How to make cheese
A description of how to make cheese should actually start with a small dissertation on “dairy products”.
As you will read along, different products require somewhat different processing to obtain that specific color, taste and flavor that make any cheese a “specific” cheese.What’s to be said, though, is that the basic steps are common to all of them.
Before learning more about the steps in cheese making, let’s have a refresher on the different production peculiarities of the italian dairy products and the italian cheeses.
Produced through the acid fermentation of milk, milk cream or of the milk serum, they divide into fermented milks and ricottas.
The use of fermented milk traces back to many centuries BC, by the eastern populations.
Fermentation is a natural, quite slow process: the bacteria that are present in (or added to) the milk, transform the lactose in lactic acid. The jellification of the proteins causes the formation of a semisolid curd.
If, along with the bacteria, yeasts are present, an alcoholic fermentation takes place.
The temperature increase accelerates this process.
Talking of “fermented milk”, yoghurt is an example or, still, the “gioddu” from Sardinia and the “prescinseua” from Liguria.
Yoghurt is derived from the combined action of two bacteria species: Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus.
It can be obtained from whole or skimmed, concentrated or powder milk.
It is called whole curd when fermentation takes place directly in the jars (structure is more compact in this case), broken curd when it ferments in large pots and it is then packed: in this case, consistency is fluid, liquid at times.
Ricotta is obtained from milk serum, that liquid which separates from curd during the preparation of cheese. Its name deriving from latin (re-coctus, i.e. re-cooked) tells much about its origins and preparation methods.
Fresh Cheese Making
Their production technique is pretty easy: they are derived from milk curd, obtained usually from the combined action of acidification and a small quantity of rennet. The development of digestive ferments makes the consistency soft.
Without crust, fresh cheeses possess a white, clean paste a mild aroma and a milky, slightly sourish taste. They are rich in proteins and water and their production yield is fairly high.
“Robiola” and “caprino” both belong to this cheese making category.
Soft-Paste Cheese Making
Essentially two groups of cheese belong to this category, obtained through the coagulation of the milk through the use of rennet (“caglio” in italian).Rich in water (between 45 and 55%), they mature in a period comprised between few days and up to 6 months.
A first group (like “crescenza”, “stracchino”, “casatella trevigiana”, “murazzano”, the “tome di Langa”, the “casu axedu”, the “bonassai”, the “raviggiolo” and the “squaquarone”) is made up of soft paste cheeses, white in color or flaxen, they have no or very thin skin, which mature in a few days.Their aroma is that of sour milk, herbs and dry berries.
A second group is comprised by cheeses that have a medium to long seasoning period (few weeks up to several months) like the “quartirolo lombardo”, the “toma piemontese” and the typical “caciotte” from Central-South Italy.Their paste is tender, elastic, often with holes (“occhiatura”) and the color ranges from ivory to straw yellow, depending on the seasoning.
Crust is thin, greyish, with likely presence of whitish or reddish molds.
The surface is typically pebbled if the paste has been wrapped in clothes during the moulding.
Soft-Paste (“Blossomed” And Washed Crust) Cheese Making
The seasoning of these two types of cheese is evident mainly from their surface. It (the seasoning) is also called to have a “centripetal pattern” as it proceeds from the crust into the inside.
If observed, a slice would show a more fluid paste just below the crust with a more intense color, sharper aromas, and an almost spicy taste; toward its center, paste is more compact and dry, brighter in color and less sapid.
The “blossomed” crust (“crosta fiorita”) is derived from spores of Penicillium Candidum on the still soft crust of the fresh cheese. A light down, from white to grey in color, dry and compact, wraps the whole cheese.This mold is edible and its aroma is of moss, grass and other vegetable perfumes.The “scimudin” cheese is representative of this typology.
Washed crusts are obtained by sponging the surface of the cheese with salt water: these rinsings aim at eliminating molds and other impurities, at the same time stimulating a micro-flora (Oospora crustacea) which renders the crust of a orange, reddish color. Smooth and humid, the crusts of these cheese have a very distinct, sharp and penetrating aroma and not in all cases they can be consumed.The “taleggio” is one of such cheeses.
The longer the seasoning (in both typologies), the more ammonia is naturally produced: usually this aroma, if limited to the crust, does not affect the tasting; if the paste is affected, the cheese can no longer be eaten.
Blue Cheese Making (“Erborinati”)
Blue (bleu in french) is the french name of those cheese whose paste, with bluish to greenish veins, seems to be strewn with parsley (“erborin”, in the milanese dialect).
The production technique of blue cheeses was developed by a french cheesemaker (Antoine Roussel) in the XIX century.
If once this was a totally natural process (like it’s still the case today for cheeses like “castelmagno”), today, for the greater part, molds are helped by the artificial inoculation of the “penicilli” into the milk and, afterwards, by the piercing of the forms with letting of air: the cheeses “gorgonzola”, “strachitund” and other small “alpeggio” products (from summer pastures in the mountains) are obtained this way.
The “erborinati” are fairly spicy cheeses, very sapid and with strong aromas of mold and fat. The distribution of the molds has to be homogeneous, that is why the correct care for the piercing in the cheese is important.
If the paste is too pressed o there are not enough holes, the Penicillium only develops along the walls of the channels.
“Pasta Filata” (Stringy-Paste) Cheese Making
These cheeses are typically italian and Italy is the major producer.
“Provolone valpadana” cheese is an example of such products, but many others (often very different for seasoning and consistency) are typical of central-south and insular Italy: “burrata”, “burrini”, “caciocavallo”, “mozzarella”, “provolone”, “scamorza”, “stracciata” from Molise and the “vastedda” from Sicily.
These products are linked by a specific phase in their production which makes their paste especially elastic: the curd, after a small seasoning, is immersed in warm or hot water, and it is then “filata” ( i.e., pulled with wooden clubs).
Hard And Semi-Hard Pressed-Paste Cheese Making
The number of this types is very high in Italy: they are obtained from raw or pasteurized milk, coagulated with rennet and with a limited acidification.
Being mainly seasoned cheeses, the elimination of the serum is closely followed: fundamental phases are the breaking of the curd (repeated twice for some special products like “castelmagno” and “bra d’alpeggio”), the placing in bandages (“messa in fascera”) and the pressing (“pressatura”).
Three sub-categories exist: raw paste (“a pasta cruda”), semi-cooked paste (“a pasta semi-cotta”), cooked paste (“a pasta cotta”), whose differences you can read on this page.
The raw paste cheeses are mainly present in Piedmont (“bra”, “castelmagno”, “raschera”, etc.), while the semi-cooked (widely distributed) and the cooked paste cheeses are omnipresent.
More On Cheese Making
A treatise on cheese making could be endless, but, by now, you should be familiar with some of the main terms associated to the production of dairy foods.
Let’s now then get a bit deeper in the description of the various steps in the production process.