making mozzarella

Anytime we try something new in the kitchen the most often asked question, even to ourselves, is “Is it worth your time and money?” And that’s a valid question, as many of our initial forays end in failure or, at the very least, sub-standard results. By the end of it, you’re left to question yourself about whether or not it would be favorable to just buy the product at the market the next time.

But that’s not what cooking is about. It’s about the experience, the journey, and the fundamental root of why we cook. So it might cost twice as much, take twice as long, and taste half as good as what you might buy elsewhere. But you made it with your hands, and that is all that matters.

I purchased a mozzarella cheesemaking kit well over a year ago, and I knew the time had come for me to simply take a slot of time on a Saturday morning and get this experience behind me. The directions seemed straightforward, and a Google search on the subject of making mozzarella at home certainly made the process look simple enough. You add citric acid to a small amount of water, add your milk, heat it up to 88ºF, add a small amount of rennet, stir and let it sit until it curdles. Separate the curds from the whey, and start heating and stretching the curds until it forms a slick ball of cheese.

Let’s get ready to rumble.

There are a few details about making your own mozzarella at home. The most important detail is in the primary component – milk. In Italy, mozzarella is traditionally made with the milk from a water buffalo, hence “buffalo mozzarella.” For those of you who thought that was actually mozzarella made by some Goombas in New York, I’m sorry to let you down.

Since buffalo milk isn’t something easily found in stores, milk from a cow will do. You want to use whole milk if at all possible, as fresh as you can possibly get it. Most of us don’t live near dairy farms, but if you do then you’re on your way to making far better cheese than the rest of us. The milk should be pasteurized, but not ultra-pasteurized. Should you use ultra-pasteurized milk, you will end up making ricotta instead of mozzarella no matter how hard you try.

If you use ultra-pasteurized milk to make mozzarella, what you’ll end up with is a dry granular mass, with most of the moisture released with very little manipulation. The result is a dry, crumbly mess. Standard milk results in a binding curd which stretches nicely and retains all of its moisture.

For the rest of your ingredients, I highly suggest purchasing Ricki’s Cheesemaking Kit which contains everything else you’ll need to start making your own mozzarella or ricotta at home.

1 gallon of whole milk (not ULTRA-pasteurized)
1/2 cup cold non-chlorinated water
1 1/2 teaspoons of citric acid
1/4 of a rennet tablet (or 1/4 teaspoon of liquid rennet)
2 teaspoons of salt

The first thing I did was crush a quartered rennet tablet and add it to 1/4 cup of cool, chlorine free water. Stir this until the tablet is dissolved, then set it aside.

In a large pot, I poured 1/2 cup of cool water and stirred in 1 1/2 teaspoons of citric acid until it dissolved. I then poured 1 gallon of whole milk into the pot and turned up the heat to medium. I placed a thermometer in the pot and stirred the entire time until the milk reached a temperature of 88ºF. When it did, I took the pot off of the heat, then added the rennet solution and stirred for another minute.

I poured myself a cup of coffee, went to catch up on some college football scores then came back to the pot about 10 minutes later. Can I just say how refreshing it is to see my Cornhuskers back in the spotlight of National prominence?

When I returned, the pot of milk looked like it had been sitting out in the open for a few weeks. I looked at it and thought “This is certainly not making me hungry.” These are the times when you stop and wonder who thought this was going to be a good idea the first time they tried it. Our ancestors were brave, I swear.

The curds literally start separating themselves from the whey. This makes it easy to strain the solids from the liquids. I grabbed a small mesh hand ladle and began ladling the curds into a glass bowl until all that was left in the pot was mostly liquid. I then began pressing the curds with my hands to release whatever remaining moisture was in them, then pouring off that liquid until all I was left with was dry curds.

Following the instructions that came with the kit, I placed the bowl of curds in the microwave, and microwaved them on high for 1 minute. When I took it out of the microwave, I drained off the excess whey, kneaded it with my hands, flattening it, and rolling it into a ball, then flattening it again and again.

Back into the microwave it went for another 35 seconds, draining and kneading again until it formed a ball. This step was repeated several times until the internal temperature of the ball of cheese reached 135ºF. At this point, the cheese was way too hot to handle with my bare hands, so I put on a pair of rubber gloves so I could knead and stretch this ball of cheese as much as necessary without getting third-degree burns all over my hands.

Once the ball was shiny and stretched like warm gum stuck to a shoe, I knew my mozzarella was done. It was at this point that I decided to cut and roll my big mozzarella ball into many small balls of Ciliegine. I love making what I call “caprese on a stick” and these are perfect for it. I simmer several cherry tomatoes in salted water until the skins of the tomatoes start to loosen. I then strain the tomatoes, gently remove their skins, and thread the skinless tomatoes on a toothpick, followed by a ball of Ciliegine, and top with a drizzle of pesto.

After all of this work, that nagging question came to mind. Was it worth the trouble? I have to say yes, because the mozzarella was very good, and the experience was fascinating. What attracted me to molecular gastronomy was witnessing the chemical changes in food compounds, turning something liquid into something solid. But this is something Italians have been perfecting for hundreds of years, and it is a prime example of how deep the rabbit hole goes when dealing with the science of food.

It gave me a new appreciation for how hard cheesemakers work. And for as simple as this was, the art of aging cheese, working with food-safe bacteria, and manipulating flavors by using milk from animals raised a specific way just makes me appreciate it more.

I may never become a master cheesemaker, but I certainly made some delicious cheese at home. And should you ever decide to try this yourself, I’d love to hear your experience.