18 January 2012

DIY/Eats/Lab mashup: mozzarella cheese

Today I have a bizarre hybrid of DIY and Eats for you. On one hand, it’s in the kitchen, and it involves making a food product. On the other hand, it’s doesn't count as a meal, and it involves gloves and an enzyme tablet. Hmm. Basically, I suppose it’s what happens when a scientist who loves DIY combines those loves in the kitchen.

It’s all because of this nifty kit I received for Christmas (thanks, stepsis and family!):

Make your own mozzarella! I’ve lamented before that our store doesn’t sell true fresh mozzarella, so I wanted to try to make it myself. This kit comes with latex gloves, a thermometer, a rennet tablet, citrate, and cheese salt. And a protocol, a staple of every good experiment. It makes four pounds of cheese, one pound at a time with one gallon of milk. I provided a gallon of 2% milk (must watch my girlish figure, eh?) and, because the instructions said the water must be dechlorinated, chilled bottled water.

(Reading that I needed dechlorinated water, by the way, was the first pang of “missing the lab” in this process, because we totally have deionized faucets in our laboratory. I mean, I had bottled water in my fridge, but it hadn’t run through the MilliPore...)

Anyway, I had to cut the little enzyme tablet into fourths. That went about as well as you might expect chopping a tablet would go.

Having cut many a thing with a razorblade in the lab and knowing that “close enough” is also usually “good enough” in situations like these, I added approximately a quarter of the tablet to some bottled water. I stirred it to dissolve, like some sort of commoner who doesn’t have access to a nutator.

While that was dissolving, I gently warmed the gallon of milk in a pot on the stove:

It needed to be at 85 degrees Fahrenheit (not Celsius, and yes, I did have trouble thinking in Fahrenheit when I was clearly doing science here). It took about ten minutes to reach that temperature.

Once it hit 85 degrees, I stirred in the citrate. And that’s when the magic started to happened! CURDS, you guys! Itty bitty CURDS! I felt all like Rita Levi-Montalcini with a lab in my house! The Rita Levi-Montalcini of mozzarella! Even if making homemade mozzarella cheese is not as Nobel-worthy as discovering growth factors while the Nazis dropped bombs overhead!

I have done some very cool science in my time but those curds were also pretty darn exciting.

As it continued to heat, I added the rennet tablet dissolved in water and stirred, which made more curds magically thicken. Once it hit a certain temperature, I was supposed to let them sit and “develop”.

Well, after I poked them. I couldn’t help myself. And by the way, now that I have actually worked with curds and whey, I must say that Little Miss Muffet was pretty insane for eating that stuff straight.

But I digress. After developing, it was time to separate the curds from the whey. I used a slotted spoon to scoop them out...

... and transferred them into a mesh colander to drain.

This part is where I started to come down from my “Holy moly I made curds of cheese in my own kitchen!” high and started to become disillusioned with this whole cheese-making business. Because draining the curds took forever. I squeezed and pressed and drained and got teensy bits of cheese curds everywhere.

Yes the kit provides you with gloves, but dang it, unless it involves a carcinogen or DNA sequencing, I am not a glove-wearing scientist.

At one point you even microwave the cheese to release the whey. I know, cheesemaking feels a lot less like an art when the microwave is involved, but oh well. Here it is before:

And here it is after, with the cheese salt added:

And here’s where I’ll say that perhaps because I over-squeezed the curds before microwaving and dried them out. My cheese was a bit rubbery and dry. This kit advertises itself as a “make cheese in an hour!” process, but it took me over two, so next time I’ll worry less about the whey.

Anyway, once all the whey is out, it’s time to stretch:

I gave in and donned the gloves because the cheese has to be HOT to stretch. Even my grizzled fingertips were uncomfortable without the gloves, and my hands have been numbed by years of holding glass bottles with boiling liquid and digging around in a -80 degrees Celsius freezer (that’s -112 degrees Fahrenheit).

After stretching the cheese, I formed it into a ball and dunked it into ice-cold water:

We don’t really use our ice-maker, so I just stuck a bowl of water in the freezer before I started. Because I read the protocol through to the end first, like a good scientist. Or cook.

Anyway, that’s it! Time to serve it up:

As I said, I think I over-squeezed or over-heated or over-somethinged the curds. Or maybe I shouldn’t have used low-fat milk. For this first attempt, the cheese came out a bit rubbery and... squeaky. While it’s okay to have squeaky cheese curds when we visit Mr. P’s family in Wisconsin, I would prefer not to have squeaky mozzarella.

But still. Behold! I have produced cheese in my own kitchen! Without the aid of fancy lab equipment! And I definitely learned something, so I’ll have to give it a try again (three more tries with this kit!) and... that’s right... experiment to see how to make great cheese.

If you decide to try this yourself, here’s a link for the supplies I used. You could probably find directions online and order the supplies separately, but just like in lab, I like to order my reagents and protocols in a kit. Good luck!


Christal said...

My mother and I attempted this 2 Christmases ago, and unfortunately, we bragged to the neighbor that we were making cheese and that she should taste it BEFORE embarking on this project. Our fresh mozzarella had the same problem, so we called it "Farmer's Cheese" and pretended that we MEANT it to be like that. Our neighbor was still mildly impressed. :-)

~M said...

Awesome -- if you're feeling continually sciency -- here's how to make yogurt with links to uses for whey -- I've never tried it (not a huge yogurt fan) but I've heard good things!