The art of cheese

Few foods embody pleasure, tradition and variety the way cheese does. How do producers manage to create tastes that appeal to millions of people? Two product developers provide some insights.

Actually, it is pretty ironic that I, of all people, am a product developer for cheese. I couldn’t stand the taste of it until I was 21 years old. Now, I can’t imagine life without cheese. I’m proud to have worked on the recipe for the award-winning Zoeteweijde from Uniekaas Holland, together with my colleagues. Creating the right taste is an art, it involves trial and error, consideration and discernment. The taste depends a series of factors, such as the degree it is ripened, ingredients such as lactic acid starters and rennet, on the machine settings and, last but not least: Our milk.

Thousands of possible flavors

Cheese is one of the most important foods there is. There are more than 4,500 varieties worldwide, each created thanks to the knowledge and experience of a master cheese maker. That makes tasting an important tool in assessing quality. Colleagues who are specially trained assess properties such as taste, odor, color and consistency, in processes that are carefully defined and mapped out. Based on their assessments, we know whether we have reached our goal or or whether we need a new series of tests. Taste, of course, is a matter of debate! Meanwhile the market and customer needs are also evolving constantly. So for us as developers, we have to keep trying things out until we truly achieve the taste we are aiming for.

The influence of feed

As developers, we have to take many things into account: If cows are given feed that partly contains onions or wheat-yeast concentrate, that definitely affects the taste of the cheese. Silage feed, for example, contains butyric acid bacteria that can enter the milk. Alongside the taste, that also affects quality, because a high butyric acid content can mean the cheese cracks or swells.

Anything can happen

The slightly creamy taste, which can be spicy, piquant or mild, is also thanks to the good quality of the raw milk that provides the basis for the product. Dairy farmers really influence the taste and quality of the cheese.

“Everything depends on good technique.”

Sander Broersma, Product Developer at DOC Kaas.

Acid for flavor

Each type of cheese has its own starter recipe, which affects the taste, texture and the formation of eyes. The starter for Gouda gives the cheese a great deal of flavor and causes gases to form that create the eyes in the cheese. Meanwhile cheese that is ripened in foil has a less intense taste and eyes do not form. We inoculate the skimmed milk with a starter culture to cultivate the lactic acid. The real trick is to develop combinations that are not easy to imitate. A starter culture can consist of hundreds of bacterial strains. Which strains develop depends on the type of culture and the cheese-making process.

Nuances are decisive

Alongside the starter, further cultures are added to some cheeses to give them additional character or accelerate the ripening process. A good Gouda does not need additional cultures. However, a nice Maasdam does. As gas forms, that creates eyes in the cheese as well as the slightly nutty, sweet taste. Other possible flavors are sweet, savory, roasted or tart. The cultures affect the texture, determining how firm, crumbly or slice-able the cheese will be. The culture only becomes active later when the cheese is maturing under the right environmental conditions

Rennet is essential

Lastly, a vegetarian version of rennet is added to the milk. It is an enzyme that helps the proteins coagulate, separating them from the watery whey. If the rennet fails to interact well with the acidity regulator during the ripening process, the cheese can wind up tasting bitter.

Firming up

Next the cheese is drained in a column with sections. The mass of curds sinks down and the residual whey is drained off. How much whey is removed partly determines how firm the block of cheese will be, so the plant is adapted to the characteristics desired of the cheese. Foil-ripened cheese that is cut into slices needs to be firmer than a piece of young Gouda. The firmness of the cheese does not influence the taste but it does determine the texture and mouth feel, so it affects the tasting experience overall. In the whey removal plant, the lower part of the block of curd is cut off and slides into a cheese mold. A lid is then placed on the mold, then it is pressed several times. The pressing process does not influence the taste, but it affects the formation of the rind and the quality. If the pressing process is not carried out properly, too much whey is left in the cheese, making it sour.

Salt bath

After pressing, the cheese is placed in a large brine bath for some time, to slow down the process of acidification, improve its shelf life and make it firmer and more tasty. The cheese can be brined for between a few hours to several days. And no, the brine bath is not simply a container of salt water, it is a special culture of yeasts, molds, salt and bacteria that has a particular pH value. The salt and organisms influence the taste of the cheese. When it comes to making cheese, everything depends on good production, which also means good technology. The process is then rounded off with the maturing, tasting and testing of the cheese.”

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