Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Thermometers, Jersey Girls and Little Victories


 So when last we met I was about to try making cheese again but this time enlisting the help of an additional thermometer during the heating stages. One thermometer in the milk, one in the water-bath.

How did it go?

      Well, it made a huge difference. The entire process from beginning to end was easier, less harried, and ultimately more accurate.  As I suspected the temperature of the surrounding water bath provided an early warning if things were getting too hot or too cold.  Get a temperature spike or drop and you can correct it before it has a significant effect on milk temperature.  It was like seeing into the future ten minutes, heady stuff for an eighteen dollar thermometer.
       I absolutely must mention here that I got a remote thermometer out of curiosity. It's a two part unit with a transmitter that has the temperature probe attached, and a receiver with a 100ft. range.  This absolutely transformed the process.  I can now watch the water bath temperature from the comfort of my living room. The upshot, and this is big:  I CAN NOW MAKE CHEESE WHILE PLAYING BATTLEFIELD 3.  This development was so moving, so life-changing that I was nearly brought to tears when I realized it.  In addition to more control and accuracy you get back time.  Cheese making takes about 5 hours from the milk going into the pot to placing the salted curd into the press for it's first 12 hour pressing. You are going to be pretty much house-bound for all five. Two thermometers gives at least three of those hours back, interrupted only by occasional trips to the kitchen for curd-stirring and raising temperature.  Eighteen bucks gives you better cheese and three hours of doing....well, whatever.  If you start making cheese, get two thermometers, period.

Horseback Riding Camp: Good for More than Meeting Girls Who Smoke

     So there are several points in the cheese making process where the milk temperature must be raised or maintained, we do this by maintaining or raising the temperature of the water bath.  Because this "pot in the sink" arrangement can be defined scientifically as an "open" system, which is to say, exposed to ambient temperatures. The water bath, and the milk to a lesser extent, are continuously trying to achieve equilibrium with the surrounding temperature. In my kitchen that means about 72 F so the system is always cooling relative to where you want it. It doesn't take a ton of work to maintain temperature, but heating can be challenging.
      For my first three rounds of making Cheddar, I did this by using two electric teakettles.  Just as one came to a boil I would dump it into the water bath, refill the other, fire it up, wait, dump, repeat. All the while the sink is gradually approaching overflowing with the new water, and can't be emptied from the drain because we can't, or shouldn't disturb the milk-pot.  This leads to bailing out the luke warm bathwater like a sinking canoe to make room for filling.  This hot, moist choreography wasn't as sexy as it sounds, and was digging deeply into the free time my second thermometer had bought back. But how do you heat a sink full of water in any way besides adding hot water?
     When I was in eighth grade in Vermont, I spent the summer of that year at a horseback riding camp near the Canadian border.  Yes, I know this is hilarious in its own right, and I could probably write a blog about that alone, complete with pictures of me in tight britches and a bright scarlet hunt coat, but this blog is about cheese. Let me just say this: I was the ONLY male camper among about 30 teenage girls who hadn't been home to New Jersey in weeks.  When young girls are placed in this situation terrible things happen, terrible things that will make you chase bad-girls for the rest of your life.  If you are currently a boy and in eighth grade, do not go to horseback riding camp, or alternatively, absolutely go to horseback riding camp.
      So one memory I have from camp which didn't scar me for life was something I recalled seeing in the barns.  As fall approached, which in Vermont can mean freezing temperatures in late september, the owners of the farm would drop these stick-shaped devices with a plug at one end into every horse's water bucket.  They were bucket heaters and would heat the water, I was told, enough so it wouldn't freeze, but not so hot that it would boil or singe the horses' muzzles.
     In retrospect,  I can only thank my brain for allowing me to recall this memory despite it's proximity to a memory of being stripped nearly naked and tickled until I started crying. My current psychiatric state notwithstanding, I think you see what I realized: This could be exactly the gadget I need to solve my teakettle issue.  So I hit the internet and had one in-hand in a few days. Why am I so excited? Three reasons:

1- The water bucket heater can be immersed in water.  Since the high-BTU thrill ride of the stovetop, even with a double-boiler, is still far too much heat, too fast for cheese making, I am, for now, consigned to use the kitchen sink as my water-bath. With the addition of the heater, I now have a sink that is temperature adjustable without having to balance the teapots as an external heat source, or continually bail out the sink to make room for additional hot water.

2-The water bucket heater is gentle, well kind of.  Sure, this thing can get fairly hot if you just leave it in the water-bath, but using it the way I do: Plugging it in when I need heat, pulling it when I've hit my set temperature, It provides a nearly perfect temperature ramp, about a one degree rise per minute.

3-The water bucket heater can be wired into an external temperature-controller.  We haven't gotten to this stage yet, but stay tuned, this will be an extremely important perk.

Great, But Where are We Headed Here?

     In the introduction to this blog I promised to borrow knowledge and technology from commercial cheese making, downsize and reinterpret it, and deliver cheap solutions that will make home cheese making more enjoyable, consistent, and successful.  So I have my two thermometers, my water-heater and I've spent only about $35 to significantly improve my process.  So far, blog-mission accomplished.  But what am I trying to imitate? What part of commercial cheese making am I cribbing from to guide me along?  These aforementioned steps, and quite a few more that are in the offing, are moving us toward creating our home version of an essential piece of cheese making in the commercial realm: The Water-Jacketed Milk Tank.

     In the next post we will talk what this device is, why we should imitate it,  and how we can create an approximation of a $10,000 piece of equipment with $200 and a willingness to misuse technology. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Annoying Issue #1 Temperature Control

    If you suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the first thing that will strike you when reading a cheese making recipe is the necessity of temperature control.  The cheese books, so encouraging in their efforts to get you making cheese, deal with these issues in the most annoyingly off-handed way.  It's like asking an Apollo astronaut how he made it to the moon and his reply is: "Yeah....sooo....go really fast towards the moon...and don't slow down or you'll die...and also don't go too fast or you'll also die". The fact is cheese requires slow temperature change. It requires this at nearly every stage. So what's the problem? Uh

Specific Heat and You: A Guide For Cheese Makers Bored By Thermodynamics

     Water is kind of amazing, it's always been so.  Water seems to dissolve everything Man needs dissolved, keeps us hydrated, and is willing to look lovely on Caribbean vacations.  Water, in it's more prosaic moments, also plays a monumental role in home cheese making.
     Look over the cheese recipe in front of you. What does it say?

Something like:

"Raise temperature from 90 degrees F to 102 degrees F at a rate not exceeding 2 degrees per 5 minutes"

     If you're anything like me your response was understandably:  F#@K YOU....WHAT?

     It's a tough problem, and physics is involved. It goes a bit like this. Every liquid has a property known as Specific Heat and that's important here.  Reading the actual description of this property can be a bit obtuse and frankly un-sexy. Let me attempt to express it in a sexier way without violating all known physical science.

     Remember Inertia? The property that says that bodies in motion tend to stay in motion while bodies at rest tend to stay a rest?  Well, there's a bit more to remember about that assertion, namely, HUGE bodies at rest tend to stay at rest a lot and HUGE bodies in motion tend to stay in, a lot.
     Without digging too far into physics, we can think of the Specific Heat of liquids as a kind of Inertia, only in this case its temperature, not motion (yes physicists, I know its effectively the same)

So know this about water..and milk, which is mostly water......H2O is like the Barry Bonds of Specific Heat...
Picture this: Near Pure Ethyl Alcohol (Moonshine) is a skateboard, Water (water) is a Mack truck.

     Ok. I push the Moonshine skateboard, it quickly attains speed and screams along the pavement. My buddy, 50 feet away, stops the Moonshine skateboard with little more than the touch of his hand. Easy to start, easy to stop. Translation: Low Specific Heat.  My buddy now fires up Water Mack Truck....after some diesel gasping it trudges down the road.....slowly yes, but now nearly impossible to least with anything less than another Mack Truck. Translation: High Specific Heat.

     Most home cheese making recipes will recommend that when you heat your milk, namely the two or three times in the process that you have to change it to specific temperatures, that you do so in a water bath...the most common reccomendation is that you bathe your milk pot in a sink full of hot water and slowly bring the milk to temperature. This is wise...the buffer of starting and rolling-out the "diesel truck" allows the heating to occur slowly.  So what's the problem?

     The problem is, as I see it, or rather saw it on my first attempt, is that feathering the throttle of a Mack Truck is no mean feat. Just when you see the temperature of the milk stagnate, you add hot water to the bath to heat it.  You now find that your cold situation is now a hot situation with the milk temperature rising out of add cold water to fix it....and the inverse happens.  Turns out that the ideal situation is when the bath water is about 10 degrees hotter than the target temperature for the milk. This insures attainment of the target temperature for the milk without overshooting or gaining temperature too fast. But how do you maintain the speed of two dependent Mack trucks at the same time?
        Though no book has suggested it, ridiculously enough, I think you see the simple solution to the problem: USE TWO THERMOMETERS. One goes into the surrounding water bath and one (sterilized) goes into the cooking milk.  Because the stakes are lower in the water bath, namely it's not as temperature-sensitive as the milk, you can fuss with it a bit, and head-off temperature spikes before they happen. The second thermometer gives you data about the VERY sensitive milk and makes sure it stays within it's narrow window at each moment during the process.

     I neglected to have this epiphany BEFORE making my first batch of cheese and well, I got lucky...It turned into cheese....tomorrow I will buy an additional thermometer and go another round, this time with more data.

Tune in here to see my results.

     Also, make no mistake this is not by far the last we have heard of temperature, quite the opposite. One could scarcely imagine all the hair-brained schemes and dangerous scenarios I have cooked up for temperature control, or for that matter, any other step in the process.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Dawn of Cheese tinkering

     About 2 years ago I decided that I must make cheese. I have always adored cheese so this decision was as dispassionate as it was inevitable.  So, my first step, and this applies to all my new avocations: Buy many, many books. Buy as many books as are available about the topic at hand. Understand that I am by nature an empiricist so any new endeavor must be accompanied by comparative analysis of the current experts, evaluating their methods, comparing each to the other and arriving at a mean which, I hope, is the true average and my best available path.
     But, to my dismay, despite the assurance of cheese making authors that we find ourselves in the midst of a "artisanal revolution" of cheese making, NAY, near-epidemic levels of home cheese making, there are currently two, yes TWO books of any merit on the subject.  As a former student agricultural biochemist ( a career path I chose, wisely, not to pursue ) this proved a far too small a sample size to adequately compare all the best techniques and theories available and arrive at a "platonic ideal" of procedure from which I would make the WORLD'S GREATEST CHEESE.  In fact, I found even these books a bit vague and even inaccurate at points.  In their rush to proselatize the "ease" and "simplicity" of making cheese, they ignored my simple questions about it's complexity. And make no mistake, it's quite complex.  I like the complexity. Cheese IS sacred to me, and to many of you I suppose. There should be something about it that is sacrosanct and unknowable. Fine, but now I am making cheese for the first time, and these divine mysteries have recently taken on the character of intolerable annoyances.
     There are so many places this process can go wrong. I knew this of course.  In college I spent most of my junior and senior years grappling with the same microorganisms that so confound me in making cheese. Lactococcus lactis lactis might have passed as my girlfriend junior year, and yet I now find myself grappling with it unarmed. In the microbiology lab I had an advantage: technology. There were laminar flow hoods, protective garments, sterile technique, all the tools of the microbiological Catcher in the Rye. I was the conductor, the bugs my orchestra. But now, with lab science only a memory, I attempt the same act of control in my home kitchen: a fetid, dog-hair laden, technology-free bastion of uncontrollability.
     This blog is an attempt to remedy that situation.  As a child of the late 20th century I live with the conceit that every problem has a technological solution.  This may not be true, hell, I certainly won't promise that it will make THE WORLD'S GREATEST CHEESE, but my goal is far more modest than that.  The fact is that all the things I find confounding about cheese making have been solved by none other than commercial cheese makers. A group of manufacturers which, as many latter-day homesteaders would have you believe, are nothing less than the anti-Christ or at the very least the anti-Cheese.  Maybe so, politically I am liberal but as a craftsman I am a dead-centered moderate. Yes, I think we can learn a thing or two about home cheese making from commercial cheese making. Call me a heretic. Call me an infidel. The commercial production process, despite all it's attendant evils, still has lessons to teach.
     So here we go, what exactly is my point?  I want to experiment with every spongy, nebulous, undefinable part of the cheese making process and demystify it, unravel it, rob it of it's spiritual share.  I'm not angered by cheese's mystical station, in fact I think it is still under appreciated. I simply want to turn home-alchemy into home-manufacturing. The individual who commits to the path of cheese making is a dear soul, and deserves to be rewarded with cheese that tastes like cheese, and rewarded consistently, without losing his or her mind or savings.  To do that the cheese maker needs some help, and I will be the test case who tries to find that help. I will try shit, perhaps ill-advised shit, in the service of turning home cheese making into a process of making good cheese rather than making good sweaty kitchen slaves.  My hope is take my meager remembrance of my scientific past, merge it with my role as a nascent cheese maker and emerge with some knowledge that helps us all.
     My approach to my topics, at least philosophically, will be borrowed from my hero Ralph Waldo Emerson who once said: "To be believe what is true for you in your private heart, is true of all men, that is genius." While I won't pretend to genius, I will work under the assumption that whatever I have found difficult or annoying or insurmountable as a home cheese maker are the same points in the process that you have found that way.  I will address these annoyances as they emerge, and, with an equally Emersonian commitment to innovation, will attempt to thwart them with bargain-basement solutions based on top-shelf scientific cheese production methods.
     Will it work? Well, let's see.....