Cheese making class

George McLaughlin, instructor for a cheese-making class offered by Northeastern State University Continuing Education, strains some kefir - a bacterial or yeast fermented milk.

TAHLEQUAH — When it comes to keeping fresh foods in the refrigerator or freezer, fruits and vegetables may come to mind before cheese.

And what is "fresh cheese," anyway?

A dozen people attended a cheese-making course, taught by George McLaughlin, on Saturday through Northeastern State University Continuing Education. The class, with maximum enrollment, convened for a four-hour session in the CE conference room.

Several types of cheese were discussed, including chevre, cheddar, garlic-slicing cheese and quark.

"The only people I've met who know about quark are of German descent, whose grandparents came over from Germany," McLaughlin said. "It lasts a couple of generations and that is as far as it goes. They forget."

Quark is often used in "genuine" cheesecake and is one of the easier cheeses to make, using milk, buttermilk or kefir left to culture in a warm place for a few hours or days, depending on the temperature.

Once the curds separate, a cheesecloth is used to remove the whey, or liquid, which can take a few hours or overnight, and might require some whey to be run back through the cloth. The remainder in the cloth is quark.

Soft cheeses are usually simpler to make and can be packaged for freezer storage. Texture might be affected over a year or two, but the taste is maintained.

McLaughlin had several cheese-making instruments on the conference table, including a cheese press, and also projected a slideshow to discuss the history of cheese.

Some of the animal milks used for cheese include goat, sheep, water buffalo, cow, horse, yak, reindeer, camel - just about any ruminant that could be domesticated.

"The first cheese was made by herders, and it seemed to arise in different places at about the same time," McLaughlin said. "When you have dairy animals, you are going to have a surplus of milk, and you have to do something with it."

In times and places where famine was a danger, people did not throw out excess food but found ways to preserve it - or make it palatable if it got a little funky. Invented before recorded history, perhaps by accident, cheese allowed the nutritional potential of harvested milk to be kept for longer periods.

"I like that [McLaughlin] gave us recipes, so if I forget anything, I will have those," said Marinda Houck, an NSU senior. "This is all really new to me, but it is educational and I'm glad I took the class."

Gary A. Goodwin, plumbing foreman for NSU, is a colleague of McLaughlin's at the university's physical plant.

"I didn't realize George was the one teaching this course," Goodwin said. "I've never made cheese before, but I like cheese. I'm getting a little older, have a little land now, and would like to expand my horizons. I thought making cheese might be a hard step to take, but I have been impressed by the simplicity of it."

McLaughlin said he tried to pack enough instruction into the four hours to help attendees gain an immediate competence in making cheese.

"This can be a lifetime hobby where you never get to the bottom of everything you can do," McLaughlin said. "I might look at a recipe of a cheese I like, and think, 'I don't really have time to figure that one out.' But if I do figure it out, after two or three times, I integrate it into my life routine."

Having also instructed a beekeeping course, McLaughlin said homesteading skills can be helpful in an array of situations.

"All my life, I've been interested in basically being able to do stuff myself," he said. "I especially want to produce food myself. When we moved to Oklahoma in 2005, one of the first things I wanted to do was get dairy goats and make cheese. With the climate in Oklahoma, dairy is more practical than a lot of other forms of agriculture."

During the course, McLaughlin explained that making harder cheeses like cheddar took longer, but were still practical because the preparer didn't have to stand over the product for 60 days.

One question asked was, "How do you know when bleu cheese has gone bad?"

McLaughlin replied, "It doesn't go bad, it just gets too strong."

Sean Rowley writes for the Tahlequah Daily Press.

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