This week, I made my first-ever Parmesan cheese.
Even as I try to eat an increasingly local diet, Parmesan will probably stay on the list of the almost-sacred imported foods we’ll keep eating at my house, along with chocolate and olive oil.
But now that we’re all playing this game of “let’s see how long we can avoid going to the store,” I figured it was time to learn to make my own Parmesan. Watching the Salt Fat Acid Heat episode on Italian cuisine was an added inspiration.
I made a small wheel and it looks beautiful.
Of course — and it was hard to break the news to my family — Parmesan needs a minimum of 8 months to ripen before you eat it. So it’s not exactly a pandemic self-reliance food that will feed us tomorrow… (Although we’ll probably enjoy it very much when we pull it out next winter.)
But there are several quick and easy, instantly rewarding cheeses we can all make at home. Lemon ricotta is my go-to beginner’s cheese that’s very forgiving and almost invariably tastes amazing. Yogurt cheese is also super easy. Feta and mozzarella are good intermediate cheeses to try.
But there’s another reason, besides time, that I think any beginning cheesemaker should start with these, and not go straight to hard cheeses like Gouda or Cheddar, or “stinky cheeses” like Gorgonzola.
In my cheese-making classes, I like to repeat the good advice of my own first cheese-making teacher, Ruby Blume:
First learn how to make the easy beginner’s cheeses, and succeed in each of them about five times before moving on to hard cheeses. The reason is this: having a basic familiarity and ease with the fundamental processes of making cheese makes the entire process so much less stressful. The basic steps of cheese-making — heating up milk, adding cultures and rennet, cutting, cooking and draining the curds — are more or less the same in making any cheese. The more you do them, the easier they get.
Making hard cheese involves the same steps, but many, many more of them, and so it usually takes the better part of a day, if not more. If cutting up curds, or catching whey and curds in a colander without something spilling over is something you’ve never done before, it’s pretty stressful to try it when you’re already several hours into the process and still have several hours to go. Learn these basic steps with the easy cheeses until they become routine, you do them with confidence, you know exactly what tools you’re going to need… and then you can actually enjoy the process.
Because it IS really fun. You get to feel like a magician, or alchemist, watching milk go through all these transformations and achieve different textures, from shiny Jell-O like cubes to spongy, bouncy cottage-cheese like crumbs to the rubbery, yellow salted shreds after cheddaring (yes, “cheddaring” is a verb).
Most of the basic equipment required for making cheese you probably already have in your kitchen: pots, bowls, colanders, spatulas. The only other tool I consider essential is a dairy thermometer (I’ve used this floating one for years). If your recipe calls for a cheese press, you don’t need to buy one — I have a DIY wooden cheese press and it works great (instructions here).
These 3 are my go-to resources for supplies and recipes:
And this is my go-to cheesemaking book:
Home Dairy with Ashley English, by Asheville local Ashley English