Good mozzarella is expensive. Even bad mozzarella is expensive. Since I am a lover of good milk and good food, I invested in a cheesemaking kit to try making it myself.
Now that I have made one batch of mozzarella, I am glad to have purchased the kit even though I now know it is not really necessary. It is self-contained and pretty cute, but not really cost-effective. It would make a fantastic gift for an unsuspecting food-and-cheese-lover. If you don't purchase the kit, such as if you already have a good thermometer, the essential mozzarella items can be purchased individually as follows:
Food-grade citric acid: $5.95
Rennet for 40 batches: $6.50
Cheese salt (optional, included with kit): $2.95
Cost of kit (with shipping): $36
The kit also comes with butter muslin (for ricotta) and an instruction booklet. The instructions are disappointingly vague at times. The thermometer is just a plain, mercury-free rod with no clip - you have to hold it while taking the milk's temperature. The kit also advertises itself as "30-minute," but it took me closer to an hour on my first try.
The first step in cheesemaking is to sterilize everything as best you can. I washed everything with soap and water, but didn't do anything too special as I didn't feel I was relying so much on bacterial action for mozzarella as I would for yogurt.
Next I measured 1 gallon of farm-fresh cow's milk into a big stainless-steel pot. In two separate cups, I dissolved a quarter of a rennet tablet in a quarter-cup of filtered water, and a teaspoon and a half (about 4 grams) of citric acid in a cup of filtered water.
I mixed the citric acid solution into the milk and heated the mixture to 90 F while stirring. Once it hit 90, I added the rennet solution, stirring constantly for 30 seconds with an up-and-down motion. Then I covered it and left it alone for five and a half minutes. When I removed the cover, the milk looked completely unchanged, but when I touched it, it was solid like soft custard or tofu. I think I should have let it set longer, because my whey was very milky.
Next I cut the curds with a clean bread knife into roughly half-inch cubes. This was probably the worst curd-cutting job in history, as they were all different shapes and lengths.
Then I strained the curds into a sieve that was just a bit too small. I kneaded the moisture out of the curds, pouring off (and saving) an enormous quantity of whey.
In another pot, I heated about a half-gallon of the whey to 180 F, poured it into a glass bowl off the heat, plunked the curd-ball into it, splashing hot whey everywhere, and started kneading the curds under water with my attractive yellow gloves. The curds need to be around 130-135 F in order to stretch properly. I never quite got it to stretch like taffy, as I was afraid of breaking it, but it got smooth and shiny as promised. As with any recipe that says to add something while doing something else (i.e. add salt while kneading curds) I forgot to do it. To compensate, I put the finished cheese into salty water in the refrigerator.
I tasted the curds right after kneading and they were rubbery, chalky and bland. I was really disappointed and, after some online research, decided that I'd overcooked and over-kneaded the curds. Until I tasted the mozzarella again this morning. What a world of difference! After a good night's rest, the cheese was supple, soft and creamy, flaking off into little layers when torn. I could eat this with anything and can't wait until tomato & basil season. In the meantime, I think I will incorporate it into my miso sandwiches.
In the photo above, I am holding just one-half of the batch. See how shiny it is! This would cost $15-20 in a store and would have traveled much farther from cow to kitchen. One gallon of milk produced just over 20 ounces of mozzarella. I have heard ranges from just under to just over a pound, but this yield exceeded my expectations. I used very local, very fresh milk (with very undamaged proteins), which I think accounts for the performance. I have already used some of the surplus whey to cook rice and oatmeal and can't wait to use it to make bread.