The separation of curds and whey has been around since man first domesticated sheep around 8000 BC. It is thought to have first occurred after transporting milk through the dessert in a canteen made from a calves stomach, which contains rennet, a natural occurring coagulant. The story is apocryphal, I am sure (isn’t every culinary-origin story?), but I like to think that the foods I love were miraculously happened upon, because it’s just more romantic that way.
Curds will separate from whey in milk with a number of acidic ingredients, including rennet, lemon juice or vinegar. (Rennet tablets are still available some markets.) The milk must be heated, and then once the coagulant is added, be strained to separate the whey. The process that occurs next determines the type of cheese being made. Additives to enhance flavor and color are used (annatto seed for orange cheddar, smoke, herbs and spices), then cheeses are molded and stored. The longer the cheese is stored, the firmer the cheese and more complex the flavor. Some are aged for years and years. Cheeses are subjected to specific mold and bacteria to create flavorful mold (like the vein in a blue cheese, or the fuzz on a soft rind brie).
Cheese making is a popular hobby, and fancy equipment and ingredients can be obtained through a number of on-line sources. But easy fresh cheeses can be made at home with everyday kitchen tools. Just be sure you follow a few simple rules:
· Be Clean!
There are four major pathogens that can cause foodborne illness from fresh cheese. (Salmonella, Escherichia coli, Listeria monocytogenes, and Staphylocaccus aureus. But they can be controlled by proper sanitation. All equipment and tools should be sanitized, which is as easy as running it through your dishwasher, or soaking in hot water with a touch of bleach (1 tablespoon of household bleach to 1 gallon water).
· Wash your hands!
You should do this anyway, but it is especially important when preserving foods.
· Use pasteurized milk.
Most milk in the store is already pasteurized. Because it is also homogenized, it has a different fat and protein texture that yields results different to store bought cheese. If you are super picky about this (I am not) unpasteurized milk can be used, as long as you pasteurize it yourself first (Heat to 140-145˚F and hold there for 30 minutes.)
· Chill out!
Bacteria thrive in warm protein, so once the cheese is made keep it refrigerated until ready to serve.
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