As promised, today we’ll look at the 5th cheese within our little series. Of those we’ve covered thus far, today’s cheese is the most complicated to make and, if that’s not enough, it’s also brined. All of this can add up to problems for the unaware — but that’s not us! No, my cheese making amici, you heeded my advice, making at least one of the “easier” cheeses in this series, and now you’re ready for a challenge. Today we’re making feta!
* * *
* * *
Feta cheese is most closely associated with Greece and, according to European Union law, only cheese made in Greece may be labelled and sold as “feta.” Typically made with sheep’s milk alone, the Union will allow up to 30% of the milk to come from goats. Although first mentioned in the 15th century during the Byzantine Empire, it would be a mistake to think that feta was — and is — only produced in Greece. Brined cheeses have a longer shelf-life than many of the “soft” cheeses and, as such, are fairly common throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as other areas around the world. Depending upon availability, these cheeses can be made from the milk of cows, goats, sheep, or some combination of the three.
During a recent broadcast of America’s Test Kitchens, various brands of feta were tested. They found that imported feta was stronger tasting than domestic. The blandest feta cheese came from cow’s milk. Goat’s milk produced cheese with a bit more flavor and sheep’s milk cheese was strongest of all. Bear in mind that virtually all store-bought feta uses raw milk and that isn’t always available to us rookies. We’re left with pasteurized or, worse yet, ultra-pasteurized milk and either process destroys many of the subtleties in flavor that distinguish the 3 milks. Now, you may be lucky enough to get raw milk for your cheese but, as I’ve already lamented, it’s illegal to sell raw milk in Illinois and there’s a dearth of lactating sheep in greater Chicagoland. I do know of one milk producing ewe but, distance aside, her milk is already spoken for. So, because we have to use pasteurized dairy products, don’t be surprised if your home-made feta tastes rather bland in comparison to your favorite imported feta made from sheep’s milk.
Thus far, we’ve made cheeses that were pretty straight-forward with mistakes a rarity. Many of the steps used for those cheeses will be repeated here, when making feta, but a few more have been added and there’s a greater chance for error. This will be a long post but if I don’t warn you of the pitfalls, you might end up dumping your dairy down the drain and starting over. Who wants that?
First off, we need to talk about the milk. In short, you cannot use ultra-pasteurized goat’s milk to make feta. As it is, goat’s milk creates softer curds than other dairy, so you’re already at a disadvantage. When I used ultra-pasteurized goat’s milk, I found it impossible to get a clean break or hard set. (More about clean break later.) According to my usual sources, ¼ tsp of calcium chloride (CaCl2) added to 64 oz (2 litres) of milk will help to overcome the effects of ultra-pasteurization. (CaCl2 is a salt commonly used in brewing and brining. Before you use this salt, be sure to read the Precautions below.) Well, I tested ultra-pasteurized goat’s milk 3 times, alone and with CaCl2, and never got a clean break. All of the dairy was dumped. Next I ran 2 tests of regular pasteurized goat’s milk, with and without CaCl2. Both gave me a clean break and I was able to make feta cheese with the curds.
Now, since some of you might not be able to get goat’s milk, I ran 3 tests using whole cow’s milk. In the first test, I used regular pasteurized milk, alone, and a clean break was achieved and feta made. In the second test, I used ultra-pasteurized milk to which ¼ tsp of CaCl2 was added and a clean break resulted and I made feta cheese. In the third and final test, I didn’t add anything to ultra-pasteurized cow’s milk and I did not achieve a clean break. The dairy was dumped.
So, the long and short of these tests is that you cannot use ultra-pasteurized milk, alone, to make feta. If your only choice available is ultra-pasteurized cow’s milk, you must add CaCl2 to mask the effects of the ultra-pasteurization process. CaCl2 will not work with ultra-pasteurized goat’s milk. Take the easy route: find and use regular pasteurized goat’s or cow’s milk and you’ll be fine. Of course, if you can get raw, unpasteurized milk, there’s no need to add anything. You’re good to go!
Once you’ve warmed the milk, inoculated it with yogurt cultures, added rennet, and let it sit overnight, you’ll need to see if it has set properly. This is the your first real hurdle. Unlike with the other cheeses, this process will form one large curd. Stick your finger, on an angle, into the curd and slowly bring the finger to the surface to test for a “clean break,” meaning the curd is firmly set from top to bottom. On the left is a picture showing a ‘bad break.” You can see that the curd hasn’t formed and all you’ve got is a thickened dairy product or, perhaps, a very thin curd floating atop thickened dairy. On the right are examples of a “clean break,” where the curd is firmly set throughout. If a clean break hasn’t been achieved, let the dairy sit for another 2 hours and check again. If still not a clean break, let it sit another 2 hours. If at this point, you’ve not received a clean break, you probably won’t and, as far as I know, all you can do is dump it and start over with fresh milk.
There are a number of causes for a bad break:
- Use of ultra-pasteurized dairy products.
- Failure to use live cultures to inoculate the dairy.
- Using too much/little live cultures to inoculate the dairy.
- Over-heating the dairy and thereby killing the live cultures.
- Using rennet that’s too old or not using enough.
- Not waiting long enough for the curd to form.
- Once the rennet has been added, the dairy must not be disturbed. Even moving it slightly may prevent the curd from forming. My advice is to move the dairy to the spot where it will remain overnight and then add the rennet.
- The Fates are messing with you.
One more area to watch involves brining the cheese. For starters, the brine will affect both the taste and texture of the cheese, as well as extend its shelf life. To be successful, you’ll need an acidic solution that is 12.5% salt and it’s easy enough to achieve. Whey is already mildly acidic and you want to reserve it when you strain out the curds. Add 5½ tbsp of kosher salt for every 20 fluid ounces of whey and mix it, dissolving as much of the salt as you can. Cut your feta into cubes and place them in the brine solution. The feta should remain there to pickle for a minimum of 5 days and, according to Still Tasty, no more than 3 months. When you remove the feta, if the exterior is slimy to the touch, the brine solution didn’t contain enough salt. I don’t believe anything can be done to save the cheese and eventually it will completely dissolve. If the feta feels fine, it can be eaten after 5 days. Keep in mind that the longer it sits in the brine, the more flavorful it becomes and the easier it is to crumble. Most will prefer to rinse it gently with tap water before use.
Before beginning, please refer to my Cheesy Stuff page. Chock full of cheesy details, it provides information about ingredients, cleaning/sterilizing equipment, spices & seasonings, a few tips, and sources for supplies and information.
Still with me? Here we go …
* * *
How to Make Feta Cheese
yield: approx ½ pound
- ½ gal (64 oz or 2 liters) goat’s milk (cow or sheep’s milk may be used) – ultra-pasteurized goat’s milk cannot be used.
- 1 tbsp live culture, plain yogurt mixed in 1 tbsp milk from above
- ¼ rennet tablet dissolved in 3 oz distilled water at room temp
- 1/4 tsp table salt
- ¼ tsp calcium chloride (CaCl2) dissolved 3 oz distilled water at room temp (necessary if using ultra-pasteurized cow’s milk)
- (If necessary, add diluted calcium chloride to the milk and mix well.) Place milk in a non-reactive pot with a lid. Gently heat the mixture until 86˚F (30˚C), stirring occasionally to prevent scalding on the pan’s bottom.
- Remove from heat, add yogurt-milk mixture, stir well, cover, and let sit for 1 hour at room temperature.
- Move pot to where it will remain undisturbed, add dissolved rennet, stir quickly & well, cover, and leave overnight.
- The next morning, check for a clean break. (See above.)
- Once a clean break is achieved, take a long knife or, as I like to use, an offset spatula, and starting at on side of the pot, cut a straight line through the curd. Once the opposite side has been reached, create another slice about ½ in front of the previous cut. Repeat until the entire curd has been cut into horizontal slices.
- Give the pot a quarter turn and, starting at one end of the pot, repeat the slicing process. When finished, the curd should be cut into ½ squares.
- Now take the knife or offset spatula and, with the blade on an angle, slice through the curds from side to side at ½ inch intervals. This will cut the curds beneath the surface. Repeat this step twice, turning the pot and cutting the curds on an angle each time.
- Once the curds have been cut, gently stir the curds and check for curds larger than ½ inch cubes. If found, cut them to size.
- Let the curds rest for 15 minutes, gently stirring them 3 or 4 times that time period. The curds will shrink during this period as more whey separates from them.
- Next, line a strainer with cheesecloth or a hankie and place both over a large pot or bowl. Gently pour the curds and whey into the center of the cloth-lined strainer, saving the whey at the same time. Once all the curds have been poured, grab the cloth’s 4 corners, making a “packet”, of sorts. Tie the corners together and suspend the cheese over the bowl or a pan. Allow it to drain for 2 to 4 hours. If unusually warm, this may be done in the fridge.
- Remove the curds from the cloth and place in a large bowl. Season with ¼ tsp table salt and stir, breaking up the curds as you do. The cheese will resemble cottage cheese when finished.
- Line a large can (open at both ends, one lid saved) or feta cheese mold with cheesecloth or another hankie. Place the curds into the form and cover the top with the ends of the cloth.
- Use the place the can lid atop the curds and place a heavy weight on top. This will force the remaining whey out of the curds, creating a block of feta. (See Notes.) Leave it overnight. If quite warm, place in the fridge.
- The following day, unwrap the cheese and cut it into cubes. Place them into the brine solution, cover, and refrigerate for at least 5 days.
- After 5 days, remove a bit of cheese and gently rinse it under running water before tasting it. Depending upon your preferences, you can either use it or return it to the brine to pickle further.
- Feta will keep for up to 3 months in the brine. As it ages in the brine, it will crumble more readily. If, at any time, mold appears on any of the feta, discard it and everything within that container.
* * *
- Calcium chloride has a wide range of uses, from medical applications to keeping our paths clear of snow and ice. If you buy some, be sure it’s of a grade fit for human consumption. Buying it from a cheese making site or home brewery supply house should eliminate any concerns you might have.
- As calcium chloride is dissolved in water, a small amount of heat is released. This is of little concern, especially given the small amounts we’ll be using. Burns can result, however, if the dry crystals are ingested. Please, KEEP CALCIUM CHLORIDE CRYSTALS OUT OF CHILDREN’S REACH AND AWAY FROM PETS.
* * *
The heavier the weight used to press the curds, the firmer the brick of feta will result and the quicker, too. With the right amount of weight (pressure), you should get a firm brick of feta if left overnight. You can buy cheese presses or find instructions for building your own on the internet. If you’re at all inventive, you can save yourself the money and rig something. I placed a filled bottle onto the curd-filled form and placed it all on my grill. It was tall enough so that when I attempted to close the grill cover, the lid rested atop the bottle and it’s weight supplied all the pressure needed. The next morning I had a firm brick of feta that I cut into the cubes that are pictured above.
Do not panic if you neglect to reserve the whey or do not have enough. You can use distilled water in addition to, or in place of, the whey. Just be sure to use 5½ tbsp of kosher salt for every 20 oz of distilled water. Although I’ve never used distilled water, a number of sources successfully pickle their feta with it. Even so, because of its acidity, I would strongly suggest using as much whey as possible before resorting to distilled water when making the brining solution.
If you have slimy cheese after pickling, there are a few things you can try with your next batch. The Curd Nerd website may be of help.
* * *
The next and final cheeses in the series will be mozzarella. You may not realize that there is more than one kind of mozzarella. There’s “American Mozzarella,” which you’ll find grated, in bags, and hanging in a display among assorted cheeses at your neighborhood grocery, and then there’s “Italian Mozzarella,” which you’ll find globe-shaped and packaged in liquid, normally whey. American Mozzarella is usually melted when served. (Think pizza.) Italian Mozzarella is served as-is or sliced. (Think Insalata Caprese.) Like feta, making them at home can be a bit of a challenge but, of the two, American Mozzarella is easiest. In fact, kits are sold for just that purpose. As always, we’ll take the easy route first and make American Mozzarella. A few weeks later, we’ll close out the cheese series when we make Italian Mozzarella.
* * *
You may have noticed that 2 plates used above have a certain cosmopolitan flair. The plates, “Barcelona” and “Venice“, are 2 of 6 that I won, along with a very limited edition cookbook (pictured, right), in a give-away sponsored by the Our Family Food Adventures blog. So, to Kristy, Mike, and my 2 favorite Sous Chefs in the whole, wide world, Miss A and Mr N, thank you very much for these generous prizes. Both cookbook and plates are sure to bring a smile whenever I use them.
* * *
Inspired by the Fankhauser Feta Cheese webpage
“Home Cheese Making” by Ricki Carrol
* * *