Maker Lab Development: cheese-making (and teaching)

I’ve put the following article in the Maker’s Grimoire category, because it’s the beginning of some thinking about designing curriculum for the design program at my school.  Some people are going to argue that it’s not really MakerEd, and some people are going to think it’s not really bells-and-whistles enough for MakerEd, and some people are going to think, “wow that’s cool!” and run with it.  Whatever you do with this, please — leave a comment. Let me know.  I’d be interested in knowing whether this idea — of using cooking and kitchen chemistry to teach design process and the basics of Maker Education has the potential to take off.

I’ve now tried making cheese four times (four quarter-tablets of rennet, using the cheese-making kit from  Of these four experiments, I’ve had two successes, one abject failure, and one… not quite failure, but not what I was after.

Finished mozzarella cheese
Beginner’s Luck

As you can see from the photo, the first cheese turned out the best. It looked like a round of mozzarella. A little firm, perhaps, but basically recognizable as cheese.  For this one, I used raw milk from a very local dairy — non-pasteurized, non-homogenized. And as I worked it, the curds turned into little lumps of stretchy matter, and it worked perfectly… except for the matter of time. Allegedly, this recipe for mozzarella is supposed to take 30 minutes.  Instead, it took me about an hour.  Part of that was that I kept stopping to read directions, and I had some challenges with transferring the curds to one pot while getting the original curdling pot ready to put into service as a

Beginner’s luck, apparently.

The second trial was also successful.  This one turned out smaller, and it was tremendously difficult to separate the curds from the whey — largely because the curds were the size of pin-heads or pine-nuts, instead of the size of 9V batteries.  I used milk from a commercial dairy located in Connecticut — not ultra-pasteurized, but not raw, either.  This stuff came from the supermarket.  The work of separating the curds from the whey resulted in the loss of perhaps 25% of the curds down the drain, and took roughly twice as long as it was supposed to.

What went wrong?

Batch #4 — because no one even wants to see the photos of batch #3.

It’s difficult to say. There are a lot of factors in play: the quality of the milk, the quality of the rennet, the quantity of the rennet, the application of heat (both how quickly the milk is heated, and to what temperature), and the process by which the cooling is done. A lot of things can go wrong at a lot of different steps in the process.

Still, Batch #2 turned out recognizably as cheese, and recognizably as mozzarella.  This is good.  This means that I’ve done the process successfully twice, and I can probably figure out how to make this work correctly in the long run — it’s possible, though, that I won’t be able to do it properly in under 30 minutes.

Batch #3 went horribly wrong.  No curds formed at all — just a horrible mess of seed-sized solids and a mess of whey-like goop that resembled nothing so much as dirty, cream-colored water.   The milk was labeled as raw milk, so it’s unlikely to have been a pasteurization issue.  But maybe it was.  Cheese-making websites tell me that when a cow has been given antibiotics or drugs, sometimes the milk doesn’t form curds.  Or milk that’s had too many temperature variations. Or milk that’s been out of the cow too long.  Or milk that’s been sloshed around far too often. Or…

Anyway, you get the idea, without having to be too grossed out by it.  It was ugly and gross and no one should have to look at that.  At least it didn’t smell rancid.  It just didn’t form curds or turn into cheese no matter how much I worked it.

Batch #4 did this really weird thing… it became small curds… and then no matter what I did to them, they stayed small curds.  IT was like batch #2, except that instead of eventually becoming mozzarella, it stayed ricotta.   Again, an enormous mess, and tremendously challenging, and of course — it was not 30-minute mozzarella.  It was 30-minute ricotta that stayed ricotta through the whole process of trying to make it into mozzarella over the course of two hours.

What went wrong?

Mozzarella? More like Ricotta...
It is chunky and cottage-cheesey or ricotta-like, instead of smooth and mozzarella-like…

Well, here, the milk didn’t form large curds.  IT formed medium-small curds that remained medium-small curds, even when it was heated to the standard temperature of 135° F.   This is a clue, I think, to what went wrong, and how.  If the milk were ultra-pasteurized, it wouldn’t have formed curds at all. So we can eliminate that as a cause.  We can also eliminate the idea that the milk experience too many temperature variations between the cow and the processing at my house.  This is local milk from a local-ish (Connecticut co-operative) dairy, pasteurized but not ultra-pasteurized… and the fact that the milk didn’t curdle ‘properly’, but did curdle, suggests that something else went wrong, or at least different (and it did taste like ricotta cheese), so something else is going on.

So, once we’ve ruled out the milk as the culprit, something else is happening.

And the answer appears to be in how I went about making cheese.  See, in the first two batches, I definitely added milk to a base of citric acid and water.  I then heated the milk up to a standard temperature for the sake of the rennet, and then added the rennet to the warm milk.

But in this third batch, I think I did the reverse.  I added cold milk, warmed it up to the standard temperature, realized I had not added the citric acid, and added it then.

This turns out to be exactly the method for making ricotta.  And once the citric acid and ricotta have been combined in this way… there’s no way it’s forming mozzarella.

Not having known that this is the way it’s done (the whey it’s done?) I kept working and re-working the cheese, trying to get a different result, not knowing that I’d already done a thing that was irreversible.

What an interesting way to make this kind of discovery.  By working from the recipe, but not being wholly aware of the other recipe, I wound up making a thing I didn’t know I was making, by doing the right steps in the wrong order.  And I love making discoveries like that.  It means that now I have two cheesy methodoligies, instead of just one. Delightful.

Relevance to Teaching

Someone asked me the other day why I was going to such effort to learn how to be a cheese maker. The answer is that my friend M told me about a recipe for making stone-like plastic out of milk.  I’m trying to design a course for my school’s activities program called … well, I don’t know what it’s going to be called yet.  It will consist of several sessions, though, in which we make a variety of things out of milk:  yogurt, ricotta, mozzarella, and, yes... plastic.  The activity sessions are usually nine sessions long, so I still need to come up with a few more activities (or we need to do some of them twice).  But the sessions are about 60 minutes long, so I need to get the length of time needed for the mozzarella down to the standard 30 minutes.  The ricotta was easily 30 minutes, and most of that time was spent draining the whey from the small curds.  My friend Cat says that cream cheese (potential recipe to try out here) and neufchâtel cheese are both fairly easy to make, and each of these could be an activity on its own.

Underlying all of these activities is the singular challenge that I have no idea if most of these activities can be completed in the the space of time allotted for these activity programs.  It looks like some of them can be, and some of them can’t.  But I definitely have to do all of the projects a few times first, so that I know what I’m doing, and what I’m doing wrong.

Here, though, is the growing outline of the course as I see it:

  1. Week 1: What is milk?  How to make yogurt.
  2. Week 2: How to make ricotta (since it’s ridiculously easy to do even accidentally).
  3. Week 3: how to make mozzarella
  4. Week 4: how to make casein plastic
  5. Week 5: how to make cream cheese
  6. Week 6: how to make neufchâtel cheese
  7.  Week 7: how to make (your own) whey protein ? *I don’t even know if this can be done in a kitchen… but I bet it can*

Anyone have any ideas for the last two or three classes?

Why is this a Design Thinking-themed course?

Some of my readers know that I run the Design Lab at my school.  Some people may be thinking about a cooking class as being a poor fit for a Design Thinking class, or even a MakerEd class.  I suppose that’s true.  But maybe that’s rushing things a bit.  We used to have home economics classes in schools, after all, where kids learned about how to make food and repair clothes and manage households.  And I think it’s maybe time for some aspects of those classes to come back.

But more than that, food is one of those places that kids can exercise their creativity.  It’s a series of lessons in chemistry, as well as lacto-fermentation, to learn how to make cheese and yogurt and plastic and other things out of the same core ingredient.  It’s a way to understand kitchen processes as an extension of the Maker mindset, and the creative impulse.  And it’s a way of expanding the range of skills and interests that students can develop while still learning about design thinking.

More than that, this is a course that I can hand off  to someone else.

One of the big challenges that I face as the Design/Maker guy at my school is that I’m only one guy.  My colleagues certainly teach with design principles in mind, and with our methodology in place in their classrooms.  But I reach maybe 10-20 students a year out of a couple hundred, and they’re the same students year after year.  This class is all a series of programs that a colleague can run (or that colleagues at other schools could run!), either as a sequence or as a series of stand-alone classes. They’re design-thinking themed, they’re designed to teach materials-consciousness (in this case the product is milk, duh), and a series of technical processes (in this case, application of heat, and the combination of acids and bases, and the basics of kitchen chemistry).  Plus, you can (usually) eat your mistakes.

Clearly, finding a source of milk is critical to the endeavor.  You don’t want to get good milk one week and bad milk the next; or you want to be able to shift from one kind of recipe to another based on what sort of milk you have.

For the Wise

Of course, from a larger perspective,  there’s something sacred and wonderful about being able to use a single basic product like milk and being able to turn it into all kinds of offerings — there’s a magic in that capacity. And there’s a different kind of magic in the capacity to turn a liquid into a more delicious solid.  The alchemists of old said solve et coagula — dissolve and recombine.  And that’s kind of what I’m trying to get at here.  This is, if you will, a kind of animal alchemical process, to take the stuff of life and transform it nine different ways into nine different materials, each with a power all of its own.

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