Sunday, June 17, 2012

Making Cheese Starters:

Photo by Alex Anlicker

In order to make any cheese you need the proper starters.  These are natural milk bacteria that eat the lactose in the milk and produce lactic acid that curdles the cheese and gives each one its distinctive flavor. 

Otto Bismarck the 19th century chancellor of Germany one remarked that there were two processes that people should not watch, the making of sausage, and the passing of laws.  He might just as well have included cheese making in his diatribe.  To make cheese you have to have bacteria and mold too they give the cheese its character and flavor.

A cheese culture is made of milk, butter milk actually that has been inoculated with the proper bacteria from a specific cheese that will impart its flavor to the cheese you want to make.  This imparts lactic acid that will curdle the milk you are going to make into cheese.

There are good germs, and bad germs any human body contains several trillion different germs that supply many of our necessary life functions.  So it is with the bacteria and mold that forms cheese.  No matter what cheese you want to produce you must start with a cheese starter.

Cheese making has been around for a long while as an ancient practice with many different kinds of cheese recognized and handed down from the past.  Before the days of modern science duplicating cheeses was hit or miss at best.  Today some of the uncertainties have been taken out of cheesemaking, but not all there are still surprises.  Most batches of cheese work well however, every once in a while a batch can go bad.

One of the biggest problems facing the old time cheesemakers was their little choice of the proper starter cultures.  When they made a good batch of cheese they kept some of the whey overnight to use in the next day’s production.  Usually this worked as the bacteria in the whey multiplied and was ready to go to work the following day.  However if some “Wild Bacteria” got into the whey it could more then likely change whatever was produced the following day with disastrous results.  Making cheese in the old times was by chance more then by art.

In modern practice however steps have been taken to remove the factor of chance from the process as much as possible, but cheesemaking is still an art even though much of the chance has been removed.  One of the processes that has removed some of this chance is the pasteurizing the milk to kill the bacteria found there.  In effect this leaves you with a blank slate to work with.  This blank slate is open to any bacteria that comes along whether it is good or bad.

The other process is the availability of commercially available “cheesemaking cultures” that are added to the pasteurized milk to start the cheesemaking process.  This is done by adding the starter culture, the rennet if the recipe calls for its use, and the mold to ripen the cheese.

Unpastuerized milk actually holds the necessary bacteria to make cheese, but if the lactic acid these bacteria exceeds the amount needed to make a specific cheese the results will be a crumbly cheese.  If there isn’t enough lactic acid it will produce a cheese that has a pasty texture.  Proper quantities of lactic acid in your cheese will also help to drive the whey from the curds.  This is a crucial step in the cheesemaking process except cheeses that are soft or unripened like cottage cheese.  The formation of lactic acid aside from helping in the curdling of the milk also helps in keeping dangerous bacteria out of the cheese.

Basically there are two different types of cultures available for use, they are:

Mesophilic startersthat work at moderate temperatures whenever the curds will be warmed to a temperature no greater then 102 degrees Fahrenheit.  These cheeses include some of our favorite cheeses like Cheddar and Gouda.

The other type of starter is Thermophilic that are heat loving cultures where the curds are heated to a temperature not to exceed 132 degrees Fahrenheit for making various Swiss and Italian cheeses.

Each basic type of starter has several subspecies one of them is designed to be used with goat milk cheese only.  This is one of the mesophilic starters.  If you are making cheese at home you can culture this using a small piece of your favorite cheese placed into buttermilk as a culture.  This is kept in a refrigerator when not being used.  You should inoculate another batch of butter milk that has been pasteurized every week.  In this way you can keep a cheese culture alive for generations much like a sour bread starter.

The thermophilic starter is cultured the same way except this time it is cultured in unflavored yogurt.  The life of this starter can be extended for generations by inoculating a fresh batch of yogurt once a week.

If in doubt you can purchase cheese starters from several sources by Googling “Cheese Starters.”


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