How Cheese Works

Making Cheese

Once the cheese is condensed into curds and salted, there are still a few steps before it's ready to eat. All of them really depend on what the cheesemaker produces. Although the type of cheese became a factor with the temperature of the milk and the size of the curds, the differences become even greater in the final steps.

Cheese making
© Photographer: Wd | Agency: Dreamstime
Pressing -- one of the final steps in the cheesemaking process

If the cheesemaker is producing cheddar (or a similar uncooked, pressed cheese), for example, he or she might cheddar the curds. In this process, the curds are stacked on top of each other, pressed together and then stacked again to expel the maximum amount of whey and dry them out. Then they're chopped fine, salted and pressed into molds.

Cooked, pressed cheeses come from curds that have been cooked and stirred to give them a soft, stringy texture. High temperatures result in firmer cheeses like Emmental, while low ones create the right texture for fontina. Mozzarella production ends after the cooking process. Blue-veined cheeses aren't cooked at all, because they need a looser texture for mold to grow.

Salt flavors the cheese and also keeps it from spoiling quickly. If the salt has not already been added to the curds, the cheese can be rubbed or washed with salt, or even floated in a briny "bath." All of these methods affect the flavor of the cheese in different ways -- cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano get a salt rub while washed-rind cheeses are washed with brine or other liquids.

Next, the cheese is usually packed into a mold. Some are pressed to remove more whey, while others are simply molded. The more a cheese is pressed, the denser its texture will be. Some cheeses are finished after this stage, but many go through a ripening or aging period.

Before this stage, cheeses that need ripening usually taste bland and rubbery. During ripening, the milk proteins in the cheese break down further and impart more taste. The two most important factors during ripening are temperature and humidity, so cheese is usually ripened in carefully controlled storage facilities. Soft cheeses need high humidity, and they ripen quickly. Hard cheeses need slightly lower humidity. The humidity keeps the cheese from getting too dry and allows it to ripen at the right pace. Many cheeses are regularly washed, brushed and turned while ripening.

"Affinage" is the French word for "maturing" or "the art of refining," especially when it comes to cheese. "Affineurs" specialize in the art of cheese ripening. They take the cheese from the producer and age it to perfection before selling it. In France, an affineur may start as an apprentice and hone his craft over many years.

During ripening, the starters that were used to begin the curdling process play a part again and influence the taste and appearance of the final cheese. Cheeses with holes are made with bacteria that eat lactic acid and give off bubbles of carbon dioxide. Blue-veined cheeses start with a culture that feeds on oxygen. In a process called needling, cheesemakers make holes in the cheese, which lets in oxygen to feed the bacteria that produces mold.

Soft-ripened cheeses like Brie are made with bacteria that makes them start ripening on the outside first. Mold is often sprayed on to the surface to encourage the growth of white, "bloomy" rinds.