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How cheese is made: All it takes is a subway map

How cheese is made: All it takes is a subway map

What this is: An illustrated look at how milk becomes cheese

Who it’s for: The curious cheese lover who wants to know why milk can make so many kinds of cheeses.

It starts with the milk

All cheese starts with milk. Traditionally most of the world uses milk from cows, goats, sheep and water buffalo, but you can also find donkey, camel and yak cheese if you look hard enough. Each milk type offers the cheese maker different taste profiles as seen below.


Sometimes cheese is made with pasteurized milk. Pasteurization is the process of heating the milk to a specific temperature for a specific amount of time in order to kill off the bad bacteria. However, this process also kills off the good bacteria, which can reduce the depth and breadth of flavor, as well as how much the flavor lingers.


Cheese culture is not about taking your wheel out to the opera. A cheese culture is isolated strains of bacteria that were developed years ago from some of the best cheeses. This is the part of the process that starts making a cheddar a cheddar and not a gouda. 



Now we have to change states and go from liquid milk to solid cheese, and we do that with rennet, which is an enzyme that basically let’s milk clump up and separate into curds and whey. There are three types of rennet that are used to coagulate liquid milk into a solid cheese:

Traditional Rennet - from the lining of an unweaned ruminant’s stomach, usually a calf

Vegetal Rennet (V) - derived from thistle. Some people feel a prickling sensation when eating these types of cheeses 

Microbial Rennet (V) - grown in a lab from mold, fungus, or yeast. Most often used in commodity cheeses


Since all cheese starts out as milk, how do we end up with such vastly different cheese textures? It all depends on how we handle the curd. Below we use a sponge as an example to explain how we can alter the curd to make different types of cheeses. Doing more, or less, or none of these will change the final outcome.

Stirring the curd: Stirring and cutting the wet curd allows it to weep the whey. The smaller you cut, the more whey that is released, and the firmer the cheese.

Pressing the curd: By stacking moulds filled with curds, or by using a press, whey is expelled, making a cheese drier and firmer.

Heating the curd: Heating the curd can do many things, but texturally it creates a firmer curd that likes to be melted later.

Aging the curd: When a cheese is left to age, it grows character, just like people! The moisture evaporates and flavors intensify.

For the most part, stirring, pressing, heating and aging the curd are what delineates what kind of cheese is being made. There are, however, a few other things we should note, namely milky&mild and stretchy&chewy take a slightly different path. Traditionally, ricotta (milky&mild) is made with the leftover whey from mozzarella making. And mozzarella (stretchy&chewy) is made by cooking and stretching the curd to create a beautiful cheese. 


Washing the rind (in a brine, beer, wine, or something else) leads to our creamy&funky cheeses. It’s good to point out that some smooth&melty cheeses are also washed at the start of their aging process but it creates a lot less funk and a firm cheese.


Piercing occurs when blue cheese is made but not yet aged. By poking holes in the paste (aka the “cheese” part of the cheese that’s inside the rind) air is allowed into the cheese so it can start to develop the beautiful blue lines and veins that make blue cheese so remarkable.


Even though it all just starts out as a vat of milk, just a few small steps are the difference between something creamy you’ll be eating later today and something that you'll enjoy two years from now.  


Visit a creamery. Look up local cheese makers in your area and visit it if it is open to the public. If you don’t have one near, travel the world through YouTube and look at different cheese making to better understand the different stages of cheese making. 



Click the icons to download a pdf of this lesson and our two handy guides: How Cheese is Made and Cheese and Pairing Types.

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