I recently had the chance to attend a cheese-making class at Reid Family Vineyards, a small winery way in Browns Valley.
Kirk Reid is a retired doctor who planted a small vineyard, and the Reids now make their small-production wine at a winery on their property. They started the cheese classes both because of their interest in the process and to interest others.
They brought in Louella Hill, aka the San Francisco MilkMaid, who taught the basics of cheese-making, and then showed us how to make mozzarella and even the tricky process of making a perfect ball of burrata.
The process was fascinating, but a bit more exacting than I had anticipated. I can only imagine how interesting her classes in making other cheeses must be. In other classes at Reid, she has demonstrated camembert and blue cheese.
Beyond simple cheese
Like a few of the dozen people who crowded into the Reids’ spacious kitchen, I’ve made simple cheese a few times. It’s easy. For basic farmers cheese (fromage blanc), you simply warm milk and add an acid like lemon juice or vinegar. The milk will coagulate into curds, which can then be drained and salted.
You can use acidic yogurt or buttermilk, which also contains enzymes for a more complex flavor or rennet (junket rennet tablets are sold in supermarkets). Press and you get paneer.
The process demonstrated in the class was more complex. Hill, who also makes cheese commercially, started with basic cheese chemistry.
She demonstrated how to make mozzarella two ways. One was quick, while the other took a few hours. (The class was four hours, but like a TV chef, she had started early so we had cheese curds drained and ready for later steps.)
Both started with removing the liquid (or whey) from the milk.
What milk to use
The best milk to use is unhomogenized milk where the cream is now dispersed into the milk. It’s available from St. Benoit Dairy (at Whole Foods) or Strauss Dairy (Trader Joe’s sells it as Creamline). The fresher the better.
Don’t even think of making the cheese with skim milk, but you can “make” whole unhomogenized milk by adding 3/4 cup heavy (not ultra-pasteurized) cream to a gallon of skim milk.
If you use pasteurized milk, which is likely, you’ll need to add a bit of calcium chloride to compensate.
As an aside, Hill mentioned that in the old days — and still in Europe — if you left unhomogenized, unpasteurized milk on the counter, the top would thicken into crème fraîche and the bottom would thicken into something like kefir or buttermilk.
The quick method
The quick mozzarella involves warming the milk to room temperature and adding a bit of vinegar to acidify it, then heating to close to body temperature and adding the rennet.
Rennet contained enzymes that separate the solids from the liquid in milk. It was originally derived from the stomach of a young goat, but is now generally produced from microbes. Some plants can also be used to coagulate the milk. You can buy rennet and other cheese-making supplies at Napa Fermentation Supplies at the Expo.
After a few minutes, the mixture becomes a gel. You need to slice it into cubes, then heat, stir and drain. (The drained whey can be used to make ricotta by heating it almost to boiling, but the yield is very small as most of the milk solids have been removed. It can also be used to start another batch of cheese.)
You get about 12 percent of cheese by weight from the milk.
You can then use the curds to make mozzarella or refrigerate it for later. It’s pretty bland at this point as it doesn’t yet contain salt.
For the cultured, longer process, you first add lactocillus bacteria or live yogurt instead of acid, then add the rennet. It has more complex flavor.
Turning curds into mozzarella
Once you drain the curds, you have a solid mass of cheese. You then “chip” it into small pieces, and to make mozzarella, place a few in a bowl of very hot water — almost hotter than you can stand — to melt it. Then you pull it into a strip to get it the characteristic texture of mozzarella and salt it, then form IT into a small ball by squeezing it between your thumb and forefinger.
You can also stretch and braid it or stretch it into long strands, then separate into shreds for use in the burrata.
For burrata, you stretch the mozzarella into a disk, then form a bowl and fill it with a mixture of cream and shreds and close like a beggar’s purse. It helps to have assistance!
While it would be possible to make the mozzarella or burrata from the recipes, I strongly suggest you take a class if you’re interested. There are many nuances best communicated in person and tried with an expert to help.
After the class was finished, we enjoyed lunch — featuring burrata and mozzarella, naturally — with Reid Family wines, then left with our burrata and a bag of curds to practice making more.