by Ken Weldon
Cheesemonger, Hanover Co-op Cheese Shop
The process of making cheese is one of controlled spoilage, removing moisture and condensing milk solids while adding salt and thus stabilizing the perishable milk and making a nutrient rich food that can (in some cases) last for years with little or no refrigeration.
The three stages of making artisanal cheese have been the same for centuries. They are:
- Producing the curd.
- Concentrating the curd.
- Ripening the curd.
Producing the Curd
In this stage, the cheese maker begins to separate the milk solid (curds) from the liquid (whey) and produces the curd. To accomplish this, the cheese maker warms the milk and adds a starter culture in the form of a bacteria. Streptococci or Lactobacilli are commonly used. The addition of such a culture effectively curdles the milk and begins that process of controlled spoilage that we spoke of earlier. Small chunks or clots form in the milk.
The next step involves adding an enzyme to the partially separated milk. This causes the protein in the milk to form large clumps (curds). The enzyme can be in the form of animal rennet or a vegetable based enzyme. At this point, the milk is gently stirred by hand or with a machine. As the milk is stirred, larger and larger curds form. As the stirring continues, the curds grow and begin to appear to be floating in an opaque liquid (whey) that looks like the brine in which Mozzarella cheese is stored.
Concentrating the Curd
Concentrating the curd is accomplished by draining the whey off of the curd, by straining the curd out of the whey or, most commonly, both. A wide variety of techniques are used to further this process, including cutting, cooking, pressing, and salting.
At this point the curds look like cottage cheese, being made up of very large pieces. Once the very moist curd has been separated from the liquid whey, the cheese is pressed into a mold, removing more liquid whey and further concentrating the curd. It is at this point that this product would begin to look, to most of us, like something that we would recognize as cheese.
The cheese spends a period of time in the mold as more liquid drains. When the cheese has solidified enough to be removed from the mold, the cheese is placed on a shelf in the cheese aging cave and the final stage begins.
Ripening the Curd
This part of the process is also called affinage—the art and science of ripening and aging cheese. A person can get a Ph.D. in affinage in France. The French take their cheese very seriously.
Ripening cheese, in its most simple form, involves letting cheeses dry in a cool environment, such as a cave. There is, of course, much more to it than that. Cheese in this stage is treated and aged as needed to produce a cheese of the age, aroma, texture, and appearance to be true to its type. During this stage, cheese is aged in caves or cellars and is turned, washed, wiped, moved from place to placed (according to temperature, humidity, etc.) rubbed with salt, wine or herbs, bathed in wine, beer or some other liquid, scraped and even buttered.
The idea here is for components in the milk such as protein, fat, and carbohydrates to undergo a chemical process that results in a finished cheese with the balance of flavors, textures, etc. desirable in the finished cheese. In this way, the fresh curded cheese is matured into a fully ripened cheese.
As always, please stop by the cheese shop at the Hanover Co-op at 45 Park St in Hanover, NH. We have the area’s best selection of cheese, charcuterie, and accompaniments from around New England and the world. We offer artisanal cheese platters, custom cutting of cheeses, and expert advice from our cheesemongers. If you have a question or have a topic that you would like to see me discuss here, please contact me.
Thanks and I’ll see you at the cheese shop.
—Ken, your friendly neighborhood cheesemonger.
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