On a blustery April afternoon, the ARCN 222 class trekked down to Mai Fete Island to engage in our very first experimental archaeology lab: making cheese. We were armed with knowledge from across centuries of cheesemaking, from early 20th century ethnographies on Greek and Albanian shepherds to food preservation techniques in ancient Egypt to a modern cookbook on the art of cheesemaking by the eccentric, mustachioed David Asher.
The primary goal of this lab was to experience the process of cheesemaking itself: the long waiting times, the feeling of the curd breaking under a finger or knife, and that unique feeling of pride and protectiveness one gets from making something from scratch—especially something as important to the human experience as food. Our secondary goal was to become comfortable with the experimental methods, outdoor lab environment, and the fire maintenance techniques that we will be using for the duration of this course.
We also had questions we wanted to answer: what was the relationship of milk to curds to whey in terms of weight and volume—in other words, what was the yield of cheese to milk? What factors, such as the temperature of the milk or the type of fire pit used, affect that yield? Is whey a usable byproduct of the cheesemaking process? For shepherds throughout history, finding the answers to these questions could mean the difference between survival and starvation. Cheese is the primary source of income for Greek and Albanian shepherds, for example, and it is therefore critical for them to understand how to maximize their production and storage capabilities.
While we were attentive to the processes of the lab itself (described below) and absolutely invested in our final product, the atmosphere was nonetheless cheerful. Though we may not have been able to experience the gravity that cheese holds for shepherds, the lab gave us an appreciation for the social aspect of cheesemaking that we might never have gained by reading sources alone. After all, isn’t that what experiential history and experimental archaeology is all about?
At the Mai Fete Island lab site, 6 groups (A, B, C, D, E, F) each gathered necessary supplies and oriented themselves to the 3 fire stations. Groups A and B were at an on-ground fire pit station, while the remaining groups (C, D and E, F) worked at above group fire pits. A, C, and E simultaneously started the lab while B, D, and F observed the process.
Each group followed a series of processes described in the table below with time information counting from zero. First, milk was weighed and added to the pot. A vinegar and water solution was slowly added to this mixture while stirring before placing it over the fire. Using an attached thermometer, lab groups were able to monitor the temperature until it reached the 90 degree mark. For some lab groups (specifically group B), monitoring temperature ended up being a tricky process because the mixture was heated unevenly within the pot. With only one measuring device and difficulties in monitoring the fire pits, several groups had fluctuations in temperature that ranged to ten degrees above the desired 90 degrees.
Once the milk mixture was removed from the fire, groups then added a dissolved rennet tablet while stirring. For some mixes, additional periods of placement on the fire were necessary to maintain the ideal 90 degree temperature for this waiting period of 15 to 20 minutes.
At this stage, each group attempted the all-important “clean break” by inserting a finger at a 45 degree angle and pulling up to break the surface of the curd. Each of the 6 groups were able to successfully complete this step.
Next, using a knife each group cut small lengthwise and widthwise strips in the pot to create curds when stirred. Another waiting period of 15 to 20 minutes was required at this step, while maintaining temperature.
Using the knife, cut the curds in 2cm strips lengthwise and then widthwise. If feeling adventurous, make a third cut parallel to the top of the curds that makes the curds half as thick.ARCN 222 lab manual
At the straining process, each group used a cheesecloth lined colander with a bucket placed underneath. We carefully poured the whey and curd mixture to separate the two products.
Strain the curds into the cheesecloth-lined colander OVER a container to catch all the whey.ARCN 222 lab manual
Whey was then poured into the glass milk containers, providing a useful visual representation of roughly how much liquid product had resulted from the process. Additionally, groups weighed each of their resulting whey and curd components. At this stage, group D encountered difficulty in fully straining and separating their curds. Their curds, despite initially breaking into separated chunks, reverted back into a soupy mixture that got stuck in the cheesecloth filter. All groups but D were able to obtain curds which could then be applied to the next step of mozzarella and whey cheese production.
|Start and end time||(?–?)||(3:09–4:09)||(?–?)||(2:57–?)||(2:05–2:48)||(2:54–3:40)|
|Vinegar added to milk||X||0||X||0||X||X|
|Pot put on fire||0||1||0||3||0||0|
|Rennet added to milk||15||13||8||9||6||10-11|
|Clean break achieved||30||36||28||29||22||28|
As you can see from the chart, this process was in no way uniform. During the waiting period after adding the rennet group F experienced a drop in milk temperature
(11 minutes after adding the rennet) The temperature dropped to 87 degrees so we placed the pot back on the fire. This moved bumped around our mixture, but the edges indicated a solidifying curdle.Group F lab report
|Group A||Group B||Group C||Group |
|Group E||Group |
|Weight of milk (kg)||3.864||3.877||3.76||3.86||3.895||3.868||3.854|
|Weight of curds (kg)||1.328||1.710||0.75||*Unstrained curds/whey mixture disposed of before weighing||0.928||1.630||1.269|
|Weight of whey (kg)||2.825||2.597||3.4||2.54||3.255||4.578||3.199|
|Volume of whey (gal)||~0.875||~0.75||~0.75||*Not measured||~0.75||*Not measured||0.781|
Again, the experiences of groups varied wildly. After curds formed, group D had issues straining their whey from the curds:
Sieve appears clogged by curds, whey not straining throughGroup D Lab report
and as a result “abandoned” the process before accurate measurements could be taken.
After the groups strained their curds, the class divided in half to work on other projects. Half boiled water to try and stretch the curds into mozzarella and half attempted to make a second batch of cheese with the whey by-products. Important to note is the fact that while we use the term byproduct here, we do not mean that the excess whey is a waste product. Though it is technically “waste” in the context of the separation of milk into curd and whey and in the economics of cheesemaking more broadly, it is a necessary ingredient in subsequent processes and has many uses outside of cheesemaking itself, challenging the idea of “waste products” in this and other areas of production.
The whey cheese group attempted to compare a batch of cheese made with only whey to one made with 25% curds by weight. However, due to time constraints at the end of the lab, the cheese produced by the only whey (0% curd) batch likely did not receive the attention and time it required. As a result it produced “negligible cheese…you had to get that cheese by literally scraping the cheesecloth” according to Group B.
The data for the 25% curd whey cheese was more conclusive.
To make the whey cheese, we combined the curd and whey from Part I in our pot and placed it over the fire. We then waited for the mixture to come to a boil and added vinegar. After five minutes, we took the pot off of the fire and strained the whey cheese through a colander.Group E Lab Report
As with the cheese curd making process, the time (in minutes) from zero for each of the steps has been recorded below:
|Pot placed on fire||0|
The results of this experiment were as follows:
|3.775 kilograms of whey||2.825 kilograms of whey (-.950 kg)|
|.231 kilograms of curds||.263 kilograms of curds (+.032 kg)|
|.063 kilograms of vinegar|
The whey cheese appeared pretty similar to our cheese curds from Part I and it was difficult to tell a difference, which caused us to wonder if we failed to process the whey cheese. If we did, we believe that this failure was because our mixture did not reach a high enough temperature to properly boil; the placement of the pot lid may have tricked us into thinking it was boiling due to the release of pressure. However, the curds did look slightly softer after Part II.Group E Lab Report
The other half of the class tried to form the cheese curds into mozzarella. After bringing a pot of weather to 150 degrees Fahrenheit, a crowd of students formed around the pot and dropped in balls of curd, planning to heat them to the point where they could be stretched by hand: the traditional texture of mozzarella. After attempting for around forty minutes the recorders had such positive insights as:
Our attempt to make mozzarella out of the curds was unsuccessful, curds never became stretchy enough, even after far longer than 5 minutes in the 150˚FGroup A Lab Report
None of the mozzarella balls that were put into the pot ever made a successful stretchGroup F Lab Report
The curds were falling apart a little bit in the water, breaking into pieces that almost looked like styrofoamGroup B Lab report
Therefore, while interesting, the mozzarella experiment yielded little data other than confirming the difficulty of heating water over an open flame and the advertised pain from touching the hot water.
All six lab groups were able to successfully form curd and whey by heating milk and adding vinegar and rennet. Five groups were successful in removing the curds to create fresh curds (cheese) and whey. These two products were then used by the class to make whey cheese and attempt to make mozzarella cheese. Overall, we consider the lab to be a success and a valuable experience for us in the world of experimental archaeology and experiential history.
Group Data Reports
Important Measurements: Milk Weight: 3.864kg Volume: 1 Gallon Curds Weight: 1.328kg (This includes a small amount of whey still mixed in) Whey Weight: 2.825kg Volume: ~7/8 Gallon (No exact markings on containers) Other Observations: We waited about 10-15 minutes initially for the fire to burn down Throughout, we kept the fire burning on the side,…
Group D: Astrid Walter, Brendan Glenn, Lucy Neuman, Wendy Erickson Starting time: 2:57 PM Starting values: 3.86kg milk 1/4 cup vinegar, 2 cups water 1 tab rennet, 1/4 cup water Time 0: Milk added to cast-iron pot, mixed slowly with vinegar-water mixture, stirred. Strong wind 3 minutes: Fuel log added to fire (mixed hardwood burning…
Group B: Trina, Sam, Andrew, and Raine (recorder) Thursday, April 8th, 2021 on Mai Fete Island Weather: 63°F, windy, partly cloudy Used the open fire throughout Initial Measurements Pot Temperature 79°F (important to note because we went second, so the pot had been heated already) Milk Temperature 69.1°F Milk Volume 1 Gallon Milk Weight 3.877…