When I tell people that I’ve worked making cheese, they always ask me, ‘so, how do you make cheese?’ I never quite know how to answer this question, because for every new cheese, there exists a new method of making cheese (and, always more coming along!). It is totally possible, and even pretty fun, to make basic cheeses at home; fresh cheeses like paneer or feta, for example, can be made in your own kitchen. If you want the really good stuff, though, cheese isn’t really a DIY food. Even though you can technically make some fresh cheeses yourself, the flavor of a cheese is affected extremely by the care that the cheese make puts in to the process—I say, leave it to the professionals.
However, it is good to have a basic idea of what goes in to making a cheese, before the creativity of the cheese maker takes over to create their own unique flavor. I’m going to give you a general idea of what goes in to a cheese, colored by my own experience (primarily with fresh goat milk cheese).
The basic ingredients in a cheese are as follows: first, you need any type of milk—cow, goat, sheep, buffalo, or anything else you can get your hands on. Second, you need to add culture, which begins the process of ‘ripening’ the milk, as some call it—changing the lactose in to lactic acid and beginning the process of solidification. Third, you need rennet, which helps to solidify the curd and separate it from the whey.
Once the cheese maker has the semi-solid curds and whey, they generally either cut it or ladle it in to forms, beginning the process of draining the liquid whey out and creating a more solid cheese. The curd must be salted during this process, to bring out the flavor of the cheese, although the level of salting and type of salt varies based upon the desired product.
After the cheese has been formed in to individual cheeses and drained, there are many different ways to go. The cheese maker can sell the cheese fresh, after a few days, like a lot of the fromage de chèvre that you see in the United States. They can also continue to age the cheese, developing a bloomy rind or introducing some sort of mold, creating a stronger and more complex flavor. They can hold the cheese in a cave for some time, allowing it to obtain some of the earthy flavors of a cave-aged cheese, add other ingredients such as vegetable ash or garlic, or wrap it in leaves to lend it another interesting flavor…the possibilities are endless!