Making Cheese at Home

Blessed are the Cheesemakers

Life of Brian

Harry Poulter’s domain ranges beyond the garden and into the kitchen. He recently applied his skills at grain fermentation to another homemade specialty – Cheese making. Think of his story as “Rake and Palate…”

Harry D. Poulter, Cheesemaker, Buckingham, VA USA

Harry D. Poulter, Cheesemaker, Buckingham, VA USA

If you can cook, you can start making cheese at home. If you have ever brewed beer, you are halfway there. The simplest cheeses (fresh, spreadable) can be made in a day, with ingredients as common as milk and lemon juice. The most complex cheeses may require heavy presses and months or years of aging.

In addition to what you might think of as cheese, you can easily make cultured butter, yogurt, kefir, paneer, crème fraiche, mascarpone, cream cheese and many more cultured dairy products. I guarantee the fresh homemade varieties will delight you. Guests enjoy knowing you made the cheese you are serving. And savoring your own home-baked bread with your own homemade cheese or butter is an irreplaceable treat for the senses.

I got started when an old friend told me his precocious 11-year old stepdaughter was making cheese. That was a challenge I couldn’t ignore. I thought “Why am I not making my own cheese?” I had been making my own yogurt for years. A short time later, I had acquired the tools and knowledge and had the process down for making some basic and semi-advanced cheeses.

Interested? I’ll show you how to get started.

Cheese, Glorious Cheese

Fresh, homemade Camembert - If you can cook, you can make cheese.

If you can cook, you can make cheese.

The origins of cheese making are lost in the mists of time, but the process was well established by the time of the ancient Romans and was described by writers of the period. Cheese making probably developed by a series of serendipitous discoveries, which led to a process by which the protein and fat of milk could be separated, solidified and preserved. Rennet and milk-digesting bacteria help acidify the cheese, and, with the addition of salt and other beneficial microbes and molds, inhibit the development of harmful or decay-producing microbes. The breakdown of proteins also leads to the development of wonderful flavors. Local milk varieties, native micro-flora and –fauna and special conditions (like caves) led to regional specialties. The ancient Romans especially esteemed cheeses from what is now France (for much more, see “On Food and Cooking – The Science and Lore of The Kitchen” by Harold McGee).

Information on Cheese Making

Get some good books on the subject. I find it is best, especially for the more complex cheeses, to compare several recipes and see what they have in common and how they differ. I keep a record (my “cheese log”) of each batch to record any notable successes or attempts that could be improved. The book I use most frequently is “Artisan Cheese Making at Home” by Mary Karlin. It’s a good reference and cookbook, though there are some math errors in some recipes (again, compare several sources). Second favorite is “200 Easy Homemade Cheese Recipes” by Debra Amrein-Boyes. I also use Ricki Carroll’s “Home Cheese Making”. There are also numerous online sources, YouTube videos, etc. The most useful online site is probably . Cheese making suppliers’ websites (see Supplies) also have recipes and tips.

Equipment and Supplies

If you are a cook, you probably have the equipment you need to make the simplest cheeses.  For the  more ambitious cheeses, you will need a few specialized items – molds for forming cheeses, a special ladle and curd knife,  butter muslin (a fine-weave version of cheesecloth), draining containers, etc.  My biggest investment so far has been a “cheese cave”  which provides a controlled environment at about 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  I use a “dorm-style” refrigerator, with no freezer compartment, that is plugged into a thermostatically switched outlet.  The switch has a long wire probe that is run into the refrigerator to monitor the temperature.  Amazon sells a good switch for about $50  (Johnson Controls A19AAT-2C).  The best sources I have found for equipment, supplies and specialized ingredients are and


First – the freshest dairy products you can find.  A local dairy is your best choice.  Try a farmer’s market, or Whole Foods. We have a smallish dairy in nearby Roanoke, VA that sells good quality milk and cream, including non-homogenized (cream on top) milk, which makes a superior cheese.  For recipes requiring cream or half-and-half, look for brands which have no additives and are not ultra-pasteurized.

Mold cultures/bacteria cultures/rennets –  These specialty ingredients require an initial investment, but they keep a long time.  Store cultures in the freezer, rennet in the ‘fridge.  Animal rennet is made from the stomach of calves, so some people avoid it.  I find that vegetarian rennet is suitable for all but some long-aged cheeses.   Commercial cheese manufacturers have started to use rennet produced by modified bacteria, but as far as I know this is not yet available to the home cheese maker.

Let’s make cheese!

1. Dead simple cheese (lemon cheese)


½ gallon whole milk
¼ – ½ cup fresh lemon juice (2 or three lemons)
½ tsp. salt – kosher salt works well
Optional herbs and/or garlic


Hanging the curds to drain.

Hanging the curds to drain.

Heat the milk slowly, stirring frequently, to about 175 degrees F.  Remove from heat and stir in ¼ cup lemon juice.  Wait 15 minutes and see if you have a distinct separation of curds and clear whey.  If the whey is still cloudy, stir in another tbsp. of lemon juice and wait another 15 minutes.  Repeat until you have a clear separation.

Line a colander with several layers of cheesecloth (or use butter muslin if you have it).  Dampen the cloth and dump the contents of the pot into it. Set the colander over a bowl if you want to save the whey (for bread making).  You can either leave it to drain as is, or gather up the cloth into a bag and hang it.  After an hour or two, it should have a good firm texture.

Put the curds in a bowl and stir in the salt.  You can also add a mixture of herbs (Herbes de Provence is good), chives, garlic, etc. to taste.  Refrigerate to firm up the cheese and blend the flavors.  This cheese will keep well for about a week.

2. Camembert – A good beginner’s “real” cheese.

I won’t give every detail of the recipe here, since it is widely available, and you should have at least one good cookbook before you get this far, but I will illustrate the process.


Milk and equipment - thermometer, ladles, etc. all sterilized

Thermometer, ladles, curd knife, measuring spoons, etc. All sterilized and laid out on a clean cloth. The foil packs hold the bacterial and mold cultures.

Since this cheese needs to age for a while, we need to be more careful about sanitation than with our quickie lemon cheese.  We don’t want bad bugs or molds to get a foothold.  The first step is to sterilize all cooking vessels and equipment that will contact the milk and cheese.  A weak bleach solution (1 tsp/gallon of water) is sufficient.  Brewer’s B-Brite or similar oxidizing cleaners will also work.

More equipment - all sterilized.

More equipment – sushi mats, PVC “hoops”

The perforated PVC sections are open-bottomed molds, or “hoops”, for forming the Camembert. The bamboo mats are sushi mats. Also a rimmed baking sheet and two plastic cutting boards. All have been sterilized.


Thermometer checks the bath for 85 degrees F.

Preparing the bath at 85 degrees F.

Heat the milk, slowly, in a heavy-bottomed (sterilized) pot to 85 degrees F. Then sprinkle on the starter culture (bacteria), and the cheese molds which will form the white rind of the Camembert. After letting the cultures hydrate on the surface for a few minutes, stir them in and hold the temperature for 90 minutes. Most cookbooks advise you to use some kind of double boiler or stove-top water bath to maintain heat. I just fill the kitchen sink with water at the target temperature.

After the curds have achieved a “clean break” from the whey, we slice the curds into chunks.  They will not be neat cubes, but a cottage cheese-y mess.  The whey should be clear, though.

After cutting, the curds are stirred, then allowed to rest to consolidate and further separate from the whey.

Ladling the curds into the molds to drain and consolidate.

Ladling the curds into the molds to drain and consolidate.

Once the curds are consolidated, we spoon them into the two hoops, which are set upon a sushi mat, which is on a cutting board inside the baking pan.

Then, another sushi mat and cutting board are placed on top. Periodically, we need to pick up the whole assembly and flip it so the alternate cutting board is on the bottom.  This is a little tricky.  We may also need to drain the bottom pan.

After repeated flipping and an overnight rest, the cheeses are consolidated into their final form.  They have picked up a nice pattern from the sushi mats.  At this point, they are rubbed with salt to inhibit “bad” mold formation and moved to a draining container.

Cheese consolidated into final form, rubbed with salt

Cheese in final form

Drainage container

Drainage container

Cheese cave

Cheese cave

My cheese “cave” is a refrigerator I modified to maintain 50 degrees. The red cheeses in the photo are Jarlsberg (I hope. I won’t know for a couple of months how they turned out).

The Camembert rounds stay in the draining container for about 2 weeks. After that, they are moved to cheese bags or plastic wrap, still in the “cave”, for about another 2 weeks, until the centers are soft. Then they can be moved to regular refrigeration and the aging process stops. You don’t want to over-age a Camembert, because it will start to break down and get a little stinky. Still safe and edible but not as tasty.


Almost finished Camembert covered with fine white mold.

Camembert c'est finis!

Camembert c’est finis!

Happy cheese making!

WaddAle 2012 – Marshfield Homebrew

This year, after a long hiatus, I was inspired to brew a batch of “WaddAle,” my nearly eponymous homebrew that I last concocted in 2006. The topic came up while we stood in Small Bar, a hole-in-the-wall beer joint in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Why not? Thus, the plan for WaddAle 2012 was born. Here’s how it worked.

Assemble ingredients

I needed a beer kit. I’m not an adventurous ale maker, I use a kit of pre-selected, pre-measured ingredients. Then, I typically introduce a personal variation. On an errand I accidentally discovered The Homebrew Emporium, a new to me beer supply outlet in Weymouth, MA, managed, it turns out, by an old thespian friend, Jim Bowser. I took that as a good omen.

Nut Brown Ale beer brewing kit from Beer Emporium

Nut Brown Ale beer brewing kit from Beer Emporium

I selected their Nut Brown Ale kit (~$32). I’ve also used the True Brew brand kits from Pioppi’s Package store in Plymouth, MA. These beer making kits contain all the ingredients plus brewing instructions, but you need your own equipment – brew pot, fermentation tank, tubing, valves, bottles, caps, capper, etc. Fortunately, the Homebrew Emporium has all that stuff. I had my equipment on hand from my old True Brew Maestro kit.

Next to godliness

The beer gods require cleanliness – the magic of fermentation creates alcohol and fizz but the nutrient rich  brewing medium (aka wort) can just as easily nourish invading microbes who will spoil your batch and doom your brew. I avoided that calamity by taking seriously the cleanliness principle. So, first step is always cleaning and sanitizing the equipment with a special cleansing solution (I used B-Brite).  I also bought new glass bottles, instead of reusing old ones. For my style of occasional brewing, saving money comes second to simplifying the process. I’ve since learned of a product called PBW (Powdered Brewers Wash) that’s said to positively eliminate any organic residue – so thriftier folks should look into that.

Stinking up the house

If you relate well to the pervasive, hoppy/yeasty smell of a brewpub, you’ll like the next part — brewing the wort. In my case, I announced my brewing plans in advance and waited til I had the house to myself for half a day to spare the sensitive noses.

wort cooking on the stove

cooking the wort

Combining ingredients per the given instructions, you end up with a bubbling, gurgling, sometimes overflowing pot of deep brown liquid that cooks for about an hour. Toward the end of this process, I added 4 oz. organic chocolate and

slivered orange peel for seasonal effect, having sanitized the orange peel in advance.

The brewing step ends with transferring the hot wort to the fermenting tank, adding water to make 5 gallons and waiting for it to cool to the right temperature (~78° F.) to allow brewers yeast to kick in. Too hot destroys the yeast critters. I underestimated the cool down time — it took hours and hours (Note to self – start with really cold water in the fermentation tank next time).

Airlock releases carbon dioxide throughout the fermentation process without letting in air

Airlock releases carbon dioxide

Finally, I sprinkled and lightly stirred in the brewers yeast, snapped on the lid, fitted the airlock and lugged the tank into the back room. Next morning the fermentation bubbles were manically rattling the airlock. Yes!

Bottling the batch

Waiting for fermentation to complete took about 10 days. Bottling began with — you guessed it: sanitizing. Here’s where having brand new, long neck bottles helps. To further reduce the cleaning and bottling effort, I used 24 oz. bottles, instead of 12 oz. ones. I cleaned and sanitized the bottles, bottle filler, filling tank and tubing in the downstairs bathtub using B-Brite again. Dissolving the priming sugar in boiling water, adding it to the filling tank and siphoning the fermented wort into it readies the filling process. Then, I simply attached the tube to the spigot and let ‘er rip. Capping is fun and makes it feel like a real bottling operation.

Yikes – I almost forgot to sanitize the caps! Major mishap avoided by the timely reminder in the kit instructions.

Sharing the bounty

As Christmas week approached I retrieved bottled WaddAle from the basement fermentation zone, labeled each with my 2012 WaddAle label (Avery 22829), and packaged shipments for points west, north and south with instructions for awaiting complete bottle conditioning (another week or so). So, if you’re a WaddAle recipient — today’s the day! Open and salute the  end of 2012 and the beginning the new year! If you feel left out, well… get busy and brew!

WaddAle 2012 under the Christmas tree

Celebrating WaddAle 2012