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Feta Cheese

feta_brineFeta cheese was developed in Greece, and is traditionally made from sheep milk. Goat milk is now commonly used for a good feta, and cow's milk is an acceptable stand-in which is readily available for most. It's a good starter cheese, not as 'fresh' as a chevre or vinegar cheese. Since it is stored in brine, it keeps for up to 2 years if properly refrigerated. Unless you overheat the milk, it's a very forgiving place to take your cheese making skills to a new level. Here we go:

4 litres milk (I use goat milk, which works well even if it's been frozen. In my experience, cow's milk separates and never properly reincorporates upon thawing). See notes at the end regarding alterations to the milk if you are using other than goat's milk.

Warm the milk slowly to 29C. Add the starter culture according to packet instructions. I use mesophilic MA100 culture which I buy in bulk from the US, and only use 1/8 tsp for up to 12 liters. Stir in well for about a minute.

Cover and rest at room temperature for 15-30 minutes (out of a draught, ideally, as you want to preserve the temperature of the milk while it cultures).

Dilute 1 tsp junket rennet (just the plain old Renco rennet works just as well as the 'proper' rennet for most cheeses), in 1/4 cup cool (not cold, not hot) UNCHLORINATED water (Chlorine will kill the bacteria we're trying to cultivate).

Add the diluted rennet slowly and stir very gently for just a few seconds. (This is not so critical for feta, but when you get into the hard cheeses, you need a solid curd... if you over-stir, you end with a frozen whirlpool in your curds). Cover and let set till the curds reach a 'clean break': when you insert a knife into the curds and pull it gently to the side, the curd will hold its shape and pull apart cleanly, rather than falling back in on itself.

At this stage, cut the curds into 1 cm squares: First, cut horizontally one way across the pot, then the other way across the pot, so it looks like you have a pot full of little squares looking back at you.  Then, hold the knife at a 45 degree angle to the squares, cut into the curds at a diagonal, making sure your knife goes all the way to the side of the pot. Turn the pot the the other way, and do the 45 degree cut the other way across the squares. That will give you, roughly, a pot full of 1 cm chunks of curd. Stir the curds slowly, especially up from the bottom, as you will certainly have larger pieces which will need cutting.

hanging curds
Curds both hanging in a cloth over a bucket,
as well as draining in a feta mould.
set curds
Curd ball from the hanging cloth, and curd
'cube' from the mould

Stir the curds every 5 minutes for about 20 minutes. Ladle out into a sieve which has been lined with a cheesecloth or a fine cotton tea towel, saving the whey to make the brine in which to store your feta. (Whey is the traditional brining medium - you can also just use unchlorinated water.)

Arrange the cloth containing the curds into a bundle, either by tying the four corners together around a wooden spoon or dowel that you can rest over a large container, or tie the bundle closed and hang over a deep sink or even in the shower, to drain for 24-48 hours (depending on how crumbly you like your cheese -- this will require some experimentation on your part). The longer you hang it (but not more than a couple of days, as mold will start to grow and change the flavour entirely) the more crumbly will be your feta. You might like to invest in a feta mould if you like.

Take down the ball of curd, and cut into 2 cm cubes. Place the cubes in a storage jar. For the 750ml jars I use, I add a heaped tablespoon of flaked sea salt (flaked salt just dissolves more quickly). You don't want iodised salt for any cheesemaking, as the iodine kills the bacteria which allows cheese to develop its flavour. If you're using granulated salt, you would use less (more volume in a TBSP because of the smaller grains). The final amount of salt you use will be a matter of your preference, but the 1 tablespoon is a good place to start experimenting.

Gently roll the jar so that the cubes are all covered in salt. Let sit at room temp for 24-48 hours (again, this is for those who are wanting a crumblier feta, as the salt on the dry feta draws out more whey, so there will be some liquid forming in the jar).

Top up with whey or water and store in the fridge. If you can wait for a couple of weeks before eating, it will have a stronger flavour.

You may also use a mould made for feta cheese, so that you end up with a block rather than a ball, and the block may be cut and stored whole in the brine if you wish. There are wooden feta moulds and plastic feta moulds.

If you are using cows' milk, you will need to add lipase, which is the naturally-occurring enzyme in goats' milk absent from cows' milk which gives feta that 'zing'. You would add it at the same time as you add the culture, and according to packet instructions.

If you are using store-bought milk, you would also have to add calcium chloride, which gives the milk back some of what's taken away during the pasteurisation process, or you will probably not get a good curd set. Again, use according to packet instructions.

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