When it comes to culinary difficulty, Cheese Stands Alone

Most well-versed cooks can tackle baking bread, rolling out pasta and putting up preserves and pickles.

Making cheese is often where confident, even courageous, cooks stop short.

"There's a little mystery behind it," says Kristen Lyon, a personal chef and cooking instructor who teaches local classes on making soft cheese.

Yet experts say there's nothing to keep the avid home cook from delving into simple methods devised millennia ago for preserving milk and rendering it more digestible.

Classes abound in the Rogue Valley, including some with award-winning cheesemaker and author Gianaclis Caldwell of Pholia Farm, an off-the-grid goat creamery in Evans Valley.

Absent of on-farm sources, cheese's main ingredient remains easy enough to come by. Store-bought milk, provided that it's not ultrapasteurized, can make cheese.

"I learned on store-bought milk," says Caldwell, who plans a summer release of her new book, "Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking." Gaining in popularity, her four- to six-hour classes typically cost $65 to $95.

Acid to curdle the milk can be obtained from vinegar or lemon juice. Bacteria cultures can be purchased in all-natural yogurt or even buttermilk. By combining a few ingredients in a pot, heating and stirring, even novices can conjure up curds and whey in a matter of minutes.

"Any soft cheese is going to be pretty quick and easy," says Lyon, who plans a June 14 class on the topic at Ashland Food Co-op. "Chevre is something that you literally spend 10 minutes on."

Cheese at its most basic consists of fluffy, soft curds — such as ricotta — obtained from heating milk, separating the proteins with an acid and draining off the whey.

Adding enzymes, such as rennet, creates curds that hold their shape and can be stretched into mozzarella and similar styles of cheese. Both fresh and stretched-curd cheeses can be made in a few hours or less with supplies readily available at Grains Beans & Things or Black Bird in Medford.

"You'll never find the same quality as mozzarella (that) you just made and is still warm," says Lyon.

Molding, pressing and aging the curds opens the door to other families of cheese: blooming rind, washed rind, blues, semihard/hard and extra-hard. Attaining higher levels of cheesemaking, however, requires a place to keep cheeses until they ripen, along with more specialized techniques and equipment.

"(It's) a lot of labor and a long time to wait," says Caldwell of some cheesemaking challenges.

Although Caldwell plans a three-day short course this month for aspiring commercial cheesemakers, most of her students are food enthusiasts, small-scale dairy herders or even supporters of "somebody else's cheese habit," she says, recalling a man who loved cheese so much that he bought a class for his wife.

"They appreciate what goes into really good cheese," says Caldwell. "Then they kind of see how much trouble it is."

To relieve herself of some trouble, Caldwell shifted Pholia's focus after several years from distinctive, edible-rind cheeses acclaimed in gourmet circles and sold in big-city cheese shops to Evans Creek Greek, a feta-type cheese primarily sold at local farmers markets. It's the type of cheese that easily could be made at home, aged from a few days to a few months and flavored with all manner of herbs and spices, says Caldwell's husband, Vern, fellow Pholia cheesemaker.

And would-be cheesemakers, says Gianaclis Caldwell, shouldn't let the flavor of a particular type of milk or style of cheese dictate a dislike of all products from that animal. Take goats, for example. Some class participants come with a perception that they don't like goat milk, but they haven't actually tried it in good cheese, she adds.

Having her own goats likely would spur Rebecca Kagan, 34, to make more cheese since taking a class last year with Lyon at the co-op. The Ashland veterinarian who loves to cook says she had been frustrated by attempts to make mozzarella from a kit she purchased online and used the class as "more of an affirmation" that she could do it.

Because the yield is one small ball from a gallon of milk, Kagan doesn't make mozzarella that often. When she does, she doesn't bother incorporating it into a dish but just cuts it up and eats it.

"I think anyone that really likes cheese should try it," she says. "It's so much more delicious."

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email slemon@mailtribune.com.


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