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Cheat Sheet

Cheese For Dummies

From Cheese For Dummies by Culture Magazine, Laurel Miller, Thalassa Skinner, Ming Tsai (Foreword by)

It’s hard to believe that something as complex, delicious, and diverse as cheese is made from just a few key ingredients. Thousands of different varieties of cheese are produced around the world from the milk of a variety of animals: cows, goats, sheep, water buffalo, yaks, camels — even reindeer and horses. In these articles, you can find information on how cheese is made, where to shop for cheese, and the best ways to cut and store cheese to maximize its shelf life and flavor. Consider the info here just enough to whet your appetite.

Annual Cheese Consumption, by Country

You may think that the French, who produce more than 1,000 varieties of cheese, eat the most cheese per capita. Nope. The Greeks actually eat the most cheese, consuming an average of 68 pounds per person annually. (The Mediterranean diet is purportedly one of the healthiest, right?) The following table outlines the average annual cheese consumption for several countries. (The numbers are rounded up, based upon conversion from kilos.)

Annual Per Capital Cheese Consumption
Country Amount Per Person
Greece 68 lbs
France 53 lbs
Malta 48 lbs
Germany 46 lbs
The Netherlands 46 lbs
Romania 46 lbs
Italy 44 lbs
Finland 44 lbs
Poland 41 lbs
Sweden 40 lbs
United States 31 lbs

Information based on 2009 statistics by Eurostat, the Canadian Dairy Information Centre (CDIC) and the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

How Cheese Is Made

Thousands of different varieties of cheese are produced around the world from the milk of cows, goats, sheep, water buffalo, yaks, camels — even reindeer and horses. Depending upon the country, this ancient food can hold significant cultural, nutritive, and economic value. Yet making cheese all comes down to a few basic steps:

  1. Bring the milk up to temperature and add the starter culture.

    Warming the milk to between 77 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit simulates the animal’s body temperature, which activates the starter culture. The starter culture acidifies the milk, increasing the population of beneficial bacteria.

    The starter culture works by fermenting the lactose (natural sugar) in the milk and converting it to lactic acid. When the pH is low enough, the milk will be able to coagulate.

  2. Add a coagulant, such as rennet.

    Rennet is an enzyme that occurs naturally in the stomach lining of young cud-chewing mammals (known as ruminants). Instead of traditional rennet, many cheesemakers now use non-animal rennet. Fluid milk can also be coagulated through acidification alone, which is how some soft, fresh cheeses are made.

    Check with your cheesemonger about rennet types if you have a dietary preference.

  3. Form and mold the curd, and drain the whey.

    After coagulating (Step 2), the milk sets and is then cut, stirred, and often heated to form the right-size curds. The curds are then scooped up or cut, and transferred into perforated forms that will determine the final shape of the cheese.

    Whey is the liquid (mostly water and protein) that remains after cheese production. Some cheeses, such as ricotta, are traditionally made from whey.

    How the curd is handled is all-important to the cheese it will become. In general, the smaller the curd is cut, the more whey it expels. And if the curd is stacked (as in the cheddaring process), the pressure of the weight expels more whey. Cooking the curd, too, releases more whey. To make a cheese that’s soft and gooey, the curd needs to be left uncut and handled gently — usually hand-ladeled into forms. The opposite is true for harder cheeses, which need to have the moisture expelled from them.

  4. Salt the cheese.

    Salt plays several key roles in cheese production: It slows down enzymatic activity, enhances flavor, keeps unwanted organisms away from the cheese, inhibits bacteria growth, and helps form the rind.

  5. Age the cheese.

    During the aging process, the rind develops (with the exception of fresh cheeses). Aging needs to occur in a controlled environment, within a specific temperature and humidity range appropriate to that style of cheese.

Shopping for Cheese Online

You can purchase cheese in many places, especially if you live in a large city: specialty cheese shops, grocery stores with cheese shops or counters, and public and farmers’ markets. Online cheese retailers are another option. If you live in a rural area, are physically unable to visit retail shops, dislike dealing with crowds, or are in search of an esoteric cheese, shopping online is a good choice.

Check out the following cheese retailers. Their sites are easy-to-understand and navigate and have comprehensive information. They’re also trustworthy — not just in terms of security, but with regard to the quality of their products and their knowledge of how to correctly pack and ship a cheese:

  • Artisanal (New York City): Artisanal Bistro is a cheese-centric eatery with a modest, but well-curated retail selection of cheeses. Artisanal Premium Cheese Center offers a curriculum of cheese education classes (note that this location doesn’t have a retail outlet).

  • Beechers Handmade Cheese (Seattle): Located in Seattle’s touristy but historic Pike Place Market, you’ll find a small selection of domestic cheeses in this café/retail shop/cheese factory — and you can watch cheese being made through the windows. A second location is now open in New York’s Flatiron District.

  • Cowgirl Creamery (San Francisco and Washington DC): Cowgirl Creamery is an excellent example of the European model (cheeses stacked on counters), with a careful selection of the best artisanal domestic and import cheeses, as well as housemade product.

  • DiBruno Bros (Philadelphia): Bustling and well-stocked with specialty foods, Di Bruno’s four retail locations have excellent cheese selections and the mongers know what they’re doing.

  • Formaggio Kitchen (Boston): This shop has an exhaustive array of artisan cheeses, handwritten signs, and highly educated mongers as well as lots of specialty foods. The original location is in Cambridge, with a second store in the South End.

  • Fromagination (Madison, Wisconsin): Foundedin 2007 by Ken Monteleone, this shop is located in the heart of Madison's Capital Square. With a strong focus on Wisconsin and Midwest cheeses and accompaniments, Fromagination curates a rotating selection of cheeses and food-related items.

  • Murray’s Cheese Shop (New York City): Murray’s is the quintessential cheese shop, with wedges, wheels, and dry goods piled high in all directions. The original shop (now over 60 years old) is in Greenwich Village, where they also offer educational classes. A second location is in Grand Central Station, and the company has also collaborated with Kroger supermarkets and set up Murrays Cheese counters in several states.

  • Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine (Chicago): With three Chicago-based locations, Pastoral offers a great selection of both domestic and imported cheeses as well as a carefully curated wine department and accompaniments for cheese.

  • Zingerman’s (Ann Arbor, Michigan): Fun and delicious are the key words here (just check out Zingerman’s site and catalogue and you’ll see what we mean). The shop has a fabulous deli with an assortment of cheeses, including those from its own creamery, as well as a separate bakehouse and Roadhouse eatery, and a well-stocked mail order business.

Ordering online from a retailer closest to you is best, because you can save money on shipping cost and time.

Cutting Different Styles of Cheese

A right and a wrong way exists for cutting cheese. Using the right technique for each style and shape maximizes the flavor and number of portions you get.

These instructions don’t refer to cutting whole wheels (except when quite small) or massive blocks of cheese here; cutting those is the cheesemonger’s job. Any cheese you purchase will come pre-cut and wrapped, or it will be cut to order by your cheesemonger. After you get your cheese home, follow these instructions (you can see these techniques in the figure):

  • Small wheels, discs, pyramids, or squares: Positioning the knife in the center of the cheese, cut into even, wedge-like slices (image A).

  • Wedges of soft to semi-soft cheeses: Cut these cheeses into thin slices, starting at the point of the cheese (Image B).

  • Wedges of semi-firm to hard cheeses: Cut the wedge in half lengthwise and then cut each slice into portions crosswise (Image C).

  • Logs: Slice into even cross-sections (Image D).

  • Blue cheeses: Slice the wedge from the center of the thin edge to equally spaced points along the thick edge (Image E).

  • Cheeses that come in a box (such as Epoisses): Cut a “lid” in the top of the cheese, and set this piece aside. Then scoop out the contents with a spoon (Image F).

    Cutting different styles and shapes of cheese.
    Cutting different styles and shapes of cheese.

How to Store Cheese

The best way to keep cheese fresh is to purchase it cut to order rather than pre-cut, wrapped, and ready to go. Freshly sliced cheese tastes better and lasts longer, and you can rewrap it in the paper it’s sold in. But if you’re buying cheese for future rather than immediate use or if you have leftovers, you need to know how to store it in a way that preserves its freshness and flavor.

The main thing to remember is that cheeses need to be appropriately wrapped for storage. You can buy the special cheese paper cheesemongers use (Formaticum is the most popular brand), which has two layers: One is a permeable cellophane that allows the cheese to breathe, and the other is similar to butcher paper and retains moisture.

You can purchase cheese paper at many cheese shops or specialty food stores or online. Or you can create your own version of this handy wrap: First wrap the cheese in wax or parchment paper and then cover it in a layer of plastic wrap.

Here are some tips on how to preserve different styles of cheese:

  • Fresh cheeses: Keep them sealed in their original container (which may or may not contain brine) or tightly encased in plastic wrap.

  • Semi-soft, surface-ripened, semi-hard, and washed-rind cheeses: Wrap these cheeses loosely in parchment paper, place in a plastic container with a tight-fitting lid, and store them in the vegetable crisper drawer of your refrigerator. Because cheese continues to ripen as it ages, air out the cheese every day or so by unwrapping it and letting it sit at room temperature for approximately half an hour.

  • Blue cheeses: Wrap blue cheese in waxed or butcher paper and store it in a plastic container with a tight-fitting lid. Place it in the vegetable crisper drawer of your refrigerator and allow it to air out every other day or so, as described above.

Letting any cheese come up to room temperature and then re-refrigerating what you don’t eat increases the aging process, expediting its demise. The best way to keep cheese fresh is to cut off a hunk (or three) and enjoy some every day!

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