Culture Shock

It’s common knowledge that yogurt, (a close cousin of cheese), contains many different bacterial cultures. Initially one might wince at the thought since bacteria often seems synonymous with sickness, but bacteria helps our body perform a number of important functions. One of the bacteria strains in yogurt has probiotic properties and anyone who has seen an Activia commercial knows about the benefits of ‘bifidus regularis’, thanks Jamie Lee Curtis! But bacteria and cultures play an important role in cheese making too…

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Getting that good bacteria [Image credit: The Irish Times]
There are countless varieties of cheese that start from the same simple ingredient, milk. Cheeses taste different depending on the type of milk that’s used: sheep, goat, cow, or buffalo. The maturation process and the amount of time the cheese is matured for also plays a role in the taste of cheese, but this still wouldn’t be possible without cultures.

I’ve been looking more and more into making my own cheese one day and in the process I’ve researched many different at-home cheese making kits and what they contain. There are many beginner cheeses such as mozzarella and ricotta that don’t require cultures, but most harder cheeses, and other cheeses such as feta, need added cultures just as much as they need milk.

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Adding the culture to milk [Image credit: blog.cheesemaking.com]
Up until I started doing my research on cultures I had absolutely no idea what cultures existed and how and why they were used. Since you can’t become an expert overnight I still only have a basic understanding. Once you start looking into the world of cultures it is a little overwhelming and way more scientific than I thought! I’ll do my best to present cultures in a way that’s easy to digest.

Cultures can also be called starter cultures. They’re added to pasteurized or raw milk in order to ripen it and thicken it, like the consistency of yogurt. When the culture is added it turns the already present lactose into lactic acid and replaces the bacteria that was already in the milk.

There are two main types of cultures that are used in cheese making. Mesophilic cultures and thermophilic cultures. Mesophilic cultures are used for cheeses that are heated at a medium temperature, which is 90% of cheeses.  Thermophilic cultures are then used for cheeses that are heated are higher temperatures. There are then countless strains of bacteria that fall within both categories. Deciding which one to pick is a matter of how the cheese is intended to taste! Mesophilic cultures generally have a ‘buttery’ taste and are used in cheeses like cottage cheese, blue cheese, Brie, and Gouda, while thermophilic cultures are sharper and used most often in hard Italian cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano, Provolone, and Romano.

The next time you eat cheese take a minute to stop and think about how it turned from milk into an important part of your delicious meal! Try and guess whether the culture was mesophilic or thermophilic and if you’re extra curious look up exactly what culture was used! The more you know!

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