How to make feta cheeseAug 5th, 2012 | Category: Skills
by Marnie Jones
When I was a new dairy goat owner contemplating cheese making for the first time, I went with what seemed like a safe choice: feta. The salty brine in which feta is stored and refrigerated provides a buffer against the ambient organisms that can complicate hard cheese making, and the process of feta-making is fairly simple and quick. No special equipment is needed, aside from a large pot, a long knife, some small-mesh cheesecloth, and a cooking thermometer. All items must be clean.
Did I say clean? Like any cheese, feta can easily be contaminated during the cooking process. It’s important to use sanitary equipment in order to keep only the desirable bacteria. In this case, I use mesophilic cultures like Lactococcus lactis ssp. lactis and lactococcus lactis ssp. cremoris. My feta recipe is based almost exactly on the one found at www.fiascofarm.com, arguably the internet’s best resource for dairy goat owners. (The site covers all things caprine and is by no means limited to cheesemaking advice.)
Last month, after cow sitting for a neighbor’s small herd of Jerseys, I found myself with a new opportunity: to make feta from fresh cow’s milk. This is the story of that adventure.
Following the Fiasco Farm recipe, I placed one large pot inside an even larger pot, making a double boiler by filling the outer pot with warm water. Carefully—slowly—I warmed the milk to 88 degrees Fahrenheit (two degrees warmer than the recommended 86 degrees for goat’s milk feta). Adding my powdered culture, which I ordered from the New England Cheese Making Supply Company, I stirred. (I have learned from experience that I can make up to three gallons’ worth of cheese in my largest pot, but that I do not have a spoon long enough to stir it nor a knife long enough to cut it. This time, I cut myself a break and went with a much more manageable two gallon batch.) After stirring, I left it to ripen for an hour.
There’s a lot of waiting involved in making cheese, and I think that the difference between a pleasant feta-making project and an unpleasant one is the double boiler. It really does help, because when you have an insulating layer of 88 degrees water around your 88 degrees cheese, you can walk away. When you don’t—and I know this, because it has happened to me—you can check, and then check again to discover that your cheese has cooled to 78 degrees, and then check again to discover that your cheese has spiked to 96 degrees, smells like burnt toast, and must be thrown away.
The next steps involve a lot of waiting and a little stirring, none of which is hard: after one hour, add your diluted rennet and stir thoroughly. “I kind of ‘stop’ the milk from moving with my ladle,” writes Fias Co owner Molly Nolte. I follow her lead, and see that it works: the blockade brings the moving fluid to a halt, and I leave it to the process of solidifying.
About three quarters of an hour later, I check for a clean break. This is exactly what it sounds like: when sticking your thermometer or knife into the cheese, you should get a clean opening, with clear whey filling in the space you’ve created.
The curd must be cut in three dimensions, meaning you should slice the cheese up every half inch along the length of your pot, then rotate it by 90 degrees and do the same. The challenge comes in cutting your columns below the surface, which you can accomplish by slicing the knife diagonally at an angle through your cheese.
Once I’ve managed to cut my curd into roughly 1/2 inch cubes, I leave it to rest. Coming back ten minutes later, I stir it and inevitably find that I failed to cut some of the ribbons near the bottom of the pot. Using my knife, I cut them up as well as I can. It is not a perfect art.
Rest, and stir, and rest, and stir: for 45 minutes, I let the curd sweat and gently stir it at quarter-hour intervals. After the fourth stir, I hope for tougher curd, yellowish whey, and a firm enough cheese to bear the transfer to a cheesecloth-lined colander.
I have learned not to pour my cheese briskly into the colander, as the friction of such an event leads to deterioration and loss. Instead, I gently spoon the curds into the cloth with a slotted spoon, allowing them to drain into a container. (The whey is useful for treating your blueberry bushes or making ricotta, but that’s another story.)
The curd must hang and drain for about 24 hours, and Nolte makes a good point on her Fias Co website: “If you don’t turn it, you will have a rough, “stalagmitish” side to the cheese; it is edible, just not so attractive.” Three hours in, she advises, one should take the cheese out and turn it over. I do so, and end up with a beautiful, smooth mass.
There’s not much more to the process: ready your cool brine (1/2 cup Kosher salt to 1/2 gallon water, brought to a boil and then cooled in the fridge), and cut your cheese into two inch squares. Dust every surface with a sprinkling of kosher salt, then place them in a clean, sealable container. They’ll need to firm up for several more days, weeping additional whey.
The final stage of feta making is to place your blocks, about three or four days after you began, into a clean glass jar. Cover them with brine and a lid, put them in the fridge, and . . . you guessed it . . . wait. It will take at least a week for the feta flavor to mature, and the cheese will improve for many months to follow.
My neighbor’s Jerseys, the queens of cream, produced a yellowish feta that has a much more buttery texture than that to which I am accustomed. Like my usual stark white, very dry goat’s milk feta, it is delicious. I haven’t had a bad batch yet.
You can find a great deal more detail on feta making, including a step-by-step recipe and troubleshooting section, by visiting http://fiascofarm.com/dairy/feta.html.
Fias Co Farm feta cheese ingredients
Two to three gallons raw goat milk or cow milk
1/4 tsp. mesophilic DVI culture “MM” or “MA”
1/4 to 1/2 tsp lipase powder (optional; not a vegetarian ingredient. This ingredient was omitted by the author, who had fine results without it.)
1/2 tsp. double strength vegetable rennet liquid, diluted in 1/2 cup cool water
Kosher salt for sprinkling
1/2 cup Kosher salt per 1/2 gallon of water, boiled and cooled to below room temperature.
Published in the August 2012 issue of Grow Northwest magazine.