“I like to do things the old fashioned way. I learned from watching your class videos that I don’t have to buy a starter, but can use held-back clabber to make great sour cream and soft cheese.
I’ve made some awesome sour cream and soft cheeses this way. I also made the kefir balls in olive oil (free video here) — but I used straight clabbered cheese instead of kefir, and it turned out great.
So, can I make hard cheeses without rennet, too? If I hang the clabber, then salt it, press it, and age it, will it make a good hard cheese?
If I can get good curds directly from clabber, why go through the whole rennet and cooking step? Am I missing something?”
Breaking This Down
Making your own starters is fantastic. As you know, this is what you’re doing when you save clabber and use it to inoculate future batches of cultured dairy.
Skipping the rennet is not so easy to do. Here’s why.
Both starter cultures and rennet can achieve coagulation. But they achieve it differently and over different lengths of time.
- Starters coagulate milk proteins through acid production, over time.
- Rennet coagulates milk proteins through enzyme action, quickly.
Which method is used determines what cheese you get.
How Starter Cultures Work
As the beneficial organisms in a starter culture consume the milk sugar (lactose), they produce acid. These acids curdle or coagulate the milk.
But it takes time. For instance, clabber develops into soft curds over 2 or 3 days.
Could You Get Hard Cheese from These Curds?
In my opinion, curds formed by acid production are probably too soft for pressing into hard cheese.
If you let the process go longer, and let the curds firm up from additional acid production, you might end up with cheese that’s too sour for your tastes — plus the cheese might be crumbly from the high level of acid.
I haven’t tested this; it is just my speculation. But you can try it, because it could end up being something you like very much!
Acid and Stretchy-Melty Cheeses
A high level of acid will be a problem when it comes to stretchy or meltable cheeses like mozzarella, queso fresco or cheddar. The acid would form the curds, yes — though they will be too soft, I think — but it would interfere fatally with stretch.
Too much acid makes the cheese break instead of stretch.
Rennet Solves the Acid Problem
Enter rennet, an enzyme traditionally gathered from the stomach lining of a calf. Today there are vegetable sources, too.
Rennet coagulates milk into curds quickly, without producing acid.
While the rennet is working (it takes about an hour in most recipes), the culturing organisms can produce the right amount of acid — instead of too much — for the stretch you want.
Some acid is needed to get good stretch, as in traditional mozzarella, but too much acid will cause the cheese to break instead.
Well-tested recipes (such as in my class) tell you the right amount of time and ingredients (starters + rennet) to achieve this.
The (My) Bottom Line
So… to summarize. You need to coagulate the curds somehow. In my opinion, acid-coagulation (starter culture only) creates:
- too soft of a curd for hard cheese
- too much acid to create stretchy-melty perfection
Personally, I wouldn’t skip the rennet. Please let me know what you decide and where your adventures take you…
Everyone else, do you think I’ve missed anything? Have you skipped the rennet and made good hard cheese? If so, please enlighten me.
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