You — Yes, You — Can Make Your Own Cheese

Why let the homebrew people have all the fun?

The U.S. makes a lot of cheese — 12.7 billion pounds in 2017, with Wisconsin producing the most, according to an Agricultural Marketing Resource Center report.

But when it comes to making cheese at home, that’s another story entirely.

While there seems to be a trend of taking a stab at making your own beer and bread, cheese hasn’t caught on.

Since I started making cheese, so many people have said to me: “I didn’t know you could make cheese at home!”

But cheesemaking is actually very fun and easy, even for someone as inept in the kitchen as I am, and there are so many resources out there (like this excellent book) that can help you get started.

In my experience, it’s more akin to baking than cooking. It’s more about following directions and having the right ingredients.

If you’re into that kind of thing, cheesemaking could be your next new hobby, too.

Finding the right equipment

Most of the equipment a beginning cheesemaker needs is probably already in your kitchen. You’ll need a gallon or bigger pot, a large spoon, strainer, measuring spoons, some ceramic bowls and a measuring cup.

The two more unusual pieces of equipment include a cooking thermometer and a cheese cloth. You can pick those up at any grocery store.

And now for the ingredients

First, there’s the milk. Raw milk is difficult to find for regulatory reasons, but pasteurized whole milk works. Make sure it’s not ultra-pasteurized. The label should make it clear what kind of milk it is.

Salt is also another important ingredient. Herbs and spices are nice but not necessary.

Then there are the special chemicals that are required. First there’s rennet, an enzyme that coagulates the milk. Standard rennet is not vegetarian-friendly, but vegetable rennet is available. Some grocery stores carry it.

Then there’s citric acid, often found in powder form, that comes from citrus fruits. An alternative to citric acid is vinegar, where 1 tablespoon of vinegar can replace ½ a teaspoon of citric acid.

Next there’s calcium chloride, a salt that helps restore the calcium levels in pasteurized milk. Then there’s lipase powder, an enzyme that helps with taste. Finally, there’s bacteria culture, but some recipes don’t call for it.

While these ingredients may sound complicated or hard to find, they are easily available online or in cheesemaking kits. Once you have them, they can be used for many batches of cheese.

Photo of a kitchen countertop full of cheesemaking items: bowl, measuring cup, measuring spoons, ingredients. Rewire PBS Living MozzarellaCredit: Elisa Schoenberger
You probably already have most of what you need to make cheese.

An easy cheese recipe

One of the more satisfying and forgiving cheeses to make as a beginner is mozzarella based on Standing Stone Farm’s recipe.

This mozzarella doesn’t require culture or cheese cloth and takes only about 45 minutes to make. Here are some pointers based on what I’ve learned.

Don’t forget to sterilize

Sterilizing your equipment is important because cheesemaking is about controlling mold. You want to be working with the right kinds of mold when you’re making cheese.

There are a few ways to sterilize cheesemaking equipment. You can boil all your equipment inside your cheese-making pot for 20 minutes. But you can only do that if all your equipment is made of metal that can withstand boiling temperatures.

Mary Hoffman, a hobbyist cheesemaker of several years in DeForest, Wisconsin, recommends filling a clean sink halfway with hot water and then adding a “splurge” of bleach. Submerge every utensil and pot into the mix and then rinse off thoroughly with cold water.

Making the cheese

Let’s make some mozzarella.

You’ll need:

1 gallon of milk
2 teaspoons citric acid powder
½ teaspoon of lipase powder
1 teaspoon of calcium chloride diluted in ¼ cup of water
⅛ teaspoon of liquid rennet diluted in ¼ cup of water
2 teaspoon (or more) of salt

1. Add 2 tsp of citric acid to the gallon of milk in your pot and stir seven times. Stir in a scooping motion, not in a circle.

2. Then add the lipase powder and stir again.

3. Heat the mixture to 88 degrees on your stovetop. If it gets hotter than that on accident, that’s okay; this recipe is super forgiving. Just cool it down to 88 degrees again.

Photo of a large pot full of cream-colored liquid with a cooking thermometer. Rewire Living PBS MozzarellaCredit: Elisa Schoenberger
The milk mixture gets heated up to 88 degrees.

4. At 88 degrees, take it off the heat. Add 1 tsp of calcium chloride solution. (Always add this before the rennet.) Stir seven times.

5. Then add in the diluted rennet and stir. Rennet does get less effective as it sits so you might have to add more.

6. Let the milk mixture sit without heat for two minutes.

7. Bring the heat up to 104 degrees, stirring occasionally. If it gets too hot, that’s okay. Cool it down again.

Photo of a large pot with curdled cream-colored liquid. Rewire Living PBS MozzarellaCredit: Elisa Schoenberger
Your mixture should look like this once the rennet is added.

8. Turn off the heat and pour the mixture into the strainer. It can get a bit messy at this stage. Curds will remain in the strainer, while the whey, the yellowish liquid, is strained.

9. Transfer the curds to a microwavable bowl. Add ¼ tsp of salt on top of them. Microwave for a minute. Other recipes of mozzarella involve taking the curds in and out of water. Using the microwave bypasses that step.

Photo of a bowl full of curds and whey. Rewire PBS Living MozzarellaCredit: Elisa Schoenberger
This is what curds and whey looks like.

10. Drain the whey again. Make sure to turn the mixture over to drain the whey underneath.

11. Repeat the microwaving and draining process one or two more times until the whey looks white or until there’s only 1 tablespoon of it left.

12. Begin kneading and stretching the cheese with your spoon. You can also hand-knead it, but it may be hot. Add salt to taste as the mozzarella is stretched.

After some time working the cheese, it will start to get shiny and stringy. If desired, the mozzarella can be put into a mixture of cold water and salt to help it hold its round shape, but it is not necessary. Enjoy!

Photo of a finished ball of mozzarella cheese on a fancy plate. Rewire PBS Living MozzarellaCredit: Elisa Schoenberger
And voila! Final product.

It’s good, delicious and sometimes messy fun. If you’re considering trying it for the first time, “my advice is just go for it,” Hoffman said. “Once you make your first cheese and see how easy it can be, you will be hooked.”

Elisa Shoenberger

Elisa Shoenberger is a freelance writer and journalist in Chicago. She has worked in the fundraising sector for more than seven years. She has written for the Boston Globe, Deadspin, the Rumpus, Chicago Reader, Curbed and many other publications. She is a regular contributor to Book Riot, Streeterville News/New East Side News, the Book and Paper Fair blog and Culturess.