Loyal readers of this blog are likely well versed on the importance of food preservation and storage. Many of you have been practicing preparedness for some time and perhaps you are equally skilled in the art of water bath and pressure canning, dehydrating and meat curing. If you’re adventurous, you may even have experience making cheese. However, I suspect that most readers have not ventured far into cheese making and, those who have taken the plunge, have likely experimented with softer/fresh cheeses such as mozzarella, chèvre, ricotta and perhaps even camembert. Indeed, these are the cheese varieties that most aspiring cheese makers begin with.
Those are all fine cheeses that are not difficult to make. They each have a very high moisture content of 50% or more which lends to the soft, creamy texture that so many love. However, since moisture is a requirement for the hospitable environment to support listeria monocytogenes, salmonella, e. coli and other pathogenic growth that you do not want to battle with limited medical assistance, such as in a TEOTWAWKI scenario, I would like to inspire you to make more shelf stable and far safer food in the form of aged cheeses.
By way of background, I am a small-scale but commercial farmstead cheese maker, making about 12,000 pounds of cheese per year. I specialize in aged cheeses that include cheddar, blue and Alpine cheeses such as Gruyere. It is this last cheese that I would like to introduce to you today and share with you how and why you should consider mastering this cheese, both in today’s world and if times become quite different. So, let’s begin with a great Alpine cheese, Gruyere.
Understanding Gruyere and Alpine Style Cheese Making
Before we get to the recipe, or “make procedure” as cheese makers refer to it, let us examine how this cheese came to be and how it relates to survival and preparedness. Of course, I was not there centuries ago when it all began, but with cheeses made from Alpine milk, I like to imagine small villages where families each had a cow…or three. These families, and their neighbors, were living 100% off the land, just as we may all find ourselves doing in the future. The cows all stayed in the villages during the colder months, but as the weather warmed and the snow melted from the bottom of the mountain up toward the top, there was a natural tendency to let the cows chase the snow line and graze lush, green pastures.
I believe this was for two reasons.
First, there was a relatively small amount of very fertile valley land that had to produce food for all the inhabitants of the valley. Therefore, it would not have been sensible to allocate it to pasture land for grazing animals, but rather to cultivate crops more intensively utilizing the village labor. The second reason, of course, is that allowing the cows to consume vast quantities of Alpine meadows, in effect, allowed the villagers to farm (or harvest) the mountain, by turning the mountain forage into meat, milk and cheese.
Of course, this created a bit of a logistical problem, as it was not sensible for a family to chase their cow (s) up and down the mountain to harvest milk and make cheese. The solution was to combine cows into larger herds and assign the job of milker and cheese makers to intrepid villagers who wanted to spend a few months on the mountain. Perhaps they were the uncle that no one wanted around. Perhaps it was the way, back then, of putting the man in the dog house. I do not know how it was decided, but decided it was and men (I assume) would ascend the mountain in the spring to return with the snow. What this tells us is that Gruyere and Alpine cheeses were always made from pasture-raised animals and almost always from fresh pasture.
Having a free source of feed and water from the mountain would have no doubt allowed villagers the ability to harvest prodigious quantities of milk from the cows. The challenge was not only how to transport this valuable source of protein down the mountain, but also preserve it to last villagers through cold winter months. After all, making aged cheeses is nothing more than taking a highly perishable commodity, fresh milk, and converting it to a stable, nutritious food that improves in taste, safety and quality month after month, year after year. The solution to harvesting the milk flow called for portable stations at various points on the mountainside where milk could be harvested and cheese could be made.
But not just any cheese.
The remote conditions meant that salt was difficult to come by (unlike England, where cheddar could be made using generous amounts of salt) and that a very durable cheese was needed in order to withstand the rigors of transport down the mountain in the fall. I like to envisage a cheese being made so durable that they cheese makers could literally roll it down the mountainside. Whether or not they did that, I do not know, but the end result was a cheese that likely could have withstood the roll. Hopefully you have stockpiled salt, but in the event it is hard to come by you can learn from those Alpine masters who came before us.
Health Benefits of Alpine Cheese
In addition to being delicious, there are numerous benefits to producing and consuming aged cheeses such as Alpine cheeses. Research shows that low acid cheeses (such as Gruyere) reduce the risk of dental cavities, something you will very much want to pay attention to when/if there are few practicing dentists in your neck of the woods. This is also true for other cheeses that have a pH of 5.5 or higher. pH levels in the mouth below that level significantly increase the risk of developing cavities. In addition, it is not new to many of us that high levels of calcium and vitamins in cheeses such as Gruyere also help bone strength.
Also, once the Alpine cheese has aged a few months there is ZERO lactose remaining in the cheese, making it a safe choice for those who are lactose intolerant.
Finally, Swiss style cheeses such as Gruyere are lower in fat than other popular aged cheeses, such as cheddar, and, as a result of using salt sparingly, MUCH lower in sodium.
How to Make Alpine Cheese
Of course, you can only make a real Gruyere cheese in that region of Switzerland, but let’s not get picky about that. We can make a cheese in the exact style of Gruyere though, can’t we? Typically, a Gruyere cheese ended up being 80-100 pounds each, and about 3 1/2″ tall. The 3 1/2″ height is quite important to ensure the proper rind/paste ratio for the cheese, which helps to yield the smooth texture many of us have come to love about Gruyere and Swiss-style cheeses.
Now, I make these style cheeses on a small-scale commercial basis. My jacketed cheese vat is 1,000 pounds, or about 116 gallons of milk. I like to make 100 gallons of milk a time if I can, but you can adjust for what you need at home. Believe me, you can make this cheese just fine at home on your stovetop or over a fire as long as you pay careful attention to temperature control.
So, let us begin, shall we?
Step 1 – Get some milk (we ONLY use raw milk) and heat it to 90 degrees. Stir slowly…just enough to keep the milk moving so that it does not stick/scald. If you are using high fat milk (Jersey cows) like I do and stir too fast, you’ll make butter along with the cheese. If you make cheese commercially check and record your pH when the milk hits 85 degrees or so. Should be 6.60-6.80, ideally, for cow’s milk but will fluctuate based on feed, animal health and stage of lactation. If you are making at home do not worry about pH with Alpine cheeses such as Gruyere. It is not important as the process steps (below) will ensure this cheese is SAFE and delicious.
Step 2 – Add starter cultures and leave the cultures in the milk for one hour. As one of your “preps” you may want to buy some of the freeze-dried starter cultures I list below now and tuck them away. I buy mine from Dairy Connection in Wisconsin but there are many sources. Since Gruyere is a “cooked” cheese, the active culture will be thermophilic rather than mesophilic. Now…I am not going to tell you what cultures to use. I know, I know, you just want to know exactly what to use and how much. The truth is that there are lots of right answers despite the “right” recipes you see out there. For example, you may want your cheese sweeter and nuttier than mine, and you may opt for more of a specific culture…such as LH 100 than another cheese maker. So, add more. However, you will often use this with another culture, such as TA60 or TA50, so a typical Gruyere make will include LH100 and TA series (50 or 60). These are classic Alpine culture combinations that stabilize the cheese later and produce acid later in the process rather than earlier. A good start for you would be to use a dab (depending on how much milk you are using) of TA 50 and about 3 or 4 times as much LH100.
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Culture choice is important, for sure, but not as important as nailing the make process (below). Besides, let’s not forget the critical importance of feed, particularly feed from a diverse polyculture of forage. Alpine cheese does not come from cows who consumed just one species of grass, such as Bermuda, wheat or fescue, but rather from cows who consume a very diverse forage-based diet.
Step 3 – Add rennet. I use double strength rennet (also from Dairy Connection) but you use what you use. How much will depend on how much milk you have. Just follow the instructions for the right amount of rennet for your milk. If you are using double strength, I would say about 1 ML double strength rennet for 4 gallons of milk.
Step 4 – Cut the curds. There are two important things here. 1) when to cut and 2) what size to cut. Regarding when to cut, if you know you have the right rennet amount and you are making at home, just cut after 45 minutes or so. However, a better way is to use the floc (short for flocculation method).
This video shows a confirmation of the “floc” method, as exhibited by the curd particles just beginning to form. In this instance, the floc was achieved 14 minutes AFTER rennet was added and the milk was stabilized. Now, each type of cheese has a “floc multiplier”. In the case of Gruyere, a floc multiplier of 3 or even 3.5 is used. Therefore, 14 minutes TIMES a multiplier of 3 indicates that the curd should be cut 42 minutes AFTER the rennet was added. That is pretty close to my target of 45 minutes. What I am looking for is a reasonably soft curd set at that stage. That concept may seem vague if you haven’t made cheese, but some things you just have to learn through experience.
After you have determined the time to cut, it’s time to cut. In a commercial plant this is a little easier than at home as I have both horizontal and vertical cheese knives. You will have to twist and cut sideways at home unless you are using a more clever approach. At home you may prefer using a whisk to cut. Regardless of how it is done, what I am looking for is curds slightly larger than the size of grains of rice. When I am finished I want the vat to look as if it is full of rice pudding.
Why cut the curds so small? Remember, the cheese makers were up in the Alps and they had to get as much moisture as possible out of the cheese to make it durable to withstand transportation and aging. Unlike cheddar, which can accomplish much of that with generous amounts of salt, the Alpine cheese makers had to develop techniques based on small curd size. This increased the surface area of each curd particle and facilitated the expulsion of whey. The other very important technique they relied on was heat.
Step 5 – Cook them curds! Okay, to recap, your milk is at 90 degrees, you have added thermophilic culture, rennet and now you have a pot that resembles rice pudding. Time to stoke the fire. In the Alps this would have been a roaring fire under a copper kettle. For me, it is a hot-water jacketed stainless steel vat. For you, it is ______. Regardless, the goal is to increase the temperature to 126 degrees as quickly as you can, preferably within 60 minutes. Of course you could exceed that on a stove top with a small amount of milk, but you run the risk of scalding part of the milk. What you are after is fast but uniform increase in temperature over the course of an hour.
During the early stages of stirring the curds will be soft and will tend to “mat”, so you want the temperature rise to be gradual at first and increase once the curds firm up. Gently rub/break them apart as they do (do not squeeze them). Otherwise, their surface area will reduce and you will have very inconsistent spots in your cheese. After 15 minutes or so…or when you have passed 100 degrees, the curds firm up and matting concerns recede, though curds can still clump together. Just keep stirring. How fast? I like to stir where I see curd particles on the surface but I do not want the whey sloshing around like I am in a monsoon. You will find your rhythm.
When you get close to your target temperature you will notice that the curds pass what is called the “grip” test.
At this stage you could form the curd particles into a ball that would hold, but that would also easily fall apart if tossed against your other hand. Hopefully you have reached your temperature and now you are ready for a defining aspect of Alpine cheese making, which is called pressing under the whey.
Step 6 – Press under the whey. Unlike highly pressed cheeses, such as cheddar, Alpine cheeses owe their firm texture to the above process AND to pressing under the whey so that they will “knit” together. Now, in the Alps I suspect they didn’t really press under the whey, but rather used a cloth (similar to a cheese cloth) to gather all the curds into a ball and suspend in the whey. The whey kept them hot as they knitted together. If you are making this at home just do the same thing. Gather the curds into a cheesecloth and hang it in the whey. For me, I push the curds to the back of the vat with a plate I have made, put 1/2″ plastic press plates on top of the curd mass and then use 5 gallon buckets to press the mass together.
NOTE: The process of cooking an Alpine cheese to AT LEAST 126 degrees and then pressing under the whey is proven effective at killing off all major pathogens, such as listeria, salmonella, staph aureus and e.coli. In other words, this type of cheese, along with Parmigiano-Reggiano is one of the SAFEST cheeses you can make. As a plus, it contains NO once it is aged so it is a great choice for those who are lactose intolerant. These combine to create a great bartering item for you in a TEOTWAWKI world that few others will know how to duplicate!
Step 7 – Now it is time to slice the sections and hoop the curds. In my case, I have fancy molds to shape the cheese. The important thing is that you are aiming for your cheese to be about 4″ tall, so that, after aging, it will end up 3.5″ or so. Of course, you likely won’t have a costly custom cheese mold but you can easily fashion a substitute with a 4″ wide strip of plastic held together by a strap. Just line the interior with cheesecloth (buy lots for your prep area) and place the curd inside.
Step 8 – Press the cheese. Even though Gruyere and Alpine cheeses are very dense and low in moisture, they do not achieve that state through high pressure. Rather, that is achieved mostly by the previous step of pressing under the whey. By comparison, after cheddar is hooped it requires heavy pressure…about 40 PSI, which will likely require a pneumatic press (a car jack will work fine in a TEOTWAWKI scenario). By contrast, I simply press our Gruyere with 5 gallon buckets of water.
Of course, you can adjust this at home by using what you have. If you are a commercial cheese maker you can still use your press, just with light pressure.
Even though it looks like we’re done…there are two more steps.
Step 9 – Brine/salt the cheese. There are two schools of thought here. Some cheese makers simply dry salt the cheese by rubbing salt on the rind over the first couple of days. I have done that as well, but I find that fully saturated brine works best. You can make a fully saturated brine at home by simply saving the whey you have used (I hope you read all of this before you disposed of the whey) and adding coarse salt so that there is at least a couple of inches on the bottom. If there is, consider that a fully saturated brine. If you are making cheese professionally you will likely test your salt concentrations but this is a fine method for most cheese makers.
How long to brine depends on the size wheel you made, of course, but a typical wheel the size pictured (10-12 lbs, 4″ thick) would brine for at least 24 hours. Some people brine it twice that long. You will have to “tinker” to find the method that best brings out the flavor you are after AND develops the rind you are looking for.
Step 10 – Finally, the last step, aging the cheese. You will need a space to age your cheese…a cave in the side of a mountain next to a flowing stream in our perfect and permanent bug-out locations. A root cellar would likely be perfect as well. For many a wine refrigerator is the choice in today’s world. It does not matter what you use. What does matter is that you have an ability to control BOTH temperature AND humidity. For Gruyere, I aim for 54 degrees F and 90% humidity. Higher humidity is okay but with cheese aging, there is a VERY big difference between 90% humidity and 80% humidity. Lower humidity levels and your rind will likely crack and you will experience yield loss. At higher than 90% humidity levels you will likely get white mold growing on your cheese. This is no problem; simply brush it off.
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During the lengthy aging process, which should last at least six months to maximize flavor, you will do three things. Wash your cheese, brush your cheese and flip your cheese. Washing your cheese simply means using a light brine solution to help develop the rind that is typical or classic of an Alpine or Gruyere style cheese. Here’s a good “wash” recipe for you:
- a gallon of water
- 1 smidge (use your judgment but it does not take much) of b. linens (buy now Dairy Connection or elsewhere and once it is established on the walls of your “cave”, you won’t have to buy again)
- 7 ounces coarse salt
We age our cheeses the traditional way; on wood. The routine we practices is as follows:
- take cheese out of brine and let dry for 1-2 days
- once cheeses are placed on boards, wash one side (the top)
- the next day, flip the cheese and wash the other side (the new top)
- flip daily until the rind is “developed”. You will know what this means because otherwise the cheese can stick to the board. Normally your rind will be developed pretty well in a couple of weeks.
- Then, go to washing 3X weekly, flipping each time.
- Brush your cheese with a stiff brush as needed to keep the rind smooth.
- At some point you will realize that you do not need to “wash” the cheese much at all as your rind has developed fully. You are trying to create a mosaic with your brush and keep the rind clean.
- Now you can keep your attention on what’s important; temperature and humidity.
- Wait six months (at least) and eat, sell or trade.
That is all there is to making this fantastic cheese. It may seem intimidating to some of you but I promise you it is not and that you can do it. The resulting cheese will feed your family and friends as well as provide a highly-skilled bartering or income producing product.
While this article is focused on introducing you to the benefits and methods of making aged Alpine cheeses, I would like to close by discussing the value of whey.
As Little Miss Muffet told us in our youth, whey is separate from curds and is the liquid expelled once the milk solids have formed into the curd mass. When making Alpine cheeses, you will likely find that, initially, 87%-90% of the milk volume becomes whey once the cheese enters the brine, meaning that your initial cheese yield will hover around 11%. That yield will shrink to 9% or 10% after the cheese has aged. Whey from Alpine cheeses is considered a “sweet” whey since rennet is used the terminal pH of the cheese is quite high as compared to “sour” cheeses, where the pH is allowed to drop in the 4.6 – 4.8 range. Clearly most of the milk volume becomes liquid whey, but rather than treat this as a waste product, I would like to encourage you to make the most of this valuable resource. I wish I could go into more detail on each, but that would require another full article. Hopefully the following ideas will get you started.
- Whey makes a great feed supplement for all livestock, especially chickens and pigs. Just make sure they have access to other feed sources, such as woods, pasture and grubs. You will find that the dogs will love it too.
- Save whey for much of your cooking needs and replace use it to replace water, which may be scarce.
- In particular, use the whey for making rice, pasta, oatmeal, potatoes, adding to soups and so on. In this way you will not only reduce your potable water needs but will also absorb the mineral qualities of the whey. In particular, feel free to use whey in any baking recipe that calls for water or milk. Examples include pancakes, waffles, cornbread, biscuits, muffins and many more.
- Use the whey to make extra rich and nutritious soup stock. Replace water in soap recipes with whey and use it to make soap.
- Use whey to soak grains for sprouting. Use whey to feed plants, vegetables and fruit plants. If you are using more acidic whey, give it to the plants that prefer acid, such as blueberries.
- Use the whey to make other cheeses, such as ricotta.
- Drink it and soak up the benefits. Or make a smoothie with it.
- Add a couple of cups to bath water for healthy skin and to help alleviate dry skin or Eczema.
- Use as a hair conditioner. After washing your hair and towel drying, comb whey through your hair, let dry then rinse as you normally would.
- Use with garlic and other spices as a brine or meat marinade.
- Interestingly, whey has been shown to stimulate insulin release in Type 2 Diabetics. This could enable you to be quite valuable to Diabetics in a world with few medical resources. You can read the research here.
- Last but not least, if you feel you have no other use and have to dump the whey, pour some in your compost bin or spread over pastures. Or, water your garden. If you do, however, try to match the pH of the whey with plants that prefer that pH level. Also, if you have plants such as cucumber, squash or peas that suffer from powdery mildew, spray whey on the leaves. It will alter the pH and discourage the mildew.
I hope that this article has been helpful to you. Welcome to the world of making wonderful aged cheeses!