The Home Maker: Feta From Your Kitchen
Feta is an age-old crumbly cheese, typical of hot dry Mediterranean climates where cheese preservation depends largely on high salt. Originally, it was a sheep’s milk cheese but now it’s made primarily with cow’s milk for export (although Greek feta still uses a significant amount of sheep milk). The cheese is cured and stored in its own salty whey brine and is often referred to as “pickled cheese.” Kept in its brine solution for at least several weeks or up to several months, feta can range from soft to semi-hard, with a tangy, salty flavor profile that varies from mild to sharp. In the cheesemaking classes I conduct for home enthusiasts, we experiment with a range of styles using milk from cows, goats, and sheep, alone or in combination. You can too.
To get started, first thoroughly wash and rinse your equipment with boiling hot water to sterilize the pieces. (While making cheese, be sure that all utensils that come in contact with milk are first rinsed in cold water, then washed in hot water.) Now, you’re ready to make cheese:
CULTURING AND RIPENING
In a sterilized pot, heat the milk slowly to 90°F.
Stir in the packet of ripening culture. If using pasteurized milk, add the calcium chloride. Set this mixture aside for 1 hour to develop and “ripen.”
To coagulate the milk to form curds, dilute the rennet in the ¼ cup spring water. Add this to the milk and stir slowly for 30 seconds in an up and down motion. Cover the mixture and set it aside, undisturbed, for 40 minutes until a firm curd forms. (To test for this, insert a clean finger into the curd and slowly lift until the curd splits. Observe the break and if it does not break cleanly or the whey is very milky, more rennet is needed the next time (it can not be added now). If the curd seems tough or the whey excessively clear, then less rennet should be used next time.)
SEPARATING CURD AND WHEY
Once the curd forms, cut it vertically into ½-inch-wide strips using a long flat-bladed knife. Then cut the curd in a perpendicular motion to create ½-inch cube-shaped columns of curd. Let the cut curd rest for 5 minutes or until you see whey rise between the long cuts. Next insert a long handled spoon into the curd and work it through the curd, stepwise at different intervals, to cut the columns into cubed sections.
Stir the cubed curds for 20 to 30 minutes, maintaining a temperature of 90°F. The curds will become firmer during this step. After stirring, allow the curds to settle for 10 minutes then ladle off the whey until it meets the surface of the curds.
FORMING THE CHEESE
Transfer the curds to a sanitized mold or drain in a colander lined with cheesecloth. If using the colander, tie the cheesecloth corners together and hang the
curd over the sink to drain for 30 minutes. Turn the curd inside the mold or the cloth and drain for an hour. No weight is needed on the curds, but repeat the turning and drain the curd for another hour.
Hold the curds in the mold or in hanging cheesecloth overnight at 68°F-72°F. The next morning they should have reached their final acidity and are ready for brining.
At this point the cheese is still quite moist and needs to be drained and then dried using salt. If the cheese is not dried properly you may find that the surface begins to disintegrate when stored in brine.
Brining is done in two phases to help your feta retain its shape. For the first one, cut the solid piece of curd into smaller pieces (1/2-lb each) and set them aside for 4 hours to dry out—this will help facilitate salt absorption during brining. To make the brine, dissolve 2/3 cup cheese salt in 1 gallon spring water. Place the cheese in the brine and set aside for 4 hours. Remove cheese blocks from brine and arrange on mats, cover loosely with clean cloth, and let to rest for 2 to 3 days at 48°F - 56°F, turning each block several times a day to encourage draining/drying and allow salt to permeate. (The brine can be filtered after use and reused; store it in the refrigerator.)
Finally, to make the storage brine, dissolve ½ cup cheese salt in 1 gallon of spring water; place feta in a large container with a lid and fill with the brine. Make sure the container has minimal exposed headspace to avoid mold development. The feta can be aged in this brine for just a few weeks or up to a year or more at 45°F - 55°F. Younger cheese will be milder in flavor.
Note: This tends to be a high salt cheese; if the salt is too much for your taste simply soak the cheese for several hours or up to a day in milk before using.
Written and photographed by Jim Wallace. Jim Wallace currently works as the tech advisor for New England Cheesemaking Supply (cheesemaking.com) and teaches several cheese making workshops each year. His schedule of classes can be found at cheesemaking.com When Jim is not developing a traditional cheese, answering cheese questions, or teaching workshops, he is off visiting cheese makers in France, Italy, and the UK. His most recent adventure in the French/Swiss/Italian Alps is on the web at http://cheesetravels.blogspot.com