Extreme Frugality:
Mozzarella Madness

It’s not easy, making cheese. And is it really cheaper than store-bought?
mozzarella making

I attempted to conquer a thousand-or-so-year-old art form this past weekend and, for some inexplicable reason, wasn’t able to pull it off. An article on easy cheese recipes in Mother Earth News promised success in under a half hour, but 7,326 minutes later, I still couldn’t quite call myself an artisan.

The idea was just too frugal to pass up: Why buy shredded mozzarella week after week for $4 a pound (on sale), as well as the occasional $8-a-pound (on sale) fresh stuff, when I could make my own from a $3.25 (on sale) gallon of whole milk? If a gallon of water weighs seven pounds, I figured, milk would be slightly heavier, and I could end up with five or so pounds of cheese, thus saving 20-something dollars. What idiotic penny-pincher could ever pass up a savings like that, especially when the magazine blurbed, “Once you start making fresh mozzarella, you’ll never go back to store bought.” A smart penny-pincher, that’s who—but not because there are hidden costs. Besides the milk, the only other expenses are citric acid, rennet, and salt. Fifteen bucks can land you enough of those ingredients (see the Frugal Tip of the Week for a mail-order source) to make a bathtubful of homemade cheese.

What went wrong? Nothing, really. The kids and I warmed a gallon of whole milk to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, added 1 1/2 teaspoons of citric acid, warmed it to 88 degrees, added 1/4 teaspoon of rennet, and then let it warm to 105 degrees. About eight minutes later, I let out an ear-splitting “Yee-haw,” not knowing a specific celebratory cheese holler. The magic had happened, and we had a pot of almost-mozzarella. And the best part was that it looked like most of the milk had solidified into curds, with only a little bit of whey surrounding them. But as we began to move the cottage-cheese-like curds into a separate bowl with a slotted spoon, my giddy mood deflated with every scoop. Less than half the mass was solid curds. Clearly, I had not been following my own advice to become more pessimistic/realistic.

Then it got worse.

As we pressed and squeezed ever more whey out of the curds, shaping it into eight pebbly blobs, I realized my frugal-euphoria had, as usual, switched off my brain and that, of course, milk is mostly liquid (85 percent, actually). It didn’t matter how much thickening and culturing and curdling we did, we weren’t going to transform seven or so pounds of liquid into five pounds of solids. There is a legitimate reason why cheese is so expensive: it takes lots of milk. Persevering, we then heated the whey to 175 degrees, dipped the rough blobs, one at a time, into the almost simmering whey, kneaded more whey, dipped again and then watched each blob transform itself into mozzarella, stretching into long rubbery strands before our startled eyes. “It’s working, Dad!” Helen said. “It’s really working.”

By the time the last bit of whey had been squeezed out, we had six shiny balls (the kids, not me, ate the other two) of homemade mozzarella, weighing a grand total of 1 1/2 pounds and I had come up with an obvious solution to the milk-to-finished-cheese-ratio conundrum.

I called Lisa, laying the groundwork by describing every heartbreaking moment of our first cheese-making experience. But before I could broach what was clearly a crazy notion, she interrupted me by suggesting, “I guess we need to get a cow.”

And that’s why we’ve been together for 17 years.

Frugal Tip of the Week
Make your own yogurt as well as mozzarella and other simple cheeses. Despite my own predictable letdown, it will save you lots of money and is definitely a lot of fun for the entire family. Just be sure to order your cultures and rennet from a reputable wholesale company like the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company, in Ashfield, Massachusetts.

Editor’s Note
We’ve tried our hand at making mozzarella, too. For our take on the process, see “Behind The Recipe: Fresh Mozzarella.”

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