Fellow Cheese Maker

Andrea Lewis

Andrea Lewis

A True Home Cheese Maker

Andrea is a new startup cheese maker and what drew her to my attention was the number of progressive questions she kept asking at our online tech site. These questions clued me to the fact that she was really making progress.

Why did you start making cheese at home

I started to pursue cheese making as a way of experimenting and creating something unique in the kitchen. At the time, everyone seemed to be focusing on wine and so I thought of cheese.

How did you find info and supplies

I went to the library, researched on-line, ordered books and tried to find as much information as I could on the actual cheese making process. There is a lot of information out there on what to do with cheese once it is made, but gathering ‘how to’ information was a bit harder.

I really had to start from scratch: learn the history of cheese, the components – what starter culture is, the job of rennet, the differences between milk types.

One of the first sites I found was David B. Fankhauser's “Cheesemaking illustrated”.

I also had found Ricki’s book “Home Cheese Making” and the New England Cheesemaking web site which I can't say enough about. "Home Cheese Making" is the primary source for me at this point for recipes. I ordered supplies on-line.

What was the initial experience like

My first cheese did not turn out, but I was hooked. Cheesemaking is such a mix of recipes, science and intuition. You really have to follow all of the rules at first to get a feel for when the process is working (or not working). When I am waiting for the rennet to coagulate the milk I often think, how can I make this cheese my own? What could I do with different starters or combinations that would make a unique cheese?

After gathering all of the tools and ingredients what were some of the problems you ran into

My first cheese was a Farmhouse cheddar which turned out to be more like a feta. I had no idea really if the curds had set right (they hadn’t), how loosely to pack the press (not loosely)etc. I definitely made cheese, but whey had gotten trapped in the middle so it was a bit of a disappointment, but I tried to focus on what I had done right – sanitizing, measuring, bringing the milk up to temperature on schedule etc.

How did you solve them

Experience is the best teacher, next to running your problem past an expert. I joined an on-line cheese making group, sent some inquires out there and got very specific feedback, so the next time around I knew a bit more about what to look for (firmer curd, clean break etc.) Also, committing to memory the troubleshooting section from “Home Cheese Making”.

Can you describe your initial cheese making equipment setup and perhaps what you have done to change it and why

My set up has pretty much stayed the same although I initially had only one big pot and would have to use it to sanitize instruments, then clean it out and use it for the milk. I prefer 2 different pots which I find speeds up the process and is cleaner. It takes me about 30 minutes to sanitize my kitchen work space and all of the utensils, cheese mats, curd knife, thermometer, cheese cloth, press parts, measuring spoons, etc. I am hyper about sanitization and have never had a cheese go bad because of a sanitization issue. My biggest problem seems to be wet curds and then getting whey trapped inside of a cheese.

I need to buy a new press, because on the one I've used, I've bent the cross bar from pressing. The cheeses also come out with a crocked top in this press so I'd prefer a more uniform result. I think I'm also going to make a 3 section press to make 3 small cheeses instead of one big one to learn more about the aging process. This way, I can age them for different amounts of time and see how the flavor changes. Also with the mini-fridge - I can only get 3 cheeses in there at once. If they were smaller I could do more.

Describe your aging space and how you care for aging cheese. What have you learned about aging during your process

Aging is really a subtle art, and in a home with no basement /cheese cave, I have to use a mini fridge with a thermostat regulator. It is very difficult to control because the regulator fluxes the temperature up and down 5 degrees. This also changes the humidity, so you have to find a happy medium.

I look at my cheeses (and usually flip them) once a day. It gives me a chance to see them develop a rind and keep tabs on how hard they get. With the mini-fridge and the thermostat regulator fluctuation - I watch the cheeses carefully and try to address changes before they become a problem. I regularly have to wipe off blue mould, but it doesn't seem to penetrate the cheese at all.

What was the biggest disappointment in the first 6 months

Not having more time to make cheese and how long you have to wait to see how it really came out.

The biggest joy

I think everyone would agree, the best part about making cheese is eating it and sharing it with friends. People really enjoy it and we usually spend a lot of time chatting about different cheeses and the cheese making process. Most people have never really thought about how cheese is made. My most successful cheeses are gervais, montasio and manchego/ least successful cheddars and waxed cheeses. I am just getting ready to try a camembert or brie. Eating cheese is a joy unto itself, but eating cheese you made by hand is a real treat.

What was that first response to your cheese

I made the most delicious Gervais and I added pepper to some and dill to others. I flew to San Francisco with it in a cold pack and shared it with friends. Everyone really enjoyed it and commented on the freshness of the cheese really being a treat.

What have you learned (pro and con) in making your first few cheeses and how has it helped your process

Sometimes, my process yields an extremely wet curd. I get this usually with a cheddar or a gouda - any cheese that requires waxing. It was unclear to me at first if I was to just loosely ladle the curds into the press and then press or if I was to pack the curds in with pressure from my hand, expelling whey as I went. The latter bears better results. I also learned not to make cheese on extremely hot days. We don't have air conditioning in our house and I think open windows and fans are maybe a bad idea for the cheese making process and also the hot air seems to have a bad effect on the rennet maybe.

What would you tell someone new starting out to make cheese

Patience is not only a virtue, it is a requirement for the novice cheese maker! Start with soft cheeses which are pretty hard to mess up and you get to enjoy them right away. Experiment with adding fresh herbs.

There is nothing like a good fresh cheese, even if made from store bought milk.

Your first hard cheese should be one that doesn't require waxing so you can look at it, flip it everyday and watch how it changes, for both temperature and humidity and just do your best.

As time has passed how much has science vs craft had a role in your process

There are so many variables, science can help you see where you stand. I think my next purchase will be an acidometer.

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