Thursday, March 15, 2012

It's Getting Cheesy

One thing I love about going to culinary school is how interesting class can be, as if serving the public isn't interesting enough, instead of lecture today, the class and I were escorted to The Rec Center for a Wisconsin Cheese Presentation. The whole room smelled like cheese, which made perfect sense seeing as there were nine Wisconsin brand cheese placed at each seat by Sarah Hill, a CIA alumni of '76. Wisconsin alone accounts for 25 percent of all American cheeses made, and is the only state which allows for a Master Cheesemaker License (similar to the CMC test, each person must demonstrate that they are indeed a master of each individual type of cheese before becoming certified in that cheese). She made a lovely presentation before sending us back to class with full tummies and a folder full of goodies.

From the Raspberry Clockwise: Marscapone, Brie,
 Havarti, Prolovolone, Extra Aged Cheddar, Parmesean Regg,
 Blue, Pasturized, Upland's Pleasant Ridge Reserve
All From Wisconsin.

So, lets get cheesy and talk about the stinky stuff.

What is cheese exactly-- and how is it made? Cheese was originally made out of necessity, the need to preserve milk, as it readily spoils. Legend has it that, a long long time ago, a man was carrying milk in a canteen made of calf's stomach, and when he tried to quench his thirst, out plopped cheese.

And thus cheese was born. Now-a-days people have mastered the art of cheese making, crafting flavors, shapes, colors and smells that baffle those of us who simply enjoy this delicacy. With ten pounds of milk yielding only one pound of cheese, it is easy to understand why cheese making is both a science and an art.  Some things have changed in cheese artistry, from the olden days, while others have not.

Cheese is still mostly made from rennet, an enzyme found in the stomachs of calf's. This rennet is mixed with hand selected milk, starter cultures and heat causing the milk proteins to coagulate resulting in a jellied, panna cotta like product that is cut into various sizes. This jello like product is then lifted from the tanks leaving behind the whey.

This whey is no longer needed in the cheese making process, as the curds are the star of the show, so it is sold off to be made into whey protein powder.

The curds are then salted and molded into their signature shapes before being aged-- if they need to be. Before cheeses in Wisconsin leave for the shelves they are tasted by a seasoned veteran in cheese making, ensuring each batch is living up to its full potential.

This basic method yields hundreds of varieties of cheese, from Parmesan Reggiano to Cheddar. All cheese is broken down into five categories, as follows.

Rind Styles
Water Content
White to Off White
Melty, Gooey
1-2 weeks
Bloomy or Washed
Semi Soft
Off White to Yellow
1-2 months
Washed or Natural
Oka, Havarti
Off White to Yellow
Granular and Compact
14-16 months
Washed, Waxed or Natural
White or Off White with Blueish Green Veins
Ranging from Dense to Crumbly
14-16 mo
White to Off White
Ranging from Creamy to Crumbly
Feta, Cottage Cheese

When picking out a cheese, especially one you are unfamiliar with look for a smooth exterior with no cracks or surface damage. Always buy cheese that is in clean, sealed packaging with a "sell by date" from a reputable sourcer. And always, steer clear of cheese that smells like ammonia--there is a difference between stinky and rotten.

I have recently fostered a love for cheese, slowly but surely. If you too think you're ready to jump off the deep end and love some cheese, you can check out the Wisconsin Cheese Page and select a cheese to try or just learn more about the good stuff!


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