Cheesemaking: An Alche-“milk”-cal Experience
Updated: Oct 30, 2020
© 2020 Aristaeus. All rights reserved.
With the recent impact of COVID-19 placing most people on lockdown in the United States, I decided that this would be an excellent time to share a passion of mine that can be done in the comfort of your home. I have been a home cheesemaker for the last three years and have found it a very rewarding hobby (it certainly makes you a hit at parties). However, cheesemaking also forms an alchemical process that can be utilized in magical practices and has a rich history in world religions as well.
I do not doubt that to the ancients who first discovered cheese, the process by which cheese is made must have seemed to them to be a magical act. Cheesemaking, in itself, is the scientific process of turning a liquid into a solid. It achieves this by way of utilizing the enzyme found in rennet, primarily chymosin or rennin (The Courtyard Dairy, 2013). This enzyme was originally found in one of the stomachs of calves (O'Conner, 1993). It is thought that cheese was first made by herdsmen who would store milk in the stomachs of these calves (Katz, 2013). As these stomachs contained the enzymes necessary for cheese production, I can imagine the shock of the first herdsman to open his pouch to find his milk had turned into a clumpy solid.
Cheesemaking has been documented throughout Europe with cheese molds being found as far back as the Bronze Age (Papademas, Bintsis, & Robinson, 2018). The earliest direct evidence can be found in holed pottery unearthed in Kujawy, Poland. This find was dated to 5000 BCE and chemical analysis suggests the presence of cheese (McClure et al., 2018). The earliest written evidence of cheese is in Sumer at the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to 1900 BCE (Hallo, 1972). Indeed cheese was seen as an important part of many early pagan cultures and predates recorded history. The namesake that I take my craft name from is Aristaeus. He was a god in the Greek pantheon, the son of Cyrene and Apollo. He is credited by the Greeks for having taught them many useful arts which he learned from the Nymphs, such as beekeeping and cheesemaking (Illes, 2010).
Cheese also forms an important part in offerings to many pagan gods and spirits. From the pounded cheese cakes at the feast of Cybele to the offerings given at the Cheese Well in Tweed Valley, Scotland to ensure safe passage, cheese has always been seen as a popular offering to many otherworldly entities. There is even a form of divination called tyromancy that involves reading cheese to discern omens (Gaule, 1652).
The process by which cheesemaking happens is very scientific. There are two main methods for producing cheese, rennet coagulation or acid coagulation. In rennet coagulation, one achieves the aged types of cheeses that would be purchased in the dairy section of your local food store. First, milk is heated to above room temperature, around 80-96 degrees depending on the type of cheese. Then a bacteria strain is added and allowed to ripen. Different bacteria strains will produce different types of cheeses. This bacteria strain converts the lactose present in the milk into lactic acid which helps set the curd and imparts flavor. After ripening, rennet is added and the curd is allowed to set for 30-90 minutes, again depending on the cheese that is being made. After setting, the curd has now separated from the whey and the curd is cut into little pieces. At this point, many things can happen. The curd can be scooped out into molds immediately for soft cheeses like Brie or Camembert, it can be washed (a process where whey is removed and water is added) for milder cheeses like Edam or Gouda, or it can be strained and added back into the pot for sharper cheeses like Cheddar or Cheshire.
The second method of making cheese is perfect for the home cheesemaker as a first recipe. This is because it requires no additional equipment other then implements already found in your kitchen. For this method, milk is heated to 190 F (88 C) and acid is introduced to the hot milk. This acid is usually lemon juice for a sweet cheese or white vinegar for a savory cheese. As the curd rises to the top, it is scooped out into a strainer. Whole Milk Ricotta, Mascarpone, Paneer, and Queso Blanco are some examples of cheese that can be made from this method.
Below you will find my recipe for making Whole Milk Ricotta. This recipe can easily be made with implements found in your kitchen and ingredients sourced from your local food store. When making cheese it is very important that non-ultra high temperature (UHT) pasteurized whole milk is used (regular pasteurized and homogenized whole milk is fine). This information can be found on the label. The fat content in skim, 2%, or 1% milk is not enough to yield a bountiful curd. Also, UHT pasteurization destroys the milk proteins such that they will not form a curd. Please note that most organic milk is UHT pasteurized.
Whole Milk Ricotta
2 Cooking pots (> 1 gallon)
Ladle (preferably slotted)
1 gallon whole milk (not UHT pasteurized)
1/2 cup of lemon juice (for sweet ricotta) OR 1/2 cup of white vinegar (for savory ricotta)
Step 1 - Sanitize
The first order of business is to sanitize all your equipment. Place all of your cooking implements that can handle the heat in your pot and cover with water. Implements made of soft plastic can be washed by hand and left to dry. Bring water to a boil and hold the temperature there for at least 10 minutes. After ten minutes have elapsed remove the items and set them aside.
Step 2 – Prepare the pot *extremely important*
(This step is a necessity. Milk can scorch your pot, leaving a burnt crust on the bottom making for a nasty cleanup job and imparting a burnt taste to the cheese. This step will mitigate the chance of that happening)
Pour very cold water into the pot that you are going to use for your milk. After letting it sit for a bit, pour out the water leaving a little bit in the pot (just a pinch more than is necessary to cover the bottom).
Step 3 – Double boiler
Using the two pots, fill one about a third of the way with water. The other pot (where you have a bit of the cold water) is filled with your milk. Stack the two pots on top of one another with the milk pot on top.
Insert your thermometer and add 1/2 of a cup of lemon juice (for sweet ricotta) OR 1/2 of a cup of white vinegar (for savory ricotta). Stir briskly for 10 seconds.
Add 1 tsp of salt. Stir well.
Step 4 – Heating the Milk
Heat the milk in your double boiler, stirring well, until the temperature reaches 160-170F (71C). Around this time you may notice small flakes appearing. Stir very slowly at this stage to avoid breaking up the curds.
Continue heating the milk until you reach 190F (88C) (you may need to move the milk pot onto direct heat to reach this temperature; if so remember to keep the heat low). Around 190F you will notice the curds start to separate from the whey. If you are not seeing this, add up to ¼ cup of the lemon juice or vinegar, as appropriate, 1 tablespoon at a time (to avoid over acidifying the milk).
As they separate, gently coax them away from the edges towards the center of the pot. Do not allow the milk to reach boiling temperature. At this point turn the heat off and allow the curds to rest for 10-15 minutes undisturbed.
Step 5 – Drain the Curds
After resting for 10-15 minutes, drain the curds into your mesh strainer.
Allow cheese to drain for 30 minutes to 6 hours, depending on the creaminess desired. After this time, transfer to the fridge to chill overnight.
Consume within 1 week.
Optional Step 6 – Making Ricotta Salata
To make a firmer cheese suitable for table use, instead of draining for 6 hours, drain for 24-36 hours.
After the first 6 hours, place a 3lb weight on top of the cheese (for this step, I transferred the curds to a cheesecloth lined mold and used a barbell weight).
After the 24-36 hours have elapsed, remove your cheese from the mold/colander onto a plate with something underneath it to catch any excess drainage. In this example, I used a sushi bamboo rolling mat.
Sprinkle ½ tsp of salt on the cheese, cover with a plastic lid, and place in the refrigerator.
Optional Step 7 – Aging the Ricotta Salata
Every other day for the first week, take the cheese out of the fridge, sprinkle ½ tsp of salt onto the cheese, and re-cover and return to the fridge.
Continue this until the cheese is firm (about 2 weeks).
This cheese can be aged in this manner for 1 month to make a table cheese or up to several months for grating cheese.
Cheesemaking is a very rewarding hobby with minimal cost investment. Only basic tools are needed and many can be repurposed from around the house (below is my cheese cave made from my old dorm fridge with an electronic temperature adjustment control and humidity sensor). If you have any questions about cheesemaking or where to secure ingredients or recipes, please contact the publisher of The Hidden Path for my contact information. I will be happy to assist you. Blessed Be!
Gaule, J. (1652). Pys-mantia the mag-astro-mancer,: or The magicall-astrologicall-diviner posed, and puzzled. London: Printed for Joshua Kirton at the Kings Arms in St. Pauls Church-yard.
Hallo, W. W. (1972). The House of Ur-Meme. Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 31(2), 87–95. doi: 10.1086/372151
Illes, J. (2010). Encyclopedia of Spirits: the Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses. New York: HarperCollins e-books.
Katz, S. (2013). The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing Co.
McClure, S. B., Magill, C., Podrug, E., Moore, A. M. T., Harper, T. K., Culleton, B. J., … Freeman, K. H. (2018). Fatty acid specific δ13C values reveal earliest Mediterranean cheese production 7,200 years ago. Plos One, 13(9). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0202807
O’Connor, C. (1993). Traditional cheesemaking manual. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: International Livestock Centre for Africa.
Papademas, P., Bintsis, T., & Robinson, R. K. (2018). Global cheesemaking technology: cheese quality and characteristics. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
The Courtyard Dairy. (2013, June 12). Rennet in cheese – the science: how does rennet work?. Retrieved from https://www.thecourtyarddairy.co.uk/blog/cheese-musings-and-tips/rennet-in-cheese-the-science-how-rennet-works/