Sunday, November 28, 2010

My First Try at Making Feta Cheese

I adore feta cheese, and what little is available around here is expensive, usually processed crumbles, and not to my liking. Certainly not a nice chunk of fresh feta sitting in a brine.

Screwing my courage to the sticking point, I decided it was time to try to make feta. I had a gallon of raw whole goat milk in the freezer, which I defrosted. Heated it to just under 90ºF, and added 2-3 tablespoons of plain yogurt. One tablespoon might be enough if the yogurt is very fresh and lively with cultures; mine has been in the store and then my fridge more than a week.

Stir in the yogurt thoroughly, cover and leave at room temperature; set the timer for one hour. Meanwhile, dissolve half a rennet tablet in ¼ cup cold water and set aside. (I went with an hour and 15 minutes because this room is cool.) When the time is up, stir in the rennet solution, re-cover, and allow to stand overnight at room temperature.

The next morning, check for a clean break, which is sticking a clean finger in the top and checking to see that the solids and whey separate easily. 

With a long thin blade (I used an icing spatula), cut the curd across the pot in ½" sections. Rotate the pot 90º and cut across the curd, forming cubes about ½" x ½". My curd layer was very soft and did not cut evenly... it floated like an elusive jelly fish and I ended up with various sized chunks.

Strain the curds in a cheesecloth-covered strainer, saving the whey which will be used later for the brine for the feta. A clean, tightly woven handkerchief or a tee shirt would work fine as a straining material if you don't have some fine cheesecloth or butter muslin. 

When a lot of the whey has dripped off the curds, tie them in the cheesecloth and hang them above a pot to catch the drips. As you can see in the photo above, I already took a quart of whey out, and there's more in the bowl. You can drain the curds in the refrigerator if the room is really warm, but my place is fairly cool so I drained at room temperature.

I accidentally missed a step, and I don't know if it would have helped, but I think it would have. The overlooked step was to gently stir the cut curds with clean hands, bringing the lower curds to the top, and letting them sit another 15 minutes in the whey to contract. This step might have given my curds a little more 'body'. Sigh. Hey, it's my first time to try this, and I expect mistakes!

Make a pickling brine for the feta, about 12½% salt. That's roughly 5 tablespoons of salt dissolved in 20 ounces of whey. The acid in the whey, combined with the salt, will preserve the feta (under refrigeration) and keep the cheese from getting mushy on the surface. I made my brine when I first drained the curds, so the salt would have time to dissolve. Refrigerate the brine, and the extra whey that drained off. I use mason jars.

After 2-4 hours, most of the whey should have dripped off. Place the curds in a bowl and mix in a little salt, to taste. (My recipe said ½ teaspoon.) I started with ¼ teaspoon, using sea salt, and ended up using between ¼ and ½ teaspoon. I'm cautious about using too much salt, because later I will soak the feta in a salty brine. 

After the curds are salted to taste, wrap them in a layer or two of cheesecloth or a single layer of butter muslin and place them in a mold of some sort. 

An empty coffee can would work; remove both ends but save one end. You could also use a thoroughly cleaned piece of PVC pipe. Many cheesemakers use PVC in larger diameters as molds, and cut a circle of wood (well-oiled) to fit just inside the pipe as the top to hold the weights.

Place the cheesecloth-wrapped curds in the mold, put the saved can end on top, and put some weight on top of it. 

More whey will drain out, so put the mold in a saucer or bowl, just something to catch the drips. I used 2 pints of pears as my weights. They wobbled so I stuck 3 styrofoam pellets around the inside top for balance!

Leave it overnight.

The next morning, carefully remove the muslin-wrapped cheese from the mold. 

Peel back the muslin or cheesecloth carefully. Remember, the cheese is fragile at this point.

I turned mine over so I had a smoother surface to cut.

Cut the feta into cubes about 1½" and drop into the chilled brine. My feta was very crumbly, and I'm thinking I needed more weight to press it. I'll find out the next time I make some!

Feta, ready to cure in the refrigerator in brine for several days before using. If it tastes too salty, you can simply rinse it before using.

All in all, I'm pleased with my first try at making feta. The texture needs improvement; in addition to more weight in pressing, I also wonder if the texture was affected by my goat milk being frozen for a couple of months before I used it. Next time I'll use fresh goat milk.

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