Meet Gianaclis (Gee-on-a-klees) Caldwell. She lives in Southern Oregon on land her parents bought in the 1940s, where she was raised to be self-sufficient—not because it was cool but because it was necessary. Her family grew much of their own food, and they had cows for milk and dairy products. She explains, “My mom canned all summer. She knew exactly how many quarts of string beans, how many quarts of tomatoes we needed to make it through the winter.” Though Gianaclis moved away from the land for nearly 23 years and enjoyed a succession of careers including as a nurse and an installation artist, she returned to the property with her husband and daughters in 2005 to build Pholia Farm.
Before her second turn living on the family farm, Gianaclis bought a few little goats to milk and then make cheese for the family. As luck would have it, she fell in love with the process—both the science and the art. And so the adventure began: Gianaclis and her family decided to capitalize on the farmstead cheese trend. They returned home to build an off-grid small-scale dairy operation using completely renewable energy from their property, and they set off to make the very best cheese they could.
Now Gianaclis is a cheesemaker, author of four books (with a fifth in the works) and a blog, teacher, and advisor to others who want to start their own small-scale dairy operations.
Needless to say, Gianaclis knows her stuff, including these six truths that she wishes everyone understood about making cheese.
6 Truths About Cheesemaking
Truth #1: There Are 3 Basic Ways to Make Cheese
Gianaclis wants everyone to understand that there are three ways to make cheese, and it’s helpful to know which technique is used for which cheese.
First: The most basic way to make cheese is what she calls “high heat, added acid.” The milk is heated and acid (which may include lemon juice, vinegar, or even buttermilk) is added to coagulate the milk (separate the curds from the whey). This is used for cheeses like ricotta and paneer.
Second: Next, there is what she calls “long time with acid created by starter bacteria.” Milk products made using this process include yogurt, fromage blanc, and soft goat milk chèvre. In these cases, you don’t add any acid, but you add bacteria that in turn create acid over 6 to 24 hours.
Third: The third category is the most complex and requires the use of rennet, an enzyme from the stomach of a young calf, kid, or lamb, or a vegetarian version. The rennet is used for coagulation, and added bacteria create acid both before and after the rennet does the coagulation. This ensures that the final pH of the cheese is one that produces the right flavor and makes the cheese safe enough to age, during which time it can become even tastier. Most of the cheeses we eat daily are in this category including cheddar, mozzarella, and gouda.
As a cheesemaker, you troubleshoot differently for each category of cheese, so it’s helpful to be able to identify which category each cheese is in.
Truth #2: Starting with Grocery-Store Milk Is a Good Idea
Gianaclis recommends starting your cheesemaking journey with a good brand of grocery-store milk. She explains that it probably won’t make phenomenal cheese, but it will be consistent. In contrast, milk from a small, local farm may be delicious, but it will likely be more variable. Plus, store-bought milk will generally be more affordable than high-quality local milk.
Using grocery-store milk at the beginning will give you a bit more freedom to experiment and learn. Gianaclis’ analogy is, “You’re not going to pull out your best-quality silk to make a dress when you’ve never sewn anything before.” She explains further that you can’t use ultra-pasteurized milk for any cheesemaking, nor can you use homogenized milk if you’re making the third kind of cheese from above. She goes on to explain that it’s best to work with cream-top milk, but if you can’t get that you can use skim milk and add some heavy whipping cream.
Truth #3: Raw Milk Isn’t Always the Answer
I asked Gianaclis how she feels about beginning cheesemakers using raw milk. She explained, “There isn’t one answer because some raw milk is going to be superior quality, and some isn’t. Fresh milk is a food that nature didn’t design to be stored. You’ve got to know what you’re doing to maintain a high quality.” Here’s one way Gianaclis explains the milk-quality challenge: “Nature meant for milk to go directly from a mom to a baby’s tummy. Every step that it’s removed from where it was intended to go means it will lose quality.” She goes on to explain that goat milk is even more fragile than cow’s milk and should never taste “goaty,” but often does because it’s so easily damaged. Her advice? If you want to use raw milk, do what you can to find a reliable, high-quality source, and be sure to use it as soon as possible.
Truth #4: Write It All Down
As you dive into making your own cheese, Gianaclis says it’s super important to keep a log. In that log you’ll want to record everything about your recipe and process. She warns, “It’s a classic tale when three months later, you open that cheese and it’s the best thing you’ve ever made, but you can’t remember how you did it.” It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to convince yourself you’ll remember all the details of a recipe. She recommends recording things like the time it takes to perform each step, the temperature of the milk, the curd, and the room, and the textures as the milk changes from liquid to curd. Eventually you’ll develop your intuition, but these cold hard facts will help you get there. She explains, “Cheesemaking is extremely intuitive, but you can’t have intuition without either practicing with someone more experienced, or just muddling through it over time.”
Truth #5: The Recipe Is Just the Beginning
Gianaclis freely shares every recipe she develops in order to encourage and inspire others, but she also knows that nobody else’s cheese will turn out exactly like hers. That’s not just because she’s an expert, it’s also because the milk and the conditions always vary a bit. Milk is malleable depending on the season, how long it’s been stored, the length of the days, and so forth. And despite the fact that milk is constantly changing, it always looks the same (go figure), so you may not know offhand how one cheese will differ from the next. As milk changes, your recipe needs to change too. And this is where the science of cheesemaking meets the art of cheesemaking and the magic happens.
Gianaclis suggests you embark on this journey with a mix of curiosity and discipline. She explains, “As you start advancing in your cheesemaking, it’s important to embrace the art of cheesemaking. But understand that every batch of cheese you make involves science and chemistry, and until you start learning a little bit of that, you’ll never understand why you’re having trouble.”
Truth #6: Good Cheese Is Expensive for a Reason
It takes a lot of work to produce and collect milk that is good enough to make great cheese. Unless a small-scale dairy farmer chooses to cut corners by overcrowding their animals and “feeding them things they shouldn’t naturally have,” Gianaclis explains that it’s very difficult for small-scale dairies to be profitable. For example, she says, “Since we started making cheese, the price of hay has gone up over 100%. The price of cheese has gone up about 2%. It’s a very tough business to sustain, unless you have a lot of land and you have water on that land to grow your own feed.” She emphasizes that small-scale dairy farmers and artisan cheesemakers aren’t in the business for the Benjamins. They’re in it for the love of the process and the products. Keep them in mind when you head out to buy your lovely chunk of cheese and are shocked by the price tag. And, if buying that cheesy goodness is a financial stretch, perhaps making it on your own is a better solution.
Just because we’re stopping at six tips doesn’t mean you have to. For more from Gianaclis, check out two of her books: Mastering Basic Cheesemaking: The Fun and Fundamentals of Making Cheese at Home and Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking: The Ultimate Guide for Home-Scale and Market Producers and her blog.
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