Making cheese at home is a wonderful experience. Right before your eyes you get to see the magic. Milk converts into curds and whey. After draining (separating) the curds from the whey, cheese begins to form. With the right ingredients, time, and a few basic tools, you too can make milk at home.
But before you heat up that milk, do you know how you are going to separate the curds from the whey? Most colanders and metal strainers have holes that are too large and allow some of the curds to slip through. The end result is that you end up with less cheese than you could have. The secret is cloth, but depending on the type of cheese you are making, do you know the difference between butter muslin or cheesecloth and when it is appropriate to use one and not the other?
Butter muslin is also a cotton cloth and it has a much finer weave (more threads per square inch compared to standard cheesecloth). Its main purpose is to catch the curds and allow the whey to drain through. Specifically, it is used for draining curds of soft cheeses. Soft cheeses typically have a high moisture content, are usually of a spreadable consistency, and are meant to be eaten fresh rather than aged. Examples of soft cheese include: Ricotta, Fromage Blanc, Marscapone, Cream Cheese, Paneer, Queso Blanco, and Cottage Cheese.
Cheesecloth as the name implies, is used in cheesemaking. This cotton fabric has a looser weave than butter muslin. This material is used to line cheese molds for hard cheeses. By lining cheese molds, cheesecloth helps wick whey to the drainage holes of the mold. Hard cheeses typically have a lower moisture content, a much firmer texture that results in serving these cheeses sliced, grated, or in shavings, and they are aged so the flavor profile becomes more complex. Examples of hard cheeses include: Cheddar, Gouda, Colby, Swiss, and Parmesan. Cheesecloth may also be used to cover air-drying cheeses (part of the aging process) otherwise known as bandaging developing hard cheeses. The cloth is used to to help protect the cheese from unwanted mold and bacteria. This is accomplished by rubbing a fat such as lard or butter over the cheese and then the cheesecloth is applied over it.
When it comes to purchasing cheesecloth, please be aware that cheesecloth sold in fabric shops tends to have a very loose weave and is not suitable for cheesemaking. This fabric will simply allow too many curds to pass through during the draining process. Instead, purchase cheesecloth labeled specifically for cheesemaking.
So friends, warm up that gallon of milk. It is time to make cheese and use the correct material. Butter muslin and cheesecloth can both have a place in your cheesemaking arsenal.