This episode focuses on the basics of cheesemaking. This is in preparation for the next episode which is about why cheese tastes the way that it does. It’s all milk. Why is each cheese different?

Today’s Show

  • Homestead Life Updates
  • The Basics of Cheesemaking
  • Easter Leg of Lamb

Homestead Life Updates

We are still trying to get Dora trained for milking. This morning she didn’t even come to the milking shed. Tomorrow is another day. The new halter that is just the size for her has arrived. No calves or lambs yet, we are still waiting.

The last of the hay went out yesterday. No matter what, they go out on the grass as soon as that hay is consumed. The grass is greening up very nicely. We are expecting a bit of rain for a couple of days next week and the temps are going to be in the 70’s. All signs are good for a successful spring launch into those lush pastures.

Walls continue rising on the creamery. It’s so exciting to go out every day and see the progress. Since we are taking so long to get cheese out to you, I am looking into setting up some cow shares. That will allow us to assist you in your goals for dairy products. You buy part of a cow and we board it, feed it, care for it, and milk it for you. We will even make you some yogurt and/or butter if you like. If you are interested in this arrangement, please visit us at and get on our mailing list so you can be first in line when we open this up. The number of shares will be extremely limited due to our herd size.

The spring garden is on the move. Adding to the seeds we planted last week, onions were planted, the celery has been transplanted to bigger pots, and the strawberries are lined up for planting tomorrow. Early tomato plants and eggplant have sprouted. It will be weeks yet before they get out into the garden.

Easter is fast approaching. Come see us at the Wytheville Farmer’s Market and pick up some Easter lamb. We have bone-in legs, boneless shoulder roasts, and ground lamb. Choose a free recipe card with your purchase. I have Greek Meatballs for Easter, Easter Leg of Lamb and Southwestern Shoulder Roast.

Email me at melanie at if you would like to pick up at the farm.

The Basics of Cheesemaking

It has been my experience that the more you know about how something is made and what goes into it, the better you can appreciate the value and tradition that surrounds it. Understanding cheesemaking fundamentals will help clarify the differences between types of cheese and also helps explain how individual cheeses express their distinctions and character. Prof. Frank Kosikowski, who founded the American cheese Society (ACS), outlined the eight basic steps, which have become the standard for how cheese is made.

First, let’s look at some of the additional varied procedures involved in making the cheese we know today. Then we’ll consider the raw material that is milk that goes into cheese. Finally, I’ll outline a layperson’s overview of Kosikowski’s Eight Basic Steps.

Cheesemaking Developments: Step-By-Step

From a historical viewpoint, each of the basic steps represents one step in a series of technological advances. In the centuries-long evolution of this artisan craft, these advances led to innovations in the cheese recipe; they added complexity, created distinctions, and thereby defined the various modern cheese types.

The first step, acidification of milk, remains the basis for all cheeses. In fact, some still don’t require much more than that. Go back and take a look at that Lemon Cheese recipe in “The History of Cheese” episode or Crème Fraîche recipe in the “Why Normande Cows” episode. Links in the show notes.

Prehistoric fresh cheese, which were not all that far removed from today’s sour cream, clotted cream, or quark, eventually evolved into something resembling a basic Farmer’s cheese, also known as white cheese or, in Spanish, queso blanco or queso fresco.

After simple souring to make fresh cheeses, the next big step is the coagulation of milk to form curds, which is generally done via the proteolytic enzymes contained in rennet from the stomachs of young ruminant animals, the very substances that helped those suckling’s break down the proteins and digest their mother’s milk. You could say the discovery of the use of rennet started modern cheesemaking because it opened the door to add the curing and aging steps. It is assumed this advance was a stumbled upon through happenstance kind of discovery. I’ve talked about this in previous episodes. Some clever shepherd used an animal stomach to transport milk, noticed the milk ended up in a large lump with lots of water around it. It tasted good and lasted longer before souring beyond recognition. Shepards may have been the ones to develop a useful procedure for preserving milk in a tasty, transportable form. Voila! Modern cheese was born.

Further developments, beginning in Roman times and extending into the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, included more extensive draining as well is cooking, pressing, molding, milling, and salting. These procedures resulted in harder cheeses that can be aged, stored, and/or transported. That certainly opened the door to a major food staple and commodity for trade. These advances also posted logistical challenges requiring the invention and manufacture of mechanical devices such as vats; baskets or colanders; pots; kettles; and knives; and other efficient cutting, cooking, and draining tools.

Some of Cheesemaking’s “Developmental Steps”

Large Format “Commodity” Cheeses

By Roman times, cheesemakers had established procedures for making hard cheeses. These cheeses were larger; they utilized rennet coagulation as well as cooking, pressing, and salting. To make rennet, they would either dry the young ruminant stomachs, cut them in strips, and add them to the milk in that form or stir in a rennet solution made with brine.

Blue Cheeses

Encouraging blue molds to ripen cheeses such as Roquefort dates back to pre-Roman times. Today’s Roquefort recipe, which includes propagating the molds in large loaves of bread, specifically baked for that purpose, was codified over 300 years ago.


Ancient artisan cheesemakers often lived in mountain huts. To keep themselves warm, dispel flies, and dry their cheeses they built fires inside the hut. As a result, their cheeses would acquire pleasant smoky flavors.

Mixing Milk

Small family farms would make the young cheeses for their own consumption from the milk they didn’t drink. These small operations might have one or two cows, a few sheep, and a goat—not enough of one species to fill the cheesemaking vat. So, they blended the milk and delicious results evolved.

Leaf wrapping

Soft and semisoft primordial types of cheese were often used as currency and sometimes brought to market. For this, they needed protection, so they were wrapped in leaves. Low and behold, this technique also offered some nice flavor benefits. Today, cheese wrapped in grapevine leaves mark this ancient method.

Commodity cheeses

Among the cheesemaking steps beginning in the 16th and early 17th centuries was partial skimming. Removing the cream to make butter created cheesemaking milk that underwent higher and more rapid acidification. This was a first step toward bigger, harder, lower moisture cheeses. Further steps included scalding, pressing, cheddaring, and salting the curds themselves as opposed to an external salting commonly used in fresh cheeses.

Early “vegetarian” cheeses

Sephardic Jews in Iberia (Western Spain and Eastern Portugal) invented—or at least advanced—the practice of using plant coagulation. Thistle-renneting of curds to make cheeses proper for their kosher diet began about 1,500 years ago.

“Monk” (or Monastery) Cheeses

Monks were prodigious farmers and dairymen who developed fermented, brewed drinks such as abbey ales which they often used to wash their cheeses. Washed-rind cheeses began to evolve about 15 centuries ago with the gradual spread of Christianity and construction of these monasteries across Europe. Munster is an example of a modern descendant of the medium-sized semisoft luxury cheeses which still maintain their traditional form.

Bloomy-rind cheeses

Cheeses of the brie and Camembert types—made with creamy rich milk acidified overnight, gently ladled into draining and shaping forms, and ripened by external molds—had likely been produced, in rustic versions, since at least late medieval times. They originated in the Île-de-France region, not far from Paris, and in nearby Normandy.

What’s in cheese?

Since cheese is essentially concentrated, preserved milk with some added salt, in order to answer this question, we need to take a step back and answer a more fundamental one: What’s in milk?

The solid content of milk runs from approximately 12.5% in cows to about 19% in sheep. Its principal solids are the protein casein, the sugar lactose, and butterfat, all of which are dispersed or emulsified in water. The fact that all of the solids in the milk are not completely dissolved but rather they float in self-contained units within an emulsion is what makes cheesemaking possible. It supports the separation of the milk-solid curds from the watery whey.

Vitamins and minerals are an important part of milks composition. Milk contains the vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B6, B12, D, E, and K. Although these and the minerals account for less than 1% of milk’s total volume, they are significant nutrients. Minerals also contribute flavor and texture to the cheese. The principal minerals in milk are calcium and phosphorus; it also contains sodium, potassium, and magnesium as well as trace elements, including zinc, iron, manganese, and copper.

Variability of Milk Composition

Different species have different breeding and lactation cycles—determined by their different gestation periods and expected ranges for weaning. This is the main reason most traditional cheeses are not made year-round.

Another crucial factor determining milk composition is terroir—all the components of environment and geography, water, and feed. Water will affect milk and cheese character on two counts: first, via the ground and/or meltwater, which irrigates the animal’s plant foods; and second, via the drinking water given to the animals. Whatever special local traits the water possesses—certain mineral flavors, for example—are likely to show up in a cheese.

What the animals eat will also help determine the taste of the milk and the cheese. The fundamental contrast is between a diet of dry feed in the winter and pasture plants in the summer. The types of plants eaten are going to be unique from farm to farm and region to region. No two farms will produce the same terroir.

Kosikowski’s Eight Basic Steps of Cheesemaking

Now that we know what’s in milk and cheese, we can discuss how cheese is made.

Step One: Setting the Milk (Acidification and Coagulation)

Acidification will occur naturally if the milk is left to sour on its own: inherent and/or ambient bacteria will ferment lactose into lactic acid. Cheesemakers normally add bacterial starter cultures to jumpstart the process. Coagulation is considered first among the microbiological miracles without which cheese as we know it would not exist. A natural chemical reaction, it transforms fresh liquid milk into one of the world’s most delicious solids. Coagulation makes one giant curd.

Step Two: Cutting the Curds

Once the milk has coagulated into a giant smooth curd, it will naturally begin to contract and expel the whey, which mostly consists of water. The technical term for this process is syneresis. The more surface area the curds have, the more syneresis will occur. This means the more the curds are cut—that is, the smaller the pieces—the less moisture they will retain. To produce a softer cheese with higher moisture content, the curds will be left larger, whereas for a harder cheese with less moisture, they’ll be cut smaller.

Step Three: Cooking and Holding

This third basic step involves some amount of heating or cooking of the curds as well as a holding period during which they are left to sit in the vat while the effects of acidification, cutting (if applicable), and heating proceed. Timing is crucial: the time and temperature of cooking is adjusted according to the composition of the milk and the nature of the curds. The smaller the particles, for example, the hotter they will get.

Curds intended to become softer, higher moisture bloomy rind cheeses, such as Camembert, will undergo relatively mild heating, a gradual cooling, and a resting period, with little or no stirring. Semisoft types may require slightly more heating and some more gentle stirring. Curds for harder cheeses are “cooked”—that is, they are heated to higher temperatures—and also stirred more.

Step Four: Dipping and Draining

Curds are transferred by way of a scoop or ladle to some sort of draining receptacle or mold. Draining vessels are usually some form of basket or colander, but occasionally a large cheesecloth bag is used. At this point, the cheesemaking milk has separated into whitish or cream-colored curds and greenish or yellowish whey.

Step Five: Knitting (Curd Fusion)

During this stage, the curd particles fuse together into a uniform body and begin to attain a distinct consistency. Depending on the recipe and the eventual cheese type goal, knitting can occur in the vat, in a draining vessel such as a hoop, mold, or basket, or in a press where weight is applied.

Step Six: Pressing

This step takes anywhere from a few hours to a few days and is designed to exert varying degrees of pressure to achieve the desired moisture content, density, and texture of a cheese. Soft and semisoft cheeses, and bloomy or washed rind cheeses, are drained gradually and subjected to very little, if any, pressure. Harder types may have weights placed on top of them or pressure applied by various devices. How much pressure is applied and for how long helps determine moisture content, density, and texture.

Step Seven: Salting

Salt is a main ingredient in cheese not only for taste but for moisture reduction and control of bacteria and molds. It can be applied in two ways: dry or wet. Dry salting can occur either before or after pressing. Before pressing, the salt is sprinkled directly in and on the curd mass where it begins to exert its effects on the development of a cheese more immediately. After pressing the salt is sprinkled or rubbed onto the surface as it’s about to enter its aging process.

Wet-salting is properly referred to as brining. For this technique, cheeses are immersed in a saltwater solution for anywhere from several hours to several days. Brining recipes, and brining procedures vary and have subtle yet significant effects on the final results. Washed rind cheeses have brine—among other solutions—rubbed onto them during aging.

Step Eight: Special Treatments (Curing)

This step—a series of treatments, many of them optional—marks the end of the active phase, the formation process, and the beginning of ripening. The curds are now cheese, but they have a long way to go before they become great cheese. Their traits have been etched but their true character has yet to emerge.

“Curing” is a term to describe treatments introduced for desired effects during aging. These might include rubbings, brushings, sprayings, wrapping in cloth or leaves or bark, and regular turnings.

That’s It!

That’s it for the steps in cheesemaking. Even the simplest cheese goes through all eight of these steps. From a fresh lemon cheese created in a matter of hours to a two-year or more aged cheese such as our Dutch style Ararat Legend, it is the variations along the way that create each unique cheese flavor profile.

In the next podcast I want to talk about cheese flavor: what it is and where it comes from. I hope with these basics you’ll be able to follow along more easily with that discussion. Let’s get to today’s recipe. Easter is fast approaching. Today I’m presenting a recipe for creating the centerpiece for that great traditional Easter dinner.

Easter Leg of Lamb

On Easter, lamb may be what’s on the menu for your big family dinner. It’s a tradition that goes back to ancient times.

Because sheep adapt well to a variety of climates and are raised the world over, many recipes span the globe.

  • In Argentina, whole young lambs are cooked close to smoky, glowing wood embers.
  • In Italy, legs are coated with garlic, herbs, and breadcrumbs and slowly roasted.
  • In Syria, chunks of lamb shoulder are scented with cumin, braised slowly, and served with muhammara, a wonderful red pepper dip made with Aleppo pepper, garlic, and spices.

To start or continue your family dinner tradition, here’s how to make that special Easter Leg of Lamb entrée.

What you Need

  • 1 leg of lamb, bone-in (6-7 lbs)
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 8 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 Tbl fresh rosemary leaves, chopped (or 3 tsp dried)
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper


  • 1 cup chopped fresh herbs (combination of rosemary, chives, and parsley)
  • 2 cups diced onions
  • 2 cups lamb stock (or chicken stock)
  • 1 cup red wine

What to do:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Rub lamb all over with lemon juice. Pat garlic and rosemary evenly over the surface of the lamb. Season with salt and pepper. Place in a roasting pan in oven. Roast for 30 minutes. Reduce oven temp to 350 F and continue cooking for approximately 1 hour for medium-rare, or until thermometer registers 145-150 F (don’t touch the bone with thermometer.)
  2. Remove roast from pan and allow to rest for 10 to 15 minutes before carving.
  3. Position roasting pan over stove burners. Add mixed herbs and onions to pan. Stir to combine with pan drippings. Add stock and wine to deglaze the pan. Reduce over high heat until it becomes a sauce consistency (approximately 20 min).
  4. Slice lamb and serve with sauce drizzled over the top.

Reduction sauce may sound complicated, but I guarantee you that if you give it a try, you will see just how easy it is to make. You’ll be off and running in a lot of other areas with that new skill.

Final Thoughts

That’s it for this week’s podcast. Hope you enjoyed learning about how cheese is made. Stay tuned for next week when I will be discussing how that process applies to what makes cheese taste this way or that.

We are always having fun here on the homestead. Look for upcoming tours.

And please come visit us at the Wytheville Farmer’s Market to get your leg of lamb to make that traditional Easter dinner or drop me an email if you want to pick up at the farm. We’d love to meet you personally. We currently have lamb, beef, and goat available for purchase. No cheese for now but stay tuned and let us know what you think about owning a share of a cow so you can enjoy the benefits of raw milk products without the hassle of taking care of the animal yourself.

As always, I’m here to help you “taste the traditional touch.”

Thank you so much for listening and until next time, may God fill your life with grace and peace.


Recipe Link

Easter Leg of Lamb

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