9 millionNumber of dairy cattle in the United States
Cheese is milk’s leap toward immortality and if it was a happy accident that started the process centuries ago, tradition, geography and the skillful hands of cheese makers have since turned the white stuff into pure gold. But its roots are never far from the finished products.
Seen in the familiar wedges, rounds and bricks, cheese’s liquid -milk beginnings aren’t readily apparent. But at its very heart, cheese is milk and it just may be its finest moment. Transformed to a more solid state, the milky base becomes suffused with character, flavor and nuance, the traits that so deliciously define cheese.
Cheese wasn’t really supposed to happen, says Moshe Rosenberg, professor of Dairy Engineering and Technology at University of California, Davis. But somewhere on the path to modern food history, a surplus of milk most likely was altered and manipulated to extend its lifespan. And that, says Rosenberg, set in motion a million small steps that have led to the vast array of cheeses available today.
A multitude of factors influence and affect the unique characteristics exhibited by different cheeses yet it all starts with the animals. Cows are by far the most significant milk source for American-made cheeses but goats, sheep and even water buffalo also provide milk. And sometimes, different milks co-mingle in a single cheese.
Just as the milks from each taste subtly different, the forms and varieties of cheeses, too, are shaped by the species. “The protein and fat structures are different in the different milks and that influences the texture of the curd and how the milk reacts in the cheese making process,” says Bill Wendorff, professor emeritus of food science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Using cow’s milk as the baseline, he says that goat’s milk produces a softer curd and sheep’s milk a firmer one. That, in turn, influences the style of cheese made with the output. “That’s why you most often see fresh and fresh-ripened goat’s milk cheeses and hard sheep’s milk cheeses. The milk more or less determines what kinds of cheese can be made with it.”
In theory, any milk can be used to create any type of cheese; the resulting cheese may be quite different, however, and not necessarily successful. Wendorff cites Swiss cheese as an example. “It is a cow’s milk cheese and you need the structure of that particular milk to create the holes, the texture of the cheese and to some extent the flavor we recognize as Swiss,” he explains, adding that cheese makers have applied the Swiss cheese-making process to other milks. “It hasn’t worked so far. Goat milk Is too soft to support the whole and sheep milk is too firm; it splits and cracks instead of having the nice network of holes.”
Wendorff adds that cheese making continues to be an evolving art in which the milk-based possibilities haven’t all been explored. “Cheese makers have always been curious and creative so who knows what they might do.”
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