Thursday, January 20, 2011

Brian Dixon - On Making Mozzarella in Alaska

At first, he wasn't sure he would ever be able to make cheese ...

Brian Dixon first tried to make our 30 Minute Mozzarella a few months ago, but his attempt was a dismal failure (excuse me - learning experience!).  He learned the hard way that his milk had been pasteurized at too high a temperature.

He took pictures and sent them to our technical advisor, Jim Wallace.  (Jim's answer is located at the end of this article.)

I don't know of many cheesemakers in Alaska, so I asked Brian about doing an article.  He responded,  "What would be the blog post title?  “The Making of a Mozzarella Maker … Almost?”  Of course, I knew right then he was going to be fun to interview!

These are the pictures Brian sent to Jim, asking for help with his Mozzarella:  (Note:  This batch was made with Matanuska Creamery (Palmer, AK) whole milk, pasteurized at 170 F and homogenized.)

 Can’t get a clean break…
   I cut the curds anyway.  Notice the feathery edges to the cut curds.
 After the 105 F cooking, the curds broke up into little bits and were soft and mushy.
In spite of heating to 145 F and beyond, the cheese never did get stretchy at all… just a grainy mushy mash.

This was a classic case of overheated milk.  However, in Brian's neck of the woods, good milk is hard to find.  His options are to travel a great distance, purchase a cow share, or pay a lot of money for his milk.  There is great milk available at the Northern Lights Dairy in Delta Junction (vat-pasteurized at 145F), but they aren't currently selling their products in the Anchorage area.  So, he's working on the possibility of purchasing a cow share (4 gallons/week for $15/week).

Meanwhile, Brian chose to pay more for milk he found in Anchorage, at the Natural Pantry store on the Old Seward Highway.  This time, his Mozzarella making experience ended in triumph:

Making 30 Minute Mozzarella
By Brian Dixon

Setting up shop.  I'm using Organic Valley non-homogenized "cream on top" whole milk pasteurized at around 165 F, granular citric acid from Arctic Brewing Supply, and liquid animal rennet.  (Note:  Brian printed out our online directions.)
The instructions say to add the citric acid, dissolved in 1 cup of cool water, to the cold milk, so I mixed it up in advance.
 The cream on the milk was thick and pasty, and there was quite a bit of it.  It's hard to see in this picture, but at less than 50 F, the cream is floating around in large sticky globs.  As the milk was heated (2 degrees per minute on very low gas heat), I cut and pressed the lumps of cream to help them melt.  For the most part, the cream never did blend into the rest of the milk, and it turned a buttery yellow as it melted.
 87 F and nearly ready to turn off the heat.  The cream has completely melted, but does not stay mixed into the milk.  I shut off the heat at about 88 F and the temperature coasted up to 91F before it settled out.
 The instructions on the bottle of animal rennet said to blend it in cool water and then add it to the milk immediately.  The 30-Minute Mozzarella recipe said to use ¼ teaspoon of liquid rennet (or ¼ tablet dry rennet) dissolved in ¼ cup cool water.  I mixed the liquid rennet into the water, then poured it slowly into the milk while stirring gently.  I stirred around and vertically for 30 seconds, then about 15 more seconds of 'top stirring' to blend the cream into the milk, then covered with towels, oven mitts, and more towels to let it form the curds.
At the end of the 5-minute rest for the curds to form, the curd mass had clearly formed, but was still a bit soft and mushy.  I covered the pot again and let it go another 5 minutes.  This time, the curd mass had expelled more whey and had firmed up some, but still didn't quite have what I would call a clean break.  Even so, it felt reasonably firm so I cut the curds anyway.  According to the instructions, I was to cut the curds to 1" in size but had a heck of a time doing so because the mass of curds kept spinning in the pot.  I ended up just doing the best I could and calling it good.
Here are the cut curds, slowly being heated to 105 F.  While heating, I gave them a gentle stir every now and then, using my slotted spoon to cut larger curds down to size (1").  After reaching 105 F, I continued to gently stir for about 3 more minutes.
Once the curds had been cooked, I used a slotted spoon to scoop them into a colander in the sink.  As you can see, the curds broke up while transferring them, and were still not very firm.  I wondered if I shouldn't have waited longer for the curds to set, or cooked them at 105 F a little longer?  Maybe, but everything turned out great in the end, so in spite of my inexperience, this recipe proved to be forgiving.
Rather than press the curds with my hands to help encourage the whey to be expelled and drained away, I just tilted the colander in different directions and let the weight of the curds work the whey out.  This worked very well.  I felt encouraged when I saw bits of the curd already stretching as I did this. 
I heated the curds in my large 8-cup measuring cup with steep sides for 1 minute, and the temperature rose to 115 F.  I gently folded the cheese a little, outside edges folded to the middle, then heated another 30 seconds.  This time, the cheese temperature had risen to 126 F.  I sprinkled 1-1/2 teaspoons sea salt on the cheese after the second heating so it would get folded into the cheese before the cheese got worked very much.  

After one more 30-second heating in the microwave, the cheese reached 136 F and I started stretching it.  What seemed to work best for me was to hold the cheese in an oblong shape in my fists, one fist above the other, then to squeeze it as though using too hands to squeeze toothpaste out of a tube.  This lengthened the mass of cheese and started the stretch.  I finished the stretch by pulling the ends, then folding the cheese lengthwise back over itself a couple of times and then repeated.  I did this about 3 times, heating with the microwave 20-25 seconds each time it cooled a little and became less stretchy.  As you can see, this worked great and the cheese became very stretchy, shiny, and if not careful with it, would've drooped to the floor!  Success!!
At the request of my wife, I decided to turn this whole batch into a couple of prosciutto rolls.  I divided the cheese in two, heated a tad in the microwave since it cools off rather quickly, then patted it out on some plastic, as shown.  I layered on a double-thick layer of prosciutto ham, then rolled it up in the plastic just like a jelly roll.
The finished prosciutto roll.
Mmmm!  The best part is always the eating!

I asked Brian how he got started making cheese ...

A long time ago I read an article in Mother Earth News about making ‘farmer cheese,’ just basic rennet plus milk with curds drained in a bucket full of holes, and didn’t think much of it.  The cheese was bland and boring.  After that, I assumed that good cheese must require something far more complex, so I basically ignored the topic.  It wasn’t until more recently that I found out from an associate that his wife made good mozzarella and ricotta once in awhile and that it was easy.  I started to look into it and found that making even the really fancy cheeses wasn’t all that much harder, and so I decided to give it a try.
The other side of the coin is that cheese making aligns well with my personality.  I enjoy (yikes!) food growing and harvest, fishing and hunting, food preservation (smoking, canning, etc), and the science and analysis behind these various skills.  I also bake (as well as I am able) artisan breads, make homemade sausages, and used to brew beer as well.  My beers competed successfully, sometimes winning silver medals in national contests, before I finally quit brewing since I don’t drink much beer.  Cheese is just my next hobby!  (Assuming we can get milk that works here in Alaska…)

What's your next cheese making step?

My goal is to be able to produce good aged, molded, cheeses like Stiltons or similar … my favorite so far.  I like stronger tasting cheeses that have character, so mozzarella and similar will just be the first step towards reaching those loftier goals.

What do you do for a living?

For a living, I design and write software.  I’m a senior software architect at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and help develop our “clinic on carts” system that is used for providing health care in remote locations …whether it’s the bush in Alaska or a ship. 

You mentioned (in one of your e-mails) that you were working on a boat?

Boat?  Pure recreation.  I’m building a boat for offshore use, primarily for fishing (salmon, halibut, a variety of bottom fish, shrimping, crabbing), but also for family camping in places like the islands of Prince William Sound.  Because of bears, it’s easier to sleep in the boat on an anchor than in a tent on the islands.  I’m hoping to have the boat done by sometime this summer, but it’s going slower than I’d like.

Note:  We know Brian will continue to make cheese, because he just bought a pH meter and he's very determined.  We hope to hear more from him about his cheese adventures ...


Jim Wallace
 Jim's Answer to Brian's Question

Brian, the feathery looking weak coagulation shown in your pics is an indication that the milk has been heated too high during pasteurization.  Adding citric acid at fridge temps or at 55F will not make a lot of difference.  Sometimes with problematic milks, raising the renneting temperature to 96-100F will help things a bit. You still need to allow it to sit quietly to allow the curds to develop well.

This does sound like a milk issue. The poor curd formation problems you describe here seems to be related to high heat pasteurization but not high enough to be labeled Ultra Pasteurized.

High pasteurizing temps usually cause weak or granular curds that will not hold together. The issue is the heat releasing proteins that inhibit good protein bonding and hence coagulation. Unfortunately, we are all dealing with a changing milk supply and your results are what I see with the over processed milks. Your milk has probably been heated too high during pasteurizing and some protein changes have occurred making it difficult to form a good curd.

This current milk has probably undergone temperatures over 170F and higher (161F is normal). Please read our online January 2009 newsletter and Help section on Milk for more on this problem. If you call the dairy and ask about pasteurization temperatures I think you will be able to verify this.

 The following comes from

"The parameters for pasteurization in the United States fall under The Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO), a cooperative effort of industry and state regulatory agencies in conjunction with the Food and Drug Administration. For white fluid milk the time-temperature relationship for HTST processed milk is a minimum of 161ËšF for at least 15 seconds.

Fluid milk processing plants have traditionally pasteurized milk at higher temperatures for longer periods of time as an extra safety factor. (Historically fluid milk is pasteurized in the 166-170ËšF range for 20-25 seconds.) Pasteurizing milk at this time/temperature ratio typically gives a clean slightly cooked flavor with a 14-18 day shelf life.

More recently, under the recommendations of FDA, and its concerns regarding food safety, many fluid milk plants are increasing their HTST pasteurization temperatures to 176-178F."

The good news is that most of our customers eventually find a great milk that works well.  When you do, please send us the info and your location and we will add this to our good milk list:

Our milk suppliers here for many years worked flawlessly until about 1-2 years ago when they began high heat for the pasteurizing- then it all failed miserably to make good mozzarella. A bit of time in searching and we have found some other really great milks that work well for this.

The curds formed as this loose granular mass can easily be drained in butter muslin and mixed with salt and herbs for a tasty snack or even used in salads.

Note:  Questions about making cheese may be sent to Jim at


Boho Farm and Home said...

This looks great! Thanks for the prosciutto roll idea! I am going to try it.

Lunachick said...

(wink) Good milk is not that hard to find in Alaska... and it's way better to buy local than import! For the record, there are alot of cheesemakers in Alaska. I make something like 8 kinds of hard cheese, 4 kinds of soft cheese, as well as the full offering of other raw milk products. Welcome Brian!

Any name said...

THANK YOU!! I could have taken Brian's pictures in my kitchen. My milk provider (home delivery) SWEARS it isn't high pasteurized, but obviously, it is high enough.

I have a raw milk source not too far away. I guess I'm going to have to bite the bullet :)

wingedshadowwolf said...

Wow, I live like right next door to Northern lights dairy! And their milk makes great cheese! :)