Seven years ago, when we had our first dairy animal come fresh (a Jersey cow), we started to learn how to make all sorts of dairy products. Butter, sour cream, yogurt, cream cheese, cottage cheese, and mozzarella were all made regularly in our house over the years from our fresh, raw, cow’s milk and goat’s milk.
This spring we will be embarking on our new adventure with dairy sheep coming fresh. We are so excited to have fresh, raw sheep’s milk on the farm. We will still have raw goat’s milk from Pansy too! Depending on how it all goes, we could have up to 2 gallons of milk coming from the sheep and goat each day. This is all just guessing, of course, because each animals production will be different and it will also depend on whether we leave lambs and kids on, or take them off, or bottle feed, or share with them….time will tell. But nonetheless, we will have plenty of milk for our fresh use, quick dairy products, and soft cheeses. So we decided it was time to try our hand at aged cheeses.
In order to get the hang of the process before spring comes with all our wonderful raw milk, we decided to practice this winter with store-bought milk. We got a bunch of books from inter-library loan and started learning.
We ordered the ingredients and supplies we needed (we already had some of it), and made our first aged cheese, a colby recipe.
We felt like we had made several mistakes and decided to make the exact same recipe the next day to really do it right and carefully. Then we got our “cheese cave” set up. We wanted to get this set up the week before and get it regulated ahead of time, but life got in the way and it was set up right when the cheese needed to go in.
Over the next couple of weeks we tried different things to get the cheese cave to the right temperature and humidity. We live in a very dry climate, so humidity can be hard. At first I couldn’t get it above 65% (you want it to be 85-90%). Then I found some tips online and used a cup of salt and a wet rag with its tip in a bowl of water and I was able to bring it up and keep it at 75%. I think that might be the highest we are going to be able to get it. But from what I have been reading, it looks like if you wax or seal your cheese, humidity is not as much of an issue. Time will tell if 75% will work for us or not.
That is one of the difficulties in making hard cheeses – the time factor. You have to age most cheeses for at LEAST 2 months, and many go all the way to 6 months or more, so learning can be hard. How can you learn from your mistakes if you don’t know you made a mistake for several months? It is a steep learning curve.
Then we decided to try our hand at cheddar, and went with the easier and faster “stirred-curd” cheddaring technique. So we now had three cheeses under our belts and in the cave.
The cave is staying at about 46 degrees. That is a little lower than we want, and will slow down the cheese aging process a bit. Most books say 50-55F is what you want, although I have found two that say 45-55. So I think we are within range of it working, though maybe not ideal. But that is as high as the fridge will go. So Mtn Man ordered a plug and play device that has a thermometer that goes into the fridge and then the device turns the fridge on and off to keep it at the right temp. It arrives today in the mail, so we will see how that works out and if we can bring the temp to a more ideal range.
After making three blocks of cheese we felt like we understood the basic methods and could just wait until spring to start up again with cheese making with our own fresh milk. But then something else came along.
I have a very old fashioned brain, so as we were learning all this and doing all this cheese making my brain kept going back to the question, “How did they do this in the old days when they couldn’t buy freeze-dried cultures?” I know how to get rennet from a calf, kid, or lamb stomach, so that question wasn’t bothering me. But the question of cultures was. I was working my way through my inter-library loan cheese making books and after we finished our 3rd cheese I got around to reading this one:
This book addressed exactly what I was wondering and discusses the natural (old fashioned) ways to make cheese and how cheese has been made for thousands of years. I was really excited about this concept. He uses kefir grains and whey cultures to culture the milk for his cheeses. They are sustainable and you don’t have to keep buying from the store. I have been using kefir grains for a few years now to make us kefir to drink and add to our smoothies, so the concept that I could use it to make cheese is very intriguing to me. But will it actually work? I went online looking for reviews and discussions from people who were actually using this method successfully to make cheese and unfortunately, I didn’t find much. The negative reviews I found were from people who had actually tried it and it didn’t work. The positive reviews were people who had read the book, agreed with the concepts, but hadn’t actually tried it yet. Not very helpful, and definitely leans towards the fact that it might be tricky to make good cheeses this way.
So we have decided to try it out and see how it goes. More cheese making to do. I will update you on the natural methods versus the modern methods and our experiences with it. Until then…on with the cheese making adventure!