The earliest evidence we have of the act of intentional cheesemaking are shards of pottery from vessels designed to store milk, and to strain curds, dated to around 5,500 BCE and discovered in present day Poland. No doubt, the initial discovery of curdling milk came about even earlier, following the domestication of sheep somewhere around 10,000 – 8,000 BCE.
The earliest domesticated sheep were used for meat and leather and later for wool and milk. Although milk was a good source of protein and calcium, it was also a highly perishable product, of limited use beyond the people caring for the herd. But, imagine a traveler, carrying a batch of his herd’s milk from one isolated village to the next. The milk would have likely been stored in some sort of a pouch, and a sheep’s stomach would have been just the right size. Young ruminant animal stomachs are lined with a particular set of enzymes, which are very effective milk coagulants, turning liquid milk into solid digestible curds and liquid whey.
The enzymes would have worked their magic on the milk as it was jostled around in the warm environment and upon reaching his destination, the traveler would have been surprised to find his milk had changed into a solid white mass of curd floating in a thin, yellowish pool of whey.
Over time, with a bit of curiosity and investigation, the transformation that took place in that bag came to be understood, controlled and refined to allow our ancestors to make a nutritious food product that could be preserved for an extended period of time with added salt and controlled aging practices. Even with all of the innovation since those early days of cheesemaking, the basic practice of cheesemaking remains remarkably the same.
Today, cow’s milk is most commonly used, due to the large-scale domestication of cows. Next in popularity are goat’s, sheep’s, and buffalo’s milk. Milk from yaks, camels, and llamas is sometimes used to make cheese as well, particularly in parts of the world where the more popular milk-producing animals are scarce or unavailable.
Basic Steps of Cheesemaking
Cheese is essentially the controlled spoilage and storage of milk. Many of the steps involved in making cheese can be accomplished in any number of ways and, in fact, some may be entirely optional depending upon the ultimate cheese being made.
The basic steps are typically the same for all styles:
- Collect the milk
- Heat the milk for pasteurization or thermization, 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 animal, vegetable, or microbial rennet 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 (this step may include additional cutting and draining to force out the whey in a process called cheddaring)
- Age the cheese
The cheesemaker makes many choices along the way such as determining the species and breed of animal, type of feed, and milking cycle. Then there is the option to pasteurize (or not); select a type of acidifying culture, rennet, and method of draining; and determine the method for heating and pressing (or not). The aging environment and ripening treatment will further contribute to the final cheese that will be produced.
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.