Wisconsin is by far the largest producer of cheese in North America. Although California does have more cows and milk production, Wisconsin continues to dominate the world of cheese. I expect that the trend of cheesemaking in Wisconsin will continue to see growth because of all the new artisan and specialty cheeses being introduced from not only the new breed of young cheesemakers, but also the larger cheese companies that are seeing the demand increase for new styles and varieties of cheese.
Although you do not need to know exactly how cheese is made in order to make good choices about buying high quality cheese, I thought you should have some kind of understanding of the basics of how milk is transformed from a liquid to a cheese.
The process of cheesemaking is really quite simple, it is the innumerable choices a cheesemaker makes that affects the outcome. The basic steps are:
1) Starter cultures are added to milk to begin the acidification process or “souring” the milk. These cultures will be in large part of the ultimate flavor of the cheese.
2) Rennet is added which will “curdle” the milk. Most rennet is of the animal variety, although there is also microbial (vegetarian), or vegetable rennet (an enzyme). When the curds (solids) are properly set, they look and feel like a soft custard.
3) The curds are cut with knives called harps, which break the custard like substance (curds) into pieces and the whey (liquid) will be released.
4) The whey will be drained to varying degrees depending on the type of cheese being made. A softer cheese will drain less of the whey than a harder cheese which will have much lower moisture content.
5) The curds will then be place into molds and drained further. For the harder cheeses the molds where the curds are placed will be pressed with weights or pressure to expel even more of the whey liquid.
6) After the cheese has been formed in the mold the cheese will typically be rubbed with salt or placed into a salt brining tank. The salt helps add flavor as well as helping in the preservation of the cheese.
7) The cheese will be placed into some type of storage for aging. If raw milk is used to make the cheese the cheese must be aged for at least 60 days. Every cheese has the “perfect” aging period, and it becomes the judgment of the cheesemaker to determine when that is.
The steps shown above are just the very basics for cheesemaking. The artistry that goes into a superb handmade cheese is much more complex that what I have described here. One thing is certain in the art of cheesemaking: the quality of the milk is the most important factor in producing a quality cheese. The talent of the cheesemaker and the recipe for the cheese takes a back seat to the quality of the milk used to produce it. If you get the chance to visit a small cheese plant while they are making cheese be sure to do it, you will enjoy the experience.
Michael C. Thomas is co-owner of Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese with his wife Janice. With locations in Ellison Bay and Egg Harbor, they aim to bring the best of Wisconsin artisan cheeses to Door County, and with “The Cheese Insider” Michael hopes to bring all things cheese to readers of the Pulse. If you have a question for “The Cheese Insider” please email it to [email protected].