“Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey. When along came a spider who sat down beside her and frightened Miss Muffet away.” I remember this old Mother Goose nursery rhyme from my childhood, but you don’t hear it repeated today. Its roots date back to early 19th century England, where it may have originated. It’s significance to us today can be found in the references it contains to the main components of natural milk that are produced in the making of cheese—curds and whey. Curds are produced by “curdling” or coagulating milk through the use of a “rennet” (an enzyme produced by the stomach of a ruminant animal such as a goat or cow) or an edible acid substitute, like lemon juice. It becomes the most basic element from which all cheeses are produced. The byproduct that is left behind when the curd is coagulated from the milk is whey. Whey becomes a lesser component of all soft cheeses, such as cottage cheese, feta, and ricotta. In fact, cottage cheese was once casually referred to as curds and whey, which is the food that Little Miss Muffet was probably eating in the nursery rhyme when the visiting spider scared her away.
Soft cheeses are also typically referred to as non-aged cheese. Most hard cheeses, like cheddar, Manchego, Colby and Swiss are “aged” in a cool, damp location for sixty or more days to allow cultured bacteria to flavor the cheese. This aging process also kills all of the potentially harmful bacteria that may exist in the milk, making it safe to consume even when it is made directly from unpasteurized milk. The fact that West Virginia officials still refuse to allow the sale of hard cheese made from unprocessed milk clearly illustrates how excessive and onerous their regulatory fear of unprocessed milk has become.
Hard cheeses also have far less whey content because a cheese press is used over a period of time to progressively compact the cheese and squeeze out the excess whey, where the whey is only gravity-drained from soft cheese by hanging it in a cheese cloth sack. This, and the additional time required for hard cheese to age in a refrigerator, is the basic distinction between the two main types of cheeses that can be made from our farm fresh milk.
Now that Essie has been producing a higher volume of milk for the past couple of weeks, we decided it was time to begin processing it into the dairy products we desire to make, especially cheese and ice cream. I avoided drinking Essie’s milk for a period of time so that we could store up the two gallons of milk we needed to make a small block of cheese and a subsequent gallon of rich vanilla ice cream. Barb is particularly fond of ricotta cheese as a snack, although she has made chèvre, cheddar, Manchego, mozzarella and cottage cheese since we first began our dairy operation.
The first step in making her ricotta cheese was to heat one gallon of milk and one teaspoon of citric acid, dissolved in a quarter-cup of cool water, to 185-195 degrees until the curds and whey have separated. Care must be taken to make sure the milk is not allowed to boil. After the separation was complete, the pot was removed from heat and left undisturbed for ten minutes. She then removed the curds using a ladle into a colander lined with a cheese cloth. The cheese cloth was then tied into a bag and suspended over a pot for 20-30 minutes to allow some of the remaining whey to drain out. Once the cheese was removed from the bag, it was ready to eat immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. The entire process required about two hours from start to finish, however the actual recipe you must follow will be different for other types of cheese.
Cheesemaking is another time-honored, traditional homesteading skill we practice that originated nearly 10,000 years ago. While we choose to make our cheese from unpasteurized milk, it can be made from pasteurized whole milk that you can purchase from a store. Aside from the time required for aging and pressing hard cheese, it is a relatively simple and quick process for which many different recipes are widely available. It certainly is not the daunting process that it might first appear to be. We hope you’ll consider experimenting with this craft to produce your own delicious home-made cheese.