Everything I Know About Cheese

May 10, 2019 | Cooking Tips

When I was growing up cheese was mostly orange and firm. Occasionally, there would be a plastic cylinder of grated parmesan, a block of mozzarella or some cream cheese, but that was about it. It wasn’t until I was in my 20’s that I was really exposed to a greater variety of cheese.

For a long time, even after I was introduced to all these different cheeses, I assumed I didn’t like them because I hadn’t really eaten them before. But, as time went on and I was pushed into trying cheeses I had never even heard of, I realized that I had been missing out. I did like them! I loved them in fact!

There are more varieties of cheese than I could possibly name. It isn’t that surprising when you think about the fact that the history of cheese making dates back over 7000 years. You can come up with a lot of different ideas, and a lot of different ways to make something when you have 7000 years to think about it.

One of the really interesting things about cheese to me is that it is all pretty much made the same way, and always has been. For all of those 7000 years, very little has changed about the way we actually produce cheese. Yes, the technology has changed. The standards of cleanliness, and quality have changed. But, the actual way that milk is transformed from milk to cheese, is pretty much identical to how it has always been done.


Why Cheese?

Like other things we love, bacon, prosciutto, salami, pickles, jam, cheese was originally produce to save a product over time. Before refrigeration, milk spoiled very quickly. Cows only really produce milk naturally in the spring and summer after they give birth to a calf. So, there needed to be a way to save milk over the winter. Once cheese making was discovered, it became the answer to that problem.


How is Cheese Made?

At the most basic level, making cheese is actually a very simple process. Rennet (which is a complex set of enzymes that can be found in a cows fourth stomach) is added to milk. This causes the milk to coagulate and separated into curds and whey. The curds are cut and the whey is drained. The curds are then usually salted, and either put into moulds to form and age, or served fresh.


Aged Cheeses

As cheese ages the enzymes in the rennet and the natural bacteria in the milk (in modern cheese making this bacteria often has to be added as a starter culture due to pasteurization) break down the lactose (a sugar present in milk) into lactic acid. This makes the cheese more acidic providing a different flavour than fresh cheese. On top of that, the lower ph (from the lactic acid) creates an inhospitable environment for bad bacteria.

In the U.S. for example it is illegal to sell cheese that has been made with unpasteurized milk unless that cheese has been aged for at least six months. The reason being that after six months of aging the acidity in the cheese is high enough to kill off bad bacteria.


How are different aged cheeses made?

Originally, different cheese came from different places. This is still true to some extent. For example, all the Parmesan Reggiano in the world comes from the same place in Italy. But truthfully this is more for economic and cultural purposes than it is due to the ability to make that type of cheese anywhere else.

Before starter cultures were developed in labs and sold to dairies all over the world the cheese you made was very much dictated by where you lived and where you were selling your cheese. Let’s use cheddar as a simple example of this.


How Cheddar Cheese Became Orange

In the spring and summer Jersey cows in England would typically eat a lot of buttercups, yellow clover and dandelions. This would give their milk a yellow hue. The milk that was produced at this time of year was sweeter and generally considered of better quality. The cheese that was produced from this milk would be yellow to slightly orange. And so everyone knew that the yellow or orange cheese was the best. Before too long people were adding dye to the cheese to fake that yellow or orange colour. We still do this today.

The idea here is that the cheese that was made in this area was specific to that area because of the breed of cow and what they were eating. When it comes to aging cheese, historically at least, the same principles apply. The bacteria in the air of a specific region effects the cheese. What the cow ate and what ended up in the milk had an effect on the cheese. Even the temperature and amount of moisture in the air had an effect on the cheese.

The French call this “terrior”. They use that term to describe the environmental context of where an item comes from. It is used to describe the soil grapes are grown in for wine, to the acorns that Ibérico pigs eat to make Ibérico ham.

The reason we have so many different varieties of aged cheese, why they don’t all come out the same, has to do with where they came from originally.


Fresh Cheese

A lot of the same principles that apply to aged cheese apply to fresh cheese too. The temperature, the amount of moisture in the air, the quality of the milk, this all changes the flavour and texture of the cheese.

Fresh cheese are usually eaten within a few days or weeks of production. Because they aren’t given the time to develop the same amount of lactic acid as aged cheeses, fresh cheese can be spoiled very quickly.


Soft Cheese

The difference between hard and soft cheese really just comes down to how much moisture has been removed from the cheese and how much the cheese has been pressed. The more a cheese has been pressed, the tighter the curd will be, the firmer the cheese will be.


Moldy Cheese

Moldy cheese falls into three main categories. Interior mold. Exterior mold. And rotten.


Interior mold

We generally know cheese with interior mold as blue cheese. Mold generally in the form of mold penicillium is injected into the cheese as it ages, or kneaded with the curds as the cheese is formed. The cheese is then left to sit in a temperature and moisture controlled environment that is ideal for the propagation of the mold spores in the cheese. This gives the cheese a distinctive flavour and smell.


Exterior mold

Some cheeses have a white mold rind like brie. This forms naturally. This white mold can often be seen on the exterior of aged salami as well. It is a perfectly healthy mold that won’t hurt you at all and is actually beneficial to the cheese and salami.


Rotten Cheese

If you have cheese sitting in your fridge and it grows green or black mold, say good buy to it. Don’t cut the mold off and eat the cheese. Research has shown the surface mold is not just surface mold. It stretches like the roots or a tree under the surface and can make you really sick.

So, if you buy cheese that is supposed to be moldy, that’s good. But, if you buy cheese and it goes moldy, that’s bad.

One thing to keep in mind is that cheeses with a thick rind like parmesan may develop a green mold on its exterior as it ages. This is common. But, because of the thick rind that mold and penetrate into the cheese so it is perfectly fine. So, if you buy a cheese with a thick rind and there is a bit of mold on the rind, it is perfectly fine. Just cut it away, or wash it with vinegar.


Other types of cheeses

There are literally thousands of types of cheese out there. As I said they are all initially pretty much made the same and left to transform over time. Some are left to develop mold. Some are pressed to make them firm. Others like feta are left in a brine to preserve them. Or, washed in a brine like Parmesan. Some cheeses have long traditions and some are brand new.

The fact is that cheese and humans go way back. We’ve been friends for a very, very long time. Although production technology may change and our understanding of the process of making cheese at a micro level increases, the cheese itself is pretty much unchanged. So too, is our relationship with it and love for it.


Bonus Fact!

If you are ever eaten a hard cheese like parmesan or beemster and you notice crunchy or crystallized bits, those are just salt crystals. These form as moisture evaporates.

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