Learning the art and science of cheesemaking

Using science and craftsmanship, cheesemakers produce cheese with unique flavors and textures that delight consumers. These can be the basis for a successful business for those who learn this ancient skill.

Photo (by Phil Durst): John Partridge, MSU Associate Professor Emeritus, cutting the cheddar during an Extension Artisan Cheese Workshop.

Cheesemaking is an ancient art and may have begun when someone serendipitously stored milk in a preserved animal stomach that caused the milk to coagulate because of the natural rennet. Sampling it, they learned that this is a great way to preserve milk in a concentrated, nutritious form. People have been eating cultured dairy products for over 4,500 years, whether yogurt, kefir, or cheeses. The microorganisms preserve milk and many of them even provide health benefits.

Since first discovered, people have learned to use specific cultures and other processes to develop more than 1,600 types of cheeses, each with a distinctive flavor, texture, and feel. Cheesemakers have learned to develop a “local” flavor that is dependent upon the milk, environment, and cheesemaker.

Many consumers may have only tasted commonly produced commodity cheeses as an ingredient for appetizers, sandwiches, pizza, or compound foods like lasagna. But, for the consumer who recognizes and appreciates the uniqueness and distinctiveness of artisan products, there is a level of cheese flavor and texture that goes way beyond the widely recognized flavor and texture profiles of commodity cheeses.

While per capita fluid milk consumption has decreased over the years, people are consuming more dairy because of their love for cheese. Since 2000, U.S. cheese consumption has increased 30%, leading the way to the highest U.S. per capita dairy consumption in over a generation in 2020. Certainly, most of that increase is common cheeses used on pizzas and burgers, but some of the market is due to an increase in artisan cheese appreciation.

Cheesemaking has some common elements: add culture to milk at a certain temperature, let the culture grow for a specified time, add a specific amount of rennet to cause the cheese to coagulate, then harvest the curd, separating it from the whey. There are many cheeses that significantly deviate from the common path and that is what makes them unique.

However, making high quality cheese of any type is a balance of craftsmanship and science. One must understand the impact of time and temperature, understand when the cheese is ready for the next step by “reading it,” and provide the actions needed with the right amount of handling. This is where the science of milk and acid, microorganisms, and temperature meet the art of handling, timing, and modifying.

Cheesemaking generally begins with the addition of a starter - a specific culture that will start to grow in the heated milk. Cultures are harmless, active bacteria, often a specific combination of different bacteria types or strains that cheesemakers can buy frozen or freeze-dried from various worldwide companies. These microorganisms weighed into the milk, impart specific characteristics to cultured milk products, producing lactic acid and flavor compounds that will give the cheese its unique taste. Bacteria are selected that have a rapid rate of growth and production of lactic acid, enzymes, and flavor compounds.

Depending on the culture and on the cheese, the bacteria are allowed to grow for a period of time until the pH reaches a target level. This milk ripening is specific to the type of cheese.

After the ripening, rennet will be added to cause the milk to form a smooth continuous curd which is then cut into small cubes allowing the solids (cheese) and liquids (whey) to separate. Rennet, with the enzyme chymosin, as mentioned, is a natural component of the abomasum, or fourth stomach of an unweaned calf, kid, or lamb. For the animal, the enzyme essentially makes the milk ingested form a cheese-like consistency so that digestion takes place more slowly and more nutrients can be absorbed by the calf. Rennet substitutes can also be found in some other sources including bacteria, fungi, and thistles.

The whey will eventually be removed from the curd by separation through a strainer or cheese cloth and pressed to a specific form. In the separation of whey from curd, there is a separation of milk components to one or the other. For instance, in cheddar cheese, 97% of the lactose - a milk sugar, will be in the whey, while 96% of the casein - a milk protein, will be in the curd. The resulting cheese is a high protein, low lactose food.

Cheesemaking can be a hobby and one can do kitchen cheesemaking to try new things, learn the processes involved, and then enjoy the product. But there is even greater opportunity for those who want to build a business and develop markets for their products. Michigan State University Extension offers an Artisan Cheesemaking Workshop that provides hands-on experience in making cheese and discusses the business of cheese.

Before producing cheese or any other dairy product for sale, a license must be obtained from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD). Licensing of dairy plants, even small ones, is done to protect consumers from potential food safety problems. Licensing, inspections, permits, and approvals are all a part of being a dairy product manufacturer. Contacting the MDARD inspector for your area is the best place to start if you want to consider this enterprise. MDARD has prepared the booklet “Summary of Requirements for Michigan Dairy Processing Plants” available at www.michigan.gov/mda-dairy.

In addition to becoming a licensed dairy plant and gaining experience in producing consistent quality products, entrepreneurs need to focus significant time and resources on developing and implementing a marketing plan. The Michigan State University Extension Product Center works with agricultural product entrepreneurs to help them build their business.

Making cheese adds value to what is already a nutritious product: milk. Beginning with high quality milk, a cheesemaker can not only preserve the product, but also enhance it with flavors and textures that make it a consumer favorite. Consumer trends show that this market has been and will continue to grow.

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