Cheese 101: How Does the Aging Process Affect Different Cheese Flavors?
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Cheese is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating foods created by humans. It requires only one primary raw material, milk. Yet, out of that simplicity arises a mind-boggling range of variety and diversity.
A lot of the cheese variety is down to the process called aging, or ripening. To understand how aging affects cheese flavors, it is essential to understand the basic of cheese making.
Cheese Basics: What Comes Before Aging
Cheese can be made from any milk, cow, sheep, goat, or buffalo. All cheese making requires three other ingredients other than milk:
- A bacterial culture
Milk contains a combination of 90% water and the rest in sugars, fats, and proteins. To make cheese, milk is processed by adding a bacterial culture and rennet. There are seven different type of bacterial cultures used to create cheese, and each can give a different flavor to the cheese.
The Role of Culture, Rennet, and Salt
The bacteria break down the lactose into lactic acid, changing the flavor of the milk to sour. This also creates an acidic environment that prevents bad bacteria from growing. Rennet helps coagulate the proteins and fats, creating a solid mass (curd) separate from the water. This curd is the base material used in the creation of different varieties of cheese.
Before and during the aging process, salt is added to the cheese to control the moisture levels and the process of aging. It also helps prevent spoilage bacteria from attacking cheese during the aging process.
The Difference Between Fresh and Aged Cheese
The importance of aging process to cheese flavor can be easily understood by looking at the differences between fresh and aged cheeses. According to the American Cheese Society, the following cheese falls under the category of fresh cheese:
- Cream Cheese
- Cottage Cheese
Fresh cheeses are not aged and have a very mild, creamy flavor. They also tend to have more water than aged cheese.
Aged or cured cheese can be categorized as the following (with examples):
- Soft Ripened: Brie and Camembert
- Semi-Soft: Monterey Jack, Colby
- Hard: all Cheddars, Emmenthaler, and Parmesan
- Blue: Roquefort, Gorgonzola
- Pasta Filata: Italian cheeses like Scamorza and Provolone
- Natural Rind: English Stilton, Lancashire cheese
- Washed Rind: Epoisses, Taleggio
Take any fresh cheese, like organic cottage cheese, and compare it to any other on the list of aged cheese, like Cheddar or Gorgonzola. The latter will have a much sharper, tangy-sour taste and smell in comparison to the fresh cheese. This entirely down to the aging process.
What Happens to Cheese During the Aging Process
The aging process starts once the curds have been salted. The impact on the cheese during this period is both chemical and biological.
The culture inside the curd keeps breaking down the lactose in the cheese to lactic acid during the aging process. So, the longer a cheese is aged, the more sour and sharp its taste becomes. Bacteria can completely convert lactose to lactic acid in a matter of months.
The initial curd created by rennet contains complex long chain protein. During the aging process, these chains break down into smaller amino acid compounds. This is called proteolysis. These compounds give aged cheese their unique smoky, fruity, or nutty flavors. This process also alters the texture of the cheese and can lead to the creation of crunchy crystals (tyrosine) in some aged cheese.
During the aging process, further variety is added by introducing special bacterial and mold cultures to the cheese. The local environmental factors like temperature and humidity also play an important part and are called "terroir" in French.
Famous Cheeses and Their Aging Periods
This delicate French cheese is typically aged for three to five weeks. During the aging process, it is given a surface coating of a mold called Penicillium camemberti. This mold is what gives the cheese its buttery texture and unique taste.
The milder versions of this all-American cheese are only aged for a maximum of one month. But an older version, called Dry Jack, is aged for a minimum of three months and has a much sharper taste, and less moisture in it. Somewhat of a staple in American cuisine, it is a common ingredient used in making sandwiches.
This classic Swiss cheese is instantly recognizable because of the holes created in it during the aging process by carbon dioxide. Emmental cheese is graded into three types based on the aging time: Classic is aged for four months, while Reserve is allowed to sit for eight months, and Premier Cru for over a year.
This hard cheese is unique to the Italian regions like Parma, Modena, Mantua, and Bologna so it’s no surprise that it’s prevalent in Italian cuisine. Made using grass-fed cow milk, rennet, culture, and Mediterranean sea salt, this cheese owes its complex flavors to the very long aging process. Parmesan is aged for a minimum of two years.
Image credit: Wikimedia
Known as the ‘King of Cheeses’, this unique blue cheese is made from sheep milk and uses a special mold Penicillium Roquefort to get those blue veins. Since this mold is found in some caves in the Roquefort region in France, the authentic Roquefort cheese is aged for three months in these caves.
All cheeses owe their unique taste, character, flavor, and appearance to the aging process. While some of these factors can be replicated anywhere, the terroir can have a huge impact. So, if you want to truly experience authentic varieties of exotic cheese, sometimes the only option is a visit to its native county! Italy, in particular, is home to a wide range of unique local cheeses, not to mention a vibrant historical and rich culinary tradition.
Are you looking for a "cheesy" vacation? Why not head sign yourself up for a culinary vacation in Italy and enjoy the culinary delights of mozzarella, permesan, and more?