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.