Advance from making simple fresh cheeses to an aged wheel with this classic recipe
The first time I tried making aged cheese in my own kitchen, I gained a whole new respect for artisan cheesemakers. To create a wonderful, matured product consistently is tricky business. In my experience, even when a home cheesemaker does everything right, she is lucky to succeed more than half of the time. That said, I highly recommend this do-it-yourself challenge. This recipe for Havarti-style cheese is simple, but it spans the basic steps pertaining to nearly all aged cheeses: ripening, coagulating, cutting, cooking, draining, brining, and aging. Newcomers working through these stages will gain a true understanding of the cheesemaker’s craft, and in three months when the Havarti has matured, you just might count yourself among the successful.
1: Clean everything
All equipment that comes in contact with milk or cheese must be sanitized. After washing, immerse each piece in boiling water. If using spices, combine them with 2 tablespoons nonchlorinated water and cook or microwave the mixture until it boils. Set aside.
2: Ripen the milk
Place the large pot on the stove and insert the smaller pot inside it. Pour the milk into the smaller pot. Pour hot tap water into the outside pot; this creates a water jacket that will heat the inner pot evenly. Add the spices and their cooking water to the milk. Heat the milk, stirring gently, until it reaches 86°F (30°C). Add the culture and stir thoroughly. Let the mixture ripen for 30 minutes, maintaining a temperature of 86°F (30°C). At this stage, the cultures will grow slowly and acidify the milk, preparing it for coagulation.
Add the calcium chloride to the milk and stir. In a small container sanitized with boiling water, combine ¼ cup water and exactly ½ teaspoon rennet. Stir the milk, add the diluted rennet, and continue stirring for 1 minute. Cover the pot and let it rest for 30 minutes. The enzymes in the rennet will cause the milk proteins to coagulate, turning the mixture into a semi-solid gel.
Check that coagulation is complete by inserting a clean finger just under the surface of the mixture and lifting gently. It is ready when the curd separates with smooth sides (this is called a clean break). If the curd is not firm enough, check it again in 10 minutes.
Insert a long knife or spatula to the bottom of the pot and cut the curd into ½-inch strips from one side of the pot to the other. Rotate the pot 90° and make a second series of slices perpendicular to the first set, creating a checkerboard pattern. Let it rest for 5 minutes.
Insert the spoon below the surface of the curd to slice the long columns into ½-inch cubes, as uniformly as possible. Then stir the curds gently for 10 minutes,
cutting any large curds that appear. (Cutting the curds helps expel liquid whey and allows the curds to shrink into what will eventually become cheese.)
5: Cooking / Washing
Using the sieve and cup, remove as much whey as possible, keeping track of the amount removed. Replace with an equal amount of 115°F (46°C) water. Adjust the heat to maintain 96°F (36°C). Continue cooking and stirring slowly for 40 minutes.
This technique of replacing whey with water is known as “washing the curds,” a process that helps extract lactic acid created by the culture, leading to milder flavor. Washing also changes protein chemistry to create a smooth cheese texture.
6: Draining and Molding
On an appropriate draining surface (I use a cookie sheet tilted slightly to drain into a sink), place a small cutting board. Cover with a sushi mat, followed by the cheese form.
Let the curds settle to the bottom of the pot and remove as much whey as possible. Immediately scoop the curds into the cheese form. Pack tightly, avoiding large air pockets. Once the form is full, cover with the second sushi mat, followed by the second cutting board. Allow the curds to settle and drain in the form for 15 minutes.
Now, holding one hand on the top cutting board and one hand on the bottom cutting board, carefully slide the boards, with the mats and the cheese in between, off the draining surface. Flip, and return to the draining surface. Repeat in 30 minutes, and again 1 hour later. Allow the cheese to drain overnight, flipping once every few hours, if possible. (Traditional Havarti presses only under its own weight.)
Mix the pickling salt into ½ gallon cool water to make a brine solution. Not all of the salt will dissolve. Remove the cheese from the form and soak it in the brine for 1½ hours, turning the cheese over after 45 minutes. Remove the cheese from the brine and dry at room temperature (63°F to 70°F, or 17°C to 21°C) for 1 to 4 hours, until the surface is dry. (Almost all cheeses are brined, which slows starter culture growth, aids in preservation, and improves flavor.)
Wrap the cheese tightly with plastic wrap, or a FoodSaver. (Some cheesemakers use wax, but I find it hard to fill in all of the holes on the surface of Havarti.) Age the cheese in a 55°F (13°C) environment for 3 months, flipping the cheese every few days. A wine refrigerator or a modified mini-refrigerator can provide a good aging environment (see my article on converting a mini-refrigerator in culture’s Spring 2011 issue or at culturecheesemag.com/can_do/cheese_fridge). Check the cheese regularly for mold growth. If any occurs, unwrap it and wipe off the mold with a paper towel dipped in a solution of ¼ cup white vinegar and 1 tablespoon salt. Reseal with new plastic and continue aging. This process allows enzymes to break down proteins and fats slowly, creating new compounds that give aged cheese its flavor. Be patient. And good luck.
Text & photography by David Bleckmann