Before you can answer the question "how is Swiss cheese made", you must first have a good definition of Swiss cheese.
What is Swiss Cheese?
Swiss cheese is a generic term in North America, Australia and New Zealand that describes cheese with large holes in it. In reality, Swiss cheese can be one of a variety of holey cheeses including Emmental (referred to Swiss cheese in the United States), Jarlsburg and Gruyere cheeses.
All cheeses that are classified as Swiss cheese have a nutty flavor and large holes. It is a little known fact that the larger the holes in the cheese, the more pronounced the flavor.
The History of Swiss Cheese
It is interesting to take a quick look at the history of the cheese. Swiss cheese making traditions go back hundreds of years. Rennet, which is used to make hard cheese, first appeared in Switzerland in the 15th century. The storability of cheese with rennent made it something that travelers could carry with them. Because of this, Swiss cheese became a trading commodity that was being sold all over Europe by the 18th century. Today, genuine Swiss cheese is exported world-wide.
Cheese Making Starts at the Source
Most important to makers of genuine Swiss cheese is the care of the cattle that provide the milk for the cheese. Swiss law actually requires cows go out and seek their own food at least 20 days of each month instead of being fed silage. The cows also graze in the summer on the rich herbs and grasses of the Alps all summer. There are some 120 herbs that the cows graze on during summer months, which gives their milk an herbal quality. The milk from summer grazing is referred to as Alpine cheese, and has a more yellow color than cheese made from winter milk.
How Is Swiss Cheese Made
How is Swiss cheese made? There are two methods.
The Old Fashioned Way
The process of making Swiss cheese takes about 2-1/2 hours before aging the cheese in cellars.
- Rennet and lactic acid are added to milk and then set out for about a half an hour. In this time, the enzymes begin to work, creating a substance with the texture of custard.
- The cheese is stirred constantly in a large pot called a "harping pot" over heat in order to separate the water from the cheese. This takes about 30 minutes and results in cheese curds the size of peas.
- The curds are placed in wooden racks and covered. The cheesemaker lets the curds rest for 30 minutes.
- After 30 minutes, the cheese is marked with the date and batch number, and then pressed for 24 hours.
- After pressing, the cheese is cellared for a specified amount of time based on the type of cheese.
Modern Cheese Making
- Milk is checked for freshness and fat levels. It is then strained.
- The strained milk goes in a vat that has been preheated to 90 degrees. The milk is stirred constantly.
- When the milk reaches the temperature of the vat (90 degrees), rennet and lactic acid are added and stirring is ceased.
- For the next 40 minutes, the rennet and lactic acid curdle the milk until it reaches a custardy texture.
- A piece of equipment called a cheese harp cuts the mixture into small pieces by stirring the mixture. This process separates the water (whey) from the curds.
- Next, the curds are heated to about 125 degrees to assist in the removal of even more whey.
- The remaining curds are placed in wheel-shaped cheese forms and topped with a lightweight paper.
- A hydraulic press is used to press the cheese for about 20 hours. The pressure of the press can reach two tons.
- The forms are placed in large vats of brine, called a brine bath, for 48 hours. During this process, the cheese absorbs salt and releases water. This is also where the cheese rind forms.
- The cheese is removed from the brine and placed in a cellar that is kept at about 55 degrees for between five and 20 days.
- Next, the cheese is moved to a warmer cellar called a fermentation cellar. The temperature in this cellar is between 66 and 75 degrees. Here, the cheese is sweated and turned frequently.
- Now the cheese is cleaned and moved into a cooler cellar kept at about 53 degrees, where it is matured for three months.
What About the Holes?
The holes in Swiss cheese are formed by carbon dioxide pockets that result from the bacteria used to make the cheese. Hole size is serious business in Swiss cheese making. Hole size must meet certain size requirements and there must be a certain number of holes in a preset area.Whether you eat Swiss cheese made the old fashioned way or using the modern methods, true Swiss cheese is delicious when served with fruit, crackers, wine, or a simple loaf of bread.