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Understanding The Cheese Making Process

Making cheese originated quite by accident. Nomadic tribes carried milk in containers made from the stomachs of cattle like goats and sheep. They soon discovered that the milk curdled and its flavor changed. The presence of rennet in the stomach linings and bacteria in milk caused it to coagulate and curdle. May be the whey too dried up during their sojourns. They soon discovered that the tantalizing flavor of the product formed tickled their taste buds! It was not long before they started to experiment. Cheese making today has developed into a fine art and is also a subject of much fascination to most cheese lovers the world over.

Cheese making is a time-consuming, elaborate process. Any cheese maker is required to have a thorough understanding of how perfectly the ingredients are required to be combined to make the best cheese.

It starts with milk from livestock like buffalo, cows, sheep, goat, etc., each of which has a distinctive flavor and characteristics. When the milk is particularly rich in protein, minerals and fats, the cheese produced will be equally rich. The higher the fat the softer the cheese and better the flavor and taste.

Cheese making involves distinct processes like pasteurizing, though not all cheeses require this, culturing, coagulation, draining, scalding, shaping and maturing. Mould ripening, if required, would depend on the variety made and comes in before maturing.

After milk is boiled, a starter is used to make the milk acidic and start curdling. Starters used will decide quality and flavor. Starter cultures have been developed after much intensive research to get the best yield of cheese, each to suit milk from a different mammal, so as to produce a special cheese. Milk itself contains useful bacteria that digest its protein content and turn it acidic. Cheese makers are very selective about the nutritive value of the milk they use for cheese making. This is to ensure that the fat and protein content are ideal to get the best cheese, with the right flavor. Rennet is then added to initiate coagulation and the cheese milk is allowed to form curd for a period of time. The curd is so thick that it can be cut into cubes. The time allowed and rennet used will determine variety and the skill of the cheese maker.

Besides rendering milk acidic, the starter culture also gives a granular texture to the curd. This is then allowed to settle a bit and later filtered through cheesecloth, to separate the whey from the solid mass. Then begins the process of scalding when the temperature is raised to about 39 C. Scalding expels any extra whey that may be present. The curd formed starts to get firm and can be shaped using a cheese wheel and is pressed overnight. Salt as required is generally added before the cheese is shaped. At times the curd grains are subjected to milling to give them slab or cube shapes. It is then vacuum-packed for maturing, to avoid fungal growth. Excess moisture can also cause decomposition. Within a few weeks it develops a mild flavor. The cheese is allowed to mature for about 3-5 months. The length of the maturing process determines the flavor and is regulated as required.

For mould-ripened cheeses like Stilton, Roquefort or Camembert mould spores are added either to the milk in the cheese vat or later when the cheese curd is formed. Mould-ripened cheeses generally mature faster than those where starter bacteria are used because fungi present in them are bio-chemically more active than starter bacteria. Temperature and humidity control are important for mould ripening. Some cheeses are subjected to surface ripening by bacterial growth so as to give them the desired color and appearance. Others may be subjected to yeast to give them a special flavor and coat texture.

Controlling quality

The quality of any cheese will depend on the cheesemaker’s skills, and speaks of how well he has developed this science to a fine art, with precision in using the right milk, starter and other ingredients, and with dextrous use of other parameters like temperature and humidity to get the right flavor, taste and texture.

Most cheesemakers will confine themselves to making a cheese that they become adept at by skillful use of their knowledge and experience and will generally not venture into making other kinds. Specialisation in a particular variety enhances brand equity and ensures clientele.

Making Cream (cottage) Cheese at Home

Boil a liter of milk in a pan and when it begins to boil, add 1-1/2 teaspoons of vinegar. It will begin to curdle. Allow it to settle for 5 minutes. Filter through cheesecloth or muslin. Shape into a block when the whey has drained out. You can use the cream cheese so formed, with other ingredients to make delicious dips that go well with finger foods. Cream cheese or paneer is used extensively in Indian food, for making sweets. It also goes well with vegetable preparations. The whey is not thrown but is used for other preparations. It is a rich source of riboflavin, a B-complex vitamin.

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