From Start to Finish: The Cheese Making Process Explained

Cheese Making Process
Cheese is a universally used dairy product. The alluring taste of the various types of cheeses has always fascinated people. Let us see what goes behind making it.
Cheese making is a very complicated process. It requires a perfect understanding of the ideal combination of ingredients to be used. The subject of cheese and cheese manufacturing have fascinated people around the world for ages.

Cheese is, in essence, curdled milk. Cow milk is primarily used in the production of cheese, but many types are also made from goat and sheep milk. The composition of the milk used in the process determines the type of the cheese produced.
History
Cheese making process
The origin of cheese is not accurately determined, although it is estimated that settlements in the Middle East or Central Asia stumbled upon it entirely by accident. Rennet, the ingredient responsible for turning milk into cheese, is found in the digestive systems of various animals. Storing milk in the stomach of animals, a common practice in those days, may have resulted in the unintended disintegration of milk into liquid whey and solid yogurt, the latter of which is processed to make cheese. Alternately, the Romans are also credited with the discovery of cheese. Whichever the case, it can be established that the Romans advanced and perfected the technique of cheese making. Because the European climate was much cooler than that of the Middle East, the use of acidic preservatives could be limited to a bare minimum. This made for more hospitable sites for cheese-making microbes and resulted in the various, distinct tastes of aged European cheese.

With the advent of European culture and cuisine, Asian regions became aware about cheese and some even integrated it into their own cuisines.
Production
Standardization of Milk
Woman testing milk
The first step in the production of cheese is the testing and quality checking of the milk. Since cheese is the essence of the milk (roughly 10 pounds of milk is required to make 1 pound of cheese), cheese made from milk of an inferior grade would be exponentially less palatable. Commercial cheese is made from the milk of animals who have preferably had the same diet.
Milk pasteurization
The selected milk is then pasteurized (heated at a constant temperature for a predefined amount of time and then rapidly cooled) in order to sterilize it. This is a crucial safety procedure, since cheese - especially the softer ones - are prone to decay.
Souring (Curdling) of Milk
Cooking cheese
The sterilized and standardized milk must now be separated into whey and yogurt. This is achieved by adding rennet in combination with either mild organic acids, such as vinegar, or, in most cases, lactic acid-forming bacteria of the Lactococcus and Lactobacillus genus. Rennet, found naturally in most bovine digestive systems, has two important functions:
  • It forms firmer yogurt than acid-only yogurt.
  • It curdles the milk at a lower acidity, preventing dysfunction of the lactic acid-forming 'starter bacteria' due to high acid levels.
Shaping the Cheese
Shaping the cheese
The curdling is generally allowed for about 30-40 minutes, after which the coagulated, but still quite moist, yogurt is cut up into several pieces, and sometimes heated, to aid the separation. Softer types of cheese are cut into large pieces, while hard varieties, such as cheddar or parmesan, are cut into smaller portions to maximize the efflux (draining out) of water. Very soft types, such as cottage cheese, are directly drained, salted and packed without being cut up. Hard varieties of cheese are then pressed to facilitate the removal of water. Various handling methods, such as stretching, cheddaring (used in the production of the eponymous 'cheddar' cheese), washing, pressing, etc. determine the nature, strength (of taste) and texture of the resulting cheese.
  • Stretching produces a fibrous, rubbery cheese. Mozzarella, a common misnomer for processed pizza cheese, is an example of cheese formed by stretching.
  • Cheddaring constitutes repeatedly piling up the cheese, so as to drain out as much water as possible, and smoothening the edges of the numerous pieces of yogurt by mixing it for a long time.
  • Washing reduces the acidity of the cheese (since the acids are 'washed' away) and produces a mild-flavored cheese.
Ripening
Ripening cheese
All but fresh cheese, such as mozzarella, feta and queso fresco, are then left to 'ripen'. Ripening occurs through the prolonged interaction of the cheese, particularly ingredients such as casein, brine and milk fats, with a designated flavor-imparting bacteria and/or mold. This is the most important process in the manufacture of aged cheese, since this imparts the characteristic flavor of the cheese.
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Cheese curds
Unripened portions of cheese, called 'cheese curds', are bland to taste and rubbery. Although they are eaten on their own, they are not true cheese. Hard types of cheese such as cheddar and parmesan may be ripened for months, even years, which intensifies their 'sharp' tastes.
Cheese is used all over the world for a plethora of culinary purposes. They can either be served on their own, crumbled with bread or toast, in salads, in desserts, the list goes on. They are one of the earliest foods known to mankind. Cheese has retained a firm foothold in kitchens since the days of animal skins and continues to be a firm favorite in the age of stainless steel.