Alpine Cheese

Making a hard cheese no harder than making a soft cheese.  In fact the process of making a hard cheese is just a variation on the basic recipe for soft cheese curds.  What distinguishes a hard cheese from a soft is essentially how the curds are handled…

There are several differences between hard cheeses and soft cheeses.  In the order in which they are relevant to the cheesemaking process, the differences are:

*Hard cheeses are made with more milk than soft cheeses.

*Hard cheeses are started with different starter cultures than soft cheeses.

*Hard cheeses are coagulated with more rennet than soft cheeses.

*Hard cheeses have their curds cut more finely than soft cheeses.

*Hard cheeses are cooked at a higher temperature than soft cheeses.

*Hard cheeses are pressed, while soft cheeses are not.

*Hard cheeses are generally aged longer than soft cheeses.

Understanding these differences is the key to making full flavoured, beautifully aged hard cheeses.

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There are many different types of hard cheeses.  Each is handled in a distinct way that gives that certain cheese its distinguishing characteristics.    From Cheddar, to Gouda, to Parmesan, to Pecorino to Tomme, the variations on flavour, texture, colour and appearance in hard cheeses is incredible. The variations in production methods are similarly diverse.

Before continuing further, I should note that many hard cheeses are actually soft cheeses in disguise.  Cheddar and Gouda, for instance, are prepared by first making soft curds.  Those familiar soft curds are then handled in a particular method that makes them hard.  Soft curds are ‘Cheddared’  to make Cheddar, while the same curds are ‘washed’  to make Gouda.  These two methods are worthy of their own instruction set.  Someday soon I’ll include recipes for these two cheeses on these pages.

Most other hard cheeses, though, start off in a distinct manner that is a variation of the soft cheese method.  The recipe that follows is a recipe that is at the heart of most hard cheeses.  This recipe will make a very firm, full flavoured cheese that can be ripened for many months and up to several years – given the appropriate conditions.    I call this cheese an alpine cheese, as the method used to make it developed in the Alps region of Europe, where an abundant milk supply from alpine pastured animals is made into very large, very firm cheeses, that are rolled downhill to market.

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Alpine cheese

1. Get lots of GOOD milk

First, source good milk.  Again, as we are making a rennet curd, we need to use milk that is minimally processed.   Raw milk is best, and worth sourcing if you wish to make a hard cheese.  Raw milk will yield curds faster, and that are easier to handle.  And a hard cheese made with raw milk will have exceptional flavour next to its Pasteur-ized counterpart as a result of the diverse bacterial cultures present  in raw milk, as well as the handling methods that raw milk production demand, that result in better tasting milk.  The flavour of the milk is concentrated most in hard cheeses – sourcing good milk will result in exceptionally good cheese.

Second, get lots of that good milk.

You will need at least two gallons of good milk to make this cheese.   I would recommend using at least five gallons, preferably more.  The larger your cheese is, the more it will be able to hold its moisture, and the longer this cheese will age.  Hard cheeses are made by getting out as much moisture as possible from a cheese; if your cheese is too small, what little moisture it has will leave the cheese within a couple of months, and the cheese will no longer age – it will dry out.  A larger cheese made with more milk will have much more moisture, will lose its moisture more slowly, and thus age longer before it dries out.  Your best source for large quantities of milk is to get it directly from a cow.  Short of that, find a farmer willing to sell such large volumes.

2. Warm that milk to 90F

Over medium heat, and in a large, heavy pot, heat your milk to 90F. Again, this 90F is the sweet-spot for cheesemaking.  Later on in the cheesemaking process we will increase the temperature of the milk to 110F, but for now we will keep the pot just barely warm.

 3. Add in your starter culture.

When making a hard cheese, you will need starter cultures that are resistant to the higher temperatures of the alpine cheesemaking process.  Cheesemaking supply companies sell specific ‘thermophilic’ starter cultures that ‘love high temperatures’ . These cultures are different than those cultures that most cheesemakers use to make soft cheeses at lower temperatures, cultures known as ‘mesophilic’, or ‘medium temperature lovers’.

I find the need for distinguishing between mesophilic and thermophilic starters unnecessary.  If you are using a ‘natural’ source of culture, as opposed to a single strain of laboratory raised culture, there is no distinction needed.  I use my kefir culture as a starter for both my hard and my soft cheeses, as the diverse bacterial cultures in kefir will thrive in a wide range of temperatures.  In raw milk are present many different beneficial bacterial cultures that will work in a wide range of temperatures as well.  Even store bought yogourt can be used as a starter, as most yogourts contain several strains of cultures that thrive at both high and low temperatures.

I add in a quarter cup of kefir or live active whey as a starter culture, per gallon of milk. Stir the culture in well.

4. Incubate the milk at 90F for one hour

Keep the milk warm for one hour to encourage the bacterial cultures to thrive.  Put a lid on the pot to keep the warmth in, and wrap the pot in towels to insulate it.

5.  Add in a high dose of rennet.

To make a hard cheese, you will need to add in an extra-large dose of rennet.  The rennet dosage will differ based on the variety of rennet used, and the amount of milk you are making into cheese.  The prescribed dose of rennet will need to be increased by 50% to make a hard cheese.  This increased rennet addition results in a firmer curd that will stand up to the more violent hard cheesemaking process.

6. Let the rennet set the curd for one hour.

Keep the pot incubated, wrapped in towels for one more hour to encourage a good curd set.

7. Test for a clean break

Look for signs of good curd formation:  the curd should begin to shrink and sink within the pot, and you will see yellowish whey pooling around the sides of the pot, and atop the curd.  Whey the curd appears firm, stick your finger In at a 45 degree angle, then pull it straight up real fast.  The curd should split cleanly as your finger lifts it – a sure sign that the curd is firm enough to proceed to the next step.

8. Cut your curds extra small

Get a wire whisk. And whisk your curd to smithereens.  It may seem like inhumane treatment of the curd, but what you are doing is making very small curds.   These small curds have much more collective surface area in the pot, and thus will give off their whey much faster than the larger curds made in the soft curd process.  The curds will then become much firmer than their softer counterparts.

Whisk your curds for one to two minutes, until the curds are uniformly tiny.   Aim for a curd the size of a grain of rice or a small lentil.

9. Cook your curds.

The term Cooking in cheesemaking is a bit of a misnomer.  What Cooking means in this recipe is warming your curds while stirring them.

Stir your curds with a wooden spoon briskly.  And increase the temperature of the pot, slowly over half an hour, to 110F. Turn the heat on lightly underneath the pot of curds, and stir the pot non-stop, so that the curds do not settle and coalesce at the bottom of the pot.   Once the temperature of the pot has reached 110F, aim to keep the pot at that temperature until the curds are ready.

10. Judge the readiness of the curds.

The curds will be ready when they become quite firm.  Scoop a small pile of them out from the bottom of the pot with your hands, and press them with a finger. If the curds bounce back to their original shape after they’ve been pressed, they’re ready. If they don’t, keep the curds stirring at 110F until they do.

11. Strain the curds.

Let the firm curds settle at the bottom of the pot for one minute.  Then slowly pour off the why that pools at the top of the pot.  Reserve the whey in another pot, and save for ricotta making – the whey left from hard cheeses makes superb ricotta.

12.  Press the curds.

This pressing step presses the firm curds into one firm cheese.  This process must be done quickly – if the curds cool off too much, they won’t press well.

Get an appropriately sized cheese form: a perforated 1kg yogourt container works for two gallons of milk, while a perforated 3 kg honey container for five gallons of milk.  Line that cheese form with a good piece of cheesecloth.  Use an identical container, unperforated, to place atop the form, which will serve as a press.  Place the cheese form atop a surface that will allow it to drain – atop a cooling rack perched above a casserole dish, for example.

Scoop your curds by hand into the cheesecloth lined form.  Fill the form most of the way to the top.   Fill the second container with the warm, reserved whey and it becomes a perfect press when placed atop the curds.  You are now pressing your cheese.

13.  Flip the cheese in its press. Several times.

After ten minutes of pressing, take off the pressing container, and remove the cheese from its form with the aid of the cheesecloth.  Undress the cheese of its cheesecloth, then put the cheese back in its cloth upside-down, and place the cheese back in its form to press on its other side. Place the whey filled container back atop the cheese.

Flip the cheese twice more, ten minutes apart.  In the final flipping, remove the cheesecloth entirely, and put the curd into the form naked- this gives the cheese a smoother surface texture.

14. Take off the pressing container, and leave the cheese in its form overnight.

The cheese will have its final form after being pressed and flipped several times.  If you wish to give your cheese a more interesting surface texture, place the cheese in a textured cheese form as it sits overnight.

15. Salt the cheese.

Add the appropriate amount of fine, non-iodized salt to the surface of the cheese.  Rub it all around.  I add one half a tablespoon of salt per gallon of milk used.

16. Air dry the cheese. Flipping it occasionally.

Let the salted cheese sit out on a sushi mat to dry for 24 hours.  As the salt pulls whey out of the cheese, it will pool on the top of the cheese.  Flip the cheese so that the salty whey drains away.

17. Age your cheese in a cave.

The cheese can be eaten at this point – but the cheese will develop the interesting flavours hard cheeses have only if it is aged.  A firm cheese ages more slowly than a softer cheese due to its lower moisture levels.  Hard cheeses can be aged for many months, and up to several years if they are large enough.  A small hard cheese made with two gallons of milk may only age three months, while a larger cheese can age for significantly longer.

Place your cheese in a cave to age.  Find an environment that provides both cool temperatures and high humidity. A cellar, an unfinished basement, or a cool room in a house can provide an ideal cheese ageing environment.  I place my firm cheeses in a room that is kept cool for most of the year by earthen walls.  Within that room it is quite dry – too dry for my cheeses.  So I wrap my cheeses in plastic wrap, or keep them enclosed in containers to preserve their precious humidity as they age.  In the summer months, when the temperature in my ‘cave’ is too high, I place my cheeses, in their wrappers, into my refrigerator.  And though the temperature is cool in the fridge, the cheeses will continue to age, but at a slower pace.

18.  Tend to your cheeses as they age.

As the cheese ages, you will want to give it some attention and care.  Every few days I check on my cheeses, observe their state, unwrap them and let them breath, and give them a treatment if necessary.

All cheeses will grow mold upon their surfaces as they age unless the mold is kept in check.   If you wish to have a mouldy surface upon your hard cheese, simply let the mould flourish upon the cheese’s surface.  If you wish to keep the mould in check, you can do so by brushing off the mould or washing the rind with whey. These processes will have to be repeated every few days during the cheeses first month to keep the mould off.  Hard cheeses can also be submerged in wax to keep their surfaces free from mould.  More information on these techniques will soon be added to this website…

19. Enjoy…

There are two ways to tell when a cheese is ready.  Sampling, and experience.  Cheesemakers insert a trier into their cheeses to test their flavours as they age.  Label your cheeses so that you know how long they’ve been aging. And be patient.  Let your hard cheeses age at least two to three months.  Leave one for six, and see how the flavours change.  With experience, you will know how long to age your cheeses.

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