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The Milk and Human Kindness: Making Cheese

The Milk and Human Kindness: Making Cheese

by Suzanne Lupien of Scio, OR

A look at milk quality, cow health, sanitation, basic equipment and method for:
Raw milk yogurt, homemade cheese starter culture, tomme (French farmer’s cheese)
Brining cheese and making brine, basic principles of cheese-making, simulating a small cheese cave atmosphere

Daily life on a small diversified farm is filled with a seemingly endless string of important tasks and lessons, and as soon as one completes one strata of skill building and understanding, the next strata fans out before one’s eyes. All the steps relating to Home Dairying, from basic cow and calf care to the delicious golden pat of butter on the supper table go through stages of comprehension. Basic skills learned and then refined over the course of one’s life, deepening one’s sensitivity, skill and gratitude and set firmly on the foundation of the essentials. The essentials being the fixed necessities in doing ones job correctly and sensibly – good craftsmanship. The artistry must come later as one’s experience expands; then one can adjust a process slightly here and there, to make something one’s own.

Determining what these essentials are can be a bit confusing so I will take extra care here to list and explain and to show the meaning, the purpose of every step in each process. Going beyond the “what” to include the “why”, giving more depth to the “how”.

One thing we do already know is that we typically have more to do in a day than we have time for. So the methods I have developed are not unnecessarily complicated – they are all held within the context of the hardworking farmer’s life. Sensible, attainable skills are the aim here – not cutting corners, just heading for the direct route.

The chorus of this song is orderliness and cleanliness, inside and out. Examine your methods closely and make improvements when needed. In short, do everything you can to set the stage for clean healthy living for your cow and clean healthful dairy products to nourish your family. Obviously we cannot expect to make a good cheese with dirty milk from an unhealthy cow so let’s begin at the beginning and cover the spectrum.

Cow health, cow comfort, cow cleanliness – these things are intertwined. A minimum of confinement, basically during milking time and during bad winter storms is how I would choose to care for my cow; physical freedom, out on good pasturage – enough to eat and to choose from so she can cream the grass, shelter from the blazing sun, from wind and storms, fresh clean water always available, clean deep straw bed and free access to shade and salt. Now that it’s winter let’s make sure that our producing cows get plenty of good hay – up to a bale and a half per day, of the small 40 lb square bale type. In summer I do all I can to make as much excellent hay as possible, fine meadow grass hay with good color and fragrance. Satisfying my cow’s appetite and taste buds is just as rewarding as putting my favorite dish before honored guests. Extras like chopped apples, pumpkins, corn cobs, corn stalks, cabbages, carrots, etc. let her know how much you love her and are thinking of her. Well made leaf hay – green harvested and air dried branches of oak, raspberry, ash, and sugar maple leaves are a phenomenal source of deep rooted minerals which cows so relish. Trauger Groh tells us that cows are really woodland animals not strictly grass-eaters. Stay away from cherry branches and anything else in your particular area which may be toxic, and be aware that all leaves are potentially toxic in the wilted stage. Feed only very fresh, or properly dried. Take care to know which species are good, dry them well in mid-summer and bunch them and hang them in the barn for treats on stormy nights. After I take in a mowing of hay I can go back and harvest saplings sprouting around the edges of my fields, pushing the edges back to the old stone walls and put up this enticing and nutritious fodder for winter. When the cows hear me rustling in the branch bundles on a snowy night they are filled with eagerness.

Makeshift milking arrangements might do in a pinch, but generally they’re difficult to keep clean and downright time-consuming. You can adapt just about any structure to make a workable milking area. Whatever it is it’s best if it’s light and airy – not drafty – and dry, and allows for smooth movement in and out. Being an old fashioned New Englander I love the traditional wooden cow house arrangement with lots of windows that open, white washed wood walls, wooden stanchion floor and smooth, individual mangers. Clean sawdust bedding. If your cow is covered in mud or manure clean her up before milking. You will find that a well-drained, well maintained cow path to the stanchion and a clean deep bedded lounging area save loads of time preparing your cow for milking. And the more generous you can be with bedding, the better the compost will be also.

So let’s say your cow is in for milking, head in her stanchion, standing on a clean floor covered with a thick layer of soft pine sawdust, enjoying her hay. You’ve given her a quick brushing when you put her in and you’ve gone to get the milk pail from the kitchen. Wherever you like to strain your milk, be it the kitchen table, counter or sink, see to it that it’s clear and clean, and the glass jars or metal cans into which you will strain the milk are perfectly clean and rinsed with very hot or boiling water and all set up with the filtering arrangement on top before you head out to milk. Although your pail was perfectly clean and dry when you put it away last night after milking, it still needs a boiling water rinse before you use it again. A second pail with clean warm water and a clean cloth for udder washing is also necessary and this one doesn’t have to be stainless steel nor does it have to be sterilized. Keep it nice and clean, though. Here we go, one sanitized milking pail, one udder scrubbing pail with warm water and a clean wash rag, and another clean wash rag for drying the udder. I do not use iodine solutions or soap, just a nice clean warm wet rag gently cleaning the udder and a clean dry one for wiping the udder dry, gently and thoroughly. This milking preparation is a ritual I very much enjoy and I think the cow does as well, getting in the mood to give you her beautiful golden milk. English dairymaids of the last century sanitized their milking stools as well as their pails for every milking and it’s a really good idea . . .  but I don’t do it. But I do make it a rule not to pat a chicken or a dog or pick up a manure fork before, during or after milking. I come to the barn with clean hands and a clean pail. I clean the cow’s udder. My hands are dry when I milk. I take the milk directly to be strained. No minutes wasted – a beeline to straining and putting the milk to cool, if I’m not going to use it immediately for yogurt or cheese-making. Bacteria proliferate in milk so very fast. So the quicker it is strained and chilled, the better.

Reach for your pail by the handle, not the rim (just the same as you do taking up your tea cup in polite company). Position your stool, sit down, set your pail down on the cow’s head side of your place for cleanliness sake and go ahead and squirt a dash of milk from all four teats to open them up and blow out any speck of something that may be lurking in the recesses. Do keep your hands dry as you milk and take this precious time to observe her, listen to her, and sing to her. The rhythm of the milking suggests and supports the singing. Careful and thorough milking every time ensures a healthy udder. When you’ve gotten every drop, take a few minutes to massage the udder and then go again. It’s an excellent way to stimulate the circulation and release every drop of milk. Thank her, and go strain your milk.

Back in the kitchen you’ve got, let’s say, two gallons of strained warm milk and twenty minutes available. Warm milk is a boon for making every sort of dairy product except butter as much time is saved by not having to heat milk. And valuable cream is often lost in the process of heating up well-chilled milk, in the neck curve of the milk can and also in the difficulty of re-incorporating blobs of cream into warming milk. A lot of stirring is needed as the temperature rises. With the two gallons let’s start by going through this simple raw milk yogurt method:

You will need the milk in a boiling water sanitized stainless steel cooking pot or pail. Fresh active culture yogurt (new untouched container) from the store or thermophilic yogurt starter powder from a dairy supply company, boiling water sanitized wide-mouth quart jars and a sanitized ladle and whisk. By boiling water sanitized I mean a liberal dowsing of boiling water inside, and well around the rim of all milk holding containers, and a full immersion for smaller articles like jar lids, ladles, whisks, knives, bamboo mats, cheesecloth, wooden boards, hoops and followers, etc., whatever is called for. Knowing how to effectively generate and handle boiling water safely takes some thought and attention. Think it through! Large flat bottomed colanders are handy, and certain stacking arrangements minimize splashing. Keep the children out of harm’s way. Pouring boiling water into glass containers can result in a cracked and broken jar now and again. I do use canning jars for yogurt but for just about everything else I prefer stainless steel to make it easier and safer, and less costly in the long run.

Take your freshly sanitized whisk and whisk the yogurt into a purely liquefied state. We don’t want any lumps. Line up your clean glass jars along the edge of the counter or table, as soon as they are cool enough to handle. Set the clean lids in a row, upside down behind each jar out of reach of the inevitable drips and splashes. Pour 1-2 Tbsp yogurt into each jar and fill them up with warm milk. Screw on the lids, gently invert each jar twice to mix the yogurt with the milk and set the jars close together in a warm 70-80 degree F. spot like the right hand warming shelf of your cook stove, or if need be, bed them down on a couple of thick bath towels, as close together as they’ll go, and wrap them up like a package with the ends of the towels, adding extra towels over the top or a coat, or a blanket. Remember this is raw milk yogurt (my personal preference) as the milk retains all its glorious healthy raw enzymes. It does, however, make a softer, milder yogurt, and it can take up to 24 hours to set if the ambient temperature falls below 70 degrees. If you prefer very sour firm yogurt then you simply need to warm the milk to 110-120 degrees F. before you begin filling jars. That will yield a strictly thermophilic yogurt as the mesophilic bacteria die off at that higher temperature. The maximum temperature for mesophilic bacteria is somewhere around 105 degrees F. so champion of raw milk as I am, I make only dairy products that do not require any higher temperatures than the cow’s body temperature – 101-102 degrees F.

Yogurt making is the perfect introduction into the world of cultured dairy products and cheese-making. You are handling milk properly, becoming proficient at sanitizing pots and utensils, and learning the principles of culturing milk. Doing these things regularly, perfecting your methods, sets you up for cheese-making very well. Cheese-making involves the addition of a few more steps beyond the culturing. Next we will turn our attention to establishing a starter culture for cheese-making. I expect all the cheeses I will teach you through this column will be mesophilic in nature, so the starter you learn to make now will do for all cheeses in the future. We will also look at what we will need in terms of time, equipment, milk and understanding, to prepare for our first cheese together – Tomme – a French farmer’s cheese which is rather soft, unpressed wheel which we will age for a minimum of 60 days and which could age for 1/2 a year.

Generally speaking we will, from now on, focus on raw milk cheeses for a few reasons: a) to protect the goodness of our high quality raw milk; b) to keep our processes relatively simple, and; c) to save two most precious resources – time and money. Time will be saved by making basic, versatile easy keeping cheeses in the range from camembert to cheddar for example, and not fussing about with more complicated and time consuming activities like braiding mozzarella. I’m not knocking mozzarella, but I am stressing solid, practical, useful and in a way, simple cheeses. Far too many folks start in with cheese-making by buying expensive equipment, choose cheese recipes which require various specialty starter bacteria which are very expensive and often the making process is somewhat mysterious and difficult to comprehend. Ultimately the cheese you make, and continue to make will be one that fits into the rhythm of your day, fits into the type and amount of milk your farm produces, and whatever aging process it requires is a natural fit in your farm atmosphere and facilities. This tomme we’re going to make is barely heated at all which makes it easy to produce, you do not need a cheese press, just a gallon can full of water for a little pressure, you learn to handle cheesecloth and turn your cheese in order to learn about smooth, well made surfaces. And the slightly moist cave-like atmosphere is easy to contrive with a cracked flue tile from your local masonry supply store. All you will need to order from a cheese supply company are cheesecloth, rennet, and a dairy thermometer. Everything else can be fashioned at home, or found locally. Rennet is quite costly, but a little bit goes a long way, cheesecloth isn’t cheap either, genuine fine weave cheesecloth goes for $6.00 a yard or better and it does require some attentive care. By the way, when your bottle of rennet arrives, wrap it in tin foil and put it in the fridge. Exposure to light deteriorates rennet. But it keeps very well as long as it’s chilled.

The starter we are going to make involves nearly the same method as the yogurt making with the exceptions that we’ll sterilized the jars in a total immersion boiling water bath for a full five minutes, and that we will not be inoculating the milk with anything, we are simply going to culture clean, warm, fresh milk. As you learn to consistently and correctly propagate batches of starter using it in your cheese-making, you will notice the great depth of flavor in your cheeses. The living esters in good grass fed milk number in the dozens and you simply end up with more flavor than can be found in cheeses made from the commercial starters which typically contain only one or two species of bacteria. Commercial starters, especially direct-set starters are also very expensive. Another important benefit of propagating your own starter from your cow’s milk is that it demonstrates each time what the milk quality is, and how clean your methods are.

To establish your own starter is somewhat trickier than inoculating the starter milk with a culture of any sort and it doesn’t always work the first time, or even the second, so allow for that. Once established that jar of sweet smelling solid milk will be your mother culture from which you can propagate indefinitely. Your insurance policy will be cubes of frozen starter stored in your freezer.

Practice starter making for a week or two before you set out to make cheese, and you’ll be better off than if you push your luck, having gallons of milk waiting for the big day only to discover that your starter failed. You can use your homemade yogurt as starter provided you’ve scalded your glass jar and that the jar of yogurt hasn’t been dipped into with an un-sanitized spoon.

Here’s how to make your starter without an added inoculant. Just milk:

  • Boil two pint jars and lids for a full five minutes. Leave them in the covered pot of boiling water just off the heat while you go milk. To minimize glass breakage in the boiling, set the jars horizontally a top their lid rings.
  • Take extra care to keep the milk especially clean during milking. If bits of dirt or hair have fallen into the milk pail wait till the next milking to make starter.
  • Bring your warm clean milk back to the kitchen and strain it through a milk filter directly into the jars. The fewer chances for contamination the better, so eliminating the actual strainer object and any intermediate containers is important. What I do is fish the hot jars out of the water bath by sticking a wooden spoon up into the jar and lifting it out upside down. Then I toss a good wooden clothespin into the hot water bath, go get a milk filter, fold it twice, open it up and clip it onto the rim of the jar with the sanitized clothespin and pour the milk through. Immediately. You always want to strain your milk as soon as possible after milking, this time is especially critical. Any bit of bacteria or dust or such like and your starter will be contaminated.

This starter making is the definitive test for your milk quality. Any imperfections in your milk handling may not be showing up in your fluid milk usage. One significant difference is that you’re cooling down your milk for fluid consumption immediately, which vastly minimized the proliferation of any existing bacteria. But with the culturing process the milk is kept warm for up to 48 hours. So any contaminant will have a field day. Do your best to keep everything clean, and keep enough space clear to work, well away from other projects. Banish the cat from the counter once and for all, and be sure to put away that open bag of flour well before you start. No bread making before or during starter making or cheese-making. Have the kitchen floor swept before you get equipment out to prepare for any dairy activity, do up the breakfast dishes and scrub the sink. Clean and orderly, please. And yes it’s nice to have cheese equipment that only gets used for cheese-making, but it’s a luxury, and it’s not necessary as long as you keep everything scrupulously clean. And just know that despite our best efforts it doesn’t go right every single time. I always feel that the emotion I experience at those inevitable failure moments is a gift to show myself how very much it means to me to get it right. Make batch after batch of starter to practice.

Back to our jars of milk:

Get the lids on as fast as you can and set the jars somewhere warm, 70-75 degrees with little or no temperature variation over the course of a 24 hour period. Too cool and it won’t culture, too warm and it will cook and separate, or “whey off.” It seems that this needed temperature range is difficult for people to come up with. I don’t know where I’d be without my cook stove! You can certainly rig something up like a little box or a ski hat over your jars on top of the hot water heater, or maybe dangle a light bulb down into a crock, just be careful of fire danger, and figure out your set-up in advance of making the culture. Set something up with an indoor thermometer and check it over a span of time. Another advantage of the wood cook stove is that the starter jars are right there at eye level and every time you add a stick of wood, or pour a cup of coffee you can study the progressing whitening of the milk (good) and check for bubbles or gas (bad). Milk looks almost blue when fresh, after the cream has risen and as your starter coagulates and acidifies it will begin to look whiter, and when perfectly coagulated it will be purely white and opaque and solid, or at least very thick. If you fill the jar just to the shoulder level then when you tip the jar slightly, checking for coagulation, you can see it.

Starter that is pure and good will smell sweet and show no bubbles anywhere. Chances are if there are bubbles, you can see them by examining the jar. So if it passes the visual test, carefully open the jar, smell the starter and look at it from the top, checking for bubbles around the rim. It should smell sweet, possibly faintly like yogurt and have a very enticing dairy smell. Milky. So far so good. Now chill it. As soon as the starter has coagulated in its warm place it needs to be chilled. The first starter, made this way with no inoculant takes twice as long to set as the subsequent batches which you will inoculate with a spoonful of this mother culture. It may take up to 48 hours to set. 36 hours would be better, and 24 hours better still. If it’s left too long in the warm atmosphere it will tend to “whey off” and begin to lose its strength. It can still be used, but in the spirit of meeting a standard, we want it consistently at its full strength, just when it’s at the stage of thick cream to just solid. In getting your cheese-making system down reliably you will see that as many ways as you can be uniform in your procedures, the fewer mysterious variables there will be to endanger your cheese, and to cloud your understanding of cause and effect, the better. Observation, clear thinking and good notes go very far in good consistent cheese-making results.

Two more important factors in starter making and cheese-making are:

  • How far along your cow is in her lactation
  • Whether she’s out on lush spring grass or on dry hay

She had better not be eating silage or haylage or you can forget about making cheese! Those fermented feeds are all well and good for fresh milk production but make cheese-making impossible, due to the inevitable gassing.

Back to the issue of fresh grass vs. dry hay, there are a couple of points worth mentioning. It’s been my experience that spring grass complicates cheese-making and the June wave of pollen, especially pine pollen, suspends cheese-making on my farm. No doubt the milk could be pasteurized prior to cheese-making and come out all right, but that doesn’t interest me. I just stop for a couple of weeks until the gassing stops. In France, as regards traditional raw milk cheese-making the time for making camembert for example, an especially delicate high moisture cheese, was October-May. This would have been related to the lush grass vs. dry hay question no doubt, and also possibly aimed at later lactation milk, with a much higher percentage of milk solids than spring freshened cows milk would have. The winter camembert might give way to a harder, drier cheese on those little French farms, like a tomme, the first cheese we’re going to make together, talk about seasonal changes in forage and depth of understanding! Read Patrick Rance’s story about the French cheese connoisseur who knew, while enjoying his favorite camembert, which field the cows had grazed at the time the cheese was made! It is well known to me that diverse meadow species have a great deal more to contribute to a cheese in either form of fresh grass or dry hay, than single species forages like alfalfa. When making or buying hay I would choose well made meadow grass full of flowers and wild plants over bright green single species hay. When the ad states “from fertilized fields” it generally means it’s been chemically treated, rather than spread with manure or compost, truly fertilized.

As to where your cow is in her lactation, there will be a difference between very fresh, just calved, to the later end, between 6-9 months. Unusually late lactation, 12 months or later, and lots of cows somatic cell count goes up, giving the milk a salty taste, and producing poor quality cheese, experiencing problems like poor coagulation. At the freshening time it does take awhile for milk to normalize, and in my experience starter is very hard to establish during that time as well, although it can be propagated with some degree of reliability with the help of active culture yogurt from a shop or commercial starter or ice cube starter you’ve made from other milk and have stored in the freezer. However, the keeping quality of frozen starter is limited to one month or less. When my cow is just fresh I generally don’t make cheese for that initial month, preferring to make butter mostly. And I love bright orange butter from the tail end of the colostrum period – five days or so. I keep the calf in with the cow full time for at least six weeks when occasionally a hefty bull calf will be nicking his mothers teats in his exuberance. Then I might restrict his access to a couple of brief feedings per day, supplement his ration with a bit of 16% grain, good hay, etc., but generally my calves stay with their dams for a solid 10 weeks, full time. Anyway, the basic point is that early lactation milk is low in milk solids, late lactation milk is high. Higher milk solids make more cheese, and easier cheese-making.

Once your starter is chilled, sanitize a soup spoon, holding it by the very tip of the handle and pouring boiling water over it, take the lid off the jar and carefully spoon the thickened cream top off the starter into a little jar. This action does three things. First it gives you another look at the starter, looking for bubbles in the cream layer or under it, second, it removes the cream from the desired starter where it would otherwise be lost in the cheese-making as it would tend to rise to the surface of the milk and eventually be lost, and third, you’ve got an extra bonus to look forward to at meal time, sour cream for your baked potato!

After removing the cream, stir the starter smooth with your spoon, cover the jar up and return it to the refrigerator. Lick the spoon, get a good idea what that starter tastes like, and remember it for the future. Taste memory is an important skill in cheese-making. This starter will keep fresh in the refrigerator for three days. Subsequent starter will be propagated from this mother culture by going through the aforementioned steps of sanitation, and adding 1 1/2 tsp to a pint jar, 1 Tbsp to a quart, inverting it a few times as for yogurt making to incorporate the starter into the fresh milk and going on to the incubation step. So you will either make your next starter before the initial one goes over the hill, or better yet put some in the freezer for safe keeping. The way to do that is to sanitize an ice cube tray with boiling water and pour your lovely fresh starter into it, freeze right away, then bang the cubes out into a brand new plastic bag and put back in the freezer. See to it that the open tray of starter doesn’t languish in the freezer and that nothing comes in contact with the exposed starter while it’s freezing up. It’s very handy to have these cubes as a back up, and many cheese-makers prefer to use them regularly for their cheese-making. One standard cube is 1 oz. I prefer to use the starter fresh from the jar and keep a system going of nearly continuous propagation during my typical cheese making season, October-June, always fresh, always plenty. Extra starter goes into the pancake batter. Or to culture an entire quart of cream for sour cream or as a special treat for the hens. Or stir it up and drink it like yogurt or kefir.

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