There’s only one thing better than knowing a cheesemaker. It’s when his cheese is ready and he invites you over for a rare tasting. That’s how I found myself recently on the Q train heading deep into Brooklyn to visit my friend Jamie Forrest (and his family), aka webmaster “Curdnerd” on the cheese blog of the same name. After a nine-month gestation, Jamie’s hard Jura cheese was ready, and I was one of the lucky few selected to sample this latest of his cheeses, similar in its nutty flavor to Comté. Jamie makes his excellent cheeses with raw, unpasteurized milk which he procures through his membership in a milk club (for more on the benefits of raw milk, see this past week’s New York Times article on the debate; for more on the benefits of raw milk cheeses, go to France). Jamie and his wife keep a kosher kitchen, so all his cheeses are both (unofficially) kosher as well as organic. A modern day alchemist of sorts, Jamie shares his thoughts with us here on the science and art of cheesemaking.
LR: How did you get interested in cheesemaking?
JF: Our kitchen at home is kosher, and as someone who had been exposed to all sorts of amazing artisanal cheeses in my life, I was frustrated that it was very difficult if not impossible to procure high quality kosher cheese. (There are some decent kosher cheeses coming out of Europe and Israel, but they are all very expensive and don’t survive the cross-continental trip very well.) I did some research into whether the lack of good kosher cheese was due to some halachic requirement (as with wine for instance), or was it just that no one was making it? It turned out that it is possible to make very good kosher cheese (with vegetarian rennet), and in fact it was simply that no one was doing it. So, faced with this scarcity, I said to myself, “If people can learn how to make beer at home, how hard could it be to learn how to make cheese at home!” Later on I discovered that I really enjoyed the combination of cooking & science that cheesemaking requires.
LR: How did you learn about cheesemaking?
JF: I started with Rikki Carroll’s book Home Cheese Making, which is an excellent place to start. Rikki also sells cheesemaking kits from her company New England Cheesemaking Supply Co. From there I progressed to other books and I’ve also taken several workshops both with Rikki’s company and elsewhere.
LR: How do you make your cheeses, generally speaking?
JF: Cheese is essentially the product of a controlled spoilage of milk. Depending on the way in which you control that spoilage, that will dictate what type of cheese you end up with in the end. But most cheeses conform to the following eight steps (first outlined by Frank Kosikowski in his book Cheese and Fermented Milk Foods):
1) SET THE MILK: This is the act of coagulating the milk into a curd, and can be accomplished with either rennet (a mixture of enzymes derived from the fourth stomach of ruminant animals), or an acid such as lactic acid or vinegar, or sometimes a combination of both.
2) CUT THE CURD: Depending on the type of cheese being made, the curd is cut into pieces of varying sizes. This serves to expel the whey that had been previously trapped in the curd. Whey is simply a mix of water, milk solids, and whey proteins. The curd on the other hand is made up of casein (a specific kind of protein) and milk fat.
3) COOK AND HOLD THE CURDS: This step causes the curds to firm up and expel more whey.
4) DRAIN THE WHEY: This step formally separates the curd (which will end up being your final cheese) from the whey.
5) KNIT THE CURDS: During this step, the curd pieces come together into one mass.
6) PRESS THE CURDS: During pressing, more whey is expelled, the curds become more closely-knit, and the cheese takes a definite shape and texture. Most hard cheeses are pressed in a cheese press with active force, while most soft cheeses are pressed under their own weight by gravity.
7) SALT THE CURDS: Adding salt to the curds serves many purposes, including expelling more whey, controlling the final moisture content of the cheese, preserving the cheese by inhibiting bacterial growth, and adding flavor.
8) SPECIAL APPLICATIONS: This step really depends on what kind of cheese you’re making. For instance, if you’re making Mozzarella cheese, here’s where you’d pull and stretch the cheese in hot water to create the stringy structure. If you’re making bloomy-rind cheese, you might spray the outside surface with hydrated mold spores.
LR: Where do you get your raw milk and why do you use it?
JF: I am in a Raw Milk club that facilitates the legal purchase of raw milk directly from farmers by paying collectively for a private third party to deliver the milk to the city. I use it because most store-bought milks simply won’t work for making certain kinds of cheeses. The processes of pasteurization and homogenization permanently damage the proteins and fats in the milk, preventing them from coagulating in the right way. Some also argue that pasteurization kills off the good bacteria in the raw milk, bacteria which contribute greatly to the final flavor profile of the cheese. However, there are several different methods of pasteurization, and some are worse than others, so if you’re going to use store-bought milk to make cheese, you need to make sure that it’s not ultra-pasteurized. Finding gently pasteurized, non-homogenized milk at a farmer’s market is a good bet.
LR: Would you feed raw milk to your baby? Does she eat your cheese?
JF: I would not feed raw milk to my baby; I think the risk outweighs the supposed benefits. Pasteurization has saved many many lives. For the same reason I wouldn’t feed her raw fish, or steak tartare either. But I would feed her raw milk cheese. Cheese made from raw milk is much safer than raw milk itself, because the spoilage of the milk is controlled. There are many good bacteria in the cheese fighting off the bad ones. Also any raw milk cheese that’s legal to sell in the U.S. is totally safe because it has to be aged for at least 60 days, time enough for all the bacteria, good and bad, to die off.
LR: Have you been approached to sell your cheese?
JF: I have been approached to sell my cheese, but there are significant barriers. The first is that all cheesemaking operations must be inspected and licensed by the state. Given that you’re working with milk, the requirements vis. equipment, building and zoning are very strict. So it’s not something like cookies or candy where you can just make it at home and sell easily it on the open market. Furthermore, if you’re talking about kosher cheese, getting a hashgacha can be challenging and expensive. Cheese is a special case in halacha; most observant Jews require that a strictly observant Jew be the one to add the rennet for every batch of cheese. Clearly if you needed to hire a rabbi from, say, OU to do this every day, things would get pretty pricey pretty quickly. Curiously, this is not the rule for soft cheese like cottage cheese or ricotta cheese, which is why you see many more of those cheeses available in kosher versions.
LR: Would you recommend cheesemaking to others, and why?
JF: Although cheesemaking can present challenges, I would definitely recommend trying it at least once. Learning how to make something usually serves to demystify the process. Not so with cheese. Making cheese actually puts the mystery back into a food so common and ordinary. When the milk begins to curdle before your very eyes, it’s like alchemy. Making cheese has also given me a deeper sense of connection to the foodways of the past–cheese is one of mankind’s oldest processed foods–and I think that’s important in a world where food is increasingly divorced from its sources and its history. It is utterly amazing for me to think of the thousands of years over which cheesemaking has evolved, and even more amazing to realize that over most of that time cheesemakers were honing that craft without benefit of thermometers, pH meters, or pasteurization.