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…