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The magic of mozzarella

It’s easier than you think to make your own cheese

POSTED: March 9, 2008 5:02 a.m.
Robin Michener Nathan/The Times

Homemade mozzarella has a light, airy taste and can be made in about a half hour.

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It began as a challenge: Could I make dinner using only locally produced products?

I settled on pizza: I could make the dough, and even use flour milled at Red Mule Farm outside of Athens. Unfortunately, tomatoes weren’t in season, so I’d have to make an exception there. But how about the cheese?

Surprisingly, after a little bit of research, it turns out making mozzarella wasn’t nearly as difficult as I thought. And once you start eating homemade mozzarella — or any other cheese, for that matter — you don’t want to go back to the plastic packages of the shredded variety in the grocery store.

(In fact, now that I’ve made mozzarella cheese, I’m not even sure how they shred it.)

Eric Wagoner, a Royston farmer who runs the Web site Athens Locally Grown, a collective of North Georgia farmers selling anything from carrots to handmade soaps, has been making his own cheese for about eight years. It started for simple economic reasons, he said.

"Back in my bachelor days, as a special treat I’d get the fresh mozzarella balls at the store. It was always so expensive, so then I started thinking, ‘There must be a way to make it and save a ton of money,’" he said.

So, he went on the Internet and ordered a cheesemaking kit. Once it arrived, 30 minutes later he had his own fresh mozzarella. "After the first batch I thought, not only is it much cheaper, but the flavor is dynamite."

Ironically, seven years later, I purchased the same cheesemaking kit from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Co. Ricki Carroll, the company’s founder, said she has been making cheese for about 30 years. She started by using the milk from her goats.

"An abundance of goat’s milk in my backyard was the ‘whey’ I got started," she said in an e-mail. "The flavor of homemade cheeses varies greatly on the type of milk one can get to make it. If you’re on a farm, yummm. If you can buy local, awesome. For the rest it is a fun hobby with many rewards and ample good taste for the entire family."

So, with kit in hand, I embarked on my cheesemaking journey.

The materials

When you get a kit such as the one sold by New England Cheesemaking Supply, it comes with the ingredients you otherwise couldn’t find in local grocery stores. Rennet, which is used to separate curds from whey, for example, can be very difficult to find locally.

Before you begin, you also have to make sure you have the right milk. Make sure your milk is not "ultra-pasteurized." This will make it impossible to stretch your mozzarella, a crucial final step in the process. Also, Carroll said, while getting milk that is nonhomogenized is important, it won’t wreck your cheese. Goat’s milk is naturally homogenized, she said.

Barry Derrick, quality assurance manager for Mayfield Dairy, said the homogenizing process breaks the large fat molecules into smaller ones, making it so the cream won’t rise to the top.

"The milk is put under pressure, like 1,500 pounds of pressure, and it breaks the large fat globules into tiny fat globules so they don’t rise to the top," he said. "When it comes in as the raw milk stage from the cow, the cream rises to the top, so they say. So you run it through the homogenizer and it breaks those fat globules into like two microns.

"That keeps the (separation) process form starting."

Pasteurization is the only process that is required, Derrick said. Otherwise, homogenizing is done simply to make a consistent product for the consumer.

"As far as we’re concerned, in the milk you don’t want to open your container of milk and have a big sludge of cream at the top," he added. "It’s just to keep it uniform."

Because I had my self-imposed rule about making everything locally, I decided to find some locally made milk, too. I found a couple dairies in South Carolina who would sell me a gallon of raw milk at a time. They were close enough to visit, and I liked the idea of using milk from area cows.

Keep in mind, however, that buying raw milk in Georgia is illegal — hence, the interstate transaction — but I cannot only inspect the farm for myself, I can pasteurize it, too.

Derrick said milk needs to be cooked at 140 degrees for 30 minutes in order to be pasteurized.

So, with pasteurized, nonhomogenized milk ready to go — and all my tools and ingredients by my side — I began the process of making the mozzarella.

The process

First, add 1/2 cup of cool water to a large stock pot and stir in 1 1/2 teaspoons citric acid (this comes in your kit). Make sure you’re using a nonaluminum or noncast iron pot. When it’s dissolved, stir in the milk and heat it to 88 F over medium heat.

While it’s heating, crush 1/4 of a rennet tablet (also in your kit) in 1/4 cup cool, chlorine-free water and stir to dissolve it.

When you hit 88 F, remove the pot from the heat and add the rennet solution. Stir gently for about 30 seconds, and then let it sit for five to eight minutes.

At this point, you’re probably thinking, "What, it’s just milk?" But poke at it. It’s now become solid curd on the top, and runny whey below. Use a slotted spoon (I have a small strainer with a handle that works well for this) and put the curds into a microwave-safe bowl.

Now for the real transformation. Microwave the curds for one minute. Drain off any whey that has come to the surface, and microwave again for about 30 seconds. Knead the mozzarella as if it’s bread dough and work it into a ball. Keep kneading it, draining off the whey and microwaving it in short increments until it’s the consistency you want — it will be soft and pliable, but you’ll still be able to knead it into a shape.

During this process, be careful, because the cheese can get a little hot. You might want to put on rubber gloves, but in order for the cheese to stretch properly, it needs to reach 135 F on the inside.

When you’re holding a small pile of smooth, shiny cheese, drop it into a bowl of ice water. And you’re done.

The result

Your final product will be smooth, light-tasting and very fresh. So fresh, in fact, that you need to use it in a day or so.

Carroll said to use the best milk you can find.

"Get the best, freshest milk you can," she said. "Your cheese will not make old milk taste better."

She also recommended that beginner cheesemakers master one kind of cheese before moving on to the next. And, if you’re concerned about fat content, you can use low-fat milk.

But, she said, "your yield is lower and your cheese drier. I suggest using whole milk and eating less if concerned about the fat content."

Wagoner said he also makes his own cream cheese, cottage cheese and ricotta. At this point, he said, the taste is second to none.

"Going straight from the milk to the cheese, the flavor, you just can’t beat that," he said. "For me, I just like knowing where it’s from.

"Of course, you can do that by knowing which farm in Italy it came from, but knowing where it is within visiting distance and that it’s fresh — there’s not going to be any flavor degradation because it had to travel any length of time.

"It’s mostly about the freshness of the flavors."

And as far as the pizza goes? All I needed to do was slice up that fresh ball of mozzarella and lay it on top of some basic bread dough, rolled out flat, and some simple crushed tomatoes with spices.

After 10 minutes in the oven, it made for a simple, rustic, truly homemade dinner.



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