Cheese Primer: The curd's the word
Decider's guide to what lies beyond the orange brick
Those orange blocks for sale in the dairy section are what the Food And Drug Administration calls "pasteurized process cheese." Not cheese at all, those impostors are the result of combining and melting a bunch of different cheese byproducts together.
If you want the real stuff, look to the artisan cheesemakers. They do it all, from caring for the animals to turning their milk into cheese—all within the confines of a single farm. Surprisingly simple but rare, the concept is also called farmstead cheesemaking and results in some of the best cheese in the world.
So in the coming weeks, Decider has decided to adopt an all-cheese diet and submit a primer on the best Midwestern cheese. Today, we cover the basics of cheesemaking.
It's basically the result of purposefully spoiling milk. Only three ingredients—milk, bacteria, and rennet—can produce hundreds of varieties of cheese. The best cheese comes from milk from goats, sheep, cows, and maybe water buffalos. The cheesemaker adds bacteria to turn all the lactose (or sugar) into lactic acid in a fermentation process similar to beer or wine.
Then comes the rennet, an enzyme typically found in the stomach lining of animals. Rennet causes the milk to clump together into curds, which are then collected and drained of excess milk water, or whey. (You could also just make like Little Miss Muffet and eat both.) Depending on the style of cheese, the curds are concentrated into a specific size and form by any number of methods—cutting or cooking or pressing them together. From here those formed curds can be aged, bandaged, ripened, colored, left to their own devices, and even washed with beer and wine.
The cheese will likely fall into one of these seven broad styles:
Fresh: Young, uncooked curd with creamy texture and tangy flavors. Example: Fresh Chevre (goat cheese), Prairie Fruits Farm, Illinois.
Bloomy: Slightly aged with a pillowy rind of edible mold and creamy center. Example: Mt. Tam, Cowgirl Creamery, California.
Semi-Soft: A somewhat pliable interior with earthy notes. Example: Old Kentucky Tomme, Capriole Farmstead Goat Cheese, Indiana.
Washed: Bathed in a brine, wine, or beer to form a natural rind and infuse flavor and aroma. Example: Grayson, Meadow Creek Dairy, Virginia.
Firm: Dry, dense interior resulting from pressing the curd to remove excess liquid. Example: Bandaged Cheddar, Bleu Mont Dairy , Wisconsin.
Hard: Typically aged, solid interior with a crumbly texture and caramel flavors. Example: Dry Monterey Jack, Vella Cheese Company, California.
Blue: Strategically placed mold cultures result in a green/blue-ish marbled interior. Example: Bayley Hazen Blue, Jasper Hill Farm, Vermont.
Tune in to future Cheese Primers for specifics on these styles of cheese, beer and wine pairings, and tips for finding the best artisan cheese in the area.