Cheese Making Basics

While cheese making a fairly simple process, it helps to learn the basics before you begin.

by Sue Weaver
PHOTO: Susy Morris/Flickr

While cheese making a fairly simple process, it helps to learn the basics before you begin. Starting with a little history.

Archeologists believe goat cheese was “invented” around 6000 B.C.E. We know it was a favorite of the Sumerians by 4000 B.C.E. Ancient Egyptian murals depict cheese and buttermaking, and cheese is mentioned in the Old Testament.

The Greeks adored cheese. In the eighth century B.C.E., Homer mentions cheese in his epic poem, “The Odyssey.” Olympic athletes grew fleet and brawny on a mostly-cheese diet.

The caseale, or cheese kitchen, was a fixture in Roman villas. The Romans enjoyed an enormous selection of cheeses, among them curd, soft, hard, smoked and salted varieties, frequently peppered with a plethora of herbs and spices. Hard cheeses were a Roman export commodity and they comprised, along with crusty bread, a goodly portion of a Roman legionnaire’s daily rations.

The first European cheese, quark, is described in records dating to 3 B.C.E. During the Middle Ages monks began perfecting many of the cheeses we know today.

Cheese making is a relatively simple process that involves the curdling of milk to separate curds (those milky white clumps in ricotta and cottage cheeses) and whey (a clear to yellowish, watery fluid used to make whey cheese).

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Following a specific recipe is the key, but understanding the basics before getting started will simplify the process for you.

Cheese Classifications

The USDA bulletin “Cheese Varieties and Descriptions” catalogs 400 varieties of cheese, but far more exist. Cheeses are classified in a number of ways:

  • Fresh: Cottage, Ricotta and farmer cheeses
  • Quick aged: Farmhouse Cheddar, Camembert,  Haloumi
  • Aged: Sharp Cheddar, Bleu, Parmesan
  • Cow: Camembert, Gorgonzola, Asiago
  • Goat: Chevre, Caprino, Aragon
  • Sheep: Pecorino Romano, Manchango, Roquefort
  • Water Buffalo: Mozzarella di Bufala, Borelli, Toma
  • Very Soft: Mascarpone, Neufchâtel, Fromage Blanc
  • Soft: Brie, Limburger, Feta
  • Semisoft: Baby Swiss, Butterkase, Mysost
  • Semihard: Brick, Edam, Gouda
  • Hard: Parmesan, Stilton, Romano

However, classes aren’t carved in stone. Feta can be fashioned of sheep or goat’s milk, Mysost can be soft to semihard. Aging times vary greatly. It depends on who makes the cheese—and that could be you.

Milk to Use in Cheese

You will need milk for all cheese making endeavors. The milk you choose can be homegrown or store-bought, pasteurized and homogenized, or not, whole or skimmed, and the product of cows, goats or sheep.

Cow Milk

Most cheesemaking recipes assume you’ll use cow milk, but with minor modifications, you can usually substitute goat or sheep milk. Cow milk produces a firm, easy-to-work-with curd. One gallon of cow milk yields roughly two pounds of soft cheese or one pound of hard. And best, it’s readily available.

Goat Milk

Because goat milk is naturally homogenized, goat cheeses are easy to digest. Their tart, tangy flavor is appealing and unique. Goat milk lacks carotene, the substance that gives cow milk its yellow hue, so unless you add coloring, goat cheeses are invariably white. Goat milk curds are delicate, so lower the heat five degrees when using recipes tailored for cow milk. And process goat curds with a gentle hand.

Sheep Milk

Although dairy sheep are scarce in North America, globally that’s not the case. About 100 million sheep (one-tenth of the world’s population) are milked, and much of that milk goes into cheese. The distinctive flavor, texture and aroma of sheep cheese tickles many palates and lactose intolerant cheese aficionados can usually digest sheep-milk cheeses. Because it contains 10 percent less water than goat or cow milk and more than twice the solids, sheep milk yields up to two and one-half times more cheese than its competitors. If you’re lucky enough to have sheep milk to use in cow-milk recipes, add three to five times less rennet and only half the recommended salt.

Raw Milk

Raw milk purchased at natural food stores has been filtered and cooled, but not pasteurized. It is higher in vitamin content and considerably more flavorful than processed milk. The bad news: raw milk can harbor tuberculosis, brucellosis and salmonella bacteria. Only raw milk from tested animals should be used in cheese making.

Pasteurized Milk

Pasteurized milk is heat-treated to zap those nasty bacteria. The process robs milk of flavor and makes its vitamins, milk sugars and proteins harder to digest. Still, pasteurized milk is undoubtedly a safer product. Supermarket milk is pasteurized and homogenized. It’s heat-treated and pressurized to thwart cream separation. Store-bought milk yields a smoother, looser curd than home-produced milks, but adding calcium chloride makes it handle more like unpasteurized milk. Worth noting: it takes up to twice as much rennet to curdle homogenized cow milk, so start with the recommended amount and gradually add more solution until those reluctant curds appear.

Whole Milk

Whole milk boasts three and a half to four percent butterfat; its cream content is intact. Hard cheeses made from high-fat milk are generally softer than skim milk varieties but their “mouth feel” is superbly rich and silky.

Skim Milk

Skimmed milk contains zero to two percent butterfat. It’s fine for making reduced-fat and soft cheeses. Hard grating cheeses like parmesan and romano are always fashioned from partially skimmed milk. You can enrich seven pints of homogenized fresh or reconstituted skim milk with a pint of heavy cream to recreate raw milk’s great taste and its easier cheese making properties.Regardless of the type of milk you choose, make certain it’s fresh. Don’t crack the container until you’re ready to begin. Rancid or “barn-yardy” milks never make tasty cheese.

Cheese-making Supplies


Besides the milk, to make cheese you’ll need an acidifier to convert milk sugar to lactic acid and “ripen” your milk. This can be something as simple as lemon juice or as technical as the special bacterial starter cultures purchased from a cheese-making supplier. Freeze-dried direct-set cultures are a snap to use—pour them directly from the packet into your milk—and they stay fresh in a freezer as long as two years.


Next, you’ll need rennet, the enzyme that separates milk into curds and whey. Nearly all cheese making recipes call for rennet. In olden days, cheese makers soaked a scrap of the fourth stomach of a newborn calf or kid in warm brine to create rennet. Although animal rennets are still used, vegetable rennets work equally well. Rennet can be purchased as liquid, tablets and powder. Liquid rennet must be refrigerated, and the others require freezing. Rennet should be measured carefully and diluted in 20 to 50 times its measure of cool, unchlorinated water. The solution should be allowed to age for 20 minutes before using. You can purchase rennet from cheese making suppliers and at natural food stores. “Junket” is a mild rennet sometimes found in grocery stores alongside packaged puddings. In a pinch, it can be used in soft cheese recipes, substituting four or five Junket tablets for each one of commercial rennet.

Citric Acid

For fashioning mozzarella you’ll need citric acid. If you savor tangier cheeses, add lipase powder too. Some pharmacies carry citric acid, and because it’s also used to acidify home-canned tomatoes, you can sometimes find it in grocery or hardware store home-canning displays.


Coarse, non-iodized cheese salt draws moisture from curd, hastens aging and imparts considerable flavor. Iodized salts won’t do; iodine inhibits starter growth and slows the aging process. Non-iodized pickling and crystal kosher salts work well if you can find them.


Fresh herbs are a traditional flavoring for soft cheeses. If you like, fold in garlic, scallions, chives, horseradish, oregano, sage, dill, basil, parsley, thyme or caraway (alone or in combination) to your recipe. Other possibilities are bacon crumbles and small fruits like blueberries and sliced strawberries. For optimal flavor, age seasoned cheeses in the fridge for a day or two before sampling.

Other Supplies

You’ll also need a stainless steel, enamelware or glass pot large enough to hold a gallon of milk; a two-quart glass bowl; metal measuring and slotted stirring spoons; a colander; butter muslin (if you need to, substitute many layers of grocery store cheesecloth or a single layer of linen or nylon tricot fabric); a cheese-making thermometer (that registers 60 to 220 degrees F); and possibly heavy rubber gloves.

Cleanliness: A Must in Cheese Making

The golden rule of cheese making: Clean it and keep it clean. Immerse your bowl and utensils in boiling water for at least five minutes before and after every cheese-making session. Swab your work area with a clean cloth dipped in a solution of two tablespoons household bleach to one gallon of water. Wash your hands carefully and often. Don’t let stray bacteria spoil your cheese.

Kits are a Good Way to Get Started

The easiest way to get started making cheese is with a kit that simply requires the addition of milk. The New England Cheesemaking Supply, Glenngarry Cheesemaking and Dairy Supply, and Leener’s Brew Works (See “Cheese Making Supplies” at right for contact information) all sell a variety of kits designed with the novice in mind.

New England Cheese Supply’s Mozzarella kit costs only $19.95 and ships with an instruction and recipe booklet, vegetable rennet tablets, citric acid, cheese salt, butter muslin and a cheese-making thermometer. It makes delicious Mozzarella in three-quarter pound batches, up to 40 pounds per kit. At $11.95, Leener’s kit omits the thermometer but adds lipase powder and calcium chloride, enough of everything to craft nine pounds of cheese. Mozzarella and soft cheese kits are fine introductions to the cheese crafter’s art.

Follow the cheese recipes exactly and you’re on your way. When you savor the inexpensive, scrumptious, preservative-free fruits of your labor, you’ll be hooked. Buy a cheese-making book, craft some molds, build a press and graduate to more and more complex cheeses.

Here are two cheese recipes to help get you started:

Lemon Cheese

After working under small-scale cheese makers in England, France, Holland and Canada, in 1978 Ricki Carroll opened the New England Cheesemaking Supply. Via her website and catalog, Ricki markets supplies and resources gathered from around the globe.

Some are her own creations: cheese making kits, starters, a CD-ROM and video, and the third printing of Home Cheese Making (considered by many to be the “bible” of home cheese making), first published in 1982 as Cheesemaking Made Easy. The user-friendly paperback is packed with recipes for more than 75 homemade cheeses, plus troubleshooting guides and an extensive resources section.

“When I began making cheese, I was part of a do-it-yourself culture,” says Ricki. “We were trying to reclaim the self-sufficiency that made our ancestors the independent folks they were. Today cheese making is the new wave. Our workshops are filled and we sponsored a tour of France last October. I field dozens of phone and e-mail questions every day. Anyone, anywhere, can make cheese. We’re here to help them do it.”

Recipe from Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll  (Storey Publishing, 2002, with permission). This moist cheese has a spreadable consistency and a mild, lemony flavor.


  • ½ gallon whole milk
  • Juice of 2 to 3 large lemons or approximately ¼ cup
  • Cheese salt (optional)
  • Herbs (optional)


  • In a large pot, directly heat the milk to 175 degrees F. Add the juice from two of the lemons and stir well.
  • Cover and let the milk set for 15 minutes (you are looking for a clear separation of the curds and whey, not milky whey). If the milk has not yet set, add more of the remaining lemon juice until it does set.
  • Pour the curds into a colander lined with butter muslin. Tie the corners of the butter muslin into a knot and hang the bag to drain for one to two hours, or until the curds have stopped draining.
  • Remove the cheese from the bag. Add salt and herbs to taste, if desired.
  • Store in a covered container in the refrigerator for one to two weeks.
  • Yield: About one pound.

Ricki’s 30-Minute Mozzarella

From Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll(Storey Publishing, 2002, with permission). The following recipe is a quick and easy way to make fresh Mozzarella at home in less than 30 minutes. Make sure the milk you use for this cheese is NOT ultrapasteurized, otherwise you will end up with Ricotta instead of Mozzarella.


  • 2 level teaspoons citric acid
  • 1 gallon pasteurized whole milk (see Note in Step 1 below)
  • ? – ¼ teaspoon lipase powder (see Note in Step 1 below), dissolved in ¼ cup cool water and allowed to sit for 20 minutes, for a stronger flavor (optional)
  • ¼ teaspoon liquid rennet (or ¼ rennet tablet) diluted in ¼ cup cool, unchlorinated water
  • 1 teaspoon cheese salt (optional)


  • Add the citric acid to the milk and stir thoroughly. (If using lipase, add it now) Note: You may use skim milk, but the yield will be lower and the cheese will be drier. If you add lipase to this cheese, you may have to use a bit more rennet, as lipase makes the cheese softer. Try the recipe without it and experiment later.
  • Heat the milk to 88 degrees F. (The milk will start to curdle)
  • Gently stir in the diluted rennet with an up-and-down motion, and continue heating until the temperature reaches 105 degrees F. Turn off the heat and let the curd set until you get a clean break when you insert the thermometer at a 45 degree angle. This will take only a few minutes.
  • The curd should look like thick yogurt. If the whey is still milky, wait a few more minutes.
  • Scoop out the curds with a slotted spoon and put them into a two-quart microwave-safe bowl. Press the curds gently with your hands, pouring off as much whey as possible. Reserve the whey.
  • Microwave the curds on high for one minute. More whey will precipitate from the curd. Again, drain off all excess whey. Quickly work the cheese with a spoon or your hands, forming it into a ball until it is cool enough to touch. (Wear rubber gloves; the cheese has to be almost too hot to touch before it will stretch.)
  • Microwave two more times for 35 seconds each. After each heating, work the cheese into a ball until it is cool enough to touch. Drain all excess whey each time.
  • Knead quickly like bread dough until it is smooth. Sprinkle on the salt, if desired, while you are kneading and stretching. When the cheese stretches like taffy, it is done. If it breaks, the curds will need to be reheated.
  • When the cheese is smooth and shiny, it is ready to eat. Although this mozzarella is best eaten right away, if you must wait, cover it and store in the refrigerator.
  • Yield: ¾ to one pound

Tip: For a firmer cheese, use more rennet. If your cheese is too hard, use less rennet. If the curds turn into the consistency of ricotta cheese and will not come together, change the brand of milk; it may have been heat-treated at the factory to too high a temperature. Most of all, be patient. When you get this to work, you will never stop eating it.

Making Cheese for Fun or Profit

So you want to market artisan cheese? You’re not alone. More than 250 specialty cheese makers handcrafted millions of pounds of artisan cheeses in 2002, with more entering the field each year. And rightfully so. Sales of specialty cheeses topped $2.4 billion in 2000, up four percent from 1999, and are expected to rise an additional four percent per annum through 2005.

One-third of all supermarkets offer full-service cheese counters; almost 60 percent claim artisan cheeses comprise at least half of their selections. Educational signage and handouts tell where cheeses come from, what they taste like, how old they are, how to serve them, with which wines they go best. Most cheese retailers offer samples. As a result, more and more consumers recognize fine cheese.

And American artisan cheese is getting better and better. A panel of 12 international experts at the 24th annual 2002 World Championship Cheese Contest, the largest international cheese competition in the world, awarded American artisan cheese makers 49 honors including 16 “Best of Class,” more than any other nation represented.

Helpful Marketing Information

Advice on Getting into the Cheese Business

Veteran home cheese maker Ricki Carroll, of the New England Cheesemaking Supply, cautions budding cheese entrepreneurs, “Don’t quit your day job. It takes a huge investment in time and money to establish a viable cheese-making venture. The legalities can be overwhelming. Before you invest, make sure this is for you.

“Start small by playing around in the kitchen, taking the time to learn your craft,” she advises. “One of our customers began with our easy Mozzarella kit and now he’s making 45 varieties of cheese in his basement. He’s doing this very scientifically, he’s even built a cave down there to age his cheeses.”

Above all, Ricki advises to educate yourself. “Visit some of the many artisan cheese makers around the country—you’ll find a listing of them on the American Cheese Society website ( Join the American Cheese Society, go to one of their meetings and meet people who have done it. Go to symposiums. Take one of our European cheese-making tours. Find out what people in your area like. You want to fill a demand with something possibly unique to your area.”

Once you’re ready, if you meet federal and state regulations (and there are a lot of them), start selling at farmers’ markets and festivals. Approach local stores and restaurants about featuring your cheeses. You can accomplish this, but it takes time and expertise.

Further Reading

Home Cheese Making (Storey Books, 2002), by Ricki Carroll

Making Great Cheese: 30 Simple Recipes From Cheddar to Chevre
(Lark Books, 2001), by Barbara Ciletti

Online Resources:
The Gourmet Sleath
Hundreds of cheese-making recipes with detailed descriptions of the cheeses they make.

The Cheese Wizard
Great instructions, recipes and many links.

All About Cheese
The properties of hundreds of cheeses; search by name, country of origin, texture, or milk type.

Cheesemaking & Cheesemakers NetRing
12 sites devoted to the topic.

This article first appeared in the April/May 2003 issue of Hobby Farms magazine. Pick up a copy at your local newsstand or tack and feed store.

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