better cheddar

Potential cheddar. That's what you see here: a two pound wodge of cheese curds draining over my kitchen sink. 

Several months ago I sat in on a cheese-making demonstration conducted by one of Denver's finest chefs, Frank Bonanno. We watched (and tasted) as he assembled burrata—a delicious appetizer featuring a lemony, creamy spoonful of fresh ricotta wrapped in a tender sheet of fresh mozzarella. If you're thinking of store-bought varieties of these cheeses, as I would have before this demonstration, you're not even close. The burrata were simply amazing to eat, both in texture and flavor.

The next day I repeated the demonstration in my own home. Although my burrata were, well, somewhat malformed, the gustatory results were just as good as what Bonanno had produced. With a little practice, I'll get my burrata to have the same perfectly formed, glossy exterior as he achieved, and I look forward to throwing down a plate of those before some friends at a meal some time soon.

But if my brewing enterprises in the past have taught me anything, it's that good things can come to those who wait. Making mozzarella takes only a half-hour or so, once you know what you're doing. But what about the incredible range of cheeses that require more effort, time, and artistry, like those I saw lining the shelves of a Paris fromagerie a few years ago? Can an amateur cheese-head learn to make something like that in his home?

The only way to find out is to try it, so that's what I'm doing.

This not a pursuit for the impatient. It took most of the day to prepare the curds for a traditional cheddar. In short, I had to find the right milk—two gallons of organic, unhomogenized, whole milk—and then set it up in a large bowl that floated in a warm-water bath, the intent of which is to maintain temperatures at various ranges from 86 to 100 degrees over the course of about seven hours.

During the early stages, I added mesophilic starter and rennet, which respectively provide the right bacteria and the curding effect. There commenced much stirring and massaging of the curds to keep them separated and oozing whey, the clearish liquid that separates from the milk solids that are to become the cheese.

The picture at the top of this post shows the late stage of this draining of whey. After this, I put the curds into a mold and press and began slowly tightening the screws to squeeze out the remaining moisture. That takes about 36 hours, after which I'll air dry it for 4-5 days and then wax it and let it age in a cool place.

Did I mention patience? The aging will take anywhere from 3-12 months, depending on the sharpness I want for the cheese. I'll probably try this one out somewhere around 6 months, just to get a sense of the middle stage of sharpness and to see how I like it. That means I'll crack the wax casing on this 2-lb. cheddar some time around summer solstice.

Ultimately, the idea would be to get a half-dozen different cheeses started, and then to supplement those according to taste and preference, so as to have a variety mature and ripened at all times. I don't know whether I'll manage that level of productivity, but it does sound enticing to be able to offer a plate of several homemade cheeses, a bottle of home-brewed Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, and a nice platter of bruschetta featuring garden heirloom tomatoes on a home-baked baguette.