Cheese Makers Forum FAQ Equipment part 1 Equipment part 2 History

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Why make cheese every day?

The last couple years I have become intensely interested in fermented foods, mostly because they are delicious, but also because of the sense of satisfaction when they are done right. Unlike simply cooking or baking, fermentation is almost alchemical. While many can follow a recipe or even improvise while cooking, many are lost when it comes to fermenting food. Most people do not understand why the fermentation processes take place, what makes fermentation successful, and how to control fermentation for taste/texture/aroma.

I first started experimenting with fermentation with home brewing about eleven years ago. Back then a friend and I would make extract batches of beer that turned out (for the most part) surprisingly well. However it was the failures that I think intrigued me the most. One batch we made smelled and tasted like lighter fluid. Another had fruity/malty flavors that down out everything else. Others were 'stuck'--they fermented for awhile, then abruptly stopped before they were done.

After lots of reading and experimenting, brewing beer has become pretty easy. You learn what you absolutely must do to prevent problems (heat break, cold break, lots and lots of oxygen in the wort, yeast starters, etc.), what you absolutely must not do (pitch yeast when the wort is still 150F, primary fermentation in a carboy on the carpet), and how to troubleshoot problems as they come up (temperature, temperature, temperature).

Six or seven years ago the wife and I moved into an apartment, so I mostly stopped brewing. Brewing in a small apartment with a tiny stove isn't all that much fun, so I found a new hobby, baking bread. The first couple years baking I definitely had more failures than successes, since I really didn't understand what was happening in the dough. While I was adding yeast to flour, I didn't really think of it as 'fermentation', I just thought it was how to make the dough rise. I had a kind of schism between the experiences I had with brewing and baking, and while there are plenty of differences, the similarities (as I would discover later) are striking. The main problem I had was I thought the failures were due to an ingredient missing, not a technique missing.

My eyes were really opened when I bought Pepin's Complete Technique. Even though I bought it for the pictures and discussion of cooking technique, it was the first couple pages talking about baking lean hearth breads that really opened my eyes--i.e., *only* using flour, water, salt, and yeast, while baking the loaf at temperatures I had never set my oven to before (500-550F). After a couple of false starts I realized that the previous attempts hadn't been failures of the ingredients, but failures due to me not knowing what the hell I was doing. Not enough water, not letting the dough really rise, rising it at too high of a temperature, and baking at too low of a temperature. Once I had these fundamental problems figured out, I finally started baking passable loaves. Not great, but not an embarrassment.

Over the years, with the help of the Bread Bakers Apprentice, eGullet, and Dan Lepards wonderful forums I feel very comfortable with fundamentals such as bakers percentages, dough retarding, starch conversion, wild yeasts (sour dough), and all the other fiddly bits that go with bread baking. So, while I am not a great baker, I have internalized the whole process and can bake fantastic baguettes, boules, pizzas, sourdough, multigrain, and many other types or styles.

So at this point in my life, I feel quite comfortable with brewing all grain beer and baking a wide variety of yeast based breads. With the lessons I've learned based on the similarities between the two domains, I decided it was a good time to really concentrate on something I've been playing with but never really invested time in to--making cheese.

There has been a cheese mold and press with me for a number of years and I've toyed around with pressing hard cheeses, but I never really knew what I was doing. But a couple weeks ago I decided that enough was enough, I know I can do this well, so it's time to invest a little time to get it right. With that in mind, I've decided to make a loaf of cheese ~5 days a week for the foreseeable future. This will allow me to experiment, take notes, compare loaves over time, and really solidify the missing techniques I need to make a good, tasty cheese.

The world of fermented foods is vast, even when you narrow it down to a certain sub-selection. There are dozens of recognized styles of beer, and probably more recognized styles of fermented grape juice (wine :D ). There are hundreds of styles of breads, uncountable styles of pickles, and the same goes for cheeses. It is incredible to see the myriad of cheese available in many supermarkets these days--from regionally protected cheese such as Roquefort (self proclaimed king of cheese!), Camembert, Wendleysdale (Wallace and Gromit!) to styles produced by virtually every creamery.

With that in mind, the cheeses I have been attempting to make, explore, and understand at pressed, sharp cheeses without secondary inoculations. This includes cheese such as cheddar, provolone, colby, and many others. I feel that getting a handle on the basic techniques required for these styles will set me up for understanding more complex cheeses such as swiss/Emmentaler/gruyere, blue, and parmesean/romano/asiago.

This project officially started on the 25th of February 2009. While half a dozen loaves had been fermented in the January (the month before this project started), at least half of them were failures. Some of them never developed an attractive flavor, some of them had textural problems such as excessive sponginess, and others were just too difficult to press due to the curds whey content. It was because of this inconsistency that I really became motivated to understand what was going right and what was going wrong. Two that end, I have been testing and formulating Master Recipes, to help the beginning cheesemaker, like myself, to be able to make a great product as quickly as possible.

And for now, cheers.

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Cheese A Day by Jeremy Pickett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.
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