The good news is that cheesemaking is really not very difficult, provided you have some good recipes/instructions. The book that I started with, Making Great Cheese at Home, is pretty good, but the author really should have had a few more people try and make the cheese based on her recipes and give her feed back. I had some trial and error going on when I first started. Fortunately for you, I can pass along the lessons learned from those trials and you can just make great cheese from the get go!
Please note, however, that this is starting to get into "real" cheesemaking, which means that some specialized ingredients are required. I like New England Cheesemaking Supply but I have also used Caprine Supply. The good news is that the cultures and rennet keep well. I bought my last batch over two years ago. I typically buy a variety of cultures and what not and then they are available whenever I get the urge to make cheese. Just store the starter packets in the freezer and the liquid rennet in the refrigerator.
While this cheese takes a while to make, the actual work time is fairly small. I just plan on making curds on days when I am going to be home doing other things all day. Then I just squeeze a couple minutes of cheesemaking between chores.
You'll need a large double boiler for this process. I just have two stock pots that fit inside one another. Put a couple of inches of water in the bottom pot. Remember, in a double boiler, you do not want the top pot to touch the water in the bottom pot. Turn on medium heat and raise the temperature of the milk to 85 degrees F.
Now it is time to return the milk to the double boiler. You want to heat the milk up to 100 degrees F slowly. Shoot for raising the temperature of the milk by 2 degrees every five minutes or so. The good news is, in my experience, the milk is fairly forgiving here. Try to hit the guidelines, but if you are a bit off, it won't be the end of the world. Once the milk, now curds, has reached 100 degrees, hold it there for another 30 minutes. You'll start to see the whey separating from the curds... that's a good thing!
Periodically stir the curds with a large spoon while heating. Don't mix too much, but a few stirs here and there is required. Notice how loose the curds still are. A lot more whey needs to come out before they're ready to be drained.
Here we are ready to drain. The curds came up to 100 degrees slowly and then I kept them at that same temperature for about half an hour more. Notice how distinct the curds and whey are. This is what you want before going on to the next step.
Pour the curds into a cheesecloth lined colander. Have a clean bowl underneath even if you are not going to save the whey (it can be used in baking or to make ricotta cheese). Unless your sink is very clean, the splashing can cause contamination of your curds. Let the curds drain until the whey stops dripping and they no longer look really wet. I find I have to raise one side of the curds and make little "drainage channels" with the edge of a spoon to help the whey on the top of the curds drain. Note that I have drained my curds in a large colander so that my cheese mass is fairly thin throughout. This is easier for draining and for curd cutting.
When the curds are done draining, gently turn the mass of cheese onto a large cutting board (make sure it is clean!). Be careful not to break the mass. At this point they are slightly rubbery but still fragile, so be gentle.
For some reason, I really like the pattern of the cheesecloth on the curds.
Cut the curds into small pieces. I like about 3/4 inch x 1/2 inch pieces, but it is really personal preference. Just don't go too big or too small. Somewhere between the 1/2 and 1 inch range is good. Again, be gentle. Until the curds are cheddared, they are going to be fragile!
Cheddaring is a process by which excess whey is extracted. This is what gives cheddar it's firm, slightly rubbery texture. To cheddar the curds, place them in a bowl floating in warm (about 100 degree) water in the sink. The warmth will cause more whey to be expelled. Notice the excess whey when I tip the bowl. Periodically drain off this whey and gently mix the curds around to keep them from matting together. Cheddar the curds for a couple of hours. When the curds are done cheddaring, add the salt. Stir to coat well.
The last step is to dry the curds out slightly. Place curds on a parchment lined baking sheet and place in a cool spot (or in the refrigerator). Periodically turn the curds. It is okay to leave the curds out of the refrigerator for up to 36 hours after finishing the cheese providing the ambient temperature is no higher than 76 degrees. Drying the curds out at the higher temperatures gives them a sharper flavor. Remember, real cheese curds are fresh cheese that have not been aged, so they will not taste like regular cheddar from the store. You can take this process one step farther and make cheese rounds by pressing the cheese in a cheese press, but I haven't had a chance to build mine yet so I can't post pictures of how to do it yet. Cheese presses are also available for purchase online, but they are not cheap.
Cheddar Cheese Curds
Yield: 3-4 cups of curds
1 gallon whole cow's milk (do not use ultra-pasteurized)
1/4 tsp mesophilic starter powder
1/2 tsp liquid rennet mixed with 1 TBS cool water
1/2 tsp kosher salt or to taste
Heat the milk in a double boiler to 85 degrees F. Remove from the heat, add the starter powder, cover, and let sit for one hour. After the hour is up, add the rennet and water mixture. Stir and recover for another hour.
After the rennet has worked for an hour, test for a "clean break" (see above). If the milk is ready, continue. If not, let the rennet continue to work until it does show a clean break. Return the cheese to the double boiler and slowly heat (over a period of 30-40 minutes) to 100 degrees F. Stir gently periodically with a large spoon. When the temperature reaches 100, hold it there for another 30 minutes. When the curds are very distinct from the whey (see picture above), they are ready to drain.
Drain curds into a cheesecloth lined colander. Let them drain for 30+ minutes, until they stop dripping. Turn the solid mass of curds onto a clean cutting board. Unfortunately, if the curds will not hold together, then something went wrong and cannot be saved. I have never had this happen to me but am told it can. Cut the mass into small curds with a sharp knife.
Cheddar the curds by placing them in a large bowl that is sitting/floating in a couple of inches of warm (about 100 degree) water. This warmth will cause more whey to be expelled from the curds. Periodically drain off this excess whey and gently move the curds around to keep them from matting together. Cheddaring takes 1-2 hours. When done cheddaring, add the salt and mix.
Dry the curds on a parchment lined sheet for 12-24 hours in a cool, dry place. Your curds are now ready to enjoy. Either eat them plain or create a yummy vinaigrette for them.