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Artisan Cheesemaking

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Chefs reveal the techniques and flavors that yield the best results.
By Amelia Levin August 2014 Menu Innovations

Making artisan cheese can sound daunting, but for many chefs and restaurateurs, the artistry, brand-building, and unparalleled taste of cheese made fresh and in-house outweigh the time, effort, and investment required. Restaurants typically opt for one of three paths when making specialty cheeses: Partner with experienced cheesemakers to make cheese from scratch, purchase fresh curds, or focus on cheeses like Ricotta that are easier to make.

Pick a Partner

For three years, Brian Scheehser, executive chef of Trellis Restaurant at The Heathman Hotel in Kirkland, Washington, has partnered with Cherry Valley Dairy in nearby Duvall to make signature cheeses that incorporate herbs, fruits, and vegetables grown on his 18-acre farm in the fertile Sammamish Valley. Using the chef’s own harvested ingredients, the partnership has yielded a series of award-winning, seasonal, chef-inspired Jack cheeses in carrot-nasturtium, blueberry-basil, curry, pepper-caraway, and even hop flavors.

“We’ve used hops to make caramels and ice cream … We got the idea for the cheese [from the ice cream],” says Chef Scheehser, who pairs the cheese with different craft beers or serves them with homemade quince paste and rosemary crostini.

“It was a longtime goal for me to do cheese,” he says, acknowledging the difficulty of the endeavor. “You really need to have a sterile environment, and it can be costly to build a separate processing kitchen.”

Successful cheesemakers have the proper space, aging rooms, equipment, and expertise.

“It’s almost like working in a bakery,” he adds. “There’s yeast in the air when making cheeses. You want the right cultures and to work in an environment that is sterile and separated, so you don’t introduce other bacteria and flavors.”

Chef Scheehser makes a 90-pound batch every six months, spending the first day overseeing pasteurization and rennet-adding. After the cheese sets, he and the cheesemakers cut, stir, drain, salt, and flavor the curds, pouring them in the hoop and pressing them into molds. The cheese then goes to the aging room—and from there he’s found it to be a lot of trial and error.

“The younger cheeses work better with our farm ingredients, but we had to work on our consistency, checking the flavor regularly,” says Scheehser, who ages the carrot-nasturtium for three months and the hop Jack for six. The blueberry-basil gets vacuum-sealed for three months to prevent air pockets that can cause mold to form. Blueberries are dried before the process begins to prevent wateriness.

Buy Curd

Roberto Caporuscio, a third-generation cheesemaker from Italy and owner of Kesté Pizza and Vino in New York City, as well as Don Antonio by Starita in New York City and Atlanta, buys fresh curd from Wisconsin to make his own fresh Mozzarella and Burrata.

With Mozzarella, “the most important thing is to buy very good curd,” says Caporuscio, who buys enough curd from BelGioioso to make 60–80 pounds of fresh Mozzarella a day.

Using the same technique that made his family famous for its Buffalo Mozzarella in Pontinia, Caporuscio boils water to blanch the curd and then shapes the cheese into spheres, letting it cool in cold water but without ice, which he warns can affect the texture. The cheese is sliced to use fresh that day in a caprese salad, or to be used for pizza the next day.

The Burrata took a year to perfect, and Caporuscio stretches the Mozzarella when warm, filling it with a combination of Mascarpone and Creszensa, a tangy, creamy cow’s milk cheese, to make a cream-filled package, like ravioli. After chilling the cheese in cold water, he serves it with truffle oil and prosciutto, or with fresh tomato, basil, and a balsamic glaze. Though a batch will last about three days, it’s often gone in one.

Start Easy

Marjorie Meek-Bradley, executive chef of Ripple and Roofers Union in Washington, D.C., makes homemade Ricotta. Even though it is one of the easiest cheeses to make, using top ingredients is absolutely necessary.

“I use a combination of buttermilk, whole milk, and heavy cream that I get from an Amish farm in Pennsylvania,” she says. While lemon juice can also develop curds and a tangy flavor, Chef Meek-Bradley finds buttermilk makes a creamier cheese. She heats two parts milk to one part each of the buttermilk and cream to 180 degrees, letting it sit for 10 minutes. She then skims the curds off the top, using cheesecloth to drain the mixture for two hours.

Making Ricotta requires a lot of milk—in her case, a gallon of milk and half gallon each of buttermilk and cream to make two quarts at a time. Each serving is about a quarter cup.

Meek-Bradley serves the cheese year-round with seasonal ingredients, like shaved heirloom red and yellow carrots with wildflower honey in the summer. Pea tendrils and cracked black pepper also work well, and the cheese adds creaminess to homemade pasta dishes.