Humans of the last few thousand years assume perhaps the most fortunate space-time position in the known historical universe. A bold claim, to be sure, but not unfounded on the surface. Our species has seen unprecedented technological innovation, unbounded artistic expression and unending philosophical discourse. But none of those things account for the real reason the modern human is so lucky.
The real reason is cheese.
Don’t worry, dear reader. This love note to milk’s most glorious consequence will be brief, sort of.
Why exactly are we so lucky? To bear witness to the general notion of “cheese” is one thing, and a fine thing at that. Where we really struck glistening, meltable gold was when the world became inundated, or even, dare I say, saturated with the stuff. Now, cheese is not so much a particular food as it is a loosely defined category of fermented milk product. The variation is astounding. The results often approach levels of holiness reserved for the gods, and I’m not only referring to swiss.
Cheese plays a culinary character in every production put on by the Shakespearean edible theater. It is a sweet and gentle sheep’s milk brie in the wistful “Romeo and Chewliet.” It is a hardened and sour aged cheddar that begins to crumble over time in a menacing “Macbreadth.” Who can forget the performance by the indecisive gruyére in “Hamlet,” which was once fruity and nutty despite its dense and tough outer appearance?
Cheeses play all those full-bodied characters, and thousands more, with style and flair. Those performances make up a world of artisanship akin to that of fine wine, which is likely why the two food groups (they ought to be their own food groups) traditionally go so well together.
The artisans are the stars of the cheese world. Whether on a massively commercial or one-of-a-kind scale, cheesemaking is a surprisingly complex art form. Dairy science professor Phillip Tong is, predictably, very well acquainted with the process on both ends of the quantity spectrum. He spent time working for Kraft before teaching at Cal Poly, where he has led classes on smaller-scale cheesemaking.
No matter the quantity, “the basics of cheesemaking are the same,” Tong said. “But the questions to ask are totally different.”
“Industrial cheesemaking is about yield, profitability and consistency, while artisanal cheesemaking is more about selecting the right ingredients and adjusting to biological variation,” he said.
That is why, for instance, every block of Kraft cheddar is the same bright orange hue, while artisanal cheddars can be colored anywhere between dull white and orange-yellow. Large manufacturers engineer a product to meet strict guidelines, while small operations craft (not Kraft) their milk into more unique expressions of dairy heaven.
Almost any cheesemaking process involves four main ingredients: milk, a bacterial culture, an enzyme or acid coagulate (usually rennet) and salt. The production steps, outlined by Tong, are as follows.
First, milk is poured into an aptly-named “cheese vat,” where it is kept warm while a bacterial culture is added. Soon, the culture becomes active and starts reproducing, at which point the enzyme coagulate joins the party in a very small quantity. Within half an hour, the whole mixture achieves a Jell-O-like texture, allowing it to be cut into tiny cubes by a series of wires.
Due to the cutting, the small coagulated curd cubes release liquid whey, leaving only fat and the protein casein, the main components of cheese. When everything is stirred back together, the whey and curd are separated completely and the whey can be thrown out or repurposed for protein supplements or infant formula. What is left weighs about 10 percent of the original combined weight of the ingredients.
At this point, reaching a final, edible product takes time. Cheeses can be aged in many different ways, depending on the cheesemaker’s desired qualities. Firmer, drier and more acidic or bold-tasting cheeses tend to be aged longer. Some, like Parmesan, are often put in a saltwater brine to toughen up the outer edges and add a salty flavor.
For many cheeses, including blue (bleu) and brie, the aging process includes the promotion of mold growth to add some tangy flavor or cause the cheese to develop a smooth, creamy layer just below the outer surface.
Tiny alterations to the process usually result in entirely different cheeses. Those alterations give distinct character traits. In the production of swiss cheese, for example, a carbon dioxide-producing bacteria is distributed throughout the block so that it releases gas and forms those defining bubbles.
There are an almost overwhelming number of cheeses out in the world, so how does a wide-eyed enthusiast decide where to start on their dairy odyssey? One place to look is toward the experts.
“I like a nice aged Asiago or something from that family of cheeses,” Tong said. “They have a little sweet character, but they also have a little more flavor, and they’re harder. Pork pairs really well with those types of cheeses.”
My personal favorite (so far) is Kerrygold Dubliner, a dry Irish cheddar that is both sweet and very sharp, perfect for pairing with fruit and crackers, but equally at home on an everything bagel with egg and avocado.
It has been a pleasure to pen this ode to the most marvelous of food groups, but I fear that continuing on from here would constitute milking my privilege.
Below are some recommendations from another expert; Jenna from the Whole Foods cheese department. While well worth their prices, some of these selections might put a dent in your bank account, so be careful.