By Marleena Eyre
On February 22, 2014, an uncharacteristically warm day, members of the BU Gastronomy Students Association spent the afternoon stretching cheese curds into velvety mozzarella and turning fresh milk into ricotta. Microbiologist Dr. Benjamin Wolfe, who is teaching Microbiology of Food for the BU Gastronomy Program this semester, hosted the GSA’s Cheese Making Workshop. With a passion for all things microbial, Dr. Wolfe obtained his B.Sc. from Cornell, his Ph.D. from Harvard University, and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s FAS Center for Systems Biology with Dr. Rachel Dutton.
Walking past modern offices lined with complex equations written on windows in Harvard’s Northwest Lab Building, Dr. Wolfe led us to the kitchen where we were greeted by large stainless steel pots and a slew of ingredients ready for cheese making. Before jumping into the cooking portion of the workshop, Dr. Wolfe gave a brief lecture on microbes and the fundamentals of cheese making.
The acidity which separates the casein micelles – proteins in milk that make it appear white – from the whey, also helps to bind the proteins together. This can be done with the addition of rennet or acids such as lemon, vinegar, or citric acid. From these curds, a plethora of delicious cheeses can be made. Though the excess whey is not used in the rest of the process, it can be saved and used as a nutritional additive to smoothies, used to keep a block of feta cheese fresh, or even used as a liquid replacement in baking.
After walking through the various steps to making fresh mozzarella, Dr. Wolfe sliced a 10-pound block of pressed cheese curds and placed the pieces into bowls of hot salted water to induce the stretching process. Mozzarella making is all about physics and using physical manipulation to produce the desired textural attributes known for comprising this well-known cheese.
The pulling motion of stretching mozzarella helps to align the casein micelles which are indiscriminately assembled when the cheese curds are produced. Within a few minutes, our hands turned the chunks of rigid cheese curds into silky strings ready for consumption; it was as if we were transported back to childhood and playing with silly putty.
Rounding out the workshop, we had the opportunity to peek inside the lab where Dr. Wolfe and his colleagues spend hours researching and testing thousands of microbial strains. Amongst the lab equipment was a makeshift cheese cave showcasing the fruits of their labor. One whiff of the temperature-controlled refrigerator, a zone of concentrated microbes, was not for the faint of heart; it is an acquired scent prized by cheese enthusiasts.
As gastronomy students, we couldn’t go home without sampling some of the cheese we had made. We gladly piled our plates with caprese salad and ricotta and honey slathered slices of bread. There was even enough for each of us to take some home to share with family and friends.
Making cheese at home can be a fun DIY project, and fresh cheeses are the easiest to start with. Ricotta and mozzarella are a couple great examples for novices to try. Ideally, cheese should start with raw milk, but in the United States it can be difficult to come by, especially in the state of Massachusetts. Fresh cheeses, like these, are somewhat more forgiving and can be made with purchased cheese curds or pasteurized milk – you’ll just want to make sure that you get the highest quality milk for the best results.
If you’re interested in learning more about cheese making and the science behind it, visit Dr. Wolfe’s website. He strongly suggests picking up a copy of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen as well. Missed out on making cheese with the GSA? Check out their event page for future workshops, panels, and more!
Marleena Eyre is a second year Gastronomy student, an editorial intern at NoshOn.It, and blogs at The Flex Foodie. When she’s not studying or writing about food, she can be found paging through cookbooks at her local bookstores or breaking the ice on the Charles River with her rowing team.