Story and Photography by Lisa Fain
I’ve been making queso blanco for quite a while. It’s a cheese that requires nothing more than a dash of vinegar added to a pot of warm milk, and cheesecloth to drain the whey from the curds. A couple hours of draining yields a creamy ball solid enough for spreading on toast or sprinkling over enchiladas. It’s a fine dairy product that never fails to impress, but it does have its limitations—namely it will not melt. So I felt it was time to up my cheese-making game and go to the next level of difficulty. I decided to make mozzarella.
All cheeses are born from the same source: a chemical reaction that separates the solid curds (which are comprised of milk fat and protein) from the liquid whey. To do this, souring of the milk is required. This can be achieved with a simple acidifier, such as vinegar, or with a more complex enzyme called rennet that comes from the lining of a ruminant’s stomach, nettles, thistles or fungi. Flavor additives, cultures and time also determine whether your milk grows up to be a hard Parmesan or a smooth Gouda.
Making mozzarella is considered a simple process because there’s no aging time required, nor does it call for any complex cultures. But it does require both rennet and citric acid to curdle the milk, as well as manipulation of the curds. Rennet and citric acid aren’t everyday ingredients available at the local market—I purchased mine from a cheese shop. The type of milk used is also important. Most commercial milks are ultra-pasteurized for longer shelf life, but this high-heat process weakens the milk’s ability to curdle. To ensure that curds will form, use raw or simply pasteurized milk.
At first, making mozzarella seemed awfully similar to making queso blanco: heat the milk and add a souring agent. I was dubious. But I saw the superior coagulating abilities of rennet over vinegar when my pot went from liquid to solid in mere minutes—a substance so firm that I could slice it with a knife.
After the curds were cut and the whey was drained, it was time to reheat the curds so I could shape them into fully formed cheese balls. This final step in the mozzarella-making process had always impressed yet intimidated me. I’d seen cheese makers at Italian markets deftly pull the cheese into long, thick strings before rolling it into balls, but the act looked difficult. I hoped my cheese curds would comply.
After I heated the curds to the required temperature of 135 degrees, I grabbed a chunk. It was hot! Quickly, I kneaded it until the curds were a solid mass and then pulled. Like elastic, the cheese slowly lengthened into wide ribbons as I stretched it more than two feet. And then I brought it back together again and kneaded it into a ball.
It sure looked like mozzarella, but how would it taste? I cut off a still-warm slice and took a bite. The mozzarella was creamy and solid with a bit of sweetness from the milk and a hint of salt. It was as good as, if not better than, the fresh mozzarella I could buy at the store. I was impressed.
The final test was to see if my mozzarella would melt. I placed a slice on some bread and slid it under the broiler. In a couple of minutes, the cheese was bubbling and oozing. Oh, yes! This was the cheese I’d been hoping for. I’ve definitely leapt into the cheesemaking big leagues!
Go to Homemade Mozzarella for the complete recipe.
A wonderful online source for the rennet and citric acid is New England Cheesemaking Supply Company: cheesemaking.com. You can also buy it locally at Austin Homebrew Supply: austinhomebrew.com.