How to cut and manage your curd while making cheese is one of the most common questions asked. I think it is similar to questions about kneading in bread--people that cut curd or knead bread really often know that as long as you don't do anything crazy it's pretty easy.
Cutting the curd accomplishes a major, major goal: releasing whey (liquid). Now, releasing whey can be accomplished in a ton of ways (heh, whey way :D). You could blend the curd and just let it sit in cheese cloth until it was done. You could cut it up into exact sized 3 millimeter squares with an Exacto blade. You could beat it with a stick. You could build a giant dehydrator. But none of these are very efficient. There are better uses for your, and your cheeses, time.
The reason we cheese makers cut the way we do is actually pretty straight forward, by cutting the curd into reasonable chunks, the whey will release at similar rates per curd. If you have a one cubic inch curd compared to a half cubic inch of curd, they will release whey at a different rate. This affects two major things as I see it.
First, expulsion of whey makes a hard cheese, well, hard. Without most of the liquid being expelled from the curd, all we would ever have is soft cheeses. Plus inconsistent whey expulsion from curd makes for an irregular texture in the final cheese. It isn't always a deal breaker, but if you are eating a cheese and one part is gritty and another is smooth, it certainly isn't ideal. Basically, getting a consistent sized curd is like making a gravy without lumps. A lumpy gravy can be very good, but it's usually better received without it.
The second reason for removing lots of whey from the curd is to remove lactose. Before I was an amateur cheese maker I brewed a lot of beer, wine, and baked lots of bread (still do in fact!). I am being extremely general with this line of thought, but in those tradition, sugar is transformed into either alcohol or carbon dioxide, which are very beneficial to the end product. In cheese making, the main sugar lactose is digested by the bacteria into lactic acid. And though a good amount of lactic acid is important to a well balanced cheese, too much makes a cheese that is really unpalatable.
That is why whey expulsion and in many cases washing the curd is important to making a good tasting, balanced cheese. Plus, in the recipe that is being developed at CheeseADay, the washing also increases the temperature of the curd to a point where it squeezes whey out by itself.
After cutting the curds into columns, it is important to cut the columns themselves. What you are looking for is walnut sized to filbert/hazelnut sized curds. I do this by cutting the columns at 45 degree angles with a long knife. After the curd is cut, you use a large spoon to lift and cut the remain large pieces into small curds. There isn't any artistry to this I can think of, you just want to cut the vertical pieces smaller.
Once the curd is cut, it is important to make sure the water bath around the cheese is still warm, and give it a little time to rest. After the curd has been cut the edges are delicate and may flake away, but this isn't a huge deal. As long as you give the curd five or ten minutes to 'heal', then most of the curd will stick back together.
In fact, being delicate with the curd at this point is probably one of the biggest issues that beginning cheese makers encounter. There is a balance between using mechanical power (your spoon) versus disturbing your curd and as long as you have used fresh rennet and you have a clean break, then stirring or swirling your curds will actually have a positive effect. You don't have to handle your curd with kid gloves as long as you have a clean break.
Many books talk about preventing the curds from 'matting' after they have been cut. I personally was curious why this was a problem, since matting is precisely what you do later in the process of pressing. Well, at this point in the cheese making game the reason you want to prevent matting is to make sure your texture is consistent, and to make sure your cheese isn't sharp in one section and mild in another. If your curd mat you won't always end up with a bad cheese, just an unpredictable cheese. Some people actually see this as a benefit :)
To ensure a more consistent cheese gently swirl the curds around the pot. Don't be afraid of this step--you want to 'move' the curd, not 'mix' the curd, and as long as you keep that in mind you should be fine. If some particles break off that is okay, though in industrial facilities I hear that is a very bad thing since it decreases yield. In my opinion though, a gram or two less in yield while learning is a good trade off compared to having a sour and squishy curd.
Each individual one should at least be the consistency of really over cooked pasta, or perhaps fluffy scrambled eggs. If they are like custard or creme brule then the curds should be left to rest for about an hour with tossing and breaking apart every ten minutes or so. If they fall apart and don't feel like they are going to compress, then either the temperature was too low or the rennet wasn't fresh.
The reason this measure is important is pretty straight forward, overly squishy curd will just squeeze out of the cheese cloth if it's under pressure. You want to make sure it is nice and firm before it gets pressed so you end up with a firm loaf and not a curd explosion.
In the pictures accompanying this post the cheese cloth is a bit different than what many other makers use. This is a very tight knit nylon which my wife found on sale for less than a buck a yard, so that's the only reason I'm using it. The loose cotton style of cloth is actually easier to use, as this stuff likes to stick to the loaf like crazy.
Before you load the curds into the cloth, they have to be firm enough to withstand some severe punishment. The basic recipe recommends about ten pounds of pressure, while many press recipes recommend 50 pounds of pressure. You know what these differences do? They affect the *appearance* of the loaf, not so much the flavor or texture. Depending on many factors--temperature mainly--the pressing weight is one of the less important factors flavor wise in my opinion. It makes a huge difference looks wise, but of all the factors affecting flavor, pressing weight is lower on the list.
Cheese A Day by Jeremy Pickett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at cheeseaday.blogspot.com.