Second Attempt at Mozzarella Cheesemaking

A week ago I tried making homemade mozzarella cheese, using milk bought at the local grocery store.  The results didn’t come together – literally.  Analyzing it, I figured it was either due to an insufficient amount of rennet, the enzyme that helps the proteins in the milk coagulate, or else it was due to the milk being pasteurized at too high a heat.  Undaunted, I wanted to try again and learn how to do this.

While I originally put more weight in theory that the pasteurization was the cause, now that I look back on what I’ve learned, I suspect the insufficient rennet was probably more likely the problem.  But hindsight, as they say, is 20-20.

In the wake of my first attempt, a German-Thai friend suggested I try buying milk from Murrah Dairy, the only water buffalo dairy in Thailand.  Great idea, especially considering that the original Italian mozzarella is mozzarella di bufala – buffalo milk mozzarella.  So I ended up driving to their retail store and bought five litres of raw buffalo milk.  The best way to address the pasteurization issue is to use unpasteurized milk, right?

Sadly, I don’t have many pictures of the second attempt.  You’re welcome to watch the video and/or read the description below.

After sanitizing everything in the kitchen, I started heating the milk.  One challenge I encountered was that my recipe is in imperial measurements but the dairy sold the milk in metric measurements.  Being an American (even a fairy metric-savvy one) I made a few errors in calculation and initially thought I was working with two gallons of milk, when in fact I had only about one gallon.  Because of this, I prepared citric acid and rennet solutions that were twice as strong as necessary.

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Thankfully, I realized this before adding the solutions into the milk, and added only about half of each solution.  The proteins came together much more nicely than in the first attempt, although they still didn’t have the nearly-solid, soft tofu-like consistency shown in the recipe’s pictures.  I strained the curds from the whey and ended up with a pretty nice mass to work with.

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My next problem came from a lack of understanding of what was meant to happen in the next step.  As a learner, it is helpful for me to know not only what a particular step is but the rationale behind the step.  The recipe told me to either microwave the curds and then knead them, or else to put the curds in hot water (about 170 F) and use a spoon to fold them together, then pull them out and knead them.

The problem was two-fold.  First, I don’t have a microwave.  There goes the easy option. Second, I was hesitant to put the curds in the water because I thought they would just dissolve.  Knowing what I know now, I realize that the whole point of microwaving or putting them in the water is that the cheese begins to melt a bit, helping it form more elasticky strands that you can knead.  No heat and no melting means no kneading.

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Before I figured this out, I tried placing the curds, still in the cheesecloth, above some boiling water – kind of a bain-marie.  This resulted in the bottom of the curds melting into the cheesecloth, while the tops of the curds didn’t change.  Finally, I figured it out and put the curds into the water and used a spoon to shape them.

Of course, I didn’t have rubber gloves, so kneading the hot cheese was a little painful!  Long story short, having a microwave would have been a huge help.

In the end, I wound up with a ball of mozzarella that was a bit tough and overworked, not nearly as elastic as it should be, and it had picked up a little bit of a greyish cast, possibly from the bread board I was using to knead it on.  Also, cleanup was a pain as the curds cling to everything, especially the metal utensils!

The important question is, how did it taste?

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Well, after a few hours soaking in a brine/whey solution, the cheese turned out okay. I used it on a pizza in a taste test, half of the pizza covered with my cheese and half with the Murrah Dairy’s cheese.  My cheese was much more rubbery and not as bright white, but it actually tasted fine, like real mozzarella cheese.

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Conclusion: This is a product that is probably worth buying in the store, even if it is a bit pricey.  Making it is very time and effort consuming.  That said, I’m kind of curious to try another time using store-bought milk, just to confirm my new understanding that the pasteurization wasn’t the issue.  I still like the idea of making my own cheese, and if I had an opportunity to apprentice with a cheese-maker, I would jump at it.  But the constraints of my Bangkok condo kitchen are such that I don’t think I’ll become a regular cheese-maker.

Okay, what’s the next thing to try?

 

 

First Attempt at Making Mozzarella Cheese

As you may know, a lot of my choices of what to cook are dictated by my desire to try new things, to understand the characteristics of individual ingredients and the techniques used to coax the most flavor out of them.  Recently, I’ve been keen to try my hand at cheesemaking.

My aunt’s sister Jan makes homemade mozzarella cheese and, assuring me that it is easy, sent me back to Thailand armed with baggies of citric acid and cheese salt (I swear, customs officer, that white powder is not what it looks like!) and some tablets of rennet.

Yesterday, I invited Ken over to help me.  An American retiree, Ken has this dream of starting a goat farm up in Lampang province near Chiang Mai.  He’s convinced there is an untapped market for chèvre.

Jan recommended a recipe for 30-minute mozzarella from cheesemaking.com.  It is pretty straight-forward, except for the fact that I don’t have a microwave at home.  They had an alternate recipe for those of us without microwaves, so I was pretty eager to give it a try.  The big question mark that was facing me: could I make the cheese from the milk we have here in Thailand?

The recipe’s author insists you can use store bought pasteurized milk, so long it is not UHT (“ultra high temperature”) pasteurized, as this destroys the milk’s ability to curdle properly.  But inspecting the labels of milk here in Thailand, there is no information about what type of pasteurization process is used, only that the milk is in fact pasteurized.  Figuring I could afford a few dollars and an hour of time to experiment, I started with four litres (two gallons) of Foremost brand milk.

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The process is pretty easy: you heat the gallon of milk combined with 1.5 teaspoons of citric acid diluted in a small amount of water.  Once it gets to 90 F you add a quarter tablet of rennet which has also been diluted in some water.  Thirty seconds of stirring to distribute the rennet evenly, then you cover and let the milk sit undisturbed for five minutes.

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By this time, what you are supposed to have is the curd (milk solids) separating from the whey (liquid) in a pretty solid, tofu-like substance.  Unfortunately, even after trying some of the suggested remedies, my curds never came together any more than runny cottage cheese.

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I went ahead and scooped them out to drain, but most of them just ran through the colander.  There wasn’t anything solid enough to handle.

Conclusion?  Either I didn’t use enough rennet (although I did follow the recipe) or, more likely, the milk is UHT pasteurized.

Options: Try again with another brand of milk, give up, or be thankful that a smart Thai-German friend left a comment on my facebook page asking if I’d considered buying buffalo milk from Murrah Dairy, a local outfit that specialized in a breed of milking buffaloes from India.

What luck!  They have a small cafe/retail outlet out near the airport, even though their farm is about a two hour drive east of the city.  Tawn and I drove out there Sunday afternoon and located the shop in the midst of an old housing estate.

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Murrah Cafe and Bistro: The first buffalo farm in Thailand.  In Thai, it reads “The cheese restaurant that is the first and only in the country.  You must stop by then you’ll know why.”  Yeah, it doesn’t sound as compelling when you read it in English.

Talking with the owner’s daughter, it looks like although they don’t regularly open the farms for visitors, we could call and arrange a tour.  She agreed that my problem with making the cheese was probably related to the pasteurization.  As it turns out, they sell raw buffalo milk so I placed an order for 5 litres to pick up this Tuesday afternoon.

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The cafe is cute but tiny.  Lots of cheese and milk for sale and all of their espresso drinks are made with buffalo milk.  Here’s the best thing about buffalo milk: 18% fat versus 4% for regular Jersey cow milk.  Yum!

Since we were there and it was lunchtime, we ordered some food.  The menu is mostly Italian and makes liberal use of buffalo milk products.  (Worth noting, by the way, that their price for a container of mozzarella is 140 baht – US$4.40 – versus a minimum of 180 baht for the other locally made cow’s milk mozzarella and 250+ baht for imported.  That in itself makes it almost worth the drive.) 

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What better way to really experience their excellent fresh mozzarella than on a caprese salad?  Except for the fact that Thailand’s tomatoes are chronically anemic, it was wonderful.

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Baked ziti in tomato sauce with… you guessed it – Mozzarella cheese!

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And, finally, an excellent thin-crust Pizza Margherita.  This was a small pizza and had a nicely charred, crisp-edged crust.  Just like the real deal in Italy.

So here’s where I stand with the cheesemaking experiment: first attempt was a failure but I’m going to drive back out to Ramkamhaeng on Tuesday afternoon, but the raw buffalo milk, and then make a second attempt at the cheese.  Stay tuned…