by Jill M. Shuman, MS, RD, ELS
The art of cheesemaking has evolved over the centuries. Recipes were handed down from mother to daughter, using the milk of whatever domesticated animal happened to be available. Techniques varied, depending on the keeping qualities and personal tastes of the local community.
There is evidence of cheesemaking long before the written records of the Greeks and the Romans; the Bible tells us that David was on his way to deliver cheese when he met Goliath. Archaeological surveys in the valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers indicate that cheese was made from the milk of sheep and goats as far back as 7000 BC. Remnants of a material identified as cheese have been found in a Sumerian tomb dating to 3000 BC. According to the Greeks, cheese was "a gift from the Gods." Aristaeus, the son of Apollo, was taught the art of cheesemaking, and he allegedly passed this skill on as a "gift to mankind."
There are three fundamental steps in making cheese—producing the curd, concentrating the curd, and ripening or aging the curd. Curd is produced when the protein in milk is "curdled" by bacteria and rennet. This causes the whey and the curd to separate out from the milk. The whey is drained off, and the curd is cooked, salted, and eventually aged. Aging utilizes special bacteria or molds to give the cheeses a smooth substance with distinct flavors and textures.
As a matter of fact, one way to classify cheeses is by their ripening organisms. Blue cheeses, for example, are ripened from within by veins of mold. Brie and Camembert are ripened from the outside by surface molds. Cheddar and Swiss are ripened from within by an evenly distributed starter bacteria. If an additional bacteria is added to this starter bacteria, it will produce a large amount of carbon dioxide. This produces the characteristic holes in Swiss cheese.
After cheese is ripened, it is usually coated and colored. In past times, carrot juice and marigold petals were used as dyes. Today, synthetic beta-carotene and bixin, both plant-derived colorants, are the preferred dyes for cheese.
Types of Cheeses
Cheese can be made from any milk. In North America, the majority of cheeses are made from cow's milk, but goat and sheep (ewe) milk are also widely used. The most popular goat cheeses are collectively known as "chevre". And contrary to what you might think, the Greek "feta" cheese is actually made from sheep's milk, as is Roquefort cheese.
The number and variety of cheeses are too lengthy to list. France has boasted of producing a cheese for every day of the year, but now produces almost double that number.
Extra hard is the term given to the low-fat, low-moisture, very hard grating cheeses such as Parmesan, Pecorino, and Romano. They are made in special copper vats and aged for periods as long as several years. Hard-pressed cheeses are the most popular in the US and the United Kingdom. Cheddar is the best known and probably most consumed cheese. Other varieties include Monterey Jack, Colby, Wisconsin brick, and those with "eyes" or holes (like Swiss, Emmental, and Gruyere).
For a change of pace, semisoft cheeses offer a milder flavor with a greater amount of lactose and moisture. Common in Northern Europe, semisoft, such as Edam, Fontina, and Gouda, can usually be found packaged in wax-coated wheels.
Many of the soft cheeses are heavily enriched with cream during their manufacturing process. The double creams have a fat content of 60%, and the triple creams have a 75% fat content. They are exceptionally rich and delicious—although not recommended for frequent consumption due to the fat content. Popular among these are Petit Suisse, Boursault, Brillat-Savarin, and Excelsior.
Other soft cheeses, like Brie, Camembert, and Lymeswold, are known as "mold-ripened" because they are sprayed with penicillin spore. Soft and light yellow-colored, the cheese paste bulges out from beneath the rind when it reaches its peak.
Cottage cheese is also considered a soft cheese. Made from skim milk, it undergoes no maturation or ripening process. Italian ricotta, another soft cheese, is a whey cheese, obtained from the manufacture of hard cheese. Considered less flavorful, ricotta and cottage cheese are generally not salted.
These cheeses are categorized by their internal veining of blue, blue-black, or green; pungent aromas; and unique taste. All blue-vein cheeses are internally ripened after being inoculated with a penicillin spore. They are usually classified as soft, but can be very crumbly as well. Roquefort, Stilton, and Gorgonzola are considered the three best blue veins in the world by most cheese experts.
Processed cheese has its ripening process arrested at a given point by heat treatment. Usually made from one or two cheese types blended together, this type of cheese never develops an individual flavor of its own. Processed cheese has a very high water content, which makes it easy to blend and melt.
Nutritional Value of Cheese
Cheese is an excellent way to realize the benefits of milk. Rich in calcium, protein, and in most cases vitamin A, cheese is a valuable addition to the diet. The hard-type cheeses contain very little lactose, which is important for people who are lactose-sensitive. Pregnant women, people with diabetes, and other people with compromised immune systems should avoid blue cheese, feta, or soft-ripened cheeses. This is because listeriosis, a serious bacterial infection, has occurred in these populations.
However, cooking with cheese can be a challenge. Beyond a certain temperature, the protein components will coagulate and separate out into a stringy mess. Hard cheeses can tolerate higher temperatures than soft cheeses because more of their protein has been broken down during processing. Grated cheese will cook better than a block or wedge.
A cooking hint: When preparing a cheese sauce that must stay thick and liquid, add a drop or two of wine or sherry. The alcohol lowers the boiling point enough so that protein will not coagulate into a messy lump.
Cheese should be kept refrigerated and loosely wrapped. Most cheeses should be used within a week to 10 days of purchase. Extra hard cheeses can be kept longer, and soft cheeses may become rancid within 3-4 days.
Smell is a good guide to cheese freshness, as is general appearance. If a cheese has turned color, better to toss it. If it smells bad, time to dump it. If a crust has started to form on the top of a hard cheese, though, do not automatically throw it out. Sometimes, it is just a harmless growth that can be easily removed.
What Are You Waiting For?
Soft and creamy. Smelly. Grated. Pungent. Spiced and flavored, or even smoked. There is no end to the variety in flavor and texture of the world's cheeses. Do yourself a favor and check them out—there is a whole lot more to cheese than just those prewrapped slices!
American Dietetic Association
National Dairy Council
Dietitians of Canada
Canada's Food Guide
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