There are several different ways to deal with cheese curd, and the different methods can lead to quite dramatic differences in cheese the type of cheese you end up with. For example cheddar (cooked curd) and Gouda (washed curd) otherwise follow a pretty similar recipe.
Here are the steps to getting your curds ready to be pressed.
Cut the curd
You can test that the curd has set by cutting it with a knife and checking if it has made a “clean break”. (See photo below.) There should also be a yellowish whey on top of the culture.
Once the milk has set, then you cut the curd as directed by the recipe. The size of the curds will correspond to the dryness of the cheese. Using a long knife, cut the curd into a checkerboard pattern, then cut it again, this time inserting the knife on an angle to make sideways cuts.
After cutting the curd leave the curds to “rest” for 5 minutes. Then proceed with preparing the curds as directed.
Here’s a photo of my cut curds for cheddar… please note, I am far from a perfectionist on this front, so I don’t have beautifully cut curd.
Prepare the curd
Some recipes simply have you drain the curd right away. Most cheese involve some cooking of the curd. Dry cooking of the curd (stirred curd or Cheddaring) results in a hard, rubbery cheese (Cheddar, Parmesan, Emmental). Washing the curd washes away the lactose, resulting in a sweeter more creamy cheese (Edam, Gouda, Havarti). Pulled curd cheeses are really stretchy and soft (mozzarella, provolone).
Cooking the Curd:
Basic cooking of the curd involves slowly bringing the curds up to a higher temperature, while stirring every 5 minutes to prevent the curds from clumping together. I stir very gently with a slotted spoon and use my Brød & Taylor Bread Proofer & Yogurt Maker to raise the temperature. You could also raise the temperature by adding boiling water to your double basin heating set up (see Equipment).
Washing the Curd:
Washing the curd results in removing some of the lactose, curbing the action of the lacto bacteria resulting in a less acidic cheese.
After letting your cut curds rest for 5 minutes, drain off 1/3 of the whey. Then stirring continuously add back about the equivalent amount of liquid using warm water. Again the curds are slowly cooked by raising the temperature of the mixture. The exact method involved in washing the curd depends on the recipe.
Stirred curds are cooked after the whey has been drained. The curds are put back into the pot and gently cooked and stirred for several hours. Again, maintain the temperature by using a double basin or fermentation chamber. Don’t try to do this on the stove top as you want to gently warm the curds more than actually cooking them.
Pulled curd cheeses, like stirred curd cheeses, are heated after the whey has been drained. The goal is to continue cooking the curd until the curds are slightly acidic at which point they become elastic. When the curds have reached the right pH, they are submerged into hot water, and kneaded and massaged until they become stretchy. Then the cheese is rolled into a shiny smooth ball, at which point they are submerged into cold water to firm up.
Drain the whey
It’s easiest to drain the cheese curds by pouring the whole pot through a cheese cloth lined strainer. I like to save my whey for other purposes so I drain my whey into a large bowl. But you could also just drain it down the sink, though I don’t condone that because it’s not great for the environment and whey is far too useful to simply send away as a waste product. (I will be posting recipes for using up whey, so stay tuned.)
Once the whey has been initially drained through a strainer, follow the recipe to either hang the curds for further draining, Cheddaring (see Stirred Curd above) or packing the curds into a cloth lined mold.
Salt the curd
Depending on the recipe, often the curds are salted after draining and before packing into the mold. Clean your hands, then add the salt into the curds by hand. Just be sure to use non-iodized salt (it is a ferment after all!)
It is also at this point that you can add any other seasonings. Other seasonings that are often used include spices, herbs and hot peppers. These are usually boiled for 15 minutes prior to use to ensure that they are both sterile and softened. The seasonings are then strained and added to the curds with the salt.