Goat cheese-making: the Merry Lea whey

Goat enthusiasts and cheese-curious folks gathered for the first ever goat cheese-making class at Merry Lea on Saturday morning. 

Ruth Mischler, assistant professor of SEED education, offered a milking demonstration and taught two goat cheese recipes to a class of 13. Mischler has been working with goats for 14 years, and says she is still humbled by the process of cheesemaking. 

“I love seeing the transformation from sunlight to grass to milk to cheese,” she said.

We sat in a circle in the kitchen for introductions. Some had driven from more than an hour away, while others were neighbors to Merry Lea. Most came to build on their cheese-making skills, while others, like me, were beginners. 

One eager learner said she dreams of owning a goat dairy. 

“I’m here to start my empire,” she said, laughing. 

After introductions, we walked to the barn to meet the goats. Mischler explained that goats are sensitive to stress and anxiety in humans. We paused to relax with a few deep breaths before before going in. 

Merry Lea is home to twin milk goats, Ruby and Diamond. They’re soft and curious, and their ears stick out sideways like the wings of an airplane. 

Before milking, Mischler set her workspace in order. She washed her hands, flipped a five gallon bucket for a stool, and placed a filter over an empty half-gallon milk jar. Diamond hopped up next to the stanchion, a bar that holds the goats head in place to facilitate milking, and cocked her head, eager to begin.

Mischler placed a stainless steel pail under the udder and set to work. She milked with practiced ease, making a steady rhythm with the milk and the bottom of the pail. After Diamond had given all she had, Mischler poured the milk into the jar and gave Diamond’s udder a spritz of anti-bacterial spray.

After she finished, Mischler talked about the importance of sanitation when working with raw milk and cheese.

Because it is never pasteurized, raw milk is only as clean as the tools you use, she said. 

“A lot of farming is just about cleaning up,” she said as she loaded the dishwasher with milking equipment. “That’s part of keeping raw milk safe for drinking.”

With the milk in the kitchen, we were ready to make cheese. Mischler began with a cheese called chevre. Chevre is what people picture when they think of goat cheese, she said. 

The recipe is simple. She started by warming a half gallon of raw goat milk to 72 degrees. Next, she added the bacterial culture. 

Cheese cultures give different cheeses their unique flavors. Mischler buys hers online at www.getculture.com, and they can last for more than 10 years in a freezer.  

Next, Mischler added a fraction of a drop of rennet. Rennet has enzymes that help separate the curds from the whey. Curds become cheese. The yellow-green liquid that remains is called whey. 

Whey can be used in baked goods, soup stock or protein smoothies. Mischler usually feeds it to the pigs, which makes them very happy, she said.

Mischler covered the pot of milk and put it in an unused oven to curdle for 18-24 hours at 72 degrees. After 24 hours, Mischler will collect the curds with cheesecloth and hang them to drain for six to eight hours. The finished chevre spreads like cream cheese, and can be blended to use like sour cream. 

Mischler brought out freshly finished chevre from the fridge and put it in a bowl on the kitchen table. The cheese was pure white and spongy soft. She took out bags of fresh herbs from the Merry Lea garden — chives, basil, parsley, oregano — which we chopped to make custom herb and cheese mixes. 

After working with the chevre, we were ready to try cheesemaking ourselves. The cheese of choice was goat milk ricotta. Soft cheeses are easier to make than hard cheeses, Mischler said, because they require less time and climate control. 

Ricotta is as simple as it gets. In groups, we heated two quarts of milk to 200 degrees and added three tablespoons of white vinegar (1/4 cup of lemon juice also works). After we took the pot off the heat and let it rest for 15 minutes, we poured the hot milk into a colander lined with cheesecloth to let the whey through and keep the curds. 

Next, we tied together the ends of the cheesecloth and hung the bundle of curds to drain for about an hour. While the cheese dripped, the now-cheesemakers spoke about what drew them to the class. 

“It can’t hurt to learn,” said Gloria Gusching, who heard about the class at another Merry Lea event. Gusching owns a house on Wolf Lake and said she likes coming to Merry Lea for recreation. 

Merry Lea is “absolutely gorgeous,” she said. “You go out there on the lake and take a breath… Oh my gosh all your worries go away.”

Amber Edmonson has 14 goats on her hobby farm in Akron, Ohio. She and her husband are foster parents, and the goats help the kids relax when they come home for the first time, she said. 

Edmonson thinks cheese could be another way to connect the goats with her family. She’s tried milking her goats before, but she said her family wouldn’t drink the milk because it tastes different. 

“Maybe they will eat the cheese,” she said, hopefully. 

After an hour, the ricotta was ready. We removed it from its cheesecloth hammock and sprinkled salt to taste (¼-½ tsp). The cheese finished soft and warm. We spooned it into 8-ounce jars to take home as a tasty souvenir. 

Next up at Merry Lea is the Reflection on Nature Women’s Walk on Saturday, Sept. 28. After that is a family-friendly night walk in the Enchanted Forest in late October.

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Written by Gabe Miller

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