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Could You Have a Future in Cheese?
by Ellen Ecker Ogden
This article has appeared in SO and PV, but CH has requested it specifically.
Is Cheese the New Wine?
(Cheese is the new wine. The chic second career of the 1970s and '80s was to start a little vineyard in Napa or Sonoma. Now the preferred escape from the rat race is to head north to make unpronounceable farmstead cheeses. Ellen Ecker Ogden has profiled the phenomenon in her upcoming The Vermont Cheese Book (Countryman Press, July, 2007). More than 30 specialized cheese makers now ply their craft in Vermont alone, a phenomenon that is being paralleled in other culinary strongholds around the country. SM)
Could You Have a Future in Cheese?
The story of any cheese starts with milk. The first two questions that a cheese maker considers when embarking on the cheesemaking process are what type of milk to use, and whether the milk is raw (unpasteurized) or pasteurized.
Cheese is currently made of milk from cows, sheep, goats, and water buffaloes—all cloven-hoofed mammals belonging to the biological family classification Bovidea and further classified as ruminants. The protein and butterfat content in the milk varies from species to species; it also dictates the type of cheese that can be made from the milk and the cheese’s ultimate flavor and texture. Pasteurized milk has been heated to destroy harmful organisms. But because heating also robs the milk of some of its natural enzymes and flavor, many cheese makers use unpasteurized, or raw, milk.
The third question a cheese maker asks is how milk fits together with the other three primary ingredients: starter, rennet, and salt. Answering this question takes experimenting with recipes. Because the chemistry of the milk changes with the time of the year and what the animals are eating, the same recipe doesn’t always work out the same way.
Milk is an extremely complex, highly perishable biological material, and successfully handling and processing milk requires a thorough understanding of its properties. Farmers and cheese makers need to know the composition of the milk they are working with from a scientific perspective, as well as how the time of year will affect the butterfat and protein content. Animals eat different foods at different times of the year, and what the animals eat affects the flavor of their milk and, ultimately, the cheese. Young, fresh goat-milk cheese, for instance, is best made in spring and early summer, as the goats feed in the lush pastures full of wild herbs and flowers. Aged cheese, such as blue cheese or a natural-rind tomme, is made from summer milk and will be at its peak during the winter.
Other factors—such as how much fat is retained in the milk, moisture level, the type of rennet, the type of mold added during the cheesemaking process and during the affinage (the last step in the cheesemaking process), and how long and where the cheese matures—are also crucial to the character of the cheese. These elements can make an apparently identical cheese from one producer taste completely different from the cheese of another.
How Cheese Is Made: Step by Step
Each cheese maker has his or her own method, which they often practice with myriad times before getting a satisfactory result. From the moment the milk is collected, however, all cheesemaking follows the same basic steps.
Step 1: Milk
Farmstead cheese is made from milk pumped directly from the barn to vats in the cheese room, while artisan cheese is made from milk delivered from or picked up at another farm. Some cheese makers collect milk for a day or two, keeping it cool until they’re ready to make cheese once or twice a week. Others will make cheese every day from the fresh warm milk, which reduces the time it takes to reheat the milk and keeps the product fresh.
Every cheese has a little variation, which makes it unique, but the general method involves heating the milk slowly in steel or copper vats until it reaches approximately 90 degrees. Then a starter culture is added to sour the milk and lower the pH to the desired acidity level; the type of starter, too, varies depending on the type of cheese. The starter also converts the lactose to lactic acid.
Step 2: Rennet
After some time—anywhere from twenty minutes to up to two hours, depending on the cheese recipe—rennet is added. Authentic rennet comes from the lining of the fourth stomach of a calf, but today cheese makers often use vegetable-based or synthetically produced rennet without affecting the cheese flavor. Either way, only a minute amount is necessary to start the coagulation process.
Once the rennet is stirred into the warm milk, it needs time to act—sometimes up to an hour. During this time, the vat is slowly heated and kept close to 90 degrees, and the milk “sets,” or becomes custard-like in consistency. In some cases, such in making a washed-curd cheese such as Gouda or Colby, the curds are rinsed with water.
Step 3: Cutting or Breaking the Curds
Once the milk is firm and springy to the touch, it is cut into small pieces with wire knives or a blade, which dice the firmed milk into small cubes. Cutting separates the curds from the watery residue, the whey. Both the curds and whey need to be handled delicately to keep the solids intact. The mixture is heated to 101 degrees to expel even more liquid.
Little of the original volume is left after this step. The basic ratio of raw milk to cheese will vary depending on the type of milk used. It takes approximately five pounds of sheep’s milk or ten pounds of cow’s milk to make one pound of cheese.
Step 4: Separating the Curds and Whey
The mixture is cooled, and the soft curds are transferred to cheese molds, while the whey is drained. When Cheddar is made, the drained curds are sliced into slabs and handfuls of salt are strewn over the top. The curds are then stacked to release even more whey.
The leftover whey can be to fed to livestock—it is often used to fatten pigs—or used to fertilize gardens and fields.
Step 5: Pressing
Gently pressing the curds into the cheese molds releases the whey, in addition to forming the shape of the final cheese. The curds can be pressed by hand. Bonnieview Farm, for example, hand-presses the curds for its semisoft Ben Nevis cheese. Since Cheddar is typically aged for a minimum of two months, its curds are pressed between cheesecloth on a mechanical press or using weights. The cheese will stay in the molds anywhere from three hours to overnight, depending on the type of cheese.
Step 6: Salting and Curing
Once the cheese is removed from the molds, it will rest on shelves to allow the exterior to dry slightly. Then it is either waxed or dipped in a salty brine, which will help it form a natural rind.
Before transferring the cheese to a cool aging room, some cheese makers may wash a natural rind with a liquid such as balsamic vinegar, beer, brine, or some type that encourages healthy mold spores to grow and heighten the character of the cheese. Soft-ripened cheeses, which develop rapidly, are often sprayed with an inoculate that produces gentle white mold to ripen the cheese from the outside in.
Step 7: Aging and Affinage
Once it is transferred to a cool aging room, the cheese is left on oak shelves until its flavor is rich and mellow.
Affinage is the process of caring for the cheese and assisting in its full development. It can involve regularly turning the cheese to ensure that it ripens evenly, and often involves washing the outside of the cheese with brine, beer, balsamic vinegar or some other type of liquid for the first few weeks. The temperature of the aging cave, as well as the careful monitoring of the developing cheese, is tantamount to successful affinage.
Unpasteurized versus Pasteurized Milk
Wherever it is created, cheese must be made in strict accordance to federal regulations for unpasteurized and pasteurized milk. Cheese makers need to choose between making raw-milk cheese, which must be aged for a minimum of sixty days to destroy the bacteria in it, or pasteurized cheese, which requires heating the milk to destroy bacteria beforehand.
Milk pasteurization entered the marketplace in the early 1900s, when conditions for many cows and dairy operations were not ideal and were hard to regulate. Cows were not fed properly or cared for in ways that led to healthy milk production. The blanket solution was to pasteurize all milk products.
Unpasteurized milk, otherwise known as raw milk, is coming back into style, however, and many states are allowing small quantities to be sold from registered raw-milk sources and directly off the farm. Unpasteurized milk retains more favor from the natural flora that the animals eat and has natural enzymes that aid digestion.
When it comes to atisinal cheese, the cheesemaking method will dictate whether raw or pasteurized milk is used. Most of the farmstead cheese makers maintain small herds, which eat grass during the summer and high-quality hay during the winter. The result is pristine milk that is high in vitamin A, vitamin B, and omega fats. This high-quality milk becomes cheese that is both a delicious and healthy.
Ellen Ecker Ogden is a writer and gardener who lives in Manchester, Vermont. Learn more about her at ellenogden.com . To book her for a book signing or cheese tasting call 802.362.3931.
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