Sulguni: A Gorgeous Georgian Cheese
About a year ago, my good friend Laura spent three months in Georgia (the Republic, not the state) as a fellow with the Kiva micro-loan organization. While she was there she lived with a Georgian family and immersed herself in Georgian life, including the food… which, from what I gather, was a little weird and a little sparse by American standards, but she came away with a love for a few native treats. Recently, she held a Georgian-themed dinner party for a few friends and Kiva colleagues. We feasted on Kinhkahali (meat and broth dumplings), Churtchela (walnuts coated in grape juice gum), and Khachapuri (cheese and egg-filled pastries). This last delicacy uses a Georgian cheese called Sulguni. Laura’s Khachapuri had the real thing inside, but you know I couldn’t resist a chance to try to make some of my own!
Coincidentally, the week prior to the dinner party I came across a recipe for Sulguni by a cheese maker in New Zealand. I had looked around online previously and found plenty of recipes using Sulguni, but nothing on how to make the cheese itself. It’s something of a mystery cheese and I wasn’t even sure what it was supposed to be like. A “basket” cheese like Panir? A brined cheese like Feta? But in actuality, it’s more like Mozzarella – a pasta filata or stretched curd cheese – which was a revelation when I read the recipe. Unfortunately, as it was written by a professional cheese maker, the recipe called for 13 gallons of milk and some industrial equipment. So, I rewrote and adapted the recipe for a 1-gallon quantity that’s more feasible for the home kitchen. It worked out amazingly well and I was really pleased with it. Pasta filata cheeses are something I’ve struggled with in the past (you can read about my Mozzarella misadventures here, here, and here), but this one worked like a charm, which is even more amazing knowing that I ad-libbed the recipe. Because the adapted recipe is basically mine-all-mine, and there are about zero versions to be found elsewhere, I’m going to share how I did it, so you can make Sulguni at home too.
Sulguni (aka Georgian Pickle Cheese)
1) Heat 1 gallon of whole, cream line milk to 100F then add a quarter-cup of buttermilk as the starter (make sure it is fresh and has live active cultures).
2) Wait 1 hour for the buttermilk cultures to inoculate the milk.
3) Check that the temperature of the milk is still 100F, then add rennet. (Follow the directions on your bottle or package regarding the amount and dilution ratio. I used double-strength vegetable rennet and diluted 1/16 teaspoon in 2 teaspoons of cool, unchlorinated water.) Dribble the rennet over the milk and stir well for about a minute.
4) Allow to sit for 45 minutes, then check for a clean break. (Allow to sit longer if a clean break isn’t achieved.)
5) Cut the curds with an egg beater or wire whisk into about 1/10 inch pieces. They should be tiny, somewhere between the size of rice and orange juice pulp.
6) Let the curds rest for about 20 minutes, then pour into a colander lined with cheese cloth to drain.
7) Allow the curds to acidify overnight. I did this by wrapping the cheese cloth over the curds, setting the colander back into the pot with the lid on top, then wrapping the whole thing in a blanket and placing it in a toasty warm place, like to top of a refrigerator.
8) In the morning, the curd will have matted into a solid block and lost a lot of volume as the whey drained out.
9) Cut the block of matted curds into thin strips, a few inches wide and about a half-inch to an inch thick.
10) Heat clean water to approx 149-167F and fill a large mixing bowl. The bowl should be large enough to hold all your curds and allow you to get your hands in there to work them. Sprinkle salt in the water and on the curds and feel free to add more salt as you work the curd. (Salt = authenticity, and is why Sulguni is also known as Pickle Cheese.)
11) Stretch or “spin” the curds. (The water is very hot, so I recommend wearing some rubber gloves. Although it’s possible to go bare-handed, it hurts and you will have to interrupt your cheese making to do the owwie dance around the kitchen.) Allow the strips of curd to sit in the hot water for 40-60 seconds. Then take a strip and begin to pinch it between your finger tips. You will notice that it’s a bit melty and stretchy. As you work each strip, pinching and pulling from one end to the other, allow it to slip back into the hot water and work the next strip.
After you’ve worked through a few strips, pick up multiple strips and begin pinching them together. Do this until you’ve got a number of strips all pinched and kneaded together, then double the long mass over and continue to pinch it out. Make sure to dip it in and out of the hot water regularly, so it stays hot and malleable.
Eventually, you should have all the strips kneaded together and be able to double the “rope” of cheese over on itself a few times during the kneading process.
When you think it’s got a good consistency, double the rope up a few times and begin to shape it into a ball, tucking and pinching the ends under into the ball.
12) Dip ball of cheese into cold water for a few minutes to cool, but don’t leave it there.
13) Have your press set up and the mold lined with cheese cloth. Put the ball of cheese into the press and apply light pressure, about 5-10 lbs. Flip and redress the cheeses a couple of times and then allow it to sit overnight.
In the morning, you should have a nice little 1-pound wheel of Sulguni. Although it’s a pasta filata cheese, like Mozzarella, it’s also been pressed, so it should have some Mozzarella-like qualities, but also be drier… and saltier. Having never actually tasted the real thing myself, I let Laura be the judge of my Sulguni’s authenticity. She said it was just about the right consistency, but wasn’t salty enough. I think the key here is that Georgians don’t skimp on the salt, so don’t be shy with the shaker!