To honor National Grilled Cheese Day, I thought I would talk about cheese and the process of making cheese. With over a dozen organic dairy farms making cheese in South Carolina alone, it has become more easily accessible. Specialty and small farm brands can be ordered online.
What is cheese?
Cheese can be broken down into two broad categories, fresh and ripened. Within these two categories are a multitude of subdivisions, usually classified according to the texture of the cheese and how it was made. Some of these categories can overlap because cheese can have an entirely different character when young than it does when aged. Most cheese begins as either cow’s, goat’s or sheep’s milk. The milk is allowed to thicken, sometimes with the addition of RENNIN, or special bacteria, until its separates into a liquid – called WHEY and semi-solids called CURD. The whey is drained off and the curds are either allowed to drain or pressed into different shapes, depending on the variety. At this stage it is called FRESH CHEESE.
In order to become a ripened, or aged, the drained curds are cured by a variety of processes including being subjected to heat, bacteria and soaking. The curds can be flavored with salt, spices or herbs. Some cheeses, such as cheddar are colored with a natural dye. After curing, natural cheese begins a ripening process, when it is stored. Usually uncovered, the temperature and humidity are strictly monitored until the desired texture and taste are reached. The cheese is then covered with wax or a protective coating before or after the ripening process. Ripened cheese are sub-categorized according to their texture.
Hard cheeses – PARMESAN and PECORINO are cooked, pressed and aged for long periods of time (usually at least 2 years), until hard and dry.
Semi-firm – CHEDDAR, EDAM and JARLSBERG are firm, but not crumbly. They were cooked and pressed but not aged as long.
Semi-soft – GOUDA, JACK and TILSIT are pressed but can be either cooked or uncooked. They are slice-able but soft.
Soft-ripened – BRIE – are neither cooked, nor pressed but they are exposed to bacteria, which ripens the cheese from the outside in.
A special category for Italy’s famous stretched-curd cheeses called PASTA FILATA, which is a process whereby the curd is given a hot whey bath, then kneaded and stretched to the desired pliable consistency – examples are MOZZARELLA and PROVOLONE.
Instead of beginning with milk, whey cheeses are made from the whey drained from the making other cheeses. The whey is reheated (usually with rennin) until it coagulates. The best known whey cheese is RICOTTA.
Firm, semi firm and semi soft cheese should be wrapped airtight in a plastic bag and stored in a refrigerator’s cheese compartment or the warmest spot in the refrigerator, for up to several weeks. I do not recommend freezing. In my experience, the taste and texture change and is not worth the extra shelf life time. If mold appears, simply cut away the offending portion and discard.
Fresh and soft-ripened cheeses should be tightly wrapped and stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator, for no more than two weeks. Do not eat this type of cheese with mold on it.
I hope this helps understand cheese and its classifications. Best cheeses for grilled cheese sandwich? I like cheddar or munster. What about you?
Information obtained from The Food Lover’s Companion