Buffalo soldier
Trials and tribulations of at-home mozzarella making

Buffalo soldier
Donna Hewett - 10/18/2018

It’s late in the evening, and we’re celebrating a summer full of ping pong, politics and good friends with one last caprese salad. I see the colors of Italy on the plate, but something is off. Oh, yeah. The cheese. It’s store-bought mozzarella – the soft stuff – probably a week past its prime. Not so much milky as watery. I’m not exactly using my nose at this point, otherwise I might offend my friend George, who’s gone to some trouble using his good tomatoes and basil.

On the way home, I tell my husband I’m going to surprise George and make him a caprese salad using fresh, homemade mozzarella. He gives me an incredulous look.

“In our kitchen?”

That’s right. Luscious white puffs soon to be wrapped in strips of salty prosciutto. Delizioso!

Strap yourself in for a journey that will find us in the nonreactive world of stainless steel, citric acid and liquid rennet. Don’t grimace; these products come straight from mother nature, according to the home office in Wisconsin.

To make any cheese, you must curdle milk and separate it from the whey. No big deal, right? I dump a gallon of Albertson’s milk into an expensive ceramic pot (my first mistake) and add 2 teaspoons citric acid. The milk quickly comes up to 90 degrees. Now’s the time to mix in the rennet. I’ve dissolved one tablet in a half cup of tap water and stir it into the hot milk and put the lid back on. After 10 minutes I peek: nothing. Nearly an hour later, I have some tiny curd but when I try to dip the little spongy pieces out, they disappear into the yellow, piss-like whey.

What happened? I toss it down the sink, splashing myself with hot gunk. Yeah, I’m angry. I’ve just wasted three hours and $2.99 worth of perfectly good milk.

This happens twice again the next night, and the next night. All down the drain. “There’s got to be another ‘whey,’” my husband jokes, seeing my frustration.

I pound the counter. I pace. I sweat. I play loud, Italian guitar music. I even secretly smoke a little bubble kush. Which, it turns out, was not a good idea. Suddenly, I’m tired of the whole cheese-effing-making process. All over the internet recipes scream: “Only four ingredients and in 30 minutes!” Well, this is total, utter nonsense, reader.

I wonder if that culinary demon, high altitude, is causing my failure, but I can find no corroboration online. I give up clicking through the 10 million and half ways to make fresh mozzarella and instead, take a virtual tour of the southern Italian countryside scattered by small dairies. In Naples near Battipaglia you can see how mozzarella is made: very fast by large men wrestling over steaming vats of brine. This is where Mozzarella de Bufala, made from the milk of water buffalo, was invented. By accident they say, and I believe them.

In this country, we use cow’s milk. It produces a lovely, fresh cheese, swimming in brine pleasant as ice cream which, some say, is absolutely tasteless compared to the real stuff.

But until we can find an efficient way to ship buffalo milk from Naples, I guess we’ll never know what we’re missing.

I remember my first taste of fresh mozzarella in Manhattan years ago. A friend carefully brought it up six flights wrapped in tight plastic. She handled it like it was the only one left in the city. Sliced, salted and with good olive oil, we ate the whole thing in just a few minutes. Dreamy. We never messed with the smoked stuff, as there was rumor that cheese makers in the city burned stacks of the New York Times to smoke their mozz.

What distinguishes a superior fresh mozzarella? Taste. It should be fresh and reminiscent of milk; mild and delicate with a faint hint of sourness. The fresher the cheese, the more elastic and springy it is. It softens with age (like the rest of us).

That evening I hear my husband tell my mother-in-law over the phone that I’m making cheese. He sounds proud. I decide I must not give up my cheese-making quest. I start again fresh – and by fresh, I mean using raw unpasteurized, grade A2 milk.

You may ask how that’s possible in Colorado, where it’s against the law to sell raw milk. Head south, dear reader, to Hamblin Dairy in La Plata, N.M. (no frowning). After a mere 42-minute drive on Highway 140, you will come upon a sign that reads “FRESH MILK.”

Bingo. I wander around the back and bang on the door. A large woman in an apron opens it. She’s cooking grapes. She points to the bell one is supposed to use.

“Sorry,” I say.

Her business works on the honor system. You insert cash into a wooden box on the porch, and help yourself to the beautiful gallon jugs of real, heavy milk sitting in refrigerators. Six bucks a piece. How fresh?

“This morning,” she says.

I buy two precious gallons. I tell her I’m making cheese.

She gives me a sardonic look.

“Good luck.”

I say thanks – I know I’m going to need it.

Cheese making is not for the over-confident. You need patience to create shiny, creamy, happy mozzarella. But not just that: there’s a hundred different ways to screw up. This is a process best left to sober people, and Google is only so helpful – good old trial and error is key.

I’m not going to give an exact recipe because there isn’t one. (Except in the blood of Italian men.) Instead, I will share some helpful hints I found along the way:

• Ever hear of the French term “mise-en-place,” i.e. all ducks in a row? In this case, before even turning on that stove, have your instant-read thermometer, 8-quart stainless-steel stock pot, stainless steel slotted spoon, stainless steel colander and large glass bowl at the ready (no plastic or ceramic, though I’m not sure why).

• Make sure your milk is NOT organic or ultra pasteurized. Pasteurized works they say, but it didn’t for me. I dissolved 11⁄2 teaspoons of citric acid instead of 2 teaspoons into 1⁄4 cup of bottled water (chlorine from tap water kills it.) Stir a couple times; you should notice curds forming immediately.

• Heat the milk very slowly. It should take at least 30 minutes to reach 88-90 degrees. This is the magical moment where you pull the pan off the flame and grab the rennet. Instead of the rennet I ordered online, use a 1⁄4 teaspoon of vegetable liquid rennet (refrigerated at your local health food store) diffused in a bit of bottled water. (You can’t make cheese without rennet. But if you want to be precious, use a thermophilic starter culture.) I surmised the tablet I used in the failed batches was old – it has a shelf life of about six months. Also, if you don’t have citric acid, they say you can use lemon juice. Don’t hold me to it though.

• After about an hour, you should achieve the “clean break,” where the curd is a thick pond floating on watery whey. Exciting stuff. Carefully cut the curd into cubes. With the slotted spoon, place them in cheese cloth placed over a large glass bowl. Gently drain and squeeze. Once they’re really dry, put the curds in a colander and place in a large stainless steel pan. Heat some salted water to 170 degrees. Now’s the time to put on your cooking gloves: pour the hot water over the curds. They will begin to melt. Knead and stretch until they’re like taffy, a rubbery smooth mass. Form balls by tucking the ends under and place in a non-reactive bowl of room temperature water. Don’t shock it in ice water as this tightens the fats, hardening and potentially breaking the skin.

• The most important step is the easiest. Eat at once while it’s still warm and experience pure-on mouth joy.

Is it a pain in the neck to make fresh mozzarella? Not once you get the hang of it and have your mise-en-place in place. Is it totally worth it? Did I mention I live in Farmington?

Since by now it’s fall, instead of caprese, I take George a pan of baked tomatoes stuffed with fresh mozzarella and Parmesan. It’s his birthday. And it’s a thing of beauty: not my dish, but the light on my fat friend’s face.

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