Monday, October 10, 2011

Mozzarella, the fast way

the newly made cheeses

taste test: Caprese salad

There are basically two ways to make mozzarella cheese. One is fast, involves citric acid, rennet and milk. The other is slower, and involves some bacteria to make things interesting. For my first venture into cheesemaking, I didn't want to mess with bacterial cultures, since the whole curdling process was still terra incognita.

Basically, you get some good milk, in this case Trader Joe's cream on top. It's about as close as you can get to something that came out of a cow, except for the pasteurization. The cream will actually float to the top, like gaffers tell me it did back in the forties when milk was milk food was food.

The next step is to put in some citric acid powder, then heat the milk to exactly 88° F. Add a measured quantity of rennet. Stir. You can now heat things up a bit more. The milk will curdle, unless something went drastically wrong. I put too much citric acid in, but it still worked. The amount of rennet used for 1/2 gallon of milk is so small that my scale didn't even register one gram of the stuff.

Once it curdles, the fun begins. In the biological, more flavorful process, you would add some bacterial culture and let it munch on the curds for a while. That would take longer, but supposedly give a better flavor. That's how they make the mozzarella that floats around in whey. For this lazy (or rushed) person's method, you just strain out the curds from the whey, squeeze out the excess whey, and form them into little balls ready for transformation.

Once you've got the little balls formed, the whey gets salted and heated up to 175° F. This is hot enoough to just barely melt the cheese, and that's the whole idea. Yeah, someone told me about using a microwave, but I have a lot of trouble imagining some cheese maker in Italy microwaving their formaggio. Ever see a Renaissance painting of cheese makers putting the stuff in microwaves? No? I didn't think so. Call me a Luddite if you will, but I'm going old school.

The first time I tried this, I used a spider to fish the cheese balls out of the hot liquid. Bad idea. The melting cheese oozes into the mesh and is a real mess to get out again. After that, I used a ladle Just pour off the hot whey to leave the cheese, place it on a cleaned and sanitized cutting board and knead it a bit. Return it to the hot whey and repeat.

At first, it seemed like the clump of disobedient curds would never organize themselves into anything even vaguely resembling cheese. Then, after about the third pass through the hot whey, things began to happen. The mass became more amenable to stretching. Like taffy, everyone who has made the cheese says. Indeed. Another pass, and the stuff really did start to behave in a taffy-like manner. After another, and it even looked like cheap, store-bought mozzarella that comes shrink-wrapped in plastic. A bit of kneading, just like making bread boules, and I had a mozzarella mini-ball of my very own, glistening with a wet sheen and no sign of clumpy curds. Uniform. Homogenous. Cheesy.

So, I'd successfully taken half a gallon of perfectly good milk and turned it into half a pound of resilient white cheese similar to the cheap mozzarella that you'd put on an average pizza. Other than the thrill of discovery, of boldly going where I'd never gone before, was it worth it? Time for a tasting.

Although summer is over, we still had a few unspoiled tomatoes hanging on the vines. No frost yet. There was also some basil that I hadn't got around to freezing for winter pesto. A bit of olive oil, some home made vinegar and I had all the makings for a caprese salad. I also had some of the aforementioned store-bought mozzarella for comparison. There was the added thrill of eating something where the cheese and vinegar were home made; where the tomato and basil all came from our garden.

The result? Well, although making this cheese isn't especially difficult, it doesn't give a significantly better result than its store-bought equivalent. Perhaps the milk is of better quality. It might be a bit softer and easier to cut. This isn't a strong flavored cheese, so the biggest determinant of flavor in the homemade stuff was the amount of salt added (I'd tried three dosages). I suppose I could add things to the homemade cheese that aren't typically found in store-bought mozzarella, like cumin or chipotle peppers or nigella seeds. Nigella seeds? Hmm...

I'm not giving up on home made cheese by any means. I just think that cheese is meant to be chewed on by a host of bacteria, transforming it into something more flavorful than smashed, melted and stretched curds. This, however, is where it gets complicated. Mesophilic, thermophilic... Flora danica, lactococcus, Geotrichum candidum, penicillium, more penicillium... There's that other mozzarella method that's not too time-consuming, but getting into things that resemble Camembert, chevre, blue cheeese... probably not too feasible without spending some serious money and waiting months for the result. Cheeses want to be at a certain temperature to ripen, so I'll probably need a wine conditioner. A cheap one. Perhaps from some former yuppie's garage sale, somewhere. In working order. Somewhere to put it. Or a cave, maybe. Start digging and eventually... no, it fills up with water during the rainy season. Nix that idea.

So, the next steps could be fromage blanc, crème fraîche, queso blanco, that bacterially active mozzarella... although I'd really like to make some fancy cheese, the kind that costs $35 a pound and treats you to layer upon layer of complex fermenty tastes.

If you're intrigued by all this, and think that you'd like to play with curds and bacteria, Sacramento has the store for you: Brew, Ferment, Distill. BFD for short. They sell all kinds of arcane, alchemical looking equipment and supplies for making wine, beer and cheese. In the future, they plan to add fermented foods to their repertoire of supplies, so you can make your own sauerkraut, kimchee or whatever strikes your fancy. For now, I'll stick to cheese.

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