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Cooking Curd - Part 2

Control Strategies:

The critical curd cooking stage requires that:

  1. You have the capacity to heat your batch at a rate of 1 deg. F every 3 min. or so.
  2. You can control the rate of increase per recipe instructions.
  3. You have safeguards to prevent overheating.

While just about any means of heating (be it water bath, stove top, or electric griddle) can satisfy these requirements given the proper amount of supervision and manual adjustments, there are distinct advantages to using the griddle system, with or without thermostatic heat control.

Equipment

1. Rectangular steam table pan and cover:

For batches up to 3 gal. you can use a 6" deep 2/3 size pan (12" wide x 14" long). A full size pan will handle up to 5 gal. A lid or cover is highly recommended


2. Electric griddle:

A 10.5" wide x 20" long griddle (Presto >> or Rival ??) is a perfect size for full size steam table pans. The pan fits the griddle like a glove, and the long, wide heating element distributes heat well and provides good temperature control. If you already have a griddle you may be able to use it but you may need to add a piece of ceramic tile to raise the bottom of the pan above the griddle edges.


3. Ceramic floor tile:

For heat distribution and to raise the pan bottom above the lip of the griddle if required. For most griddles a 9" x 12" or 10" x 14" tile works well and usually can be found at your local Lowes or Home Depot. We keep a supply of 9 x 12 tiles with thin silicone pads on the bottom to help protect the grill surface.


4. Temperature controller:

Temperature control can be either automatic or manual. For auto control we recommend the Johnson Controls A419 digital temperature controller. For manual control any "good" digital or analog thermometer with a long probe can be used, but we think the best option is a digital sensor with settable temperature alarm and timer with alarm. Poulder models XXX and XXX are economical sensors with these features.


5. Kitchen sink or tub:

For pre-heating milk to starting temperature.


Plus: All other equipment necessary for measuring and mixing.


Note: All equipment that comes in contact with the milk must be clean and sanitized. We like to store all cleaned equipment in our table pan with the lid on; when ready to make cheese we add a quart or so of water and steam sterilize. You can use the left-over hot water to add to the pre-heat water in the sink.

Pre-heating

It's hard to beat a kitchen sink for heating speed and safety from overheating. 2 to 4 gallons will fit into most sinks and warm to 80 deg. F in 15 or 20 minutes depending on water temperature. We insert a temperature sensor with audible alarm set to a couple of degrees below target starting temperature. If you're using non-homoginized or raw milk you may want to shake up the jugs a couple of times during pre-heating.


Once target temperature is reached pour the milk into your pan / pot and warm (or cool) as needed to your target ripening temperature.

Ripening

Ripening takes place at constant temperature so all that's needed here is to maintain temperature. The mass of the milk (especially larger batches) will help but some heating "bumps" may be needed. A digital controller is valuable here and will free you up for having to constantly check milk temperature and adjust heat.

February 4, 2013 - by John


One of the frustating aspects of home cheesemaking can be controlling the temperature of the milk from inoculation to draining. Even though target temperatures stay in a fairly tight range through the process (most cheeses ranging between 78 and 110 deg. F) recipes often call for raising temperature from A to B over a specified length of time. Depending on the recipe this can be very slow (1 deg. per 5 min.) to fairly rapid (1+ deg. per 1 min). Also, temperature setpoints have to be maintained at each these different stages. All of this requires close attention (and therefore personal proximity to) the cheese pot thermometer.


Here at PC we are always looking at ways to find ways to make the cheesemaking process more efficient, especially when it comes to your time "overhead" . Thus we decided to take a shot at seeing if we could come up with a temperature controlling system that is both time and cost efficient.


Some of the discussion in the middle of this post trends toward the technical, so if BTU and heat transfer characteristics don't float your boat you may want to skip down to the "Bottom Line".


Typical Methods for Heating

Assuming we're talking about gallon jugs here, some of the popular methods for heating include:

  1. Setting milk on the counter and allowing it to come to room temperature.
  2. Setting milk in sink filled with warm or hot water
  3. (Carefully) using a stove-top burner, hot plate or griddle
  4. Water bath with or without temperature control
  5. Some combination of the above

The first two are usually used to get milk temperature close to the starter target, and the others from that point on.


While the temperature controlled water bath is probably the best and safest method, they are out of the price range for most part-time cheesemakers. If your into Sous Vide and have a large "water oven" I guess you could use that, but personally if given the choice between that and a $14 pot from Big Lots I would have to go with the pot (given some additional items described below).


I've made about half of my cheese using a large skillet filled with water setting


The Bottom Line

We suggest that you consider:


  • Setting your milk out on the counter the night before you make your cheese: Assuming your milk has a "good" date setting it out for 12 hours shouldn't make a difference to the quality of the cheese. Heating the milk from fridge temperature by other means is just a waste of time and energy.
  • If you don't have a temperature controlled water bath, a cost effective second choice is a hot plate, griddle or warming tray large enough to set your pot on PROVIDED THAT...
  • (1) The hot plate / griddle / warmer has a plug and (2) you use a pluggable digital temperature controller. Of all the controllers we've looked at the Johnson Controls A419 digital controller is in our opinion the best. One of it's advantages is that it's a dual function controller (i.e. can control in heating or cooling mode). Thus if you want to convert an old fridge into a cheese cave, you can use the A419 to control fridge temp. at 55F and "borrow" it when you want to heat your milk.
  • While you can use an external water-filled pot (assuming your plate is large enough) we don't recommend it. While the water jacket will "buffer" the surface temperature of the plate it adds mass to heat up before the milk heats and thus will give slower response and cause overshoot.
and finally...
  • Do some testing with a pot of water first. As the data above shows a standard aluminum griddle can cover the temperature increase rates at a setting of 200 deg. or less. Always use the lowest setting that gets the job done in the time you need to do it.

Q&A


Q: Why the corners?

PC: A rectangular pan has more area in contact with the heating surface so there may be a slight advantage when using direct heating with a griddle. If using a water bath a round pot may give more uniform heating. The primary advantages we see using a steam table pan is (1) curds can be cut more precisely and quickly, and (2) the corner of the pots makes a good spout when draining whey, while a round pot tends to "dribble". Either way you can make great cheese, so it really comes down to personal preference.


Refer to link on square vs. round

Can I "test" my system without ruining a milk batch?

If you're trying out a new heating system we highly recommend doing a dry (wet?) run with an equivilent volume of water. If using a griddle, start with cool water, set the controller to 250 deg F. and record the temperature and time over an hour. This will give you a baseline that you can adjust depending on recipe and amount of milk.

What about a stove-top burner?

If using an electric stove you need to be extremely careful as the elements have more mass (creating overshoot) and less even heat distribution compared to gas. There is also more chance for "operator error" because (trust me) at some point you will turn the knob "OFF" only to find out later you turned it to "HI"! Gas at least has visual feedback (i.e. you can see the flame). A limitation of stove-top burners, electric and gas, is that if you do want to add temperature control you can't unless your an electrician. On the otherhand an electric griddle or hot plate has a plug that easily connects to a controller.

Isn't a water bath the best and safest way to heat milk?

If you don't need to cook the curds probably so. However if you don't have a temperature controller system a water bath can be difficult to control when ramping temperature. Say you have 2 gallons of milk in your pot and a gallon or so of water in the surrounding bath. Now you have to monitor both milk and bath temperature, and because of the added mass of the water bath the response time of the whole system is slower. In other words a water bath is great for "steady state" conditions and holding temperature, but not for dynamic changes.

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