If you’ve been to Formaggio Kitchen, you’ve seen our cheese wall, our daily, constantly-evolving display of the many 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 cheese making can be accomplished in any number of ways and, in fact, some may be entirely optional depending upon the ultimate cheese being made. However, here are some of the 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 (the coagulated solids) and whey (the separated liquid)
- 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
The cheesemaker makes many choices along the way 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 (or not), type of acidifying culture, type of rennet, method of draining, heating and pressing (or not), 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
Our mongers frequently travel to visit with local cheesemakers such as Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont. The farm not only makes its own cheeses such as Bayley Hazen Blue but also ages many cheeses on behalf of other New England cheesemakers inside its network of seven large caves such as the well-loved Cabot Clothbound Cheddar.
Jasper Hill keeps a herd of about 40 Ayrshire cows, which are milked twice a day for cheese making. 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 cheese making to “controlled spoilage” of milk –- we’ve all left milk too long in the fridge and know how sour it can get. Cheese making also depends on milk becoming acidic, but in specific, controlled ways.
As the milk acidifies, the cheese makers 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.
For softer cheeses that have a lot of moisture, the curds are carefully ladled into their molds to prevent too much whey from being released. The more the curds are cooked, pressed or cut, the more whey will be expelled and the drier and harder the final cheese will be.
Once this infant cheese has had time to set in its form, it is turned out and either prepared for sale, in the case of fresh cheese, or started on its aging process.
The aging process frequently involves a bath in brine or a salting of the exterior to remove moisture from the exterior of the cheese so the rind can start to form. Salting or brining also adds flavor to the cheese. As the cheese ages, a series of molds grow and die on the exterior of the cheese. These molds are what become the rind. White fluffy molds, wrinkly khaki molds, grey earthy molds or pinkish-peach molds are just some of the molds that will grow to form the rind.
An experienced cheese maker knows how long to age each wheel, but along the way, they taste the cheese by inserting a trier to take what looks like a mini core sample of the cheese. A quick squeeze of the cheese, a smell and a taste is all that is needed to know whether the cheese is ready or needs more time.
An aging process can take as little as a few days to a few years and over time moisture is lost and flavors concentrate. The appropriate age of a wheel of cheese is a matter both of personal preference and of tradition. Some cheeses with government stipulated conditions of production have defined windows for aging while others without and controls are aged according to the producers preferences.
All in all, the process can take as little as fifteen minutes as is the case with a simple ricotta recipe or as many as four years for some very aged versions of Parmigiano-Reggiano.