Article Overview: This helpful article details how cheese is made in today’s agricultural practices, as well as a step-by-step guide for how to make cheese.
If you read our ultimate cheese guide, your mouth was probably watering by the end of it. After all, who doesn’t love cheese? We shred it on top of pasta or potatoes, add a slice to our favorite sandwich or enjoy it as a fabulous snack or appetizer with a glass of wine. We can all agree cheese is delicious, but even the biggest cheese lovers may still not know about the cheese-making process.
At S. Clyde Weaver, we want to demystify the magic of the art of cheese making. We know the process inside and out, so we’re the perfect people to look at the ingredients and break down the process little by little. The next time you put together a spread of your favorite cheeses, you may feel more appreciative of the labor and care that went into creating them.
What Is Cheese Made Of?
Each type of cheese has distinct flavors and textures, but they all start with the same star ingredient: milk. However, even the type of milk can differ from cheese to cheese. Check out these examples:
- Cow’s milk: Cheese is usually made with cow’s milk, both because cow’s milk is widely available and because it offers optimal amounts of fat and protein. Swiss, cheddar, Gouda and other cheeses are made using cow’s milk.
- Sheep’s milk: We don’t usually drink sheep’s milk since it’s so high in lactose, but it makes a fantastic base for cheese. Roquefort, feta, petit basque and manchego are all made using sheep’s milk.
- Goat’s milk: Goat’s milk lends a distinctive tangy flavor to cheeses like Le Chevrot and French Bucheron. Goat milk cheese is also known as chèvre.
- Buffalo milk: While not a common cheese ingredient, buffalo milk has made a name for itself in the cheese-making world as the traditional choice for mozzarella. However, most mass-produced mozzarella is made with cow’s milk.
Even more obscure types of milk can be used to make regional specialty cheeses. For example, camel’s milk is the basis for caravane cheese, first produced in Mauritania. Other cheeses can be made from horse or even yak’s milk.
Milk doesn’t turn into delicious cheese on its own. Another important ingredient in cheese is a coagulant, which helps the milk turn into curds. The coagulant may be a type of acid or, more commonly, rennet. Rennet is an enzyme complex that is genetically engineered through microbial bioprocessing. Traditional rennet cheeses are actually made with rennin, the enzyme rennet is meant to replicate. Rennin, also known as chymosin, is an enzyme that is naturally produced in the stomachs of calves and other mammals to help them digest milk.
Aside from the base ingredients of milk and coagulant, cheese also includes sources of flavoring, such as salt, brine, spices, herbs and even wine. The aging process is also important — even cheeses with identical ingredients will differ based on different aging processes.
How Is Cheese Made?
So, how does milk turn into cheese? It’s a natural process that requires some help from artisans, known as fromagers or, simply, cheesemakers. Another term you may hear is a cheesemonger, but this technically refers to someone who sells cheese.
With so many different varieties of cheese, of course, there are differences in the cheese-making process, depending on what cheese is being made. However, all cheese making follows the same general process, especially when it comes to the earlier steps. We’ll explain the 10 cheese-making steps more in the next section, but first, let’s do a quick overview of the process:
- Preparing the milk: The milk may need to be processed before it is turned into cheese.
- Acidifying the milk: Add cultures so that the milk ferments and becomes more acidic.
- Curdling the milk: Add rennet to cause a reaction that curdles the milk, creating curds.
- Cutting the curd: Next, the cheesemaker slices the curd with knives and heats it to separate the curds and whey.
- Processing the curd: Cheesemakers stir, cook and wash the curd to acidify and dry them.
- Draining the whey: Next, the whey is drained, leaving only a mat of cheese curds.
- Cheddaring the cheese: The cheesemaker next cuts the curd mat into sections and repeatedly flips the sections before milling the mat.
- Salting the cheese: Some cheeses are salted while others are brined — placed in a salt solution.
- Shaping the cheese: Next, cheesemakers shape the cheese, often using molds to assist.
- Aging the cheese: Cheeses can be aged for days or years.
The Cheese-Making Process
So, how do you make cheese? Let’s take a closer look at the magic of cheese making, starting with simple milk all the way to the finished product.
Step 1: Preparing the Milk
Since milk is the star of the show, to make cheese just right, you need your milk to be just right. “Just right” will differ from cheese to cheese, so many cheesemakers start by processing their milk however they need to in order to standardize it. This may involve manipulating the protein-to-fat ratio.
It also often involves pasteurization or more mild heat treatment. Heating the milk kills organisms that could cause the cheese to spoil and can also prime the milk for the starter cultures to grow more effectively. Once the milk has been heat treated or pasteurized, it is cooled to 90 degrees F so it is ready for the starter cultures. If a cheese calls for raw milk, it will need to be heated to 90 degrees F before adding the starter cultures.
Step 2: Acidifying the Milk
The next step in the cheese-making process is adding starter cultures to acidify the milk. If you’ve ever tasted sour milk, then you know that left long enough, milk will acidify on its own. However, any number of bacteria can grow and sour milk. Instead of letting milk sour on its own, the modern cheese-making process typically standardizes this step.
Cheesemakers add starter and non-starter cultures to the milk to acidify it. The milk should already be 90 degrees F at this point, and it must stay at this temperature for approximately 30 minutes while the milk ripens. During this ripening process, the milk’s pH level drops, and the flavor of the cheese begins to develop.
Step 3: Curdling the Milk
The milk is still liquid milk at this point, so cheesemakers need to start manipulating the texture. The process of curdling the milk can also happen naturally. In fact, some nursing animals, such as calves, piglets or kittens, produce the rennin enzyme in their stomachs to help them digest their mother’s milk. Cheesemakers cause the same process to take place in a controlled way.
In the past, natural rennin was typically the enzyme of choice for curdling the milk, but cheesemakers today usually use rennet, the lab-created equivalent. Rennet inactivates the protein kappa casein, turning it into para-kappa-casein. The important thing to understand is simply that this reaction allows the milk to form coagulated lumps, known as curds. As the solid curd forms, a liquid byproduct remains, known as whey.
Step 4: Cutting the Curd
The curds and whey mixture is allowed to separate and ferment until the pH reaches 6.4. At this point, the curd should form a large coagulated mass in the cheese-making vat. Then, cheesemakers use long curd knives that can reach the bottom of the vat to cut through the curds. Cutting the curd creates more surface area on the curd, which allows the curds and whey to separate even more.
Cheesemakers usually make crisscrossing cuts vertically, horizontally and diagonally to break up the curd. The size of the curds after cutting can influence the cheese’s level of moisture. Larger chunks of curd retain more moisture, leading to moister cheese, and smaller pieces of curd can lead to drier cheese.
Step 5: Processing the Curd
After being cut, the curd continues to be processed. This might involve cooking the curds, stirring the curds or both. All of this processing is still aimed at the same goal of separating the curds and whey. In other words, the curds continue to acidify and release moisture as they are processed. The more the curds are cooked and stirred, the drier the cheese will be.
Another way curd can be processed at this stage is through washing. Washing the curd means replacing whey with water. This affects the flavor and texture of the cheese. Washed curd cheeses tend to be more elastic and have a nice, mild flavor. Some examples of washed curd cheeses are gouda, havarti and Swedish fontina.
Step 6: Draining the Whey
At this point, the curds and whey should be sufficiently separated, so it’s time to remove the whey completely. This means draining the whey from the vat, leaving only the solid chunks of curd. These chunks could be big or small, depending on how finely the curd has been cut. With all the whey drained, the curd should now look like a big mat.
There are different means of draining whey. In some cases, cheesemakers allow it to drain off naturally. However, especially when it comes to harder cheeses that require a lower moisture content, cheesemakers are likely to get help from a mold or press. Putting pressure on the curd compacts and forces more whey out.
Step 7: Cheddaring the Cheese
With the whey drained, the curd should form a large slab. For some cheeses, another step remains to remove even more moisture from the curd. This step is known as cheddaring. After cutting the mat of curd into sections, the cheesemaker will stack the individual slabs of curd. Stacking the slabs puts pressure on them, forcing out more moisture.
Periodically, the cheesemaker will repeat the process, cutting up the slabs of curd again and restacking them. The longer this process goes on, the more whey is removed from the curd, resulting in a denser, more crumbly finished cheese texture. Fermentation also continues during the cheddaring process. Eventually, the curd should reach a pH of 5.1 to 5.5. When it’s ready, the cheesemaker will mill the curd slabs, producing smaller pieces.
Step 8: Salting the Cheese
The curd is now beginning to look more like cheese in its final form. To add flavor, cheesemakers can salt or brine the cheese at this point. This can either involve sprinkling on dry salt or submerging the cheese into a brine. An example of a cheese that gets soaked in brine is mozzarella. Drier cheeses will be dry salted.
Some cheeses have flavor added in other forms as well. Some examples of spices that find their way into some types of cheese are horseradish, garlic, paprika, habanero and cloves. Cheese can also contain herbs, such as dill, basil, chives or rosemary. The options for flavoring cheeses are endless. For many cheeses, though, the focus is simply on developing the natural flavors of the cheese and adding salt to intensify those flavors.
Step 9: Shaping the Cheese
There are no more ingredients to add to the cheese at this point, so it’s ready to be shaped. This is where the final product really begins to reveal itself. Even with so much moisture removed from the curd, it is still malleable and soft. Therefore, cheesemakers are able to press the curd into molds to create standardized shapes.
Molds can take the form of baskets or hoops. Baskets are molds that are only open on one end, and hoops are bottomless molds, meaning they only wrap around the sides of the curd. In either case, the milled curd mixture is pressed into the mold and left there for a certain amount of time to solidify into the right shape. These molds are usually round or rectangular.
Step 10: Aging the Cheese
For some cheeses, the process is already finished, but for many cheeses, what’s known as aging remains. Aging should occur in a controlled, cool environment. As the cheese ages, molecular changes take place that cause the cheese to harden and the flavor to intensify. The aging process can take anywhere from a few days to many years. In some cases, mold develops, which adds unique color and flavor to the cheese.
Once the cheese has finished aging, it is finally ready to be enjoyed by consumers. Cheeses can be sold in whole weels or blocks or by the wedge. When you know how much time, effort and care went into making your favorite cheese, it’s likely to taste even more delicious.
How Is Fresh Cheese Made?
Now that we’ve looked at the general production of cheese, you may be wondering about the particulars of how certain types of cheeses are made. For instance, what about fresh cheese? Fresh cheeses tend to be smooth, creamy and mild in flavor. There is one main difference that separates fresh cheese like feta, ricotta or fresh mozzarella, from other cheeses — they are not aged.
Fresh cheeses must still go through the bulk of the steps we outlined above to varying degrees. If all you did was drain some of the whey off after initially forming curds and whey, you would have cottage cheese. For other fresh cheeses, you must continue to strain the curds to remove more moisture and pack the cheese into a shape. Making fresh cheese is a simpler process, so some home cooks attempt this type of cheese making in their own kitchens.
How Are Different Cheeses Made?
Now that we’ve looked at the general production of cheese, you may be wondering how specific types of cheese are made. From the simple preparation of fresh cheeses to the intricate process behind semi-soft and semi-hard varieties, each type has its own method. Let’s look at how you can make different cheeses:
- Fresh cheese: Fresh cheese like cottage cheese and cream cheese results from heating milk and mixing it with a source of acidity like lemon juice or vinegar.
- Pasta filata: With pasta filata cheeses, curds are submerged in hot water and then stretched into a pliable delicacy.
- Soft-ripened cheese: Soft-ripened cheeses, like brie, result from clumps of cheese curds being pressed into a specific shape and drained of excess moisture.
- Semi-soft cheese: Semi-soft cheese is made with whole milk and sometimes cream. Dry-rind semi-soft cheeses are cured without a surface treatment, while washed-rind cheeses are treated with a bacterial smear before being washed with a solution to encourage the smear to grow.
- Semi-hard cheese: Semi-hard cheese curds are pressed to remove most of the whey and moisture, making them solid.
- Processed cheese: Shredded natural cheeses are blended and emulsified with salt and other ingredients to create processed cheese.
Why Is Cheese Aged?
Aging cheese is a vital part of the cheese-making process that impacts its flavor, texture and character. Aged cheese rests in controlled conditions for a certain time. This lets natural biochemical and microbial processes transform the cheese.
Here are a few reasons why people age for cheese:
- Flavor development: Aging is the main factor that brings out the varied flavors in different cheeses. Enzymes break down proteins and fats, creating a range of intricate compounds that shape the cheese’s distinct flavor profile. This can result in flavors ranging from mild and creamy to sharp, nutty, tangy or pungent.
- Texture evolution: Evaporation lowers moisture content during cheese aging, creating a firmer and crumbly texture. The breakdown of proteins and fats also affects the cheese’s texture, causing it to become smoother and more spreadable in some cases.
- Aroma enhancement: As proteins and fats break down during aging, aromatic compounds also develop. The release of these compounds gives aged cheeses their distinct and often intense aromas. The combination of flavor and aroma makes for a multisensory eating experience.
- Microbial transformation: The cheese aging process depends on the activity of different microorganisms, such as bacteria and molds, that inhabit the cheese. Different cheese varieties need specific microbial communities to achieve their desired characteristics.
- Rind formation: While aging, certain cheeses form natural rinds that act as protective layers. These rinds are edible and add flavors and textures, but people can remove them before eating if they wish. Rinds impact the cheese aging process by controlling moisture and gas in the surroundings.
- Complexity and depth: Aged cheeses usually have more complex and deep flavors. The interaction of compounds formed during the aging process produces a nuanced taste that cheese enthusiasts enjoy.
- Preservation: In the past, people aged cheese to preserve excess milk. People could store and consume cheeses during times when fresh milk was less available. When fresh milk was available, they could make a lot of cheese and store it for later.
How Is Cheese Aged?
Aging cheese doesn’t just mean leaving it lying around for a while. It is a carefully controlled and timed process, and even subtle changes can affect the texture and taste of the finished cheese. In general, cheeses are aged in cool environments with relatively high humidity levels. Another term for aging when it comes to cheese is ripening. There are two basic types of ripening that can take place:
- Interior-ripened cheeses are coated with an artificial rind of wax or some other material to protect the surface. This causes the aging process to occur from the inside out. Two common examples of interior-ripened cheese are cheddar and swiss.
- Surface-ripened cheeses are not sealed off on the outside, so a natural rind develops with the help of bacteria being introduced. This process causes the cheese to age from the outside in. Brie and Muenster are two examples of surface-ripened cheese.
Beyond these basic distinctions, it’s helpful to understand the process that goes into aging specific categories of aged cheese, including red mold (also known as washed rind) cheese, white mold (or bloomy rind) cheese and blue cheese. Let’s take a look.
1. Red Mold Cheese
As the name suggests, red mold cheeses are covered in a reddish rind. Some popular types of red mold cheeses include French Morbier, Reblochon and Taleggio. Red mold cheeses are also often called washed rind cheeses, which hints at how they are aged. These cheeses are stored in a very humid environment and are washed frequently in some type of liquid, such as wine or a salty brine, for example. The thinner the cheese, the more the liquid will permeate and soften the cheese.
2. White Mold Cheese
Cheesemakers spray or rub a white penicillin mold onto aging cheeses to create white mold cheeses, also known as bloomy rind cheeses. When these cheeses are done aging, they are covered in a fuzzy white mold. This process results in a soft cheese that is creamy and pasty in texture. The most popular type of white mold cheese is brie, which is loved for its silky smoothness and mild flavor. Some other examples include French Normandy Camembert, Le Chevrot and St. Marcellin.
3. Blue Cheese
Some aged cheese doesn’t just have mold on the rind but throughout the inside of the cheese, as well. Blue cheeses, like the ever-popular French Roquefort, creamy gorgonzola or English blue stilton contain streaks of blue or green mold and have a characteristically sharp flavor. First, mold spores are added to the cheese at some point during the cheese-making process. Then, during the aging process, cheesemakers encourage the mold to grow and spread throughout the cheese by poking air tunnels into it.
The Aging Process for Different Cheeses
You can explore the aging process for different specific aged cheeses below:
- Parmesan: Parmesan undergoes an extended aging period, often 18-36 months or more. Cheesemakers brine the cheese and air-dry it, promoting a hard texture and concentrated flavor. Aging rooms with controlled conditions help enzymes break down proteins and fats, forming granules and creating the cheese’s signature nutty flavor and crystalline texture.
- Asiago: Asiago cheese, manifests in two types: fresh Asiago Pressato and aged Asiago d’Allevo. To age Asiago, cheesemakers salt and air-dry the wheels before transferring them to aging rooms. The wheels can mature from a few months to over a year. The cheese goes from mild and buttery when young to robust and tangy as it matures.
- Cheddar: After forming the curds, cheesemakers press the cheese to remove extra whey. Then, they cut it into small pieces, add salt and press it again. Aging cheddar changes its texture to crumbly and intensifies its sharp flavors as the proteins and fats break down.
- Gouda: Post-curd formation, Gouda curds undergo pressing and draining and a brine bath. Aging rooms come next, where the Gouda stays for a year or more. The result is a firmer texture, enriched flavors and caramel undertones.
- Gorgonzola: Gorgonzola, a creamy blue cheese, has blue-green veins. Curd puncturing introduces air for mold growth, and then the cheese is aged in cool, humid conditions. This nurturing environment leads to a creamy consistency and robust, tangy flavor.
- Alpine-style: Alpine-style cheeses originate from European mountainous regions. After forming the curds, cheesemakers press and brine the cheese, then proceed to extended aging — several months to years. Flipping and brushing cheese wheels as they mature creates distinct rinds, resulting in firm, dense textures with nutty, fruity and earthy notes.
- Brick: Brick cheese is a semi-soft cheese with a pale, edible rind. Once the curds form, cheesemakers press and salt the cheese before aging it for a few weeks to a few months. The cheese’s flavors become more pronounced during aging, and the texture becomes smoother and creamier.
Delicious Artisinal Cheeses From S. Clyde Weaver
At S. Clyde Weaver, we know our cheese. In fact, we have a century of experience creating delicious, artisan cheeses, meats and other delicacies to brighten Americans’ tables. When bland, over-processed cheese from the grocery store doesn’t cut it, you can find amazing cheeses, aged by experienced cheesemakers from S. Clyde Weaver. Some of our cheeses are aged for many years to produce the perfect texture and flavor. We even have creamy, delicious cheese spreads to try.
Whether you’re looking to assemble an amazing cheeseboard or you just want to try something new to add a punch of great flavor to your next meal, browse our selection of cheeses today.