The process of cheese making has changed little in the centuries since mankind first discovered the alchemy of changing milk into cheese. Although modern machinery makes commercial cheese production easier, artisan cheeses maintain the tradition of hand-forming delicious and wonderful cheese such as Maytag Blue Cheese and brie.
The Art, Science and Process of Cheese Making
Before the discovery of the techniques of cheese making, people had to drink milk fresh or drink cultured milk products. Cheese allowed humans to store fresh milk when it flowed abundantly and enjoy another source of protein and nutrients.
Cheese Begins with Quality Milk
The art, science and process of cheese making begins with high quality, fresh milk. Cheese may be made from the milk of many creatures: cow, goat, sheep, horse, buffalo and yak all produce milk suitable for cheese making. Most Americans are familiar with cow's milk cheeses, but goat cheese (feta), sheep milk cheese (Parmesan) and buffalo milk cheese (good quality Mozzarella) are all fairly easy to find. You're on your own if you have a hankering for yak cheese.
Steps to Making Cheese
Whether hand-created or machine made, the steps to making cheese are as follows.
- Milk is heated to kill off unfriendly bacteria.
- Starter culture is added to the warm or hot milk. The starter culture contains enzymes, typically rennet, that curdles the milk to begin the cheese making process. The starter culture also contains bacteria that gives each unique cheese its flavor, from tangy blue cheese to extra sharp cheddar.
- If dyes are added, they're added at this step. Many cheese such as yellow American Cheese contain added dyes, either natural or chemical, to give them an appealing color for consumers.
- After about a day, the milk has curdled to the point where it forms solids. These solids are called curds. The liquid leftover is called whey.
- The cheese maker stirs or cuts the whey so that all the liquid is released. He drains off the liquid, leaving the solids behind. Some industries use the liquid for food manufacturing, so in commercial cheese production the whey is often set aside to be sold and used later.
- The process continues. The curds may be heated again, left to settle, and stirred or pressed to drain off as much liquid as possible.
- When the cheese is as solid as the cheese maker thinks it will get, he pours the curds into a mold. The mold shapes the cheese into the traditional wheel form. Other molds produce different shapes.
- Salt is added to the cheese mixture. Salt helps cheese set, and also creates a nice crust.
- The molds are placed in cool conditions to allow the cheese to ripen. Some cheeses take as little as a week to ripen, while others are left for months. The time depends upon the time of cheese created and the flavor the cheese maker seeks to create. Consistent temperature is a must during cheese making.
- After the cheese maker deems the cheese done, he may remove it from the mold and coat it with something to give it a longer shelf life. Typical coatings include wax, bacteria, oil or water. Coatings help the cheese further ripen and maintain the flavor.
Depending upon the cheese, the wheel or bar may be salted and wrapped to ripen further, or waxed and left to ripen. Cheddar cheese, for example, gets a heavy coating of salt and a wrapped of cotton before it's allowed to sit and achieve its telltale flavor.
Modern Cheese Making
Modern cheese making follows most of the same steps as above. Special steel equipment, such as big vats to heat the milk, can be more easily sterilized than the old kettles and pots used in households for many centuries. Mass produced cheeses may be ripened in large industrial refrigerators set to a standard, consistent temperature, and may have preservatives added to speed up the maturation process and help the cheese keep longer.
Storing and Enjoying Cheese
Cheese is everywhere, from the corner deli to major gourmet chains. Sampling a wide variety of hand made cheese is like wine tasting. You'll be amazed at the infinite variety of flavors found in special cheeses made lovingly by hand. Even different cows, grazing on different fields, can produce milk that flavors cheese differently.
Because of concerns about bacteria, the majority of cheeses today are made from pasteurized milk. Some hand made cheese may be made from unpasteurized milk. Typically the bacterial starter culture and ripening process make such cheese safe to eat, but if you're concerned at all, just avoid cheese made from unpasteurized or raw milk, and stick with pasteurized cheese. It shouldn't affect the flavor much.
To get the best flavor from your favorite cheese, you should allow it to warm up slightly before serving. The easiest and best way is to leave it wrapped on the countertop for 20-30 minutes prior to serving.