Cheesemaking is an amazing alchemy that transforms milk into a profusion of different textures and flavors. The entryway for me was ricotta, an easy and forgiving cheese to make with no fancy equipment or supplies needed. Mozzarella came next, also very do-able with supermarket ingredients and kitchen utensils. I was so pleased with the results of these first forays into cheesemaking that I decided to go all in and try making hard (as in consistency) cheeses like cheddar.
There is a certain amount of gear that you need in order to go to the next level. One of the main pieces of equipment necessary for making harder cheeses is a cheese press to squeeze the curds under a specific pressure for a set amount of time. I found cheese presses for sale online but they were expensive ($70-$275). I decided that making my own was the way to go. I wanted something that would be able to handle up to two pounds of curds and generate up to 50 lbs of pressure. I took my inspiration from a couple of similar press designs I found online and added my own ideas. After a little experimentation I ended up with a press that was simple to use and inexpensive to build using basic tools. Expect to spend between $10 to $25 depending on how much stuff you have at home already.
As with any set of instructions this will guide you to replicate what I made. Don't feel constrained by my ideas though, you should modify my design to meet your needs any way you see fit.
Check out my blog for other stuff I've been making including a cheese cave for ageing all this cheese I'm going to be making with my new press...
Step 1: Stuff You Will Need
1 piece of wood- 3/4" x 7 1/2" x 5 1/4"
2 pieces of wood- 3/4" x 7 1/2" x 1 3/8"
2 pieces of wood- 2" x 5" x 5"
2 pieces all-thread rod at least 13" tall (depends on the springs) x 3/8" dia
Asst'd 3/8" dia. hardware:
2 wingnuts, 4 nuts, 6 washers, 2 lock washers
2 springs w/ 50lb compression strength approx. 3 1/2" tall x 7/8"dia (more about this on step 4)
4 screw in feet
1 index card or piece of card stock
1 small wood screw
1 plastic pitcher
1 5" x 5" piece from a plastic cutting board
Some scrap wood pieces
Mineral oil (you can get this at drugstores, make sure it is unscented)
Saws (I used a table saw, jigsaw and a handsaw)
Drill and bits
Pencil and a pen
Possibly a tap for threading the holes for the feet (optional)
Bathroom scale or any scale that will read up 50 lbs.
Step 2: First the Frame
I used salvaged hardwood decking for the base and the two crossbars because I had it, its tough and it looks great. You can use anything you have available. Cut the 7 1/2" x 5 1/4" piece for the base and the two 7 1/2" x 1 3/8" pieces for the bars. Drill holes through all three boards 1/2" in from the ends and centered on the width. They will be 6 1/2" apart on their centers. Make the holes wide enough to allow the threaded rod to slide freely through them. Sand the wood pieces and rub in some mineral oil to finish them. Don't use any solvent based finishes. Anything that comes in contact with the cheese needs to be food grade. The mineral oil is non-toxic and will protect the wood from moisture. Use some leftover oil on your wooden cutting boards. It's probably been a while since they got oiled.
The press needs to be elevated to allow for good drainage when it is being used. I would use some sort of screw-on feet as opposed to something with an adhesive. The feet need to be tall enough to keep the nuts holding the rods on under the base from hitting the counter. Drill four holes in the corners of the bottom of the base and attach the feet. How you attach them will depend on what your hardware store offers for feet options. I had to cut the shafts shorter on the feet I got and tap the holes I drilled in the base in order to thread the feet on. I've seen others that just use a wood screw to attach them.
Assemble the rods on either side of the base. The hardware makes a sandwich starting from the bottom and working up of: nut, washer, base, washer, lock washer, nut. Tighten the two nuts towards each other. When you are done the rods should be firmly in place. Slide the bars up and down the rods to make sure they can travel freely. Adjust if necessary.
Step 3: Making the Mold
You can buy cheese molds in a variety of sizes and they're not even that expensive but what's the fun in that?!? I wanted to make my own. I knew it had to be made of something that was sturdy and non toxic. I was looking for a cylinder that had a diameter between 4"-5" and was at least 6" tall. After wandering the aisles at Walmart I came upon my solution. A plastic pitcher! The diameter of the one I found was about 4 1/2" at the top. The shape was perfect, it was thicker than most of the other plastic items in the store and I knew it would be food safe. At $2.77 the price was right too!
Take the pitcher and measure down 6" from the top. ( I cut mine at 5" and it's a little short) Mark a line around the circumference. Cut the pitcher at this line and remove the handle. I used a Japanese hand saw but use what you've got. Smooth the cut edge with sandpaper or you can just gently scrape it smooth with a piece of metal like the edge of a ruler.
Place the cylinder with what used to be the top of the pitcher on the counter. The cut edge will be a circle facing up towards you. Take a pencil and divide the circle into 16 sections. I do this by first by dividing it into quarters then dividing each quarter in half and finally each eighth in half. I just eyeballed it but you can measure if you want. Use a small square and draw vertical lines down the cylinder from each division mark so that you have 16 equidistant lines. Use a ruler and place horizontal cross marks on every other line. Space them an inch apart starting at the bottom and going up to the top. Then do the same thing on the lines you haven't marked yet but starting 1/2" from the bottom so that you get a staggered grid wrapped around the cylinder. You should end up with something like the picture below.
Take a piece of scrap wood and clamp it in a vice or to a counter so that you can slip the cylinder over the wood which will support it as you drill holes. Drill 5/16" holes through the wall of the cylinder at the cross marks. Pick off any sharp bits.
Step 4: Set the Scale
The springs that you use need to be strong enough that as you compress them they exert at least 50 lbs of pressure before they are fully compressed. Picking the right spring is a bit of a shot in the dark. You will probably have to go to a few stores (big box stores had nothing usefull) to find any springs at all and they will most likely not have any sort of rating. I picked up a couple springs for a dollar each at my local feed/hardware store. They (very scientifically) "seemed right" when I squeezed them.
You will need to test the springs and make a scale (like a ruler) for the press so that you know how much pressure is being exerted as you tighten the wing nuts. I took three scrap pieces of wood and made a mock-up similar to the press but wider to accommodate a scale (for weighing). A bathroom scale would work fine for this. You will need to take the rods off the press base to use for the testing mock-up.
This next part is complicated to explain. You will probably have to read it a couple of times and look at the pictures before it makes sense. Stick with it though it's not that hard. Start with the springs uncompressed and measure the distance between the bottom of the top bar and the top of the bottom bar. Write this measurement down on a piece of paper. You are going to make a table to use to calibrate your press. Tighten the wing nuts until the scale reads 5 lbs and write down the distance between the bars. Keep doing this in 5 lb increments writing down the result each time until you get to 50 lbs. Your springs should not become fully compressed before you get to 50 lbs. If they do, you need stiffer springs. I got lucky with the ones I picked.
Disassemble the mock-up and put the press back together. You can set the mold under the bottom bar to hold it up. Take the piece of card stock and cut a strip for your scale. Make it long enough that when you attach it to the top bar it hangs down just below the bottom bar when the springs are uncompressed. (see picture below) Attach it to the top bar with a small wood screw. Mark the top edge of the bottom bar on the scale. This is zero pounds of pressure. Measure down the distance you recorded from the bottom of the top bar that you have for 5 lbs and label it 5. Continue to mark lines on the scale corresponding to the measurements from the table you made.
Step 5: Finally the Followers
The last parts to make are the top plate and the followers which transfer the pressure generated by the springs to the cheese. Take the 5"x5" piece of plastic cutting board (we're using a cutting board because it's food safe and easy to cut) and trace a circle on it from the inside of the cut end of the mold. Cut out the circle just a little wide with a jigsaw, file or sand it to size and smooth the edges. This will be the piece that goes directly on the cheese curds. Next, take the two wooden 5" x 5" pieces and make circles a 1/2" smaller in diameter than the top plate. You want them to be smaller because if they get wet and the wood swells they could get stuck. I made one wood follower and two plastic ones but I think two wood ones would be better. These followers provide the height between the top plate and the bottom bar of the press. Having a few different pieces allows you to accommodate different amounts of cheese to be pressed. You could also skip making wooden followers altogether and improvise with cans of food.
Step 6: Crafting the Cheese
This project was a real chicken and egg situation. I needed the press to make the cheese but I didn't know exactly what making the cheese was going to be like since I didn't have a press. This step documents my first batch of cheese made with the press.
All cheesemaking follows the same basic series of steps. The differences in the resulting cheese depends on how you vary the parameters of any of the steps. i.e. how hot the curds are cooked, how long they are stirred etc...
I made queso fresco because it took the shortest amount of time to get a finished product. Many cheeses take months to age before you can even try them, this one is ready after pressing it overnight.
I started by making curds according to the recipe. When they were ready I put the press in the sink. I took a piece of plastic wrap and placed it over the base of the press. I put the mold cut side up on the plastic wrap. I lined the mold with cheesecloth and filled it with the curds. I ended up with almost 2 1/2 lbs of curds which filled my 5" mold right to the top.
I folded the cheesecloth over the top of the curds and placed the top plate on.
The wooden follower went on the top plate and I assembled the springs and bars onto the frame. I screwed down the wing nuts until the scale read 35 lbs and left it to sit overnight in a glass baking dish to catch any whey dripping out. I had to tighten it a couple of times as the curds compressed.
The next morning I opened the press, unmolded the cheese, took off the cheese cloth and there it was: a big block of cheese!
If you end up making this press let me know and post a picture in the comments. I'm interested in any variations/improvements that evolve.
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