Cheese Making Secrets

Cheese making secrets: how is cheese made? What gives it it's flavor? And just how good is it for you?

In France cheese is a delicacy. The average annual consumption of cheese in that country is 40 pounds per person, making it the highest in the world. The French have an amazing variety of cheeses to select from with more than 300 different offerings. Yet, they all originate with the rather unexciting product of milk. So how can so much come from so little? Let's find out.

The cheese making process involves three main steps; coagulating, draining and curing. Lets consider them one at a time.

Coagulating - Raw milk contains a number of micro-organisms, including lactic bacteria, that break down the lactose in lactic acid. When a certain degree of acidity is reached, the chief protein in milk, called casein, coagulates into an insoluble curd. Cheese makers do not, however, allow milk to curdle naturally, as this may contain disease carrying bacteria. To kill any unwanted bacteria, cheese makers pasteurise the milk and then add selected bacteria to promote coagulation. A substance which is often used is called rennet. Rennet causes coagulation when mixed with milk at a temperature of about 40 degrees Celsius.

Draining - After coagulating, the curd is drained and the liquid whey is separated for use as cattle feed or in human food products. The remaining curd is now in the form of an unripened soft white cheese. This cheese has a rather sour taste but can be eaten along with salt, sugar or mixed herbs. Cream is often also added. More often, though, the curd is further processed to make other types of cheeses.

Curing - The curd is drained according to the type of cheese desired. Bacteria is also added to break down the casein, fats and lactose. The variety of cheese produced will depend on the choice of bacteria, the curing time and the temperature and humidity of the store-room. To manufacture hard cheeses, like Emmental, for example, the curd must be heated to about 55 degrees Celsius. This retains only those bacteria that survive at higher temperatures. During the curing process certain bacteria produce carbon dioxide. This forms bubbles that make the familiar holes in Gruyere cheese.

So, then how good a food is cheese? Well, it is an excellent source of protein. It contains generous amounts of calcium and phosphorous. Cheese also contains many of the essential lipids needed by the human body. So, the next time someone asks you what's a good, healthy and nutritious option for a snack food, smile and say cheese.

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