Monday, 4 October 2010


Helen and I have been making feta.

Every morning, Helen is waiting for me at the gate, rain or shine (even on weekends - that's dedication for you). If she thinks I am late (or maybe that I have forgotten) she calls out loudly. The same thing happens in the evening - and every time she sees me during the day. I suspect she is in it for the Fiskens Dairy Meal and miscellaneous vegetable scraps she gets at milking time, rather than for my company. In any case, we have milk - lots of milk - so it is time for some cheese.

Pasteurizing, with high-tech thermometer holder for
constant temperature readings.
Helen suggested I start out with something we know how to make, so our first cheese was a feta. Unfortunately there were some nasty bacteria in the cheese cloth, so that one got fed to Inglis the piglet. The next batch is in the fridge, expected to be ready in two days' time (and probably to be served on a home-made pizza with home-made chorizo sausage). The third batch is the one in the photos - I put it in brine today. The fourth batch was cut and hung today.

When I first started making feta, the general consensus on the internet appeared to be straight forward. Now, however, there are several variations on feta making processes, which Helen and I (or maybe even the East Friesian Ewes and I, depending on the fund) will eventually try. Our "traditional" recipe goes like this:
Cutting the curd

First, slowly heat 4 litres of milk to 68°C in a stainless steel pot, and hold it at this temperature for an hour. The temperature is apparently very important - though last season there were several instances where I got distracted and let the milk overheat, with no discernible ill effects (I was only a few degrees over the target temperature every time). In any case, a thermometer is important, and Helen and I would like to thank Mr Farmer for lending us his thermometer.

Stirring the curd after it has rested - some pieced need
cutting again.
After an hour, let the milk cool to 35°C (you can skip the first step and just start with 35°C milk - it may enhance the taste, but may also let unwanted bacteria continue to live in your cheese.) Add a tablespoon of acidophilus yogurt (we use DeWinkel), mix in thoroughly, and leave for an hour.

Right after you have mixed in the yogurt, combine half a cup of cold water and a half teaspoon of rennet (available at all good Countdown stores) - it would appear that it is important to let this stand for an hour before adding it. This step is often forgotten, so I have found that 20 minutes of standing time works just as well. After an hour, add the rennet, and mix it in thoroughly. I use a whisk (hence the bubbly surface in the photos). Let it stand, covered, at room temperature overnight.

draining the curds in cheese cloth
In the morning, or when the curds are firm, cut the curds. You need a 'clean break' - curds with a similar consistency to crème caramel. Cut in centimetre-ish strips one way, angling the knife to one side as you move along, then turn the pot 90° and do the same thing. Leave it to sit for 10 minutes, then stir very gently. I read a recipe from someone who only ever uses plastic to stir the curds, as it doesn't damage them - but plastic holds odours (and all our kitchen utensils are multi-purpose), so to be on the safe side I use the curd-cutting knife - again, with no ill effects. Next - if you like firm feta - heat the curds slowly to 30°C (40°C seems to work, too), cover and hold it at this temperature for 45 minutes. This makes the curds firmer, but the recipe works just fine if you skip this step. It is a good idea to stir gently every ten minutes, but if you forget, the curds will just clump together a bit (which actually makes them easier to get out of the pot).
State-of-the-art cheese hanging device

I used to just pour the curds and whey through a cheese cloth, but this is very messy. Now, I use a stainless steel slotted spoon to get the bigger curds out into the cheese cloth, and pour the remaining curds and whey on top. Over-handling the curds can apparently make the cheese tough and plasticky. So can pressing it too much (so I don't press feta at all). Keep the whey that drains off - this makes the brine. You can make it with water instead of whey, but it doesn't taste as good.
Curd, drained, cut in half, and ready to be sliced
into smaller sections for salting and brining.

Hang your cheese cloth somewhere (I use the laundry tub) for 12 hours (or 24 if you are brave - we did one like this and it tasted brilliant. The next one got contaminated). After this, cut it into slices, salt the surfaces with un-iodised salt, put into a container, and leave at room temperature for 12 hours (or 24, or 48 - if it isn't too hot, you can get away with anything). This helps to drain even more moisture from the curds.

Next, pour your brine over - 2 cups of whey and 5 tablespoons of salt. In batch number two I used 5 teaspoons of salt instead - will have to wait until Wednesday to see how it tastes**. The acidity of the brine is important; if it isn't acidic, your cheese will melt (so I have read, anyway) - but apparently leaving the whey at room temperature for 12 hours will make it nice and acidic. The cheese needs to sit in the brine for at least a week - the longer the better (to a point, anyway). Store it in the brine, rinsing each piece before you eat it. This makes a lovely, soft, creamy, spreadable feta. I'm working on a dry crumbly version (but we are very fond of the current version).

Hygiene is very important during this process - I spray my utensils with diluted bleach (then rinse them) before using, and boil my cheese cloths before I use them. You'll know if you have bad bacteria in your cheese - the smell is very distinctive, and the spongy texture and small round holes are a dead giveaway. Our chickens, pigs, and Inglis the piglet love the occasional batch of bad-bacteria cheese...

November is drawing very close, and the East Friesian Ewe Fund has almost enough for half a ewe. Might be time to start convincing Mr Farmer to let Helen get a boyfriend, instead...

** 5 teaspoons was insufficient, and the cheese went moldy. Stick to 5 tablespoons.

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