July 29, 2014


With college starting in less than a month, I decided I needed to get into the Wisconsin spirit. One of my favorite ways to explore new places is to try the food, but after my visit to Madison and eating at quite a few amazing restaurants, I wanted to try making some midwestern food myself. Given that Wisconsin is America's dairyland (there's a cheese chalet minutes from the airport if that puts it into context), I wanted to try my hand at cheesemaking. Mozzarella is one of the easiest cheeses to make, and all you need to do is order some special ingredients (citric acid powder, double strength liquid rennet, and calcium chloride); I got mine online from Standing Stone Farms.

There are only a few ingredients in homemade mozzarella, but it's important to use the correct ones (read: absolutely no substitutions) and precisely the amount instructed. The main ingredient is whole milk. I often substitute low-fat milk in a lot of my recipes, but UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES do so here, and DO NOT EVER EVER EVER use skim milk. Did I get my point across? Don't shy away from the fat; that's what makes the cheese so good. I've heard that cheesemakers only use non-pasteurized or non-homogenized or some other special type of milk, but I just use regular old whole milk from the supermarket and it turns out just fine. A gallon might seem like a lot, but you'll be surprised how little of it will turn into cheese. The milk separates into curds, which are the solids that become the cheese after stretching and cooking (I'll get to that later), and whey, which is a protein-packed, mostly clear liquid. I've been trying to find ways to cook with the whey since you end up with so much of it, and one of my favorite uses is cooking oats and grains in it.

The purpose of the citric acid is to help separate the milk solids from the whey and allow the rennet to serve its purpose. Just two teaspoons of citric acid in a gallon of milk will make the milk start to clump. You won't see big chunks yet, but you should see some tiny little particles on your whisk as you stir it in. The calcium chloride helps the cheese firm up so you aren't left with mushy curds. You only need a little bit, and I dilute it in water so that it is more evenly dispersed. I also dilute the rennet, which makes milk proteins insoluble, causing them to separate from the liquid (whey) and form curds.

Now to actually make the cheese. The specifics of the cooking process are just as important as the specifics of the ingredients. I start by combining the milk and the citric acid in my biggest pot over medium-low heat. You should see small specks of solids, but there shouldn't be clumps yet. I whisk it often but not constantly, and I stir gently to avoid sloshing.

It has to reach exactly 88F before you can add the calcium chloride and rennet solutions. You should see clumping almost immediately, and within a minute or so you should get large curds and a nearly clear whey.

You need to keep cooking the mixture until it reaches 104F; once it hits 104, you can skim the curds out using a slotted spoon or small strainer and transfer them to a large heatproof bowl.

While the milk was heating up and separating, I also had a medium pot of heavily salted water on the stove. You want it to be extremely salty because that's how the cheese gets a lot of its flavor. By the time the curds hit 104F, I like the water to be just warm to the touch, about 100-110F. I pour some of the water over the curds and leave the rest on the stove to continue heating. Using disposable gloves, I start working and pulling the curds; they should be pretty clumpy and not too stretchy.

After about two minutes, I pour out half the water and replace it with some new water from the pot, which should be hot but just bearable to work with, about 140-150F. I continue working and stretching the cheese for another few minutes. At this point, you should start to see some strings, and the cheese should be more stretchy.

Again, I pour out about half the water and replace it with new water, which should be almost boiling. Since it's too hot to work with, I find that using a big metal spoon helps stretch the cheese without burning your fingers. I keep working the cheese until it's shiny and smooth.

The gradual heating of the water may seem tedious. It is. But it's worth it because otherwise you end up cooking the outside and not the inside. If you already spend this much time making the cheese, you don't want to ruin it by cutting corners here. After the curds are finally shiny and stretchy and done, they are pretty easy to roll into balls. I tend to make two spheres, but you can make a bunch of mini bocconcini, a braid, or even a giant mozzarella ball. To keep whatever shape you choose, leave the cheese in a cool bowl of water for 10-15 minutes to set. The cheese will stay for a few days; I store mine in pure water, lightly salted water, and/or whey.

If eating plain cheese isn't for you, I have a few recommendations that I'll be publishing over the next few weeks. However, I know how hard it is to wait to eat something as amazing as this, so I included one of my favorite recipes: mozzarella sticks. We've all had them in restaurants; they have a tendency to be greasy and bland, but use fresh mozzarella and you'll be eating these for every meal.

Wisconsin might be in the middle of the tundra (well, maybe not, but it certainly seems like it to a southern girl like me), but they make some darn good comfort food. I had some of the best food I've ever eaten, including burgers, cheese curds, and even Russian dumplings (see my foodie travel guide for more information). It inspired me to try and start cooking it before I left because who knows what kind of kitchen I'll be in for the next year or so. I feel like I'm in Wisconsin already, only with my own kitchen and 90 degree heat. Cheesemaking does seem daunting, but the finished product is delicious, impressive, and worth the effort. If you can't make it up to Wisconsin, it's the next best thing!

1 Gallon Whole Milk
2 tsp Citric Acid Powder
1 tsp Calcium Chloride
⅛ tsp Double-Strength Liquid Rennet
Non-Iodized Salt

Whisk the calcium chloride into ¼ cup water. Whisk the rennet into ¼ cup water.

Place a pot of heavily salted water on medium heat.

In a large pot, combine the milk and citric acid. Heat over medium-low until it reaches 88ºF, stirring often. Gently stir in the calcium chloride and rennet solutions. Heat over medium-low, stirring gently and often, until it reaches 104ºF; remove from heat.

Skim the curds from the whey and transfer to a large heatproof bowl. Add some of the salted water (it should be warm, about 100-110ºF) and begin working and pulling with gloved hands for about two minutes. Drain off half the water and replace with some of the hotter salted water (it should be hot, about 140-150ºF). Continue working and pulling for about two more minutes; it should start to look a little stringy. Drain off half the water and replace with some of the hotter salted water (it should be almost boiling); continue working and pulling until the cheese is shiny and smooth throughout. 

Roll the cheese into balls and transfer to a bowl of cool salted water. Let sit for 15 minutes, then remove and store in a container of water and/or whey.

For mozzarella sticks, heat a deep fryer or a few inches of oil in a large pot to 350F. Cut the mozzarella into sticks and/or nuggets. Season some flour with salt and Italian herbs, if desired. Whisk an egg with 1/4 cup milk. Season some panko crumbs with salt and Italian herbs, if desired. Dip the mozzarella in the flour, then the egg wash, then the panko, shaking off the excess between steps. Fry until golden brown, about 3 minutes.

Mozzarella Recipe Adapted from Standing Stone Farms

No comments:

Post a Comment