Cheese is a product made from the pressed curd of milk. Like wine, it is thought of as a living food because of the “friendly” living bacteria that constantly change its flavor and aroma.
You may hear cheeses referred to as “natural” to distinguish them from highly processed cheeses that are not expected to ripen. Cheese is made from the milk of cows (the most common), goats, sheep, even buffalo. The type of milk used will help to determine the cheese’s flavor and texture. The variety of cheeses produced throughout the world is extensive, ranging from mild, fresh cheeses to strongly flavored, blue-veined cheeses and hard grating cheeses.
Considering how few ingredients are needed to make cheese, the variety that can be produced is astonishing. Introducing only slight modifications can make hundreds of distinct cheeses.
Stages of modern cheese making
Milk and its pretreatment: In large-scale production, milk is tested for quality, pasteurized, homogenized, and fat content is standardized. Although cheeses aged more than 60 days may be made from raw milk, the majority of cheeses in the United States are produced from pasteurized milk.
Acidification of milk: The milk is heated to a specific temperature and a starter is added containing either an acid or organism that produces lactic acid. The starter is added at a ratio that will produce the correct level of acid
Salting the curds: Salt may be added at various points. It affects the flavor because it helps to control fermentation and spoilage; it also affects texture.
Coagulating (curdling) the milk: Acid starters will change the milk rapidly, souring it as well as forming the curds by coagulating the milk solids. Enzyme starters, including rennet, result in a sweeter curd.
Separating curds and whey: When the milk coagulates, it forms a soft mass curd that must be broken up to allow the liquid, or whey, to drain off. Smaller cuts of curd will allow more whey to drain away, resulting in a drier cheese.
Shaping: There are a number of methods, depending upon the desired flavor and texture.
Ripening: The process may take 30 days or several years, depending on the cheese. During this time, the cheese undergoes changes that will affect its flavor, body, texture and color.
Making fresh cheese in the kitchen
Fresh cheese making is a practical and reasonable way to expand the handcrafted specialty items you can offer your guests. The raw ingredients can be obtained easily, and most of the necessary equipment is already part of a standard kitchen. Because cheese making involves acid, the equipment should be made of or lined with non-reactive materials, such as stainless steel, enamel or food-grade plastic. All equipment should be thoroughly sterilized before use. Whole milk, heavy cream and half-and-half are used to prepare the fresh cheeses. You can often substitute lower-fat milk for whole milk or heavy cream for half-and-half. The milk should be pasteurized and homogenized.
Fresh cheeses are most often curdled with an acid. Our recipes at the Culinary Institute of America use cider vinegar, citric acid, tartaric acid and lemon juice. You may wish to experiment with different starters to find one that gives you the flavor you want. The curd for mozzarella is prepared with a rennet, or enzymatic starter. Some fresh cheese recipes call for direct set cultures; these start curdling the milk almost immediately, without requiring an extended incubation period.