#AskAMonger: Cheesemaker Edition

Jamie is a local cheesemaker and former Di Bruno Bros. cheesemonger. She is Australian and holds a Masters in Food Studies from NYU. She loves making soft-ripened cheeses and eating well-aged goat cheeses.


Q. What is the earliest historical evidence of cheese being produced? 

In the area of the Middle East known as the Fertile Crescent, archeologists have found ceramic vessels with cheese residues dating from 6500 B.C. The invention of ceramic vessels for storing food and the domestication of milk-producing animals occurred around the same time in history (7000-6500 B.C.). These developments, along with the warm climate (perfect culturing temperatures) in the Fertile Crescent, most likely provided the right conditions for the discovery of fermented milk products. If you’d like to nerd out some more on cheese history both ancient and modern, check out cheese scholar Paul Kinstedt’s excellent book, Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western Civilization.

Q. What are the essential tools for a home cheesemaker?

The good news is, you probably already have most of what you’ll need to make simple cheeses at home. For most fresh cheeses (ricotta, mascarpone, queso blanco), absolutely essential tools include a large pot (ideally a double-boiler or heavy-bottomed stockpot), a colander, a slotted or perforated spoon, cheesecloth (I recommend butter muslin, though you can get away with the more widely available coarse-weave cloth), measuring cups, and a reliable thermometer. If you are making a fresh cheese that will need to drain overnight in a cheesecloth (chèvre, cream cheese), then you’ll also need to figure out a way to hang the cheese over a bowl or sink to catch the dripping whey. If you’re interested in making aged cheeses, you will need a cheese mold (what kind will depend on the type of aged cheese you’re making) and some means of pressing the cheese. There are purpose-built small-scale cheese presses available from home cheesemaking suppliers, but you can also make your own weights—a mason jar filled with water, for example. You will probably also need to drain the cheese in its mold overnight. You can set the mold on a cooling rack on top of a cookie sheet, tray, or plate to catch the whey.

Q. Does raw milk make better cheese?

Frequently yes, but not always! Raw milk definitely makes for more microbially-diverse cheeses, and many would argue more diversity in anything is always better! But if you’re curious as to whether raw milk cheese is superior in flavor to pasteurized milk cheese, then the waters become a bit more muddied. The process of pasteurization kills all the living microbes (even those beneficial to cheesemaking) in the raw milk, effectively giving the cheesemaker a blank slate with which to begin their process. At this point most cheesemakers will introduce their own carefully chosen blend of commercially-produced starter cultures to the milk. Many would argue that this results in the loss of some of the uniqueness of the raw milk. Raw milk cheese can be more expressive! It will often taste of the place in which the milk was produced—especially in a grass-based, farmstead context. However, there are many fine, flavorful and outstanding pasteurized milk cheeses as well. But if viewed from a standpoint of microbial diversity and the preservation of traditional food production methods, then yes, raw milk cheese is better.