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The Art of Aging Well

The art of cheesemaking has developed over time beginning several thousand years ago. Today, there are over 4,000 different types of cheeses worldwide.

Jennifer Zehnder
Jennifer Zehnder
July 28, 2019

Amanda Jane Simcoe, head chef at The Cheese Wench, has been obsessed with cheese since she was a child.

“I was the kid stealing all the blue cheese crumbles from my parents’ salad plates. I was the kid begging to go to any restaurant that served any manner of fried goat cheese,” she says. “We got to choose our birthday dinner each year, and I always wanted cheese fondue.”

Simcoe is not alone in her appetite for cheese. Historical evidence shows that people have been enjoying milk’s spoils as early as 1615 B.C. According to scientists, the allure of cheese comes mainly from the dairy protein casein, which during the cheesemaking process compounds into a substance as addictive as heroin and other narcotics. The addiction connection is not lost on marketers who promote cheesier, cheese lovers’ and other cheese-filled temptations designed to give people their cheese fix.

Patience and attention are the two most important terms a person should know when looking to dabble in the cheesemaking arts, Simcoe contends. For everything else, there’s Google search, books, and hands-on classes, as well as online and in-store resources.

At its most fundamental level, cheesemaking begins with milk and ends with cheese. The specific cheese produced is dependent upon what is added to the milk — cultures, mold spore powders, enzymes — and what steps are taken during the cheesemaking process —heated, cured, cooked/not cooked, pressed, aged.

“The basic requirement for turning milk into cheese involves acidulating and curdling the milk,” Simcoe explains. “Regardless of what kind of cheese you want to make, you must separate the curds — milk solids — and the whey — milk liquid. The curds are made into cheese. The whey can be used once again to make certain byproduct cheeses like Ricotta, which means “re-cooked.” 

From there, she says, the process splits into many directions depending on the type of cheese desired.

“Some cheeses require cooking the curds, and some require pressing, additional cultures, mold spores or bacteria,” she says. “Some need to be washed to prepare the surface for naturally-occurring bacteria to enhance the flavor of the cheese.”

Regardless of choice — cow, goat or sheep milk — you want to use milk that is not high-heat pasteurized, Simcoe notes. Homogenized milk, which is treated to distribute cream throughout the milk evenly, is not necessary.

Raw milk is excellent, she says, but it can be tricky to find if you do not live near a dairy. The FDA does not allow the sale of raw milk off-site in Oklahoma. Another great option is VAT (low-heat) pasteurized milk since all the necessary enzymes are left intact after the process.

When it comes to the variety of milk used, goat and cow milk are surprisingly interchangeable. Many types of cheese can be crafted from either — including mozzarella, which was initially made from water buffalo milk (mozzarella di bufula). In the United States, cow milk is the norm, but its goat counterpart called “capriella” is a pleasant diversion, Simcoe asserts.

Her advice to fledgling cheesemakers? Have patience and pay attention to the small details.

“Read the instructions before you even open the milk jug. In certain cases, the order in which the steps are followed— heating, acidulating, etc. — can be blurred just a bit. In other cheeses, you must follow the directions exactly, or the results will not be good.”

A good batch of cheese begins with proper instructions and recipes — especially if a kit is not involved. After that, necessary hardware includes a stainless-steel pot, strainer, whisk, ladle, extra stainless-steel bowls, a thermometer, butter muslin, kitchen twine, salt, citric acid, and rennet. For some cheeses, additional cultures, cheese molds and presses are needed. The cheese recipe will specify what you will need.

In the end, cheese is what and how you make it. As a cooking element, cheese can be a blessing and a curse, Simcoe shares.

“It is an amazing ingredient unless it is poorly used, which does a disservice to both the dish and the cheese. I’m not a fan of using cheese to hide a mediocre dish,” she says. “I’m also not a fan of wasting a gorgeous cheese in a way that doesn’t elevate it to its full potential. Respect the cheese.”

To keep up with Simcoe’s hands-on classes and events, follow her Facebook page at TheCheeseWench.  

Cheese Terms

Casein: The most critical protein in milk for cheesemaking. Coagulated casein can hold moisture like a sponge, then shrink and expel moisture when exposed to acid and heat. It is modified during the fermentation and ripening of cheese to create the structure and flavor of the cheese.

Citric acid: Used to increase acidity when necessary.

Coagulation: A process of thickening the milk into a custard-like gel by introducing acid or rennet to the milk. Coagulant enzymes can be from plant, animal or laboratory sources.

Cultures: Cheese cultures are used to acidify the milk. There are several varieties of cultures which react differently with milk to adjust the pH.

Curd: The solids formed in curdled (or coagulated) milk from which cheese is made.

Pasteurization: Process of heating milk to kill harmful pathogens.

pH: A 0-14 scale that measures the acidity of a solution.

Rennet (Chymosin): A milk-clotting enzyme added to coagulate milk. Rennet can be of either animal, plant or microbial origin.

Ripening: Nurturing cheese under ideal conditions and with proper handling to control its development over time. Proper maturation is fundamental to enabling many kinds of cheese to develop characteristic flavor, color, and texture fully. Fresh cheeses are not aged. Other terms used for ripening are aging, maturation and curing.

Whey: The liquid byproduct of producing cheese. Because whey contains vital proteins, lactose, and minerals, it is increasingly being used as an ingredient in producing other foods. Whey is often used to make Ricotta.

VAT Pasteurization: Low-temperature pasteurization, also called vat or batch pasteurization, is one of several acceptable ways to pasteurize milk.

Sources: Californiadairypressroom.com, cheesemaking.com