Over the past thirteen years, I've taught numerous classes on how to make cheese. My philosophy on understanding cheese - or any specialty food or drink for that matter - is that to understand the fundamentals on how cheese is made is to understand how to best enjoy each style of cheese. The more we know about the processes in which our food is made, the easier it will be to select, store, and serve.
The Fundamentals of Cheesemaking
About ten years ago, I developed a comical acronym to aide in the understanding on how cheese is made:
T : Temperature
E : Environment
A : Acidity
T : Time
S : Salts/Minerals
Temperature references the temperature of the milk during cheesemaking as well as the ripening or aging of cheese. Depending on the temperature of the milk, certain starter temperature sensitive bacteria present in the milk will develop the flavor profile of the final cheese. Temperature also affects the rate of fermentation and the types of starter bacteria that thrive.
Environment can also be explained as the terroir or taste of place. If the cheese is made with raw, un-pasteurized milk, the natural bacteria in the milk will contribute to the final flavor of the cheese. Each cheese aging cave also has its own unique flora dependent on the style of cheese being produced. This environmental terroir is often a blend of the cheesemaking manipulating the milk through store bought starter bacteria and working with the direct natural environment that creates a unique flavor profile of cheese.
Fundamentally, the acidity level of cheese refers to the conversion of lactose sugars into lactic acid, thus separating the proteins and fats from the water content of the milk. This happens through a combination of the starter bacteria acidifying the milk and through the addition of rennet, an enzyme derived from mushrooms, thistles, or the stomach-lining of a newborn dairy animal.
The enzyme rennet dramatically alters the chemical composition of milk, making the protein chains bond together as a protein matrix that traps fat, mineral and vitamins to create the curd body of the cheese. The bond ignites a polar/non-polar reaction, where the non-polar matter in milk (curd components) binds together while expelling the polar matter in milk (water, whey protein, and minerals) to create curds and whey. The rate of acidification is dependent on the temperature of the milk and curds during the cheesemaking process and the quantity of rennet enzyme added to the milk.
Cheese is a diligent waiting game for the cheesemaker. From fresh to aged styles, the rate in which the curd is formed and the cheese is aged affects the final flavor and texture of the cheese. A fresh goat cheese is produced anywhere from 48 to 72 hours, while aged, hard cheeses can take months to years to get the desired cheese texture and flavor.
Time also refers to the rate of fermentation. Each cheese has a peak of optimal flavor and texture, and this is dependent on the rate of fermentation, and understanding the ideal time to slow down the aging process to sell and consume the final product.
Salt is the essential preserver. It slows down and controls the rate of fermentation in cheeses, it prevents unwanted molds and bacteria for propagating the cheese interior and exterior. It is applied minimally to liberally - fresh cheeses don't require as much salt as they are eaten within a few day. The more aged the cheese is, the more salt is required to regulate the fermentation and aging process to achieve the desired result.
Calcium salts (Calcium Chloride) naturally present in the milk are also extremely important in the conversion of lactose into lactic acid, and in the building of the protein matrix. Calcium salts often get destroyed in ultra-pasteurized (heat-treated) milk from the grocery store which makes it not ideal for cheesemaking.