Cheesemaking


Since this spring, when we acquired our first dairy goats, we’ve been making a variety of fresh cheeses. It’s an absolutely fascinating process, and yields a wide variety of useful products. Actually, we started making cheese ante-goat, using fresh cow milk from a small Missouri dairy, but the regular and “free” supply from the goats has boosted our production and capabilities to a new level. About once a week I devote a morning to making cheese (I’m writing this as several batches are in progress)

So far, we’ve been making mostly ricotta, mozzarella, feta, and cheddar. The first two are used fresh in pizzas, calzones, and baking, though we’re testing how well ritotta freezes. The feta is an all-around general use cheese, crumbled on salads or spread on bread. Cheddar is cheddar, my single favorite cheese, and needs no introduction.

Having the goats makes the learning process far better, as we’re more likely to experiment and less likely to worry about waste or mistakes. I tend to do feta in 1-gallon batches and cheddar in 2-gallon batches; if we were purchasing all that milk, it would be an expensive hobby. When we’re getting a gallon a day from the goats for “free”, it becomes a natural part of the process much like canning or freezing excess produce. Here’s a quick look at the process:

UPDATED PARAGRAPH: Ricotta is fairly straightforward; we can make a fresh batch and use it that day. It just involves heating milk, adding starter & rennet, letting curds form, and draining them. Mozzarella, Joanna informs me, is more difficult (I had initially claimed it was easy as well, but she makes these two, so I’m hardly qualified to judge).

Feta is a bit more complicated, involving holding the milk at specific temperatures, cutting & draining curd, and so on. It takes maybe 6-8 hours to do a batch, during which I can be doing other tasks. If I want a softer, spreadable feta, I drain the curds through cheesecloth. If I want a harder, crumbly feta, I drain them briefly before pressing them like a hard cheese.

Cheddar is pretty similar to feta, though it involves holding the milk at multiple temperatures for set periods of time, and thus takes more attention. Once the curds are cut, salted, and drained, they are pressed at various pressures (20, 30, and 50lb) for lengths of time up to 12 hours. Then, of course, it has to be aged. This alone makes cheddar far more challenging, as I don’t get feedback on my methods for at least a month. All the other cheeses, you’ll know that night if you screwed up. Cheddar is a long learning process.

So far we’ve opened up two 2lb rounds, one raw-milk cheddar and one pasteurized milk cheddar. Both have been rustic but good, with a nice sharp flavor. My goal is to put up a large set of rounds for the winter, when we can open them at our leisure and sample the results. Now that the first two have tasted good, I feel better about putting all this work in.

Many people who’ve tried our cheese have asked if we sell it. No. By law we’re forbidden to sell any dairy products, including milk, without a certified kitchen and commercially certified dairy barn. We don’t have the time, resources, or knowledge to attempt to meet the same standards as a large dairy, and so we have to stay at the hobby level. I have another long post in me somewhere about the absurdity of food & ag laws that make it almost impossible for small farms to produce and sell dairy products in local markets, but that’s another day. In the meantime we do it for ourselves, and give it away to friends and neighbors who enjoy the product and look forward to the day the government will let them pay for it.

8 thoughts on “Cheesemaking

  1. That sounds soooo good! Are your feta/cheddar rennet-free, or are all your cheeses rennet cheeses? Knowing little about cheese making, I wonder what the role of rennet actually is, while I avoid it as a veggie. This makes me want to visit sometime, and potentially pay for very overpriced veggies if some cheese gets added to my order. 🙂 Doubt it would be any time soon though — I’m sure by the time we get back there we’ll hardly recognize the place!

  2. Rennet provides enzymes that encourage the milk to separate into curds (the solids that become cheese) and whey (the leftover liquid). It’s a pretty core ingredient.Currently we use animal rennet, though vegetable rennet substitutes are available and it’s something we’ll look into this winter. Not because we object to the animal content (see below), but because we’re not sure of the source and the treatment of the calves involved (rennet generally comes from calves’ stomachs).When it comes to dairy products, I actually feel that vegans have a more ethically defensible position than vegetarians, because it’s impossible to produce any dairy product without the death of animals. In order to produce milk, the doe/heifer/ewe must be bred. The resulting kids/calves/lambs are, of course, a mix of male and female. The females may be raised for more milk production, but virtually all of the males are otherwise useless and will have to be killed one way or another if the farm is not to be overrun by males. And not all the females can be kept, either, or your herd quickly gets huge. So there’s quite a blood toll to any dairy, no matter how sustainable.From our perspective, this is fully acceptable because we have no ethical problem raising and butchering our own meat when we can oversee every step of the process. Eating the kids that result from breeding for milk production simply closes a natural cycle on the farm. But from a perspective that’s driven by opposition to animal death, dairy is just as bad as outright meat production. And really, if you’re going to follow the chain of production all the way, even most vegetables are complicit in animal death since they tend to be fertilized with manure or manure-sourced compost.I’ve read about a growing movement of “veganic” farmers that use no animal products or influences whatsoever, though I’m not sure how they avoid exploiting the bees that fertilize their crops.I’m not belittling vegetarianism or veganism; I think both are intellectually defensible positions to take. I just want to clarify our methods and the principles involved.

  3. You may want to try making colby cheese. Its very similar to cheddar, except you wash the curds in cold water. After you have cooked your curds, just like with cheddar, drain off the whey put the curds in a clean bowl and fill with cold tap water. Stir a bit, throw the water off, refill with cold tap water, stir a bit, etc. Do this 3 or 4 times. Then mill the curds to small pieces, salt to taste and press just like cheddar.

  4. Virginia,Thanks for the suggestion. It’s truly daunting (in a good way) how many cheeses there are to make and how subtle the differences in production are. I hadn’t looked into Colby yet, but will try that for the next batch. Does it need aging, or will it be ready from the press?Also, I looked at your web site, and was intrigued by “We are committed to sustainable agriculture based on livestock, whose products are harvested without slaughter.” What do you do with all your buck kids and unwanted doe kids?

  5. A very late commentary:Believe me, I have no delusions that dairy farms (or any large-scale farming operations) are happy places. I know all about by-the-gallon milking, repeated inseminations, pus, hormones, veal calves, etc. I would be more concerned if I ate dairy more than a few times a month, which I do primarily so I can eat something when I’m traveling and/or living abroad. If I didn’t travel so much I would be back to vegan, most likely, and we are vegan at home in any case. Even so, I admit I like cheese (learn how to make veggie haloumi and I will drive down there tomorrow), but since I do manage to find rennet-free cheeses it can’t be a mandatory ingredient. Though it’s likely that they’re just naming the veggie rennet-replacer instead of calling it rennet. I should probably learn more about cheese making, is what it comes down to. 🙂 And I think we all make the compromises we feel we have to make in whatever path we’re taking.Anyway! It’s great you have a use for all that goat milk — maybe you can set up a barter system with some fellow farmers.

  6. Even bartering is tough, as technically barter counts as goods and services and (a) you’re supposed to report and pay taxes on it, and (b) I suspect that fact means that items illegal for sale are also illegal for barter (otherwise everyone would do it). So we make a point of specifically not trading or bartering, just giving it away to the network of friends and neighbors that want it as needed, knowing that we can call them for something if we need it. It’s absurd the lengths that nanny-state government forces honest people to go to in order to remain on the correct side of the law.With regards to dairy and so on, I think “we all make the compromises we feel we have to make in whatever path we’re taking” is exactly right. However, I think what bothers me about some forms of vegan/vegetarian activism is an unwillingness or inability to separate different levels of animal treatment. For example, there was a PETA protest in Columbia a few months back that was focused on the admittedly disturbing conditions in the industrial meat system, and advocating vegetarianism as a solution. Well, that’s certainly a respectable solution, but these people seem unaware that there are also small farms that treat their animals very well, slaughter humanely (I know that’s an oxymoron to some) and otherwise are far different from the industrial system. For example, all of the characteristics of dairy as you listed them above? None of those happen on our farm or on the full-time goat dairy near us. It’s a completely different system. I think it’s fair to object to the manipulation of animals at all, but the protests I see don’t make that argument; they lump all farmers in with the factories and that really bothers me. I think this topic needs to be the subject of a future post when I have time to carefully frame these ideas.

  7. I agree with you here, and have my own gripes with PETA in general, but while I know there are alternative small farms that don’t have the same issues as factory farms I think there’s some validity to the protesters’ point of view just because the vast majority of Americans have no small-farm alternative, and for them I’d say that yes, veggieness is hugely better for them, for the planet, for the animals, than eating meat. Less suffering is a huge improvement when there’s really no feasible method to get to zero suffering, as is true in many places.I’d love to see a bigger post on that from your point of view; I ran into a situation last winter in Africa where I was working as a temporary addition to a foreign project with an established field house in a very very rural area. I got reamed out by the French director for not eating meat — I hadn’t asked for special treatment, had brought my own peanut butter etc. to avoid having to make them change their meal plans, but they still made me special servings of everything, which was very nice of them. But she still felt the need to lecture me on living off of peanut butter (it was only for a week or so!) and went on about how the slaughter system and raising of animals in that country was much different, and so I should just eat the meat. While I agree with her in theory, it was hard to explain that in my usual life I just can’t get a guarantee on animal treatment, prefer to minimize my use of other living things as much as I can, and that I can’t just eat meat for one random week when I’m on her project because a) I find it pretty disgusting at this point and, as I found out when trying this once, have a hard time getting over the mental block and b) would have stomach issues for a bit, which I don’t want to deal with just for a short field season.Ok, so this is a really long comment but obviously it’s something I’ve been thinking about, how to best balance the different parts of my life when the reasons I’m veggie in the States don’t really apply to new places. Maybe I should post on this myself! I just don’t think we as a country are even close to being able to talk about meat or dairy outside of the framework of the factory farm, so I can see why protesters would focus on that. But I can also see how that would get under your skin, since you’re not the bad guy there. 🙂

  8. That’s funny; my next response was going to be a question about how you handled this in Africa when the food/meat system was utterly different from the industrialized West. Thanks for beating me to it. I would agree with you that your choice of vegetarian/vegan is part of who you are, and ought not necessarily to be changed just because of other cultures any more than a devout Muslim ought to eat pork just because they’re visiting Kansas City and are offered local barbeque. I think there’s always a tension between anyone’s food choices and any new surroundings; I see this in reverse when people visit us who are not used to our diet and are disturbed by the relative lack of meat, processed food, soda, and so on (we only eat meat once a week or so). Choosing McDonald’s and Bud Lite is another side of the same food snob coin; we all make our choices and look down on those who differ.”I just don’t think we as a country are even close to being able to talk about meat or dairy outside of the framework of the factory farm”Perhaps as a country overall, but any given individual is perfectly capable of completing leaving that system behind. In fact, it’s the growing number of people doing just that which is providing the economic impetus and support for the resurgence in small farms. We can realistically choose to pursue this career precisely because consumers are slowly shifting toward a model that supports small farms; leaving the argument at “industry is dominant” misses the point.So when I see PETA denouncing all meat consumption as evil and corporate driven, it’s very frustrating, because they’re undercutting one of the prime alternative routes to change that system. I respect their vegetarian ideals, but if their goal is to improve animal welfare and farm conditions, they’d be far better off influencing the general public toward responsible farms than advocating for a wholesale shift to vegetarianism. The latter smacks of windmills and just isn’t realistic as a short-term goal, whereas a campaign advocating a reduction in meat and a shift toward responsible sources would be far more practical and far more productive. Alternatively, if their principles are solidly that killing/using animals is wrong no matter the methods and conditions, they need to craft their arguments to match the full range of those problems. Right now they come across as ignorant urban elitists and can be laughed off. Not an ally that reasonable, rational small farmers want in their corner.Finally, to a real vegetarian/vegan, technically I am the bad guy here. We kill goats and chickens for meat. We raise animals specifically to eat them, and we manipulate them, however naturally, to produce milk and do our bidding. We will do more and more of that in years to come. So that’s something that our vegetarian/vegan friends will have to come to terms with, especially if they visit. If you fundamentally object to the death of animals for human gain, we’re guilty as charged, and being humane and sustainable doesn’t necessarily change the ethical burden of that.