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Say Cheese

In honor of this ubiquitous queen of all dairy products, here are five fun and surprising facts you may not know about cheese.

Tiffany Duncan
August 28, 2019

Is there anything more iconically American than cheese? Cheese, of course, did not originate in the United States, but you would be hard-pressed to name an ingredient that could better single-handedly define the American food landscape. We slice it, grill it, fry it, grate it, and even squeeze it from cans. We are so obsessed with cheese that, according to Bloomberg, each of us eats 35 pounds of the stuff every year.

In honor of this ubiquitous queen of all dairy products, here are five fun and surprising facts you may not know about cheese.

What the heck are curds and whey, anyway?

Remember that nursery rhyme about Little Miss Muffet sitting on her tuffet (whatever that is) eating her curds and whey? Most of us haven’t the slightest clue what the heck curds and whey are, but in actuality they are the building blocks for almost all cheeses.

To make cheese, the cows’ milk is poured into a large vat, and a “starter culture” — a bacteria that begins the fermentation process — is added to the milk to convert lactose into lactic acid. Then rennet is added to curdle the milk. The curdled bits are the casein proteins (or milk solids) and the watery liquid that separates is the whey protein. Voila! Curds and whey. (If you’ve ever let a jug of milk go sour and chunky, you’ve made crude — albeit disgusting — curds and whey.)

If you like cottage cheese, it’s curds and whey, except that a lot of the whey has been washed or pressed out to better the flavor. To make cheese, however, the whey is discarded and the curds are salted, cut into smaller pieces, and then heated to release more whey. The resulting clumps are pressed into molds and left to age, or have different strains of mold added, depending on what kind of cheese is being made.

Why is some cheddar orange?
Seriously, have you ever thought about this? It’s not like cows naturally produce milk the color of the Kraft Mac and Cheese dinosaur. So why are we dyeing specific varietals of cheese? The answer is multi-faceted, but like almost all other products, it pretty much boils down to two things: greed and deception.

In 17th century London, cheese was mainly made from Jersey and Guernsey cows. These two breeds of cows tended to produce rich, orange-tinged milk due to the beta-carotene in the grasses they ate. This light orange tint was a mark of high-quality cheese. But farmers discovered that they could make more money if they skimmed off this rich pigmented top layer of fatty cream and sold it separately, or as butter. But because discerning market shoppers had come to expect the orange tint in their cheese, farmers began adding pigment from things like saffron, carrot juice, and marigold so shoppers would be none the wiser, and they would be all the richer.

The origins of the practice of dyeing cheddar in America gets a little murkier. Wisconsin cheddar has long been known for its deep golden hue, and some Wisconsinites believe that this practice started in the late 1800s as a means of consistency. Just like the English cows that dined on beta-carotene-rich grasses, the pastured cows of Wisconsin tended to produce a cheese with a light golden color. But when farmers moved the cows to dry feed, the cheese would lose its signature hue and therefore had to be fabricated.

Another theory holds that it was a way to distinguish Midwestern cheese from the pale white cheeses of New England. Whatever the reason, the tradition has continued. The flavorless Annatto seed is the natural dye that is mainly used to give cheddar its signature, bright orange hue.

What exactly is American cheese?
While many look down on American cheese and refer to it as “plastic” or “fake food,” it is mostly made from real cheese. Back in 1903, a man named James L. Kraft moved from Canada to Chicago with $65. He got into the business of wholesaling cheese and transporting it to shop owners to make money.  

To his dismay, however, he noticed that he was losing a lot of his product because it had such a short shelf life. Having grown up on a dairy farm in Ontario, he was intimately familiar with the process of making cheese. Entrepreneurial by nature, he began experimenting not only with ways to preserve the shelf life of the cheddar, but also with how to melt it without the cheese disintegrating. He soon discovered that by shredding leftover cheddar, re-pasteurizing it, and adding sodium phosphate (an emulsifying salt), he could create an easy melting cheese that would stay fresh for much longer. He patented his idea, and as they say, the rest is history.

American cheese is what’s known as “pasteurized process cheese.” This might sound scary, but technically all cheese is processed cheese. The only difference is that though American cheese is made using an honest-to-goodness blend of real cheddar and Colby, it also has a couple of other ingredients added in to alter the flavor and texture. You will have to decide for yourself if you are comfortable with all that entails, but there is a wonderful article from seriouseats.com titled “What is American Cheese, Anyway?” to help you understand the ingredients list of American cheese.

Why do certain cheeses stink?
There is a particular type of cheese— Epoisses de Bourgogne — that is so smelly, it has been banned from public vehicles in France. Limburger, another kind of cheese, is typically thought of as the stinkiest cheese on the market, as it smells like dirty feet. The disconcerting fact about Limburger is it smells like feet because it is fermented with the same bacterium — Brevabacterium linens —  that is also found on human skin and is responsible for foot odor.

Why in the world does stinky cheese exist in the first place? Even though certain bacteria and mold added to ferment cheese can create a rind that can clear a room, it actually can also infuse the actual cheese with a very complex, even floral taste. Stinky cheeses often do not taste as they smell, so the next time you encounter a stinky cheese, go ahead and try it — you might be pleasantly surprised.

Is moldy cheese safe to eat?
There are thousands of types of mold, some harmless and some not. Certain types can create a delicious taste when used in cheesemaking, like in Stilton Blue or Roquefort. But the type that sprouted on your rind of parmesan in the fridge? Don’t eat it, but don’t throw the whole thing away, either. Hard and semi-hard cheeses are dense enough to block the mold from penetrating very deep, so cut it off at least an inch deep, and it’s perfectly safe to consume.

Soft or runny cheeses, however, like mozzarella or cottage cheese, should be tossed out once mold has sprouted. Mold has invisible “tentacles” that reach past the surface and deeper into the container because soft and runny cheeses are not dense enough to block them.