If you think of cheese making as a controlled spoilage of the milk, you wouldn’t be far wrong. It is certainly possible to let milk sit on the window ledge till it goes sour and then make a cheese successfully from it. However, there are thousands (if not millions) of bacteria floating around in the atmosphere and not all of them are good. A few nasties we’ve all heard of such as Salmonella, Listeria and E.coli are obviously ones we’d wish to avoid.
Thankfully, when it comes to cheese making and food poisoning, the number of cases reported each year remains low. However, it is important to be aware of the dangers and as with all food preparation, good hygiene is key. If you ever get the chance to look at a professional dairy you’ll see how spotlessly clean they are, from stainless steel tables and washable surfaces and floors, to the hair-nets and protective clothing they wear, the levels they go to to ensure they are reducing the risk of any harmful bacterias being transmitted to the cheeses they are making can be quite surprising, if you have never witnessed it first-hand. This is what you should be aiming to replicate (not always possible in a working home kitchen, I know) as best you can.
It sounds pretty obvious to say this but you should always wash your hands thoroughly before starting. Thankfully we’ve all had a lot of practice at this over the past year - and there have been plenty of adverts on T.V along with songs to sing as you’re doing so! So just briefly, use soap and hot water, make sure you wash all of your hands front and back and up to your forearms for around 30 seconds and use a nail brush if your nails are dirty. Sorry to sound like mom but it is really important to be as clean as you possibly can when cheese making.
Next, all the equipment that you use, from the pans, to the cheese cloths, molds, cheese mats, knives, curd cutters and any other items coming into contact with the milk/cheese should be sterilized before use. Cheese cloths and curdbags in particular can harbor unwanted bacteria. The best way to clean them is to wash them well in hot soapy water before adding to boiling water and then hanging them out to dry.
Cleaning the work surfaces first is important - wash them down first with hot soapy water then wipe them down with disinfectant afterwards. When it comes to pans and cheese molds, they can often be put through the dishwasher first before using but it is always a good idea to clean them again before use. Your local store will have products used for sterilizing bottles in the baby aisle, they are perfect for using in cheese making. If you have the space it is worth having a cupboard or shelf put by just for your cheese making equipment and only using these items for that purpose.
Another important tip worth remembering is that you must rinse off any traces of disinfectant or sterilizer as this will have an adverse effect on the cheese making process. It can prevent the starter culture from working properly and also prevent a curd from forming.
By ensuring that you and all the equipment you’re using is as clean as it can possibly be, you are going a long way to eliminating any of the harmful bacteria that may be present. You’re also giving yourself more chance of making cheese successfully too!