I didn't realize that the Junket Rennet Tablets that I had just purchased for the purposes of making fresh mozzarella cheese had expired. By the time I discovered what the numbers on the top of the Junket box meant, which was that the tablets had expired in February, it was too late. I had already discarded a batch of would-be cheese that never produced good curds and another that never achieved a "clean break" -- the separation between the curds (the white matter on top) and the whey (the liquid beneath). You can picture my disappointment when my third attempt, this time with active rennet, did not yield a good result either.
During this effort, I could not get the cheese to roll into the smooth, shiny and pliable ball I was expecting. While the "mozzarella" cheese was delicious and attractive and could be molded and chilled into a firm ball, it lacked the elasticity and melting qualities of premium fresh mozzarella cheese, such as that sold in gourmet stores and cheese shops. After some exploration, I became convinced that my mozzarella problems rested squarely in the supermarket milk I had used. Although the milk was not ultra-pasteurized, that is, pasteurized to higher than normal temperatures (a no-no in cheese making); the milk still was likely to have been pasteurized at too high a temperature to make proper mozzarella curds.
Further study also revealed what cheese making experts have always asserted -- that to make good cheese, you have to begin with really "good (good for making cheese) milk." So, I began my hunt for "good milk" and, lo and behold, found it (grade A pasteurized, non-homogenized milk from Edgefield, South Carolina's Hickory Hill Farm) at a specialty market just a few miles from where I live.
Fortunately, after finding the milk, my fourth (and last) try at making mozzarella ended in triumph, with my cheese looking, tasting and behaving just the way good fresh mozzarella should. I cannot overemphasize what a difference using the non-homogenized milk made.
If you are eager to begin your own cheese making adventure but are worried about your ability to obtain the right kind of milk, you can start out by making creamy, fresh ricotta cheese, which is far more forgiving of the brand of milk you use. (I'll have that recipe for you next week.) Once you see how easy and satisfying it is to make your own fresh cheese, at home, you'll be hooked for life.
Sue Ade is a syndicated food writer with broad experience and interest in the culinary arts. She has worked and resided in the Lowcountry of South Carolina since 1985 and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
American Mozzarella Cheese
Adapted from a recipe by Dr. David Fankhauser, for Redco Foods, June/2003
(Dr. Fankhauser's original recipe comes inside the box of Junket Rennet Tablets)
For a picture tutorial, visit: http://biology.clc.uc.edu/fankhauser/Cheese/Mozzarella_American/Mozzarella_American.html
6 quart covered stainless steel saucepot with heavy bottom
Thermometer (one that goes from 0 to 220 degrees)
Long bladed knife
Sterile handkerchief or linen (not terrycloth) dishtowel for lining strainer
Large strainer or colander for draining curd
Pot or large bowl to catch draining whey
Microwave-safe bowl for heating curds
1000-watt microwave oven
(Do not use chlorinated water in this recipe. It will kill the enzymes in the rennet tablet.)
1/2 tablet "JUNKET" Rennet Tablet dissolved in 1/4 cup cool unchlorinated water
1 1/4 teaspoon citric acid dissolved in 1/2 cup cool unchlorinated water
1 gallon milk (whole milk for a richer flavor or skimmed milk for low calorie cheese-- do not use ultra-pasteurized milk)
1 teaspoon kosher salt, more or less to taste (optional)
Yield: 8 to 12 ounces of finished cheese
1. Pour milk into the pot and slowly heat the milk up to 90 degrees, stirring frequently to prevent scorching. Once the temperature reaches 90 degrees, pour the citric acid solution into the milk, stirring for about 20 seconds with a slotted spoon.
2. Allowing the temperature to reach 100 degrees, slowly add the rennet solution, gently stirring back and forth with a slotted spoon for no more than 30 seconds. (For good curd formation later, it's important that you don't over stir the milk.) Remove the pot from the heat, cover, and allow it to sit, undisturbed, for 1 hour. After 1 hour, check the pot to see if the mixture has achieved a "clean break." You can test for a clean break by poking a clean finger into the mixture. If there's a clear separation of the curds (the white matter on top) from the whey (the liquid on the bottom) and the liquid has turned from white to a nice, pale lime green color, you're there. (The curds will look like soft custard.) If the liquid still looks milky, your mixture needs to set longer; check it again in another hour. (It took my mixture more than two hours to achieve what I considered a clean break -- some folks can do it a lot faster, but that was not my experience.)
3. Once there is a good separation between the curds and the whey, cut the curds into 1-inch cubes, checkerboard fashion. (The purpose of cutting the curds is to hasten the release of whey, but, if your mixture looks more like ricotta cheese, than custard, you can skip this step.) The curds will be very delicate at this point; allow them to rest for 10 minutes.
4. Return the pot to the stove and warm the curds and whey over low heat to 105 degrees, stirring gently to loosen the curds that may be resting on the bottom of the pot. Remove the pot from the heat and continue to stir for 2 to 5 minutes more. (The longer you stir, the firmer the cheese will be.)
5. Line a large mesh sieve with a linen dishtowel placed over a pot or large bowl. With a slotted spoon, remove the curds from the pot and place them in the lined sieve, allowing the curds to drain for at least 15 minutes. As the curds drain, they will get firmer. (You can use the leftover whey to make ricotta cheese, if you like. See directions for making ricotta from leftover whey, at: http://biology.clc.uc.edu/fankhauser/Cheese/Ricotta/RICOTTA_00.HTM).
6. Place the drained curds in a microwave-safe bowl, and microwave on HI power for 1 minute, draining off excess whey.
7. With a spoon, quickly work the cheese from the sides of the bowl, then mix with hands (wear clean rubber gloves for this step -- mixture will be hot) to evenly distribute heat. Repeat process, one or two more times, microwaving at 30 second intervals each, making sure to drain off accumulated whey each time.
8. If you want to add some salt to the mixture, this would be the time to do it. A teaspoon of kosher salt, more or less to taste, would be about right. Working quickly, knead and shape the mixture into a ball. (If the cheese becomes too firm to work with, microwave it again for just a few seconds to soften it.) When everything goes perfectly, fresh mozzarella cheese can be stretched and folded and becomes very elastic. It will become shiny and smooth and look a lot like taffy while you are kneading it. If that doesn't occur for you, just form the cheese into two neat balls, and quit.)
9. This cheese is best consumed the day it is made, but will keep for up to two days, tightly wrapped, in the refrigerator.