When we went to Wisconsin a couple weeks ago, we were constantly reminded why we are in love with cheese. Long identified with the comfort food, the state has been the largest cheese producing state in the United States since 1910. Anyone from Wisconsin is known as a “cheesehead,” and it is the official nickname for the Green Bay Packers.
Mac & cheese, pizza, burgers, subs, and so many more items in our diet just wouldn’t be the same without this favorite dairy product because cheese just makes it better. We were reminded of this fact at every turn through Wisconsin’s rolling countryside.
Cheese has been around a long time, with the earliest record of cheesemaking dating back to 5500 B.C. Even though its origins predate recorded history, the consensus is that it was created by accident. Throughout history animal skins and inflated internal organs have provided storage for a range of foods. At some point in time milk was probably stored in a container made from the stomach of an animal resulting in milk being turned to curd and whey by the rennet from the stomach.
This, in essence, is how cheese is made. Milk is acidified, or soured, by adding rennet, which is a complex of enzymes produced in the stomachs of ruminant mammals. This separates the milk into solids (curds) and liquids (whey). Sometimes vinegar is added to start this process, but usually it is a starter bacteria that is used. It all depends on what kind of cheese is being made. Adding rennet sets the cheese into a strong and rubbery gel as compared to fragile curds produced by acid coagulation (adding vinegar).
Softer, smaller and fresher cheeses are curdled with a larger proportion of acid to rennet while harder, larger and longer-aged cheeses are just the opposite. After this process, it is cut into smaller cubes to let the water drain out and salt is added to keep it from spoiling.
According to the International Dairy Federation, there are roughly 500 different types of cheese. The different varieties are classified according to the length of aging, methods of production and the fat content.
New cheese is usually salty, bland in flavor and rubbery. That is why it is left to rest, or “ripen” as it is called. The aging period can be anywhere from a few days to years. Sounds a little like wine. Maybe this is why cheese and wine go so well together!
Sometimes during the aging process additional bacteria or molds are added to reach a desired flavor. Many times these are already present in the cool, damp places where cheeses are aged, and they are allowed to settle and grow on the stored cheeses. This only proves that sometimes mold is good because it gives us the blue cheeses and Limburger.
Other techniques influence texture and flavor. One is stretching where the curd is actually stretched and kneaded in hot water to develop a stringy body in cheeses like mozzarella and provolone. Cheddar is produced by cheddaring. The cut curd is repeatedly piled up, thus pushing more moisture away. It is also mixed for long periods of time, taking the sharp edges off. Cheeses like Edam, Gouda and Colby are washed in warm water to promote lower acidity and milder taste.
Who knew cheese could get so complicated? To be an expert in the field requires formal education, and years of tasting and hands-on experience. If you are really into cheese, you can strive to be a cheesemonger, a specialized seller of cheese who is responsible for the inventory, purchasing, storage and ripening processes.
There is definitely a variety to suit every palette but, even so, someone always has to try something new. Burger King Japan will soon unveil their “burger dark as night.” It is a black burger (of course) on a black bun with black condiments and black cheese. They use bamboo charcoal to get the dark color of cheese. Even though I am a cheese-lover, I think I’ll pass on this one.
You can try your hand at making cheese at home using only two ingredients, 2 cups milk and 4 teaspoons vinegar. Heat the milk to 175 F, stirring constantly. When it reaches temperature, turn the heat off but leave the pan on the stove. While stirring, add the vinegar. This should turn it to curds and whey. Continue stirring for 5 to 7 minutes then strain through a cheesecloth or handkerchief to separate the curds from the whey. The curds will become cheese. Drain the curds and press to get the moisture out, then add a pinch of salt and press again. Leave it in a ball or put it in a mold to be sliced and put in the refrigerator.
I have not tried this, although I do remember making cottage cheese in much the same way when I was younger. The only difference to the recipe is cottage cheese requires some heavy cream or half and half.
Trying this is definitely on my list. Who knows? Homemade just may rival Kraft even though they do cheese so well. Either way, our love affair with cheese will go on – it is one of our comfort foods, afterall.