If you think cheese comes in a box and melts into a plasticity orange ooze, you have a world of discovery ahead of you. Cheese is an art form whose flavors and textures have been developed over generations. In fact, the delightful block of flavor that rests on your cracker can be the result of months–sometimes years–of careful pressing, prodding, mixing and storing.
Becoming a real cheese connoisseur may require reading about, looking at, and tasting many of the thousands of cheeses available, but you don’t have to devote this much effort to find out what you like.
Making Cheese Curds
You may be concerned by the fact that making cheese involves the necessary presence of bacteria. To make cheese safe for consumers, many kinds of cheese today are processed or pasteurized. Here’s what those processes involve:
Processed cheese is made by melting together tiny pieces of various cheeses, mixing them with other dairy products, such as cream, butter, whey, or casein, and then, once smooth, pouring the mixture into airtight molds. Sometimes dyes, emulsifiers, or preservatives are added to make cheese more colorful, softer, or longer lasting, respectively.
Pasteurized cheese may or may not contain pasteurized milk, but the cheese itself is heated to a very high temperature to delay spoiling.
These processes sterilize and extend the shelf life of cheeses, making them more economical and appealing to the public, but they also rob cheeses of the original flavors and textures created by bacteria that are killed off in the process. This lens will help you select and enjoy delicious (and safe) cheeses and store them properly. No two kinds of cheese are made in a precisely way, but several ingredients are familiar to most cheeses, including Milk, which can come from goats, sheep, cows, or even water buffalo, and maybe skimmed to remove fat or pasteurized to kill bacteria
A curdling agent, usually rennet (a naturally occurring substance extracted from a calf’s fourth stomach).
Note: Vegetable-derived rennet may be used instead
Various flavoring agents, such as salt, fungus, brine, and spices Cheese is usually made in three necessary steps:
A starter–usually an acidic substance like vinegar or lemon juice, or a bacterial culture–is added to warmed milk to change lactose into lactic acid. This ensures that the milk protein (or casein) will coagulate when the rennet is added. Rennet causes the watery part of the milk (whey) to separate from the firmer part (curds), and within a short time, the process leaves a soft gelatinous mass, which, when separated from the way, becomes the basis for cheese.
At this point, processes, temperatures, and times vary depending on the cheese. The soft mass of curds may be used as is, or cut and pressed to drain the liquid whey. The more delicate the curds are cut, the more whey is drained and the firmer the resulting cheese. Some cheeses may require shaking, turning, kneading, stacking, or reheating of the curds. Cheeses may be wrapped in cloth and hung to drain, or placed in a perforated mold that forms the cheese while allowing moisture to escape. The time needed to complete this part of the cheese-making process can vary from a few hours to several months, depending on the acidity of the curds and the type of cheese being made.
After the curds are formed, and the cheese is shaped, there’s a period over which the cheese develops before reaching an optimum or desired flavor. This allows various enzymes, acids, and bacteria to play distinctive roles in the development of the characteristics and features that characterize a particular cheese–like the holes in Emmentaler, or Brie’s fuzzy rind.
Cheeses are usually matured or ripened in cellars with consistent temperature and humidity levels. In general, firm or hard cheeses ripen slowly, from the inside out. Softer cheeses, such as Brie or Camembert, mature more quickly, typically in a matter of weeks. Unripened cheeses, also known as fresh cheeses, like ricotta or cottage cheese, maybe ripened minimally or not at all. Ripening is not necessarily the same as aging. Some cheeses can benefit from further aging after reaching their optimum mature or ripened state, to bring out different qualities and characteristics. The more protracted cheese is aged, the drier it becomes and the stronger the flavor.
Depending on the cheese being made, other ingredients and flavoring agents may be introduced at various points in the ripening process. For instance, soaking cheese in brine or rubbing it with salt speeds up the drying process, adds flavor, and helps a rind form. Roquefort is poked with a needle to aerate the cheese and allow its particular flavor fungus, Penicillium Roquefort, to take root.
Cheeses may be categorized in some ways (according to the kind of milk, or the processes used, for example). The following categories emphasize texture and flavor:
Fresh cheeses (including ricotta, cottage, Neufchâtel, chèvre, and mascarpone) are not fermented or pressed. They are soft or curdy, mild in flavor, and do not keep long. Some double and triple creams, which are mainly rich and creamy, fall into this category, too.
Bloomy rind cheeses (including Brie and Camembert) have a high milk fat content and a white, velvety texture on their rinds. They are not pressed or cooked and have a short coagulation time which makes for a soft, smooth cheese. A perfectly ripe bloomy rind cheese has a creamy texture, a delicate tangy flavor, and is just beginning to bulge or ooze from its soft center. Overripe bloomy cheeses are runny and the smell of ammonia.
Blue cheeses (including Roquefort, Stilton, and Gorgonzola) may be made from different types of milk, but all owe their pungent, tangy flavor to the presence of penicillium. Make sure the veins are blue and not a darkened gray or brown, which shows it’s past its prime.
Washed rind cheeses (including Limburger, Munster, and Pont-l’Évêque) are sprayed or soaked with water or brine during ripening. The wet surface encourages bacterial growth and inhibits yeast, producing a mild-flavored but strong-smelling cheese, and creating a protective rind. When ripe, these cheeses cling to the knife but do not ooze. Stay away from slimy, hardened, or cracked peels.
Swiss cheeses (including Emmentaler, Appenzeller, and Gruyère) are both pressed and cooked and can be recognized by their holes, which are formed by gases produced during the ripening process. They have a mild, sweet, and nutty flavor. The fact that they melt and slice nicely makes them a favorite ingredient in a variety of dishes. Look for an even, creamy texture and avoid cracked or brown rinds.
Pasta filata cheeses (including mozzarella and provolone) originated in southern Italy, and are made from spun or pulled curds. This process yields a chewy, textured, often sharply-flavored cheese that can be kept for some time without spoilage. Note: In addition to being a favorite pizza topping, mozzarella comes in a fresh form made from buffalo or cow’s milk (mozzarella di bufala), a delicious, soft cheese that comes soaked in its whey.
Uncooked pressed cheeses (including cheddar and pecorino) vary widely in ingredients, flavor, and process, but all are firm and flavorful. Dutch cheeses, such as Gouda, Edam, and Mimolette, are known for their buttery or nutty flavors and semi-soft interiors.
Extra-hard cheeses (including Parmesan and Romano) are dry, almost brittle, and aged for several years. They frequently have a piquant flavor and are suitable for grating over food as a garnish. If you’re purchasing cheese for eating alone, choose a younger, less crumbly variety. Here are some suggestions for determining and serving various cheeses. Just remember, nothing beats tasting them to discover what you like.
Choosing. Some cheeses (like Gruyére, Emmentaler, or Fontina) are best when melted or used in an omelet or souffle; others, like Munster or Limburger (washed rind varieties), are ideal when served on their own. Unless you’re going for one of the blue cheeses, choose a cheese that’s free of mold. Consult your cheese seller for information on the best cheese for your purpose.
Serving. Cheeses should be served at room temperature to appreciate their flavors fully. When serving a variety of cheeses together, choose ones that are distinct in texture, age, or milk source to highlight the unique character of each. Offer hearty bread or plain crackers, as well as fresh fruit such as apples, pears, or grapes, to cleanse the palate and complement the cheese. Cured meat, nuts, and olives also can bring out the flavor of cheese, as can good wine.
The rind on some semi-soft cheeses (like Brie, Camembert, or Munster) can be eaten, though it is a matter of personal preference. The skins on hard-pressed cheeses are sometimes treated with wax, paraffin, and dyes, and should, therefore, be cut back and not eaten. A dried or moldy crust should be cut away before serving.
Note: Cheese can also be served melted over an entree or as part of soup or sauce. Softer cheeses, such as Gruyère or Camembert, do a much better job of dissolving than firmer cheeses with a lower moisture content (like Romano or Manchego).
Storing. In general, hard cheeses last longer than soft ones, but it’s always best to buy cheese in small quantities, so you don’t have to store it for long. Cheeses don’t do well in the freezer, but if protected can be kept for some time in the refrigerator. They should be wrapped to preserve their internal moisture, but still allowed to breathe. Cut off only as much as you need for serving and leave the rest in the refrigerator to avoid fluctuations in temperature.
Well-made, judiciously chosen, and adequately served cheeses can be a revelation. Smell them. Taste them. Share them with friends. A whole world of discovery awaits you.