Cheese 101: How 4 Simple Ingredients Yield 10 Zillion Different Cheeses

Vicky Wasik

After reading about hard cheeses, many of you wrote in wanting to know where Cheese X, Y, or Z (Pecorino, Asiago, and Manchego to name a few) fit into my broad strokes overview.

So let's delve a bit more into cheese-making fundamentals to see how four simple ingredients (milk, cultures, rennet/coagulant, and salt) can produce a seemingly infinite number of cheeses.*

And for those of you who want to supergeek-out on cheese taxonomy, I heartily recommend Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, which has, among many things, a brilliant flow chart encapsulating cheese making.

There are two major push-buttons to consider when exploring the nuances between various cheese types. The first is the use of cultures (often called enzymes on the ingredient label), otherwise known as starter or, simply, bacteria. The second is the manipulation of curd during the make process, as detailed in Hard Cheeses with steps like cutting, stirring, and pressing.

Cultures are the first ingredient for turning liquid milk to solid curd, and eventually cheese. Their initial role is in the process called acidification, wherein bacteria are added to the milk to convert its sugar (lactose) into lactic acid. If left to its own devices over 12 to 24 hours, acidification alone can separate cream from milk and begin to solidify the liquid. In crudest terms, the milk sours, turning progressively chunky as it does so.

Getting Cultured

There's another dimension to cultures, however, that's less talked about but far more miraculous. Cultures don't just convert milk's sugar into acid. They also unlock specific flavors, and cheese-makers act as alchemists in concocting a unique culture blend to tease out desired flavors of, say, cooked fruit or toasted nut. To be clear, the bacteria themselves don't provide these flavors; rather, they create enzymes that impact the breakdown of milk proteins and the flavors they create.

A particularly good and readily available example of flavor-driving cultures is the "Swiss" blend used in Beecher's Flagship (which to most consumers resembles a block of cheddar). This was one of the more dramatic examples of introducing a culture blend associated with one cheese (Gruyere or "Swiss" styles) and using it in a recipe for another cheese (Cheddar). The resulting cheese is smooth, creamy, sweet, and nutty but bears some of cheddar's sharpness.

All this bacteria business means a cheesemaker has to think about a cheese's flavor potential while still setting the curd. For proprietary cheeses with specific profiles, there are hundreds of variables to keep in mind. The same milk, taken through the same recipe, will taste radically different based on the cultures that go into it.

Cheese Recipes

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Then there's the recipe: the steps a maker takes, the time allotted to each, the desired moisture and acidity levels she wants to maintain along the way. At each step there's a seemingly infinite number of possibilities. Curd cut to the size of corn kernels will yield a more moist and creamy cheese than curd cut into smaller rice-grain bits; the latter will also age much better than the former. Temperature matters, too—a curd heated to 105° may turn out smooth and pliable; heat it to 130° and it may become more dense and waxy.

Many of the most famous European cheeses now have a P.D.O. (protected designation of origin), meaning that the cheese must meet specific production and aging criteria to be called by a specific name. This is a good way of understanding how a [hard, cut, cooked, pressed, Italian cow's milk] cheese could become Asiago or Parmigiano Reggiano. While they're the same style of cheese, they're differentiated by the breed of cow, the cows' feed, whether the milk is pasteurized, aging time, size, and other factors.

There is no easy cheat sheet for cultures, as these are determined by a cheese maker and aren't known by the consumer, but a few flavor/texture generalizations based on cheese making steps are possible:

  • The smaller the curd is cut, the firmer the cheese is likely to be.
  • A cheese that has been cooked will have fruity, then nutty, then roasted/toasted flavors.
  • Lengthy brining time (2 to 24 days) with suck moisture out of a cheese, contributing to a dry, flaky or crumbling texture.
  • Goudas are made using a process called curd washing, wherein water is added to the vat during cheese making, replacing or diluting the natural whey, which reduces acidity and creates a "sweeter" flavor.
  • Most retailers group cheese by intended usage so hard, dry, salty, acidic cheeses like Asiago (Vecchio or d'Allevo), Parmigiano Reggiano and aged Pecorino (Romano) will be grouped together because you're most likely to grate them or cook with them.
  • Sheep milk has more fat than cow or goat so a cut, briefly cooked sheep curd cheese like Manchego or younger Pecorino will taste milder and sweeter, and may feel less dry and flaky, than a cow's milk counterpart.

Have a cheese question of your own? Email us and we might answer it in a future post.