So, a few months ago when I found a recipe online for making cotija at home, I placed an order with Cheeselinks for some calcium chloride, vegetarian rennet, type C cheese starter, cheese salt, and a gouda-shaped cheese mold. It took some time to figure out what kind of milk would be truly good milk for cheese-making, and not just the Coles/Woollies price-war sugar-milk; I finally landed on Jonesy's (full-fat milk; they pasteurize at low heat, which apparently matters a lot), though I hear Saint David is also good.
I've relied on several instructional websites to walk me through this first test round. New England Cheesemaking has a great beginner FAQ/instruction page as well as providing the cotija recipe itself; the site Curd-Nerd has lots of helpful info.
Still, I hardly felt prepared. Unexpected issues arose immediately: Sterilization. I had to sterilize all the instruments to be used throughout the process, and I chose the boiling-water method. But could I just leave plastic spoons to boil in a pot for 15 minutes? I didn't do so--hopefully the cheese won't kill us. My type C starter was freeze-dried crystals in a foil pouch, stored in the freezer. The pouch and scissors had to be sterilized with alcohol before opening, and the crystals put into a sterilized jar. But sterilizing the jar meant making it boiling hot, and the crystals have to stay cold--what to do?? (I cooled the sterilized jar in the fridge for a few minutes before pouring in the crystals, and just hoped I wasn't ruining everything.)
The crystals themselves were supposed to be sufficient for 250L of milk in cheesemaking. I was using 2L, so that should mean I needed 1/125 of the crystals. Try eyeballing that.
|Very tough to keep the temp here!|
Other things were equally vexing. Keeping water at a constant 100 degrees F turns out to be quite a challenge. I followed NE Cheesemaking's advice to use a water bath in the kitchen sink to control temperature (that's on the beginner FAQ linked above). This took a lot of work, initially, to achieve. It was incredibly difficult to nail 100, though finally I managed to stay between about 99.5 and 100.5 for the 20 minutes of constant whisking. Once the milk-calcium-starter-rennet mixture was through the stirring phase, it had to sit and cool for "45-90 minutes" before having to be cut into even 1" cubes (which--it's in a round pot and the mix was more than 1" deep, so had to be cut on a horizontal plane). Then the test for whether it's "ready" for cutting--and apparently timing is really really important here--is to stick your finger in it at an angle and see if it breaks "cleanly."
I'm sure this is all stuff that repeated experience will help me know, but jeez.
|Something between milk and cheese--the sitting phase.|
Finally, after the cut curds have sweated out all the whey they can (and mine didn't sweat much), they get strained through cheesecloth on their way to the press. Unless you squeeze your cheesecloth too hard, as I did, and send your curds pooping out through the top right into your bowl of collected whey, destroying their shape/integrity and forcing a re-strain.
Good thing I knew this was likely to fail before I started! Otherwise, I might be stressed!
|Real cheese mold, left. Improv version, right.|