Cheese is my Achilles heel. Whether it's smoked gouda, stinky camembert, savory feta, or soft buffalo mozzarella, I can't get enough of the stuff.
At least I'm not alone—after all, cheese plates always seem to be the most popular hors d'oeuvre at parties. One researcher has even likened this irresistible culinary creation to "dairy crack."
So when I discovered we offer a make-your-own mozzarella kit, I knew I had to try it. If becoming an amateur cheesemaker is all that it takes to ensure a virtually unlimited supply of the stuff, count me in.
So I picked up a gallon of milk and got to work. The instructions that came with the Cultures for Health kit assured me that the process wouldn't take more than 30 minutes—but I gave myself plenty of extra time, just in case.
The instructions had a lot of steps, but seemed pretty straightforward. After reading a few reviews online—one of them written by a 10-year-old child—about how easy mozzarella is to make, and I only became more determined to get it right.
First off, I prepared the rennet. This enzyme is crucial to cheesemaking, as it's the compound that causes the milk to separate into curds and whey and allows you to form a solid cheese. This kit comes with vegetable rennet tablets, which I dissolved in a little water.
Next, I dissolved a little citric acid into some water. Experienced cheesemakers might scoff at this step—it's essentially a faster way to acidify the milk than using a lactic starter culture. To make mozzarella in a short time, though, there's no better way.
I then poured my citric acid and a gallon of whole milk into the largest pot I owned and stirred vigorously. At this point, I realized just how much milk goes into one large ball of cheese and started getting a little concerned that this wasn't going to end well.
Once I had warmed the milk to 90 degrees, I removed it from the burner and stirred in the rennet. The instructions had me stirring the rennet in an "up-and-down" motion, whatever that means. I stirred to my little heart's content and moved on to the most difficult step: waiting.
To allow curds to form, it's crucial to cover the pot of milk and let it sit for the perfect amount of time. Just how long is enough time, though? I certainly don't know what mozzarella curds are supposed to look like. My instruction manual suggested 5 to 10 minutes—I ended up waiting closer to 10 minutes because I was so nervous that my curds wouldn't be strong enough. I'm really not good at waiting, but I'm awfully good at second-guessing myself.
After prodding the curds more than a few times, I decided to cut them. The milk was now definitely starting to resemble cheese, and even had a somewhat cheesy smell. Feeling encouraged, I sliced, diced, and reheated the curds according to the directions.
Some more slow, deliberate stirring ensued, and I was finally ready to separate the curds from the whey. The curds essentially look like cottage cheese floating on top of an opaque, yellow-ish liquid—the whey. At this point, the enormous pot was approximately 90 percent whey, 10 percent curds. I strained off the curds with a slotted spoon and gently ladled them into a large bowl. At this point, I had basically made what looked like a large pile of cottage cheese.
Now, for the most exciting/terrifying step: stretching the curds. This was the make-or-break moment, and I had made such a large mess in my kitchen that if this batch didn't work, I really didn't feel like trying again. It had to work.
You can stretch the curds two ways: on the stovetop, or in the microwave. Since the only large pot I own was full of whey, I decided to go the microwave route. I microwaved the curds, added some cheese salt, and microwaved them some more, until they reached 160 degrees. Now the scary part: Picking up the delicate curds and kneading them until they became soft yet shiny—"like taffy," as the instructions assured me.
Essentially, I had to pick up the very hot cheese curds and roll them over and over between my hands until they started to resemble a ball of mozzarella. My roommate—who had been halfheartedly observing me while watching Jane The Virgin up until this point—suddenly became very interested and somewhat gleefully watched me play with this large ball of cheese, flinging bits and pieces of curds and whey all over our kitchen.
A few minutes later, though, the white goop looked like cheese! I balled it up as best I could (my cheese-shaping skills could use some work), and submerged it in an ice bath to cool it. Reflecting on my experience, I felt strangely proud of myself—and especially of my mozzarella.
Sadly, the flavor of my mozzarella didn't quite match up to it's good looks. The cheese came out more like a cross between cream cheese and mozzarella—the firm texture just wasn't quite there.
So would I make this again? Absolutely—and I probably will soon, since the kit included enough supplies for several batches. Next time, though, I would make sure to stretch the curds for a longer time—I like my mozzarella more firm than soft.
Overall, though, I loved making cheese. I not only felt like the most accomplished cook ever, but also sort of like a mad scientist. And isn't that the way cooking should make you feel?
Photo credit: Alicia Cho