Other than the occasional prescription and my annual box of Claritin during allergy season, I’ve never purchased drugs in my life, but I imagine it’s something like trying to procure raw milk in the state of Louisiana. There are contacts, suppliers, dealers, and drop offs; there’s even the threat of jail time (I think). I asked around among my friends in the Whole Foods crowd and, sure enough, within a few days, I found Razorblade (not her real name). She got in touch.
‘I hear you’re looking for some raw milk?’ she asked.
‘Yeah’, I said, coolly.
Razorblade is involved in a monthly milk-share with a nearby farmer who pushes unpasteurized milk at a low price. Each month, a different member of the group drives out to an undisclosed location, picks up the order, and makes the deliveries. Razorblade’s turn was coming up.
‘How much are you looking to get?’ she asked.
I wasn’t sure how much to go for – I didn’t know when I’d have the opportunity again, and if things went sour, literally, I’d want extra. At Razorblade’s recommendation, I put in for a gallon, because she thought that ordering too much more than her usual share might draw attention.
‘I’ll be in touch.’ The phone clicked. And then I waited.
There was confusion about the drop off. Razorblade passed the milk off to a delivery man who never got in touch with me, presumably assuming that Razorblade had given me the drop off location herself. I contacted Razorblade a few weeks later to ask if she’d ever gotten the milk.
‘He never got it to you? He was supposed to get in touch.’ She cursed his ineptitude and promised to remove his head from his neck. Maybe not that last part. Anyway, she told me that the delivery man had left the milk in a refrigerator in a former warehouse weeks ago and that it might still be there. It turns out, raw milk isn’t as hot a commodity as you might think. It’s the kind of thing you can leave sitting around. Except, of course, for the expiration date.
By the time I got my milk home it had gone off. Just a bit, but enough that I wouldn’t be dipping Oreos in it. (Not that I dip Oreos anyway. Who wants a soggy Oreo? I don’t relate to those people.) I whipped open my computer and asked the internet if I could still make cheese with sour milk.
Because I don’t have an aging cave, proper sanitation facilities, or any experience at all, I decided to make some mozzarella. Mozzarella is so simple to make that a microwave is involved in the process. A microwave. Now, if my mom taught me anything, it’s how to use a microwave, so this was the cheese for me.
To get started, I needed to get my hands on some citric acid and some rennet. I called St. James to see if they carried either and not only did they not, they didn’t know anyone who did. Rather than hunting around all of my local hipstores, I decided to do things the old-fashioned way. I ordered them online. A few days later, I was ready to go.
The milk is important. Nearly any kind of milk will do – skim, even, if you’re that sort of person – as long as it isn’t ultra high temperature (UHT) pasteurized. This method of pasteurization kills all of the things in the milk that you’ll need to turn it into cheese. Apparently, a lot of organic milk is UHT pasteurized without any indication, so Whole Foodies beware. If your mozzarella looks more like cottage cheese, don’t eat it, and buy some different milk.
I guess the best way to do this is to tell you what is supposed to happen, and then tell you what actually happened. Here’s the recipe, with interruptions.
1 1/4 cup water
1 1/2 teaspoon citric acid
1/4 rennet tablet or 1/4 teaspoon liquid rennet (Not Junket rennet)
Junket rennet is junk for cheesemaking, it turns out. If it’s all you have, use 2 tablets.
1 gallon milk
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Why the salt has to be kosher is a mystery to me. (Why anything has to be kosher is a mystery to me.)
5 quart or larger non-reactive pot
Ceramics and stainless steel are ‘non-reactive’, meaning that the chemicals in the cookware won’t interfere with the chemicals in the cooking. Aluminum, copper, iron, and regular ol’ steel are all reactive, unfortunately.
Measuring cups and spoons
Get a good one. This is important. Let me tell you.
8″ knife, off-set spatula, or similar slim instrument for cutting the curds
A drainy spoon.
‘Who needs rubber gloves?’ I thought. ‘My hands are clean!’ The gloves are because the cheese is over 100 degrees. It is not fun to touch the cheese without gloves.
1. Prepare the citric acid and rennet. Measure 1 cup of water and stir in the citric acid. until it has dissolved. Measure ¼ cup of water in a separate thing and stir in the rennet until dissolved.
2. Warm the milk. Pour the milk into the pot. Stir in the citric acid solution. Set the pot over medium-high heat and warm it to 90 degrees while stirring gently.
3. Add the rennet. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the rennet solution. Count to 30, stop stirring, cover the pot, and let it sit for 5 minutes.
4. Cut the curds. Okay. So. After 5 minutes the milk should have set. It should look like ‘silken tofu’. If it is still liquidy, cover it up and let it sit for a bit longer until it does. Mine took a while to look like this – I don’t know why. In any event, once it gets around to setting, slice the curds with several parallel vertical cuts, then several parallel horizontal cuts, giving it a grid look. ‘Several’ was never defined for me, so I can’t define it for you. 5 cuts? 7 cuts? Whatever. Just make sure you’re cutting all the way to the bottom of the pan.
5. Cook the curds. Put the pot back on the stove over medium heat and warm the curds to 105 degrees. Stir the curds slowly as they warm, but ‘try not to break them up too much’. This was difficult. I also don’t know what ‘too much’ means.
6. Remove the curds from heat and stir. Remove the curds from heat and stir. For 5 minutes.
7. Separate the curds from the whey. Ladle the curds into a microwave-safe bowl with that slotted spoon you put out special.
8. Microwave the curds. Nuke ‘em for 1 minute. Drain the whey. Put on your rubber gloves and fold the curds over on themselves ‘a few times’. At this point, the curds should be very loose and ‘cottage-cheese-like’. Mine weren’t, for some reason. And this began to be a problem.
9. Microwave the curds to 135 degrees. All of this is Fahrenheit, by the way. Have you been doing Centigrade? Oh, wow. Yeah, you should just go ahead and start over in that case. If not, keep zapping the curds until they’re 135 degrees Fahrenheit. Once they are, stretch them. Yeah. Go ahead. Stretch them.
10. Stretch and shape the mozzarella. Sprinkle the kosher salt over the cheese and ‘squish it’ to incorporate. Stretch and fold the curds repeatedly. The cheese will start to tighten and become firm. Once this happens, shape the mozzarella into whatever shape you want. A dragon, whatever. I did a ball. Don’t overwork the mozzarella or it’ll be hard and weird.
11. Using and storing your mozzarella. You can eat it right there or you can refrigerate it for a week or so. If you’re going to store it, put the mozzarella in a small container and pour over a mixture of salt and cooled whey to keep it fresh.
Mine didn’t work. Did you think it would? It didn’t. I appreciate your confidence. I’m not sure what went wrong. Or rather, I can’t keep track of everything that went wrong. Nothing ever quite looked like it was supposed to, but I kept going anyway, thinking that somehow it would get better as I went. I thought for a bit that it might work out, so I poured some whey on it and stuck it in the refrigerator. When I took it out the next day, it was, just, not very soft at all. It was actually quite firm, with an unappealing layer of slime around it. I definitely tried it. It tasted okay, actually. But not like mozzarella. I let myself think for a moment that I just invented a new kind of cheese, and that this was a perfect batch of this new kind of cheese. But it wasn’t. It was a bad batch of mozzarella. I ended up letting it slide slowly off the cutting board into the garbage, leaving a slimy trail of white sludge in its wake.
One of these days, when I reclaim my pride, I’ll give it another go. I got in touch with Razorblade. ‘There’s more where that came from’, she assured me. ‘Let me know.’