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Fresh cheese 101

On its most basic level, cheese is simply preserved milk. To “preserve the milk,” one must lower the water activity, thereby controlling the bacteria that cause spoilage. Ironically, cheese makers achieve this process with other non-harmful beneficial bacteria. The same effect is also achieved by using acid.

Whole milk is made of about 3 percent protein, 4 percent fat, 4 percent sugar (lactose) and 89 percent water. Acids denature and coagulate proteins; when added to milk, the proteins denature (unwind) and coagulate (bond together) forming curds. Acid may come in the form of vinegar, for ricotta cheese; lemon juice, for lemon cheese; or many other sources. Heat accelerates the acid reaction. The type of acid used will give the cheese its distinctive flavor and aroma.

Bacterial cultures are also used to make fresh cheeses. Cultures digest the sugar in the milk and give off carbon dioxide and lactic acid as by-products. Lactic acid then causes the same denaturing and coagulating of proteins. These bacterial cultures also lend specific flavors and aromas to the cheese.

After treating with heat and acid, the curds are separated from the whey (water) by either simply straining or by pressing the cheese in a mold. The longer the curds are strained or pressed, the drier the cheese; fresh ricotta is a soft wet cheese, while ricotta salata is drier.

Heavy cream can be substituted for or used in conjunction with milk. Because heavy cream is about 40 percent fat it reacts differently to acid. The proteins in cream still denature and coagulate, but they coagulate into smaller curds. Mascarpone cheese, made with heavy cream, is thicker and creamier than ricotta, made with whole milk.

DIY cheese

Begin by gathering all ingredients and equipment. Be sure that the equipment has been properly cleaned and sanitized and the ingredients are fresh. Heat the milk to the specified temperature and add the acid or bacterial culture. Allow the mixture to stand until curds form then strain through cheese cloth if necessary. Flavor fresh cheeses with herbs or spices, dried fruit or fruit zest, if desired.

Store fresh cheeses in clean plastic containers with tight-fitting lids. Fresh cheeses should be used in three to five days and must be held below 40ºF. Fresh cheeses do not freeze well.

Another type of cheese that is easy to make in-house is Pasta Filata or spun curd cheese, like fresh mozzarella. The curd is commercially made by treating milk with an enzyme called rennet, a substance found in the lining of a calf’s stomach. It causes the proteins in milk to gel. This gel-like mass is soft and mealy in the raw state, but when cooked and stretched into mozzarella, it turns pleasantly chewy and stringy.

Mozzarella curd turns into cheese by heating the curd, causing proteins to denature. Then proteins bond together in long chains and become stretchy, like dough. The stretchy cheese is worked and formed into a number of different shapes, each with descriptive names. Ciliegini comes from the Italian word for cherry, and suggests a cherry-size cheese. Bocconcini, from the Italian word for mouthful, is bite-sized.

Once the cheese has been shaped, it is cooled in brine, or in a marinade of pesto or tomatoes. Fresh mozzarella should not be refrigerated, as the proteins will tighten up excessively, causing the cheese to be tough. Make only what you need for a given service period, or for an even better customer experience, make it to order.

Making fresh mozzarella

To make fresh mozzarella, begin by bringing salted water to a boil. Cut the curd into small even-sized pieces and place in a large stainless steel bowl. Add the water to the curd by pouring it down the sides of the bowl, slowly heating the bowl and curd. As you add water, carefully stir the curd so it heats evenly. As the curd warms, it will become shiny and stretchy. Gently knead the curd until it is smooth. Form into desired shapes and cool in the brine, or place directly in a marinade. Make only enough to use in one service period.

Another application of fresh mozzarella is as a roulade. Prepare the cheese as above, but rather than shape it into smaller cheeses, roll a portion out flat on a worktable. Lay in some sliced Prosciutto, basil leaves and cracked black pepper. Roll the cheese up tightly and secure with plastic wrap or cheesecloth. When the cheese cools to room temperature it will be sliceable. Use the sliced roulades on a crustini as an hors d’oeuvre or amuse bouche, or put platters of sliced cheese roulades on your antipasti bar or buffet. Mozzarella cheese roulades can also be made with an assortment of fillings including pesto and tapenade.

Mozzarella cheese

Yield: 2 lbs.

Ingredients
6 oz. salt   
1 gal. water   
2 lb. cheese curd, cut into 1⁄2 inch cubes

For Brine
6 oz. salt   
2 gal. water (cool from the tap)

Method
1. Add the salt to the water and bring to a boil. Remove the pot from the heat.
2. Place cheese curd in a bowl and pour enough water around curd to cover.
3. Wearing 2 pairs of gloves, work the curd with wooden spoons, stretching it until it becomes a smooth, yet stringy mass. Maintain the water temperature at a constant 160°F throughout this process.
4. Remove the cheese from the water and continue stretching until the curd is smooth, being careful not to overwork it or the cheese will become tough.
5. Hold in cool brine until the desired saltiness is reached.

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