Process Of Cheese Making

Today nearly four hundred varieties exist, hailing from all over the world. Their flavors depend heavily on the process, ingredients used, natural bacteria, and the age of the cheese.

Legend has it that an ancient Arab discovered cheese as he was trekking across the desert. Before starting his journey, he poured milk into a bottle probably made from sheep's gut. As he crossed the desert, his gait agitated the milk against the intestine bottle, and when he went to take a sip, he found his smooth milk had turned into curds. Thus, the concept of cheese was born, and by 59 BC Julius Caesar was invading France with blocks of cheese in his foodstuffs.

The production of cheese has blossomed since that first nomadic Arab. Today nearly four hundred varieties exist, hailing from all over the world. Their flavors, aromas and textures depend heavily on the ingredients used, the natural bacteria of the cheese's environment, and its age. However, all natural cheeses go through a similar production process. The basic ingredient for cheese is milk usually derived from cows, sheep or goats, although the milk of yak, reindeer, camels and mares are also used in local cheese operations. First the milk is allowed to sour. Next the enzyme, rennin -- found in the lining of sheep's intestines, is added causing the milk to form lumps known as curds. Once the milk has sufficiently coagulated, the remaining liquid, or whey, is drained off. If only a little whey is drained, the cheese will be a soft cheese, like Brie. If all of the whey is removed from the curds, the cheese will be a hard cheese, like Parmesan. Cheese makers vary the curd-whey ratio to produce a variety of cheese textures.

Once the curd consistency has been determined, the mixture is heated, squeezed, twisted, pulled or kneaded to refine the cheese's texture. Provolone, for example, is stretched and kneaded resulting in its more elastic texture. Mozzarella curds are chopped and shredded, thrown in hot water, kneaded and stretched, cooked in hot water once again, then shaped and thrown in cold water for preservation. When the cheese maker has achieved his desired consistency, the curds are patted into cheese molds and salted.

The most important stage in cheese production is the ripening stage. Once the cheese has settled into molds, it is left in controlled environments to age. Natural microbes begin to hatch within the cheese, giving it its special flavors. It is during this stage that Swiss cheese develops its characteristic holes, as bacteria cause gasses within the cheese to burst. Other cheeses, like Gorgonzola, are deliberately smeared with bacteria to develop a tart flavor. Roquefort is aged only in the limestone caves of Mount Combalou in France. The environment of the cave is key to the cheese's tangy flavor, and no other cheese maker outside the region can legally say to make the famous Roquefort.

Once aged, cheeses are properly packaged, then shipped to consumers. For many consumers, the dazzling array of cheese at the market can be overwhelming. However, cheese makers most frequently organize their cheese into five categories based on the cheeses' texture: fresh or unripened, soft, semi-soft, firm or hard. Commonly known fresh cheeses include cream cheese, Mozzarella and Feta. These cheeses are usually light and creamy, but due to their high liquid content they perish quickly. Soft cheeses include Brie and Camembert. Soft cheeses are distinguished from unripened cheese by their thin, edible skin. The popular Gouda and Gorgonzola cheeses fall into the semi-soft category. Semi-soft cheeses have firmer textures ranging from crumbly to sliceable. Semi-soft cheeses usually have no skins, but are often preserved in inedible wax casings. Firm cheeses are perhaps the most popular cheeses in America. Cheddar, Colby, Swiss and Monterey Jack are all firm cheeses that pair well with sandwiches or as an addition to the school lunchbox. The final category, hard cheese, includes cheeses that have been aged so long that the natural moisture has been allowed to evaporate. The cheeses are not necessarily dry, however. Well known hard cheeses include Parmesan and Asiago. These cheeses are so hard they are nearly impossible to slice, and most are grated for use in cooking.

Some cheeses do not fall into any of the five categories because they are not classified as natural cheese. American cheese, for example, is a processed cheese. This means that several different types of cheese are blended together with flavorings and emulsifiers to create a cheese with a more consistent texture. These cheeses are not considered of the highest quality, and lack the character that the natural processing gives to real cheese. Processed cheese food products contain a minimum of 51% natural cheese; the remainder derived from milk solids or vegetable oils. Imitation cheese has little to no cheese and consists mainly of dairy by products, emulsifiers, colorings and artificial flavors. Imitation cheese is less expensive than natural cheese but contains few of the vitamins found in real cheese. Imitation cheese is also much higher in sodium.

Although natural processing is the norm for modern day dairy production, cheese makers do not let nature take its course as it did with the ancient Arab nomad. Cheese production is a near science and if the wrong bacteria are allowed to flourish, the cheese can do more harm than good. Today, particularly in the United States, only pasteurized milk is used in cheese production to ensure a significant reduction in contamination.

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