After all, it's nearly dinnertime and your crackers are waiting.