For this lab we set out to make four different types of cheeses as an introduction to hands-on work in experimental archaeology. We conducted our cheesemaking on Mai Fete island, where we had access to one in-the-ground fire pit alongside two above-ground pits brought from the lab in Anderson. Once we arrived at the island we split into three groups: Teams Mozzarella and Ricotta using the above-ground pits with Team Mysost at the in-ground one.
While our primary goal was to succeed at making our cheeses, we also embarked on this lab with the goal of getting acquainted with the difficulties and process of conducting experimental archaeology. We had already become acquainted with the spaces that we will be working with last week on our walking tour, but this lab introduced us to the tools (like the temperature gun and scales) processes (thorough data recording) and working with our teammates.
During this lab the questions we wanted to answer included:
- Is it possible to make mozzarella, ricotta and mysost using firepits?
- How long does it take to make these types of cheeses?
- What does homemade cheese taste like compared to other cheeses?
- How does using an open fire impact the process? How hard is it to keep the temperature steady? How important is it to keep the temperature steady?
- What other major challenges are there making cheese in this environment?
With our questions and goals in mind, we set out to make our cheeses, or at the very least learn something from our failures.
Basic Rennet – Process
The process for the basic rennet was very similar to the one described in David Asher’s book on cheesemaking. We began by adding our milk to the cauldron, then stirring in the mixture of vinegar and water that would get it to the desired acidity. While this was happening, we prepared the fire for heating up the milk, making an “upside down” fire.
The milk was then placed over the fire, where it was brought up to 90°F/32°C (though group A heated it to slightly above this temperature before they could pull the cauldron off the fire). Next, the rennet tablet dissolved in water was added, and the waiting game began. During this time we wanted to maintain the temperature at 90°, but it seemed that proximity to the fire and the cauldron helped keep the heat in and maintain the temperature without needing to return the curd to the fire (except group B, who had to return the cauldron to fire once, about 16 minutes in, and group C who briefly returned to the fire before it overheated the cast iron). After about 15 minutes, we tested for the clean break, then waited more if it failed. Once the clean break was achieved, we cut the curds, first vertically and then attempted horizontally.
Again, we waited another 15 minutes, while occasionally stirring the now broken-up curds. After 15 minutes, we checked to see if the consistency of the curds was correct. Once we had achieved the resistance on the outside, silky on the inside texture, we prepared the cheesecloth-lined sieves for separating the curds and whey.
We then carefully poured the mixture into the sieve, leaving us with the leftover whey in a bowl, which we then transferred into the milk jugs or used for the next step of the process and the curds in the cheesecloth.
We then removed some of the curds from the cheesecloth and pressed them into the cheese forms, where they dried for several hours until we flipped them over. The rest of the curds were then used for the other types of cheese, mostly mozzarella.
On class Friday after the lab we removed the cheeses from the forms, salted them, and had our final taste-test.
- 1 gallon of whole milk
- 1 rennet tablet
- 1/4c of vinegar
- Cheese cloth
- Colander and collection bowl
- Stirring spoon
- Salt (used the next day)
The following are the results of the process of making basic rennet cheese from the three groups.
The variables we choose to spotlight are as follows:
- Time elapsed: Knowing how long a process takes is one of the most important pieces of data that can be gained from experimental archaeology
- Initial Weight of Milk: Used for comparing to the weight of whey and curds at the end of the process
- Milk Temperature Average: Does a higher or lower temperature than the recommended 90° impact the cheese?
- Final Weight of Whey: How much of the milk is left over?
- Final Weight of Curds: How much of the milk becomes usable curd?
- Taste Test: Is what we made worth eating?
|Initial Weight of Milk
|Milk Temperature Average
|Final Weight of Milk (Whey)
|Final Weight of Curds
|50 minutes from milk put on fire to whey drained
|Was very salty on the outside as we had just salted it, but overall it tasted good.
|87°F had to place pot on the fire again after removing from heat
|Very mild taste (just like milk)
|Very little to no taste, the salt provided most of the flavor.
Group A attempted to make Mozzarella from both their leftover curds and the leftover curds from the Ricotta group. The Mozzarella process consisted of heating water to approximately 150°F, placing strips of the finished curd into the water for four to six minutes, removing them and testing how well they stretched (with the goal of taffy-like consistency) and then placing them back into the heated water and finally a saline bath.
Over the course of the Mozzarella making process the temperature of the water was attempted to be kept steady at 150°, but varied from the highest recorded temperature at 170°F to the lowest at 135° during the last batch when the fire was dying out.
The first few attempts were largely unsuccessful, but by the third or fourth ball we were able to somewhat consistently produce cheese that had some degree of stretch (though still far from the ideal taffy) and was reported to taste like Mozzarella. However, these semi-successful balls came with one fatal flaw: squeakiness. The halfway point between stretchy Mozzarella and essentially a salty version of the basic rennet resulted in cheese that squeaked as it was eaten, which was a somewhat unpleasant experience. Some people did bring home several of the most successful Mozzarella balls and reported that it melted well and they were able to cook with it successfully, with far less squeak.
The semi-success of the Mozzarella demonstrates that it is in fact possible to make Mozzarella in the conditions we had, however it would likely take many more days, weeks or even years to perfect keeping the water at a consistent temperature and removing the cheese from the water at the right time to achieve perfect stretch.
Group B attempted to make Ricotta cheese out of the leftover whey from the making of Rennet curds. The group used their leftover whey and some from group A to gather 1 gallon, altogether. They boiled the gallon of whey, which took about 16 minutes, and then added 1/4c of vinegar. The whey was then brought back from a boil and quickly removed from heat. The whey was then left to sit for 5 minutes. The whey was then put through a fine strainer to attempt to get the Ricotta separate from the whey. The group was unable to get the solids to collect in the cheesecloth, even when doubled. So the group repeated the above steps again to try to separate the ricotta more.
One large problem was that the whey took a long time to drain from the cheese cloth, so the group hung the cheese on the provided tripod and squeezed out the liquid. In the end the group had less than a 1/4c of Ricotta and it “was still very liquid and thin, and had a strong and unpleasant vinegar taste and smell”, the group didn’t even keep the Ricotta to the next day because it had such an unpleasant taste.
The measurements from the Ricotta process:
- Initial Whey weight: 3922 g
- Final amount of ricotta: About a ¼ cup
- Leftover whey: 3140 g
Note: some whey was lost to transfer, drip draining and evaporation.
After making the rennet cheese, Group C attempted to make Mysost, a common Norwegian product made from leftover whey that appears as a paste-like substance. After the rennet cheese process, the group had about three-quarters of a gallon of whey to work with so they acquired leftover whey from Group A in order to complete the gallon of whey needed for the mysost making. The group started this process at 2:37PM by pouring the whey into the cast iron. At 2:40PM, the whey was placed over the flame on the fire grate with the lid on to bring it to a boil.
Over the course of the next two hours the group monitored the whey as it boiled inconsistently, forcing a close observation of the fire and its intensity. This presented itself in a multitude of alterations made during the two hours, such as placing a lid on the cast iron in order to contain the heat, which would improve the boiling but result in it frothing over on multiple occasions. After roughly an hour, the whey in the cast iron had decreased in volume by at least half but there was no change in color.
At 3:55PM, the volume had reduced to ¼ of the original, which made it very difficult to maintain a constant boil for the whey. The group tried fanning the flames and adding more logs, which allowed a brief rolling boil at 4:16PM. At 4:18PM, after the mysost seemed slightly darker in color, the group added the cream while stirring vigorously, at 4:30PM the group began to see the whey finally thicken. Finally, at 4:45PM the whey had thickened to the point where it began to look like a paste and the color darkened to a caramel. The group then scraped the mysost out of the cast iron and into a measuring cup. The mysost was thick but still able to be poured. After immediately transferring the mysost to the measuring cup the group taste tested the product, determining it was saltier and sweeter than they had anticipated. Upon trying it the next morning, however, the mysost had settled into a salty taste that made it less pleasant.
Conclusion and Takeaways
The most exciting part of this lab was discovering the real life difficulties and fun parts of making cheese. One of the more annoying things about cheesemaking was all of the bugs. They were very attracted to our cheese, some landed in our cheeses and died there. Not only was it hard to keep flies out, there ended up being lots of ash and smoke which gave our cheeses weird tastes and made lots of us feel a bit unsanitary. The most difficult part, however, was keeping the fire and our cheese at constant temperatures. Lots of us wondered how cheesemakers could’ve kept the cheese at a constant temperature without a thermometer. The fire tending also seemed to be a full-time job. We had to decide if we needed to add more logs to get it hotter or attempt to maneuver our pot to keep it off of the hottest parts.
While we had some setbacks while making the cheese there were lots of fun parts. The best part was that all three groups were able to make the rennet curds and form them into lovely cheese blocks. We might not all agree if the curds tasted good, but they were definitely edible. The mozzarella group was also very successful, so it was fun to try out that cheese. Also lots of us were able to take home the cheese and share it with friends, or see what happened to it after a couple days.
Even though cheese making is a well documented field and lots of experimental archaeology has already been done on this topic, we enjoyed gaining knowledge and practice in this field. This lab deepened our understanding of how experiments of this variety work. We were able to collect data about the feasibility of different cheese making but also gain first hand experience on what cheesemaking would and wouldn’t have been like.
Group Data Reports
Group C: Madeline (recorder), Dane, Sally, Phoebe, Beck BASIC RENNET CHEESE Initial Measurements Milk weight (first bottle) 1968g (2888g with bottle) Milk weight (second bottle) 1967g (2887g with bottle) Total milk weight 3935g Milk temperature 13C (55F) Fire temperature 214C Timeline Time Temperature Actions/Observations 1:33-35 14C Addition of 1/4 cup vinegar in 2 cups of……
Regular cheese process measurements: Weight Measurements: Initial Weight of Milk: 3948g Whey weight: 2811g Curd weight: 1874g Temperatures of Liquid: Initial Milk Temp: 17 C Milk with vinegar temp: 17 C Liquid before rennet was added: 32 C Liquid at the first clean break test (15 min after rennet was added): 29 C Temp after……
Group A: Emmy Belloni, Hali’a Buchal, Jacob Isaacson, Sagal Ahmed Data Recorder: Sagal Ahmed Start Time: 1:20pm Endtime: 3:30pm Data Type I: Weight of milk Initial Weight of Milk (2888g bottle): 1969g Initial Weight of Milk (2852g bottle): 1951g Weight recorded to compare to weight of curds. Data Type II: Fire temperature Time Fire Temperature……