Cheesemaking at Home: Your Tasty New Hobby

Making mozzarella cheese at home

Born of the necessity of storing milk, cheese has been consumed by people for at least the last 7,000 years – and in all likelihood, longer than that. With higher rates of lactose intolerance than the present day, ancient cheesemaking rendered a lower-lactose, nutrient-dense, and somewhat less perishable foodstuff to both sate and nourish.

Because of the readily available and local nature of livestock for most of history, cheesemaking has been by and large a domestic rather than an industrial activity. This means that the very first block or wheel was, in fact, a homemade cheese. What better way to not only warm your spirits, celebrate the holidays and connect with the past than to learn how to make your own cheese at home?

DIY Cheese: An At-Home Activity Older Than the Pyramids

homemade cheese in cheesecloth

Homemade cottage cheese and cheesecloth

Archaeologists have found evidence of cheesemaking dating back at least 7,000 years, thanks to the discovery of trace lipids and fatty acids on potsherds thought to be the remnants of cheese strainers found at sites in Poland. While this is currently the earliest evidence of cheesemaking, it’s thought that the practice dates back to at least 10,000 years before present (approximately 8,000 B.C.), when sheep were first domesticated.

A popular hypothesis is that because of the prevalent usage of animal organs as containers or vessels (à la the wineskins of antiquity), milk was stored this way and at some point, all of the requisite elements were coincidentally present to produce the first cheese: rennet, an enzyme from the stomachs of animals that causes milk solids to curdle, separating from the liquid, heat – as evidence points to the domestication of sheep initially occurring in Central Asia or the Middle East – and perhaps, the gentle agitation provided by a ride affixed to a beast of burden, such as a horse, donkey, or camel, while the milk was in transport, possibly by nomadic or seminomadic peoples.

This entirely plausible series of events does, in fact closely mirror the traditional, broadly-used, modern method of cheesemaking: rennet is added to milk, which is then heated and stirred or agitated, at which point the curds are separated from the whey, resulting in fresh cheese. It’s fascinating to imagine the first ancient person opening his wineskin-saddlebag that he had filled with milk to drink later, only to find that his liquid refreshment was now partly solid! That very first apprehensive bite of an unintentional curd altered the course of human culinary history, paving the way for millions of cheesemongers, cheese lovers and pizzaiolos to come.

What You’ll Need to Make Your Very Own Cheese at Home

While the process differs from cheese to cheese, would-be cheesemakers should know the basics that apply to all recipes and the cheesemaking process, in general. There are few essential ingredients that are required to make cheese at home:

How to Make Your Very Own Homemade Cheese

fresh homemade burrata mozzarella

Freshly homemade burrata mozzarella cheese

Firstly, you’ll want to prepare the rennet or rennet mixture to help coagulate your curds. This typically involves dissolving crushed rennet tablets in water and stirring. Next, you’ll need to heat the milk; for example, mozzarella recipes generally require heating it to 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

After heating and stirring, the rennet is generally added to the milk. Once the curd forms into a large mass – after a few minutes of simmering – you’ll typically want to cut it into pieces with a long knife and cook it some more, to allow the curd to further separate from the whey.

Next are any number of possible steps, dependent on your cheese of choice: some recipes call for straining with a cheesecloth, or even straining and then “cheddaring”: a process by which curd masses are stacked to further draw out the whey and curdle the cheese. Afterwards, many cheeses are then placed in molds for a period of time to impart a uniform shape.

If you’re preparing a fresh, soft cheese, cheddaring and molding are skipped and the cheese is ready to be eaten! Many cheeses are also seasoned at this point in the process. Herbs & spices, like rosemary, dill, garlic, oregano, paprika, peppercorns or even cloves can be added, in addition to salt, for a unique twist on the cheese that you’ve just made.

It’s Cheddar to Give than to Receive

A nice block of homemade cheese or some fresh, do-it-yourself curds makes for a perfect Christmas or holiday gift. With a little help from Niblack Foods, you can find all of your cheesemaking supplies in one place, with the additional benefit of having an array of herbs & spices at your disposal to craft your signature homemade cheese for friends & family. Whether you decide to gift an herbed cheese spread to the gardener in your life, or a black peppercorn-infused cheese for a Cacio e Pepe aficionado, nothing shows that you care more than a homemade, handcrafted cheese. Make sure everyone’s grateful for your cooking this holiday season!