When I built my first cheese press, I noticed that the cheese I was making ending up drier than it should have been. Obviously, with the pneumatic cylinder and calculations I used, I was applying too much pressure on the follower. Then I discovered the Tomme style cheeses with its moderate acidity and pressing equal to its weight. It was an enlightenment for me and returning back to fundamentals moment. I tried many hard cheeses at home and settled on Tomme style as it requires not much pressing and easy to make in our busy family life.
Well, moisture control starts with the FLOC, from the moment rennet hits the milk till you cut and eat it. Flocculation being the start of moisture control, cooking, milling if required, pressing, drying, salting and aging stages requires understanding of the moisture control.
If you don’t want to end up with a rock-cheese, there are steps (and devices) you need to adhere. As I said before flocculation method is your start point. Higher the floc time gives you more moisture in the curd. Lower floc times, you will get less moisture in the cheese. As we do not want high initial moisture in the hard cheeses, their floc multiplier usually 3 to 4 but like Camembert with lots of moisture in the curd is 6.
Of course the curd cutting size also matters here. Smaller pieces will have more surface area to release the whey in them. The look and feel of the cooked curds will tell you the pH and moisture left in them. Usually recipes talk about springy, sticky, shiny, shrunk curd while they are explaining the recipe.
Once the curd cut and the cooking starts, acidity also increases (pH drops). The stirring here is the way to keep the curds as a single piece as they are cut. If you don’t stir, they will gather at the bottom, stick together and ruin the end product. Continues stirring, letting them loose whey till they reach to the shrunk, shiny, springy look and feel. At this moment, they are ready to transfer to baskets and press.
Once they are in the baskets let them sit for about 5 minutes so that they settle and stick together. Add more curds to the baskets to fill in the spaces and make sure the outer edges filled nicely. Measure roughly the weight of the curd. Apply like quarter of its weight as a pressure. If we apply the entire weight as the pressure, the outer edge of the cheese will lose the whey and form a barrier for the inner pieces. Inside of the cheese will stay moist because the whey has nowhere to go. This may lead to further problems during the maturation. Also the holes on your basket is another determining factor. It is artisan cheesemaker’s job to find the equilibrium between the weights of the press, correct basket holes, time to press and flipping intervals.
Increase the weight gradually at 1 hour intervals and flip the cheese at 15 minutes intervals. This will make sure both sides of the cheese is smooth, lost moisture from both sides equally and the future rind that will protect the cheese is developing correctly. Try not to pierce the rind and make sure the cloth peels away without tearing the rind. The rind is the first defence against the bacteria and other contaminants.
At the end of the pressing, the cheese is now ready to be salted. Salting again is an exchange of moisture with salt. Salting helps the aroma to develop and protects the cheese. I always do saturated brine salting and I think it is the most cost effective method for home cheesemaking. The industry standard is 4 to 6 hours per 500g of cheese. I never throw away my brine may be boiling it from time to time and top it up with salt. Cheese swims in this brine flipped regularly. I also sprinkle salt on top of the cheese where the brine doesn’t cover for a protective measure.
The brine infuses into the cheese replacing bit of moisture with salt. The rind is developing at this stage and already thickened. Initial drying of the cheese happens in room temperature. I remove the cheese and position on top of a clean wooden cutting board, with a tray underneath to catch the salty whey coming out. I also use an umbrella fly screen that we use at picnics so that it is free of things flying in the air. Once it is dry to touch that is when you poke the cheese you should have a bit of shiny oil at your fingertip and visible moisture; it is ready to go into the cave AKA refrigerator with an external thermostat and a wet towel inside.
Cheese dries on the outside with a considerable moisture inside. It’s a living, breathing thing and it needs time to serve you that beautiful aroma and texture. It needs to release the moisture slowly over a long period, the starter bacteria inside the cheese dies releasing the crucial aroma compounds when the moisture levels dropped under a certain level.
I have a fridge that I am using as a cave but found that the individual plastic boxes with a tray inside is a better solution for the humidity. There needs to be about 85% humidity so that the cheese can release the moisture in it slowly. The plastic boxes inside the cave gives me the best solution to ripening problems. Regular airing, taking away excess moisture collected in the boxes and checking the cheese rind are other jobs. I may wash the cheeses if there is need be with a morge solution to create a rind that I like which also helps with the bacterial ripening.
If there are no mishaps, electricity failures and other difficulties, in about 6 months you will end up with a beauty that is not available anywhere else on Earth. The rind is edible, the inner pieces of the wheel is yellow and soft, melts in the mouth like a Turkish delight and if you are lucky, you may even feel the amino acid crystals that are formed during the ripening. Open a homemade mead next to it and you are in heaven.