Cheesemaking – an Introduction

I wanted to share a few cheesemaking ideas and pictures. I hope this is interesting for you. This won’t be too detailed yet should help make understanding what happens clearer. I hope to stimulate your appreciation of the cooking process, recipe differences, equipment involved, skills developed and the amount of time invested. You can make cheese in nearly any quantity from a kitchen sink cook pot to a large stainless steel vat.

Ararat Legend BabyWe make farmstead and artisan cheeses. So what’s the difference? Farmstead cheese is hand-made in small batches using our own cows’ milk. We milk our cows daily and use the raw milk for making our farmstead cheeses. That is what makes us unique and special.

While Artisan cheese is still hand made in small batches, the milk comes from another source. We can and have used milk from another local dairy to make an artisan cheese: A different quality of milk makes a different cheese. Melanie also makes butter and ice cream for our own use from our cows’ milk.

It all starts with milk, of course, but a wide variety of tastes are achieved via heating, cutting, cooking, pressing, and aging methods. Bacterial cultures also contribute to making bland curds into awesome aged cheese by breaking down the fat and protein over time. For our raw milk cheeses, we engage in months of aging time with lots of handling according to the kind of cheese.  This is called affinage.

cheesemakingBut you can do the same using a couple gallons of milk bought at your local grocery. It will make make a couple pound cheese. You might try using a SS stock pot in your kitchen sink, surrounding the pot with hot water to control the temperature. Just follow the recipe.

We made farmstead cheddar today.  We started with a tried and true recipe for making cheese, followed it as closely as possible. That’s very important for consistency in the final product. We are refining the various recipes as we progress with one cheese after another. In the end each becomes our very own recipe. Between the use of our grassfed cows’ milk and recipe tweeks, we are creating something unique in the cheese world.

Is your mouth watering yet?

Heating the milk

After the vat and other tools have been sanitized, the refrigerated milk is poured into the 100 gallon vat.

The milk in the vat is heated by very hot water circulating in the “jacketed” vat walls. This piece of equipment was custom made for our purposes.

We use a long plastic paddle to gently stir the milk so it heats evenly. A temperature probe is also used throughout the heating and cooking process.

The milk is heated up to the target temp. This can be 86-92F depending on the type of cheese to be made. The temp will be raised higher as needed during the cooking process, according to the type of cheese. We need to maintain the target temperature during the stages.

The control of temperature is learned by practice (trial & ‘what now’ testing) and soon becomes a method. We are still learning a lot about how to control the temperature. This aspect of the cheesemaking process is vital to actually creating the cheese you desire.

At one point we were making Havarti and the temperature got way too hot — like 7 degrees above the target. We decided to let it go and see what would result. So, we didn’t really make Havarti that time. Sometimes this kind of mistake can make a unique great cheese that you want to make over and over again. That was not the case with this one, however. We just wished we had pigs or chickens. They would have loved it.

Starting The Culturing Process

Once the milk has reached it’s starting temp goal, bacterial ‘starter’ cultures are added, stirred in. This is then left to ‘culture’ for a period of time. The time allotted here for the bacteria to run wild in the milk and work its magic again depends on the cheese.

Then maybe another ‘ripening’ culture along with a little liquid calcium can be added.

The number and combinations of starter and ripening cultures available are mind boggling. But for home cheesemaking there are simple choices to get you started.

The curdling agent, in this case Rennet, is added by gently mixing it in briefly. But then it must be left to rest and work its magic.  In a short time the whole volume of milk becomes a solid custard! This still amazes me every time.

From Custard to Curds and Whey

After the milk becomes a solid custard, we cut it all into hazelnut sized pieces with tools called curd knives or harps. They are basically stainless steel wires in racks. These were also custom made for our operation.

When using smaller pots we simply use a long thin knife purchased for the single purpose of cutting cheese curd.

The curds need to be as uniform in size as possible. They will shrink in size as they cook and various textures will become evident. You guessed it the texture depends on the cheese cultures, the temp, the size of the curd, how long they are cooked and so on.

making cheddar cheeseOnce “cooking” is complete, the curds are allowed to settle to the bottom of the vat or cook pot. In the vat, we push the curds to one end of the vat. We had custom made food grade plastic boards made for this purpose. They have holes drilled in them to allow the whey to flow past as the curd is pushed to the back of the vat.

There are a couple of things that can happen here. Either we drain off all the whey leaving a curd mass as shown here or we “press under the whey”. That involves only draining the whey to the top of the curds. We then apply weight to cause the curds to knit together to form a solid curd mass.

As a side note, the whey has nutritional value and is what you are drinking in your protein shakes. We can use it for feeding livestock or it can be spread on the fields for fertilizer.  It can also be used to make Ricotta cheese.

We made cheddar today. That is a process all of its own.

The Cheddaring process

This shows a cheddar curd mass cut in half as a starting step of the special ‘cheddaring’ process. This process is what makes cheddar cheese a reality.

The whey continues to leak out slowly and the curds are stretched and pressed as we follow the dance steps to cut and stack, flip and restack, then flip and restack higher. The increasing weight of the stack is its own weight to press out the whey.

The curd slabs get stacked over and over again until they are dry enough and have reached the desired texture. The test for the proper texture is to tear a piece of the curd in two. It should look similar to cooked chicken breast.

Cut and stack. Repeat. And repeat every 15 minutes for a couple of hours.

The time to complete a cheese from start to finish varies from cheese to cheese. With cheddar there is a great deal of time spent on cheesemaking day just to get it to the stage of pressing. More on that later.

Once the cheddaring process is complete, the curd slabs are weighed. This is used to calculate the correct amount of salt to get that perfect cheese. There is one more step – adding that salt.

Milling and Salting Cheddar Curd

All curd slabs are torn into small ragged pieces before the salt is added. We bought another unique piece of equipment. It’s a curd mill. We use this device like a hand grinder with little stainless steel fingers that tear the solid cheese mass into small pieces.

For small, home batches you would simply cut them into small pieces with a knife.

We use a large stainless steel pot to catch the pieces. They still need to be salted. Every cheese we make gets salted in some way. With cheddar the salt is mixed directly onto the broken up  curds. We use flaked sea salt. There is pressing still to be done: We don’t want it to just drain away with the whey. We want it to dissolve quickly and be absorbed into the curds.

BTW, when you see curds for sale, this is what you are buying. They are salted cheddar curds. We enjoy these ourselves but cannot sell them to you (sorry, government regulations). You’ll just have to settle for those that are made from pasteurized (boiled) milk.

Most of the other cheeses we make are floated in brine for anywhere from 6 to 24 or more hours depending on the size of the cheese. But I’m getting ahead of myself. That happens after pressing.

Cheese Molds and the Cheese Presses

The curds are placed into a strong plastic molds which provide a finished shape for the cheese. Some types of cheese require specific molds. Camembert, for instance, needs to be a particular diameter and height in order to age properly.

We use dutch cadova molds, standard tome molds and truckle molds. We have molds for baby Gouda and are experimenting by using them for Gruyere, Havarti and Raclette. The jury is still out on whether this will work or not. They are really designed for “young” cheeses that are not aged for long periods of time. We’ll keep you updated on that experiment.

In general, the curd ‘pressing’ begins with lighter weight to settle those curds closer together, then flip the whole mass and use more weight to ‘close’ the cheese. The rind needs to be smooth so that no unwanted bacteria and molds get inside and there are no air spaces or gaps.

Pressing is repeated at intervals adding weight up to a point so that the air and whey are pushed out. Sometimes the ‘pressing’ takes several hours at room temperature and sometimes it lasts 24 hours: Cheddar can take 24 hours. It is all according to the recipe and the desired goal. Pictured above are small molds used to make Gouda. Again, we use molds of various sizes and proportions appropriate to the type of cheese being made.

pneumatic pressPictured here are larger ‘truckle’ molds used for cheddar (pronounced like buckle) in our fancy cheese press.  Cheddar requires a lot of weight; more weight than most any other cheese we make!  We now have a pneumatic press that can handle this. We ordered this from a supplier in Canada who imports them from the Netherlands. It took a long time to get this jewel (and lots of dollars) but it is so worth it.

We wanted to make a really great cheddar. Having this press was essential to reach that goal.

Salting Cheese

Cheese needs salt! Just the right amount makes all the difference. And there are several methods of getting that salt in there. Camembert has it sprinkled on each side. It’s not even mixed in at all but makes its way into the cheese just the same.

As shown above, Cheddar gets salt added amongst the milled curds.

Most of the cheeses we make float in a saturated brine for hours and hours as the method to get salt into the curds that have been pressed together. Gouda, Parmesan, Raclette, and Gruyere are soaked in that heavy brine solution. The time varies according to the size of the cheese. And Havarti gets salt added during the cooking process and is also brined afterwards.

After salt and pressing or pressing and salt, the wheels of cheese come out of the molds and are air dried. Then they receive various treatments designed to create a most awesome cheese.

Begin the Aging Process

Aging in the cheese cave is called affinage. After the cheese is allowed to dry at room temperature or inside the cheese cooler / cave, various methods of helping the cultures continued their magic are employed.  These include: a clear coating to keep out unwanted molds and such, cheese wax to maintain moisture, cheese cloth ‘bandaging’ with lard as a barrier.  Various techniques are used to develop a natural rind – so many that it’s creative indeed.

Each method provides a different and unique end result. There is a lot of time spent in the cheese cooler / cave as the cheese goes through various stages of aging. There is also turning and turning and more turning: That will be daily during the first week or so and then usually once per week after that.

Whew! Keeping up with which cheese needs what treatment, and when, is a brain strain and maybe a spreadsheet as well.

We have experimented with a ‘clothbound’ cheddar and its surface mold.

We also use cheese coating and / or cheese wax, depending on the cheese. Those lovely green ones are Gruyeres. The red ones are Goudas. There are a couple of yellow-waxed Parmesans and some have a clear coating.

Packaging and Labels

Cutting and sealing the aged cheese, adding labels and getting ready to ship or get picked up is another set of choices, supplies and skills.

Each cheese is labeled on the ‘make day’ with a lot number. We use this for tracking and inventory.

There are labels for each cheese identifying the type of cheese, the approximate weight and price. But first the cheese must be cut to size, placed in the package and vacuum sealed. This happens just prior to sale.

The baby wheels don’t need cutting per se: They are w hole little wheel at about one pound. Though we are making 1/2 and 1/4 pound ‘babies’ available and those need to be cut and packaged.

The real work with cutting and packaging comes with those 12 pound wheels.

Let me finish up here with some other miscellaneous tools we use from time to time. You wouldn’t need all of these for making cheese at home, but we have collected all sorts of equipment over the years.

I mentioned the stainless steel jacketed vat where we heat up the milk and some food grade plastic boards to help collect the curds, separating them from the whey.

These are essential to our operation but not for the home cheesemaker.

Then there was the curd knives, the curd mill, cheese molds and the cheese press. A lot of these were necessary for making cheddar. Other cheeses can be made with some simple long knives and standard cheese molds.

We also use weights for pressing that are the same as those found at any fitness center. You can see them in the picture above under the Cheese Molds and Cheese Presses heading. They are chrome plated and range from 2.5 lbs to 10 pounds each in weight.

There are several hand tools that may also be used such as other long knives, scoops, buckets, and colanders.

We even have a couple of paint strainers that we use to catch curd. We use pitchers and quart-sized glass measuring cups. And one day we are going to get that pH meter mastered.

You might have guessed by now that cleaning all those things is nearly a full time job. Making the cheese is only half the time involved. The rest is spent cleaning all that stuff and getting ready for the next cheesemaking.


So, this was a pictorial review of the cheesemaking processes and equipment.  There are so many variations and details not included.

We are and have been making these types of cheeses: Our Ararat Legend is made in the Gouda-style, Pinnacle is made similar to Gruyere or other Alpine cheeses you may had tried, Peaceful Heart Havarti is a favorite, Patrick Parma takes a long time to age but is worth the wait, Blue Ridge Raclette will be great for your family gatherings and Clau d’ville Cheddar speaks for itself.

We have gradually ramped up in skills, recipes, experience and equipment.  We still need to increase our work space.  That next project is pretty big with a combined building for milking cows, storing milk, cheese making plus aging and packaging stages.

Please note that we are offering cheese samples in recognition of donations made to building that creamery. Go here to make a donation and receive your cheese sample.  Thank you for your support.

Happy cheesemaking and eating!


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