Inside the Cheese House: A Look at Cheesemaking
If you’ve been to Formaggio Kitchen, you’ve seen our cheese wall, our daily, constantly-evolving display of the dozens of cheeses that we sell. What you don’t get to see is how cheese is made, the hard work that goes into producing each wheel, and the time and care involved in ripening each cheese to perfection.
How Cheese Is Made
Cheese is essentially the controlled spoilage and storage of milk. Many of the steps involved in cheesemaking can be accomplished in any number of ways and, in fact, some may even be entirely optional depending upon the ultimate cheese in mind. However, here are some typical basic steps used in cheesemaking:
- Collect the milk
- Heat the milk for pasteurization or thermizing or for encouraging a specific reaction of coagulation or flavor development.
- Acidify the milk to initiate the separation of curds and whey (this can be allowed to happen naturally or it can be encouraged by adding citric acid or a "starter culture")
- Encourage coagulation of the milk by adding rennet (in any of its forms) to produce distinct curds and whey
- Drain the curd (save the whey if you want to use it to make ricotta, feed your pigs or fertilize your garden).
- Form the cheese
- Age the cheese
There are many natural components that go into cheese making and there are a multitude of ways the cheesemaker can influence the process. Choices such as the species and breed of animal (from the familiar cows, goats and sheep to the less common water buffalo to the surprising camel, yak and mare), type of feed, milking cycle, pasteurization, type of acidifying culture, type of rennet, method of draining, heating and pressing, aging environment and ripening treatment all contribute to the final cheese that will be produced. With all of these variables it is easy to see how the term artisan is so easily applied to a process that requires a great deal of artistry.
A Visit to the Cheese House
Rachel, one of our cheesemongers, recently took a drive to Greensboro, Vermont, to visit one of our favorite domestic cheese farms, Jasper Hill. The farm not only makes its own cheeses –- intriguingly-named specimens such as Constant Bliss, Winnimere and Bayley Hazen Blue –- it also ages many cheeses on behalf of other New England cheesemakers inside its network of seven large caves (see related travelogue).
Jasper Hill keeps a herd of about 40 Ayrshire cows, which are milked twice a day for cheesemaking. The sweet milk is piped directly into the farm’s cheese house, where it is mixed with a selection of cultures that cause the milk to acidify. At Formaggio Kitchen, we liken cheesemaking to “controlled spoilage” of milk –- we’ve all left milk too long in the fridge and know how sour it can get. Cheesemaking also depends on milk becoming acidic, but in specific, controlled ways.
As the milk acidifies, the cheesemakers usually add a substance called rennet, an enzyme that causes the proteins in the milk to coagulate, or form curd. This curd, which at first resembles yogurt, is the basis for the finished cheese. Here, we join Rachel for a look at the remaining steps in the cheesemaking process.