Making Mozzarella: The Process of Not Being Perfect

How to embrace the unknown and learn through movement

Posted Apr 30, 2017

Even a small Jersey cow like our Maple can make a lot of milk in a day – more than a family with three children at home can drink. How much more depends on many variables, like what she is eating (grass, grain, or hay); when she last gave birth, and whether or not her calf has weaned.

In those times when milk accumulates in our refrigerator, I make cheese. When that excess is not enough to make a hard cheese (four-five gallons for a nice cheddar), I make soft cheeses, one of which is mozzarella – a soft, stretchy, mild cheese that is easy to freeze.

Now is a mozzarella-making time. Maple, feasting on sweet spring grass, is giving us more than three gallons of milk a day. Her calf, Cedar, only two months old, drinks a gallon and a half of that; we take the rest. Thus, on average, I am making mozzarella once or twice a week.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that I have made mozzarella close to a hundred times, the process remains a mystery to me. I have no idea how liquid milk becomes a lumpy mass that, when heated, can stretch into six foot strands so thin you can see through them.

Sometimes the process works. Sometimes it does not. I know I could do more research into the chemistry of the transformation and the physical properties of milk; I could buy gadgets to help me measure the acid content of the curds. Yet, I resist.

I have come to the conclusion that it is actually OK for me to embark upon this process of making mozzarella again and again without knowing for sure whether or not the cheese will come out perfectly.

Why am I happy embracing this unknown? In part, because of what I have learned through the process itself.

1. There is no one mozzarella.

I learned the basics of mozzarella from a book (Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll). The process seems simple enough. Heat the milk. Add citric acid. Add rennet. Let white curd form within clear whey. Cut the curd. Scoop the curd out of the whey. Add salt. Heat the whey. Put the curds back into the heated whey. Press until the curds start to congeal. Then stretch! And stretch! Round into a ball. Chill.

Nevertheless, regardless of how hard I try, the cheese never comes out the same way twice. Sometimes I hit that perfect pitch in which a ball of congealed curds spins itself into long silky strands. Other times the curd congeals and turns smooth, but won’t stretch without breaking. Then there are those times when the curds harden into a bumpy mass that I call “moon cheese” due to its resemblance to earth’s lunar twin. 

In my early cheese-making years, I was disappointed if I did not succeed in achieving the ultimate stretch every time. But then I realized: each type of mozzarella has its uses. The softest mozzarella melts into a delightful bubbly puddle, but when you try to grate it, balls into annoying clumps. A harder mozzarella grates with ease, enabling all kinds of cooking options. Moon cheese, in turn, while somewhat chewy, grates into perfect, even shreds which hold their shape even when broiled.

Simply put, there are an infinite number of mozzarellas, located along a spectrum of possibilities. No one recipe and no one formula, can represent all of what is possible. Any one recipe is an average; it reduces these varieties to a common denominator. I am finding them all.

2. A little mystery makes the process far more interesting.

Not knowing which mozzarella will appear makes the process more interesting.

Yes, I could take a scientific approach and create a chart that would measure every degree of temperature and every increment of time and every quantity of ingredient that contributes to the differences. I could attempt in my cheese making process to replicate the same exact steps over and again. If I wanted to become a cheese expert or sell a uniform product, I might. But I don't. I just want to make our extra milk into edible food.

The fact is I am never patient enough to stand next to the stove waiting for the cheese to get to the exact “right” temperature at the “right” time. I am always doing other tasks simultaneously. As a result, it is inevitable that at some point in the process, something goes awry: the milk gets too hot, or the curd doesn’t form, or the curds stay too long in the whey, or the whey boils over and turns my stove top into a boiling hot springs.

Even so, most of the time a cheese emerges, and most of the time it is delicious. Each cheese that emerges, then, expresses the tangle of conditions and commitments that enabled it to take the particular shape that it did. I celebrate those differences!

Letting the process flex with the times, not knowing how the cheese is going to come out, helps kindle a sense of excitement and anticipation. Will it stretch or not? Will I get that glorious feeling or settle for a solid rock?

3. I learn through movement.

By not becoming a cheese expert, nor following one recipe armed with instruments to measure every stage of the process, I not only stay in touch with the many mozzarellas, I also free myself to learn through movement.

I pay more attention through my senses – to how the milk looks, smells, tastes, and feels in my hand. I attune myself to notice when the curd is firm enough, ready to separate and reheat.

At any moment of the process, I am aware that tiny increments of change in the temperature, time, and quantities of the ingredients will make a difference. I remember: any moment of any process there are options, and there are discoveries to be made. What is it possible to create?

I also pay more attention to the choreography of the process. In making mozzarella, I am making movement patterns -- stirring, cutting, sifting, spooning, squeezing – with various instruments, including the most versatile of all, a human hand. These movements open me to a sensory knowledge of the milk, the curds, the whey, and over time, the cheese gets better.

I learn to feel my way to a good temperature, to a workable consistency, and to a resilient stretch. I learn to make adjustments in time and temperature that create more workable options. I gather information that only comes with the experience of making mozzarella again and again.

4. I exercise faith.

When the mozzarella stretches to the heavens, I admit, the moment feels like a miracle. Just looking at a pot of milk, I never would have known that the possibility for such a transformation was possible. It is hard to believe, even when it happens right in front of my eyes.

Yet, in that moment, it is also clear: belief is not enough. It is not enough for me to believe that the milk will convert into stretchy goodness. I have to make the movements that invite a reality that seems unimaginable to manifest. I have to embrace the unknown. I have to feel my way through. 

When I believe, and when I act as if that belief were true, it can be.

Same with life.

By allowing my mozzarella making to ebb and flow in the moment, and by choosing to learn through movement, I know: the cheese will not always be perfect. I will not always experience the burst of happiness that happens with the ultimate stretch.

However, I also like what I am getting instead: the knowledge that there is no one perfect outcome to any process, and a sensory education to a multitude of mozzarellas. I get a constant reminder to believe in miracles and to do the work of making those miracles real.

And once I am done writing this blog, my kids will get pizza for dinner.