There are several different ways to process the curds. And each method results in a different type of cheese. Whether you’re stretching for mozzarella or cooking the curds for cheddar, here is everything you need to know about preparing cheese curds.
Note: This post on preparing cheese curds is part of a series of posts on cheesemaking. Check out How To Make Cheese At Home for a complete list of topics.
1. Cutting the curds
After inoculating milk with culture, and setting the curd with rennet it’s time to cut the cheese curds.
Check For A Clean Break
After the rennet has set in the milk for around 30 minutes (depending on the recipe), it is time to check whether the curd has set properly.
Test for a clean break by inserting a knife into the milk and pulling it to the side. It should be a firm cut with a bit of yellowish whey on top of the curded milk. See the photo below for an example of a clean break.
When The Milk Doesn’t Curd
If the milk hasn’t curded after 30 minutes then it is likely due to one of the following reasons:
- The rennet was expired.
- Milk was too cold (rennet works best around 40C/104F).
- The milk didn’t reach the right level of acidity (rennet works quicker in acidified milk).
- Overheating milk denatures proteins and affects curding. This is why you can’t use UHT milk to make cheese.
- Forgetting to treat homogenized milk with calcium chloride.
- Interrupting the curding process by stirring before the curds have firmly set.
Cutting The Curd
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 across the top of the pot. Then cut the curds again, this time inserting the knife on an angle along the lines you’ve already made to make diagonal cuts.
Here’s a photo of my cut curds for cheddar… please note, I am far from a perfectionist, so I don’t have beautifully cut curd. However, you can see where I inserted my knife a second time to make the diagonal cuts.
2. Preparing cheese curds
After cutting leave the curds to rest and firm up for 5 minutes before stirring or draining.
Here’s an overview of the different ways of preparing curd, with more details in each of the sections below:
- For simple cheeses, like kefir cheese and yogurt cheese, drain the curd right away.
- Cooking the curds is a process of slowly heating the curds and whey to a higher temperature.
- Stirred curd or cheddaring involves cooking the dried curds after draining. It results in a hard, rubbery cheese like Cheddar, Parmesan, Emmental.
- Washing the curds is a process of washing away the lactose while cooking the cheese. This creates sweeter and creamier cheeses like Edam, Gouda, and Havarti.
- Pulled curd cheeses are really stretchy and soft, like mozzarella and provolone.
Cooking the Curd
Most cheeses start out with cooking the curds. This 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 can also raise the temperature by adding boiling water to a double basin (see cheesemaking equipment for more details).
Washing the Curds
Washing curds is a variation of cooking curds. It curbs the bacterial culture by removing some of the lactose. The result is a less acidic cheese.
- To wash cheese curds, let the cut curds rest for 5 minutes, then drain off 1/3 of the whey.
- Stirring gently, add back the equivalent amount of whey with warm water.
- Then slowly cook the curds by slowly raising the temperature and stirring every five minutes.
Stirred Curd – Cheddaring
Stirred curds are cooked after the whey has been drained. The dry curds are put back into the pot and gently cooked and stirred for several hours.
It’s important to maintain the temperature by using a double basin or fermentation chamber. Don’t do this directly on your stovetop as you want to gently warm the curds not actually cook 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 acidic.
- When they reach the right acidity the curds will become elastic.
- At that point, the curds are submerged into very hot water (I wear rubber gloves) and kneaded and massaged until they become stretchy.
- Once the curds have been stretched, the cheese is rolled into a shiny smooth ball and submerged into cold water to firm up.
3. Drain the whey
It’s easiest to drain the cheese curds by pouring the whole pot through a butter muslin-lined strainer.
I like to save the whey for cooking and baking, so I drain the whey into a large bowl. You could pour the whey down the drain, but I don’t recommend that because whey is full of flavor and protein.
Once the whey has been drained through a strainer, either hang the curds for further draining or pack the curds into a cloth-lined mold and press the cheese.
4. Salting the curds
Depending on the specific recipe, curds are often salted after draining and before packing into a cheese mold.
- Clean your hands well (see more about cleaning for cheesemaking), then add the salt into the curds by hand. Just be sure to use non-iodized salt.
- At this point, you can also add other seasonings, like spices, herbs, or hot peppers.
- Seasonings (other than salt) should be pre-boiled for 15 minutes prior to use to ensure that they are sterile and softened.