Yogurt and the most basic fresh cheeses require few special tools. But the more you get into making cheese, the more complex the process and equipment can be. At the first bite, you’ll know it was all worth it.
Buying the right ingredients—milk and starter culture—is your key to success. If you don’t raise cows, goats, or sheep, you most likely separate milk by fat content: skim to 2% to whole milk, half-and-half, whipping cream, etc. But if you want to culture the milk, how it’s already been processed becomes important. Pasteurization is good; it kills any harmful pathogens that may be in the raw milk. Ultrapasteurized or ultra-high-temperature milk is not good if you’re making cheese at home. If you try to reheat this milk at home to the lower temps needed for culturing, it won’t properly ferment or set curd. Homogenization, a process that breaks up the fat globules and suspends them in the milk, is OK. But since milk’s components need to be separated to make cheese, nonhomogenized (or cream on top) milk is best.
Starters are bacterial cultures that launch the cheesemaking process by acidifying milk; they then grow and develop the flavor of your chosen dairy product. Some ferments, like yogurt, start with a live, active culture. Acid-coagulated cheeses use lemon juice, citric acid, or another low-pH substance to jumpstart the process. More specialized cheeses require specific bacteria to develop the desired flavor; for these, it’s easiest to buy a powdered culture.
Powdered starter cultures come in two basic types. Mesophilic cultures work at the lowest temperatures and are used for cultured dairy products like buttermilk and fresh cheeses like feta. Many strains of bacteria can appear in the various mesophilic cultures, and they’re sometimes sold under confusingly different names. Once you get hooked on cheese making, you’ll likely have several on hand—but they store well in the freezer. Thermophilic cultures, which work at higher temperatures, vary just as widely but appear in fewer types of cheese that take more time or skill to make.
Depending on the cheese you’re making, you may find other specialty items helpful or even necessary. I recommend buying these as you need them; you may find the type of milk you use or even the quality of your tap water changes the special ingredients you might need:
- Coagulants: To turn milk into cheese, you need a coagulant, whose clotting action brings the curds together, separating them from the whey. Acids like lemon juice and citric acid can acidify and coagulate milk when making soft cheeses. Rennet also makes milk coagulate. It comes in different forms; tablets may be easiest when you start making cheese, but liquid rennet tends to be less expensive. Rennet is traditionally animal based, but plant-extracted rennet is increasingly common.
- Cheese and flake salts: Cheese tastes better when salted. You’ll also need salt as you advance to brining and aging cheese. I prefer a grind sold as “cheese salt” for mixing into freshly made cheese; it breaks down and distributes quickly in the warm curds. For dry salting and brining, flaky salt dissolves quickly on the cheese surface and in water.
As you make more cheese, you’ll see many other ingredients listed as options in recipes. For example, lipase powder adds an enzyme found naturally in goat’s milk to cheeses made with other milk types. Calcium chloride, in the form of a salt, replaces calcium that may have been lost during pasteurization and homogenization and can make your curds firmer.
Many of the tools that will come in handy for dairy fermentation most likely already live in your kitchen. A colander, large bowls, large slotted and wooden spoons, measuring cups and spoons, cutting boards, and a long knife, such as a bread knife, are among the equipment that may come into play, depending on the specific item you are planning to make and the technique you are using to do so. But a few other tools you may not own can be essential to making cheese successfully:
- Large pot: A large, nonreactive pot with a heavy bottom is best for making cheese. I found a stainless steel one at a discount store that holds more than 2 gallons of milk and has become my favorite. Make sure yours is at least 1 gallon.
- Thermometer: You’ll need to keep either a fairly close or an eagle eye on your milk temperature, depending on the type of cheese you’re making. I use a metal-probe dial thermometer or a digital thermometer but find they work equally well—as long as they cover a range of 0°F to 220°F. My current favorite for everything from cheese to jam to English muffins is a ThermaPen from ThermoWorks.
- Butter muslin: This densely woven sister of cheesecloth is ideal for soft cheeses, capturing all of the curds as you drain off the whey. Locally, I find mine among the beer-making supplies rather than the cheese equipment; apparently, it makes great hops bags.
A range of specialty items can be used when making cheese. Most are geared toward dedicated or even small-batch commercial cheesemakers, but you may want to consider acquiring or rigging a few of these helpful items over time:
- Cheese molds: Freshly made curds are added to molds, where they sit while they release whey and condense into the chosen shape. If you visit any good cheese counter, you’ll see many shapes made by different molds. You could acquire a large collection—or you could hang your cheeses for draining and reuse berry baskets and other perforated containers as molds until you’re hooked on making a particular type of cheese.
- Cheese mats: These perforated mats can help when draining cheese; the cheese rests on the mat, and the whey drains through it to the tray beneath. Sushi mats are good alternatives. If you’re simply hanging your cheese in its cheesecloth to drain, all you need is a bowl to catch the whey.
- Drip tray: Special trays are sized to hold cheese mats, but their main purpose is to catch the whey being expelled from the cheese. A rimmed baking sheet is an easy substitute.
- Cheese weights and press: Some cheeses require specific pressure to properly compact the curds; you can control this with cheese weights that fit various molds or a cheese press that can be adjusted for various pressures. But most soft cheeses need no or little weight, which you can rig with pantry and kitchen items like jars of tomato sauce and water-filled milk jugs.
Lots of other specialty cheese tools exist, including cheese boards, cheese wrap, curd knives, and followers. As you continue making cheese, you may find some items worth the investment. My favorite sources for cheesemaking supplies include New England Cheesemaking Supply, Cultures for Health, and Hoegger.