In an era where all things labeled “do-it-yourself” or “DIY” are gaining popularity, making cheese at home is having a sort of modern-day renaissance in America. Stylish cheesemaking kits are available from a variety of outlets ranging from high-end home furnishings stores like Williams-Sonoma to and hip and fashionable online retailers like Etsy.com. These kits offer do-it-yourselfers the supplies and instructions necessary to make homemade cheeses such as ricotta, farmers’ cheese, mozzarella, feta, and, even hard cheeses like cheddar. They promise it is so easy and delicious that you may never buy cheese again. The cute, little, cardboard boxes with folded handles have everything an aspiring home cheesemaker needs, except the milk.
Interestingly, it is the milk, not the kit contents, which have the largest influence the flavor and, thus, the deliciousness of a cheese. It is also the milk that determines the ease for making cheese. So, how does this critical ingredient make or break an easy, at-home cheesemaking experience?
The Mini DIY Cheese Kit for Farmers’ Cheese from UrbanCheeseCraft comes packaged in a cleaver cardboard box reminiscent of the kids-meal boxes that are ubiquitous at fast-food chains. The kit costs $10 plus shipping ($4.25) and it claims to make 3 batches of cheese using ½-gallon of milk each. It contains instructions, butter muslin, 1.5 ounces of cheese salt, and 1.5 ounces of citric acid. For comparison, a quick internet search locates several free online cheese recipes. A search of Amazon.com also indicates similar supplies may be purchased at a third to a half of the price; however, in aggregate, one may have to spend more because the exact same quantities are not available.
The kit’s label is in the style of a chalkboard with child-like white lettering and artwork on a black background. All included material has similar cartoon-like branding. The playful-nature of this packaging seems to indicate this kit is a fun novelty or a sort of game to play. Like a kid’s chemistry set, it seems to say, “You will have fun with this kit. It is like playtime,” rather than “You will learn a new skill that will reduce your dependence on the industrial food system.” Everything about this kit, including its inflated cost, indicates the target customer is a person interested in a one-stop-shop, do-it-yourself (DIY) experience rather than someone interested in learning the skills necessary to replace the cheese in their refrigerator with homemade cheese.
According to Laura Lotti it is no accident that the entire kit is designed to invoke feelings of playfulness and experimentation. In her 2014 Media and Culture Journal article on DIY Cheesemaking, Lotti explains components of the DIY movement appeal to human creativity and experimentation. She indicates the DIY movement seems to be more about people expressing their individualism in a creative and artistic way rather than achieving material independence.
The kit’s instruction sheet starts with a firm warning: “Please read this ENTIRE recipe booklet BEFORE you begin.” The section “Secrets to Success Continued” provides advice on milk. At this point, the consumer learns the kit is intended for use with “raw or plain pasteurized whole milk” while other milk varieties will impart different flavors. The quality of milk is again mentioned in the “PEP TALK!” section which seems to be a fun euphemism for suggesting something may have gone wrong with the first attempt at home cheesemaking so try again. It is quick to indicate milk selection is the likely culprit for what went wrong with the plea, “You really won’t believe how much easier coagulation is with raw, organic, or non-homogenized milk. It is more expensive, but wouldn’t you rather eat natural cheese even if it is a little less often?” The aspiring home cheesemaker is now realizing the one-stop-shop, do-it-yourself cheesemaking kit requires more shopping than the impulse online purchase they made.
The secret to why a home cheesemaker has more success using raw, organic, non-homogenized milk lies in the microbial community that exists in raw milk. As Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of The Kitchen, puts it, “It’s [Milk’s] alive in the sense that, fresh from the udder, it contains living white blood cells some mammary-gland cells, and various bacteria; and it teems with active enzymes…” The lively nature of raw milk, especially the enzymes, aid in the coagulation that turns milk into cheese. Milk with more enzymatic activity coagulates better and faster in the presence of the citric acid provided in this DIY Cheesemaking Kit. While pasteurization is intended to rid milk of bad microbes like tuberculosis and E.Coli, it also reduces or eliminates the good microbes that help make cheesemaking easy.
On being advised to use raw, organic non-homogenized milk, the aspiring home cheesemaker may head to the supermarket for another brand of milk to make another go at farmers’ cheese. Scanning the supermarket shelves offers a surprising variety of milk options. There are several brands each of lactose free, goat’s milk, skim, whole, 2%, 1%, and more. Close scrutiny of labels shows all milk available on supermarket shelves are pasteurized. Some labels, such as Horizon Organic’s Organic Fat-Free Milk, indicate “ultra-pasteurized.” Other labels, such as Hood’s Whole Milk, simply say “pasteurized.”
Failure to find an organic, raw, non-homogenized milk at the supermarket may cause some of the aspiring cheesemakers to give up and accept the kit as a financial loss. Others may consider this new challenge part of the DIY experience and head to a specialty or organic market. Here, among the pasteurized and ultra-pasteurized milks, there may be something like Maine’s Own Organic Fat Free Milk with the phrase “Gently Pasteurized – Never Ultra Pasteurized” or Organic Valley’s Non-Homogonized GrassMilk, which is simply identified “pasteurized.” Again, some of the aspiring cheesemakers may find all this terminology confusing, give up and cut their losses. Some may use their sense of adventure to try one of these inferior alternatives to see what happens.
The terminology on milk cartons is confusing. Basic pasteurization where a batch of milk is held at 145°F or above for at least 30-35 minutes is batch-pasteurization. High-temperature, short-time (HTST) pasteurization holds milk at a 162°F or above for at least 15 seconds. Ultra-high temperature (UHT) pasteurization, or ultra-pasteurization, holds milk at 280°F for at least two seconds. Applying any of these methods to milk earns it a “pasteurized” label. According to the FDA, milk available through interstate commerce, as is most supermarket milk, is labeled as pasteurized with the name of the pasteurization facility regardless of whether the pasteurization method is HTST or UHT. This means, unless the label specifically indicates the milk is NOT ultra-pasteurized, it may actually be ultra-pasteurized.
The higher the temperature of pasteurization the more likely desirable milk microbes are completely destroyed. Ultra-pasteurization temperatures render milk sterile and lifeless. While this is good for shelf-life, it is not good for cheesemaking.
The most determined of the aspiring cheesemakers might expand their search to find a supplier of raw, organic, non-homogenized milk. Looking for raw, organic, non-homogenized milk at a supermarket in the United States is an exercise in futility. There is none. Thanks to an effort to reduce infant mortality at the end of the nineteenth century, milk pasteurization became a common practice. For a period, certified raw milk and pasteurized milk were both available to the public. Over time, the federal government banned raw milk in interstate commerce and most states restricted the retail sale of raw milk to the public. Without parsing the individual laws of each state, the least restrictive sale of raw milk is limited to licensed retailers. In short, this means raw milk is not generally available in the supermarket.
Only 11 states allow licensed retailers to sell raw milk. An additional 22 states allow farms to sell raw milk either through a farm store or a herdshare. State laws around raw milk sales are slowly changing, but that change seems slow relative to the increasing interest in home cheesemaking. With such limited availability of raw milk to the average consumer, it is hard to imagine home cheesemaking becoming more than a novelty. Surely, only a small percentage of people try their hand at home cheesemaking out of curiosity. From that, how likely is it that more than a small fraction of the curious turns home cheesemaking into a habit. These barriers indicate it is also not likely the home cheesemaking supply industry will expand beyond a cottage, niche market.
Given only pasteurized and ultra-pasteurized milk is readily available to the average consumer, I set out to examine how well a few different milks perform with the Farmers’ Cheese DIY Cheesemaking Kit from UrbanCheeseCraft. I prepared four batches of Farmers’ cheese in an as identical of a manner as I could according to the UrbanCheeseCraft recipe. A different milk variety was used for each preparation as follows:
1. Horizon Organic Fat-Free Milk, Homogenized and Ultra-Pasteurized, $3.99 per ½-gallon
2. Eastleigh Farm Non-Homogenized Milk, Raw, $9 per ½-gallon
3. Shaw Farm Homogenized Whole Milk, Pasteurized, $1.79 per quart plus $0.90 glass deposit
4. Shaw Farm Homogenized Skim Milk, Pasteurized, $1.79 per quart plus $0.90 glass deposit
Milk selected for the experiment
My goal is to evaluate the outcome an aspiring cheesemaker might experience given the types of milk readily available. Although four types of milk is hardly exhaustive, each was selected as an option that may be easily available. Horizon Organic milk is clearly labeled “Ultra-Pasteurized.” Only fat-free milk was available in this variety. Since the recipe suggests best results are obtained with organic, raw, non-homogenized milk, Eastleigh Farm’s milk is the desired recipe baseline. Shaw Farm explicitly describes their pasteurization as “low-temperature (146°[F]) vat pasteurizer, held at this temperature for 30 minutes then cooled to 40 degrees [F], or lower, before it is bottled…” This is reflective of a batch-pasteurization process. A mix of skim milk and whole milk is selected for multi-variable comparison.
I adjusted the recipe to use one quart of milk instead of ½-gallon of milk. Identical-weight quantities of salt and citric acid are used for each batch. Temperatures are measured with a calibrated digital thermometer. To minimize cross-contamination, each batch is also processed in a different non-reactive, stainless steel pot using different non-reactive spoons. All of the milk was purchased within two days of the experiment. They were taken directly from the refrigerator prior to starting the test. Their starting temperatures were within 2°F of each other.
The milk is heated simultaneously to the recommended 185°F and citric acid is added and stirred vigorously. Once the whey and curd separates, the mixture is gently stirred to cook the curds for 1 minute. The mixture is drained through fine cheesecloth to separate the whey from the curd. After 5 minutes of draining, the curds are mixed with salt and ready for tasting.
(a) Milk curdling (b) Draining curds (c) Finished & salted curds
The Results & Discussion
It took 45-minutes from the time the milk was removed from the refrigerator to the time the curds were salted. Being that I have home-cheesemaking experience, I do not recommend first-time cheesemaker attempt to make four batches simultaneously; a first-time cheesemaker may take longer to complete their first batch.
Since the “PEP TALK” links coagulation failure to the use of pasteurized milk, I originally expected the ultra-pasteurized milk would not easily separate into curds and whey. However, all batches successfully coagulated creating curds and whey with the citric acid. I did not monitor the time to coagulate, but none of the milk took noticeably longer to coagulate than the raw milk.
After draining the curds for five minutes, there was noticeable difference in final weight of the curd. A small variance in the final weight might be expected due to the low precision and control during stirring and draining. The raw milk and two batch-pasteurized milks had a final weight between 4 and ounces. However, the ultra-pasteurized milk produced significantly less curd at 2.6 oz.
There was also a difference in visual appearance. The ultra-pasteurized milk curd was drier and less creamy in appearance. This is reflective of the lower final weight where most of the liquid was lost to the whey. Its appearance was white with an unappealing translucent quality. The batch-pasteurized skim milk curds produced denser, less translucent curds, while the batch-pasteurized whole milk curds appeared creamy and fluffy. The raw milk curd was also creamy and there is a light yellow tint to it. The liquid raw milk was also slightly yellow.
Although the visual and physical properties of the curd are important for appeal, the proof is in the tasting. Using a very small number of tasters, the final, salted curds were compared. Although the same amount of salt is used, the ultra-pasteurized curds have a lower curd to salt ratio. The result is a remarkably saltier curd. Discounting for the saltiness, descriptions were as follows:
Ultra-Pasteurized Skim Milk: “course”, “hard”, “chewy”, “dry”, “bland”, and “like chewing on piecrust”.
Batch-Pasteurized Skim: “like ricotta”, “not much flavor”, “grainy” and “a little like sour milk”.
Batch-Pasteurized Whole: “smooth”, “creamy”, “reminds me of buttermilk”, “like whipped cream cheese”.
Raw Milk: “smooth”, “very similar to the whole milk”, “buttery”, “fatty and salty. . .mmm”, “mildly sweet”.
Tasters prefer the texture and flavor of the batch-pasteurized whole milk curds and raw, non-homogenized milk curds. The texture of the batch-pasteurized skim-milk curds were considered acceptable, but they are less flavorful. Generally, the ultra-pasteurized curds were the least favored.
The preceding experiment is limited in scope. With so many milk producers selling such a large variety of milks, there are an enormous number of permutations for doing this experiment. From a superficial perspective, all milk might appear to be identical. However, differences arising from things like cattle breed, cattle feed, processing, packaging, and handling produce different milks on a microscopic level. So, a home cheesemaker may not get the same results.
Additionally, so many factors beyond the milk affect home cheesemaking outcomes. Any combination of these factors could have contributed to the different outcomes experience here. As Lotti explains, “Ultimately, DIY cheese-making allows the cook to be creative with moulding, seasonings, and marinading… and by developing—often via processes of trial and error—techniques [sic] for stirring, draining, moulding, marinading, canning, and so forth, making cheese at home is an exercise in speculative pragmatics.”
From this brief and limited experiment, it appears the aspiring home cheesemaker could successfully make a Farmers’ Cheese from milk readily available in the supermarket. However, the results may not live up to the promise of being better than store-purchased cheese. The ultra-pasteurized cheese produced the least desirable cheese visibly, physically, and gastronomically. The whole-milk versions resulted in a more flavorful and creamier cheese. If the aspiring home cheesemaker is able to find whole milk they are certain is batch-pasteurized, it appears they can achieve similar results as with raw, non-homogenized milk.
Cheese labeled “farmer’s cheese” can be purchased at a variety of price points, so it is difficult to compare these homemade cheeses on a direct value basis. However, it can be discussed on other qualitative dimensions.
None of the cheeses were considered outstanding in flavor or texture, so the flavor itself is may not be sufficient to compel many aspiring cheesemakers to make another batch. This is especially true for the ultra-pasteurized version. For them, this kit may have provided a fun day, but that is about all. For the aspiring, but determined, cheesemaker, another attempt may compel them to revisit the “milk quality” question and make another attempt with a new brand of milk. Going from an ultra-pasteurized variety to a batch-pasteurized or raw, organic, non-homogenized variety might provide enough improvement to keep some aspiring cheesemakers interested. The true experimentalist might take on the challenge of refining and improving their cheese with multiple attempts. This person will likely outgrow the one-stop-shop, do-it-yourself kit once its supplies are depleted.
If the question is, “Can cheese be made with a DIY Cheesemaking Kit?” the answer is a resounding “Yes.” The result may be a day of fun and maybe an edible cheese that an aspiring cheesermaker’s friends and family will enjoy. In that case, the kit delivers an experience that may be fun, creative, and worth the money. If the question is, “Can a DIY Cheesemaking Kit convert an aspiring cheesemaker to a habitual cheesemaker?” the answer is a bit fuzzier, but it seems reasonable to assume the conversion rates are small. DIY Cheesemaking Kits may offer the aspiring cheesemaker a bit of fun, but it is not likely the commercial cheesemaking world has any concerns they will be replaced any time soon.