Cheese—What Gives It That Flavor?
YOU may have enjoyed a glass of milk with your breakfast this morning. But where is it now? What’s happened to it?
The glass of milk has triggered a fascinating reaction within your digestive system. Did you know that your stomach responds to milk in a way that nearly parallels the steps followed in making cheese? In fact, cheesemaking is really an artificial digestion, an outright imitation of what takes place within the stomach of milk-drinking persons and animals.
What the Stomach Does with Milk
While your glass of milk was uniform in its white color, in reality it was more like a tossed salad—a variety of ingredients mixed together. Whole milk is almost 90 percent water. The other tenth part is fat, or the cream, along with proteins and minerals. When you swallow this mixture, your stomach is prompted to secrete two powerful enzymes, called rennin and pepsin. These quickly cause the milk to break down and separate into its basic parts. They are then circulated through your body for use in building new tissue, to be converted into energy or, alas, to be stored as fat! Your body can benefit from milk only after the primary splitting is done in the stomach by rennin and pepsin. This feature of digestion is common to the milk-drinking animals, too. Science classifies all creatures that drink and digest milk as mammals.
Knowledge of this can help you to appreciate how cheese was first made and what developments have brought the art to its present state. A common story of its origin recalls the practice of using dried animal stomachs as canteens, or vessels for liquids. A certain Asian traveler tried to store milk in such a container. The rennin and pepsin enzymes still in the mammal’s stomach separated the milk into solids and water, that is, curds and whey. When the thirsty traveler opened the skin to drink his milk, he was first introduced to a simple cheese. Closer to our time, colonial settlers in America would put a small piece of calf’s stomach into a bowl of warm milk to curdle it.
Cheese producers today use a mixture of rennin and pepsin that is extracted from the stomachs of calves. It’s prepared in commercial laboratories. When a small amount of these enzymes is added to a vat of milk, the vat becomes, as it were, a giant stomach. Within a half hour, the milk solids have disengaged themselves from the water in the milk and clotted together to form a semisolid mass like a large yogurt. This mass is cut into small, uniform pieces, then is heated slightly to promote greater separation of the curds from the whey—that is, the milk solids from the water in the milk. Nearly all the familiar cheeses are made in just this way.
Why the Various Flavors and Textures?
The different cultures of bacteria that are also added to the milk account for the many varieties in cheese flavor, aroma and texture. These bacteria are microscopic plants that feed on the milk solids and produce certain acids. Certain bacteria produce particular acids and lead to distinctive kinds of cheese. For instance, one culture is used to promote the slightly sweet flavor of Swiss cheese. It also provides the familiar holes or eyes in that cheese. Another bacteria is used for Cheddar. And certain unique cultures provide cheeses with real individuality: Roquefort, Limburger, Camembert. As the cheese is ripened or aged, these bacteria and their corresponding acids affect the curds—now the body of the cheese—in a predictable way to develop typical cheese flavor and characteristics.
But why does one cheese sometimes taste different from a cheese of the same name that you buy at another time? The art of making cheese is subject to many variables and influences. Whether produced by the largest corporations or in the smallest cheese factories, cheeses will vary from time to time. And if you make a number of batches of cheese at home it will happen to you, too. Any little change in the milk, bacteria culture or procedure will alter the finished product. Making cheese with consistent flavor, batch after batch, requires rigid control.
The Aging of Cheese
How long does cheese aging or ripening take? Cheese ripening is well illustrated by the ripening of a peach. The peach may be full-sized but still hard, green, and very bitter when first picked. Slowly it will turn yellow, soften, and get juicy. If the peach is not eaten soon, it will be inedible. On just what day is this peach ready to be eaten? Well, that depends mostly on whom you ask. One person likes his peach on the firm side; another prefers his soft and mushy. And neither can understand how the other eats his that way. So, too, with cheese; but the ripening period is, of course, much longer.
The ripening temperature is the critical factor. At higher temperatures cheese ripens much faster. When ripened in a warmer room, Monterey cheese can be very acceptable in as little as six weeks. At lower temperatures it may require three months before it passes beyond the green stage. Swiss cheese can be eaten in as little as eight weeks and be very good. Or it may be four or five months before you would enjoy certain other Swiss cheese—all depending on the temperature at which it was aged. The sharpest Cheddars can benefit from up to three years in storage, and it is generally agreed that the cheese doesn’t improve much beyond three years’ aging. As a rule, the milder cheeses require less aging—so they usually cost less, whereas the more pronounced types are aged longer, and you pay more for them.
Learn to Enjoy It
Good cheese can be expensive. But your enjoyment of cheese does not depend on your being able to buy the gourmet varieties. Something else may contribute even more.
Whenever you can, let your cheese warm to room temperature before you eat it. When you eat cheese cold—say, right out of the refrigerator—you feel it in your mouth but it’s not so easy to taste it fully. Allow about an hour out of the refrigerator per pound, but keep the cheese tightly wrapped so that it doesn’t dry out. Don’t worry about spoilage. It would take a number of days at room temperature to spoil cheese. Although it is a dairy product, its natural makeup includes a large enough proportion of acids to inhibit the growth of organisms that would cause spoilage.
Before you actually taste your cheese, take a moment to detect its aroma. In time you’ll increase your sensitivity to various cheese fragrances, as well as those of other delicate foods. Your nose acts like a scout that sends back mouth-watering reports to your salivary glands. That initial sniff is a part of eating, you see, and it can increase your eating pleasure.
Now take a small bite. Chew it slowly. Don’t be in a hurry to swallow. Think about the flavor as the cheese awakens various sensations on your tongue. Is it salty? Creamy? Sharp? Do you like it? Why? Correlate the aroma with the taste. Make yourself put it into words; it will help you to formulate the impressions in your mind. Chances are you’ll never be paid by anyone for your ability to judge cheese, but you will be rewarded many times over as you enjoy more fully the food you eat.
Eating is meant to be an enjoyable part of life. It is part of the pleasant reward for having done our work. Far from being simply a means of filling our stomachs, the Creator has made it something to be enjoyed while we are doing it.—Eccl. 8:15.