You couldn’t stop me at yogurt. Dairy is the most magical of all grocery store staples.
It’s quite difficult to summarize the intricate and varietal histories of cheese making in a few short paragraphs, but for the sake of everyone’s attention span including my own, I will try.
Cheese has been made since before history has been written down. Nobody knows exactly when or where it started, but there is evidence of cheese-making in Northern Europe around 6,000 BC, in the Sahara Desert around 4,000 BC, and in Egypt in 2,000 BC, as illustrated by Egyptian tomb murals. In Ancient Crete, tablets document cheese inventories. Thus, cheese was most likely not invented in one place but rather discovered in many places. Animal stomachs, which naturally contain the acidic enzyme rennet that turns milk into curds and whey, were often used to store milk and probably naturally curdled milk over time.
By the age of the Roman Empire, cheese was both an art and a large-scale enterprise. Cheese spread (ha!) over the next several centuries to Northern Europe, where less salt was needed as preservative in a cooler climate. The Middle Ages were quite fruitful for cheese invention. Cheddar emerged in the 16th century, Parmesan in the next, Gouda in the one after that. Cheese came to the New World during colonization.
Jesse Williams, a New York dairy farmer, is credited with the invention of assembly line cheese in 1851. In the 1860s scientists learned how to mass-produce rennet, which caused a new era of industrial cheese production. By 1880, there were four thousand dairy factories in the United States. Factory made cheese surpassed traditional cheese consumption in WWII era. Cheese processing began to involve emulsifiers, stabilizers, flavoring and colorings.
Today, over one-third of milk produced in the US becomes cheese.
Cheese is a method of preserving the nutrition of milk, and it consists of many steps. Fermentation, coagulation, dehydration, and salt preservation are the main ones.
First things first, pasteurize your milk! Milk is heated up to 185 degrees Fahrenheit to kill off uncontrollable bacteria. Bacteria are then carefully added back in, and begin to convert lactose to lactic acid via fermentation, that funky process we went over in Episode 3.
Then, milk is coagulated by rennin, an enzyme found in the bellies of ruminants (animals that chew and chew and chew grass) that curdles milk, prolongs its digestion and facilitates better absorption. Rennin can also be extracted from plants and microbes and generically engineered. Rennin breaks down the peptide bonds in between the amino acids of milk protein in a process called proteolysis, causing hydrophobic casein proteins to unite around fat and calcium and precipitate as curd. The remainder, whey, just mainly water, is left behind. Eight pounds of milk will produce a solemn 1.25 pounds of curd.
Next, the curds are dehydrated and pressed such that the fats and proteins are concentrated times ten, or more. Salt is added to enable dehydration. Along with salt, mould spores can be added. For example, the Penicillium roqueforti fungi is added via ground bread left to go bad in the French Roquefort caves, to make Roquefort cheese.
Finally, the cheese ripens! In this most luxurious stage, the curds are left to age and enzymes and bacteria continuously convert acid, milk fat and proteins into complex flavor compounds. Proteolysis continues as casein is broken into smaller peptides and highly flavorful and smelly free amino acids. Milk-fat, three fatty acids linked to a glycerol backbone, is broken apart particularly by moulds such as P. roqueforti, producing interesting aromas and sharp flavors.
Brie and Camembert age just for a few weeks. With these soft cheeses, more of the whey is left in with the curds, allowing for a moist and airy texture, enabling moulds to grow. These cheeses unfortunately spoil faster. The surface mould creates an enzyme that breaks down casein protein, turning it runny and soft.
Conversely, sharp cheddar and Parmesan may be aged for many years. The more diverse the enzymes and bacteria, the more complex the flavor of the cheese.
Processed cheese is produced by melting natural cheese with emulsifying salts and is then cooled and molded. Milk powder, casein products, flavors, colors, and preservatives, and stabilizers may all be added.