As any cheese, yogurt, or kefir maker knows, temperature is one of the largest factors in whether a recipe succeeds or fails. Temperature can make the difference between a mozzarella that stretches perfectly, and one that turns to mush when the pizza hits the oven. It is even, occasionally, the difference between a dairy product that is safe to eat and one that can make you sick.
Getting your milk to the proper temperature is essential, but isn't always easy. This article will help you navigate this area, so that your recipes turn out the way you want them to, each and every time.
TEST YOUR STOVE AND THERMOMETER
Every stove is different. Gas stoves work differently than electric. Settings and flame height are adjustable on some models, but are not on others. Luckily, there are a few easy tests that you can do to become familiar with your stove.
First, do a test with your thermometer and your cheesemaking pot. How fast does a pot of water go from tap temperature to 70 degrees F, with the burner on low? Try the same test with water that starts at 40 degrees F, which is the temperature of most refrigerators. If your answer is more than 1 degree per minute, the burner is set too high for direct-heat cheesemaking. You will need to have it adjusted or use a double boiler.
Second, get an excellent digital thermometer and calibrate it. This is something that should be done at least every other time you make cheese. Simply heat a pot of water to boiling and check the temperature. Your thermometer should read 212 degrees F.
CONSIDER VARIATIONS IN MILK
In our CFH experiments, goats' milk heated to testing temperature slightly faster than cows' milk, so when using goats' milk, the heat setting needs to be a little lower. Of course, the composition of milk (especially raw milk) varies based on season, the animals' feed, and solids content, so keep an eye on temperature and stir often.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR HEATING MILK
Milk for cheese or yogurt should be heated at a rate of one degree per minute, unless otherwise noted in the recipe. On most stoves, this correlates to medium low, and can take 30-40 minutes. When in doubt, keep the temperature low. Milk that is heated too quickly will give an unpleasant bitter or cooked flavor to your final product. Your recipe may take a little longer, but it will be more likely to turn out beautifully and taste delicious.
Milk can be heated in a pot directly over the flame, or a smaller pot can be placed inside a larger one, to use as a double boiler. If your stove is set high and can't be adjusted, this is the best option. The extra insulation will slow the rise of the temperature and ensure even heating. Remember that smaller quantities of milk will take less time to reach the proper temp, so don't walk too far away from your stove. As always, check your thermometer often and stir frequently.
FOOD SAFETY AND OTHER REMINDERS
When heating milk for cheese or other dairy products, trust your instincts. Never use milk that is sour, rotten, moldy, or expired. Never use milk that smells bad or has been forgotten in the back of the fridge. The bacteria that grow at refrigerator temperatures are not safe to consume. If you choose to use raw milk, buy from a farmer that you trust, who uses safe, clean milking practices.
In the CFH experiments, we continually found that the best way to ensure even, gentle heating of milk (as well as excellent cheese and yogurt) was to stay close, stir often, and check our thermometers every 2-3 minutes. We cannot reiterate this too many times.
It is tempting to jump right in to home dairying, without testing your stove, experimenting with simple recipes, or investing in good equipment. We understand! Cheese and yogurt making is so exciting and so much fun, that we wanted to dive in too. But taking the time to learn these skills will serve you well, and ensure more successful homemade goodies for you!