Cheese 101: Composition, Flavor, Styles

Cheese 101: Composition, Flavor, Styles

We’re excited to spread the (love) of cheese with a little Cheese 101 introduction. (And yes, our team of Certified Cheese Professionals all had to pass tests with the following knowledge!)

As legend has it, thousands of years ago, an Arab merchant put milk into a pouch made from a sheep’s stomach. As he rode, the heat agitated the milk and the enzymes from the lining of the stomach curdled the milk. More recently, a scientific paper revealed that the world’s oldest cheese was found in an ancient

Egyptian tomb from 1200 BC. Cheesemaking (starting with salting curds) became a common way to preserve milk with the domestication of animals. Travelers brought the art of cheesemaking from Asia to Europe. By the time of the Roman empire (625 BC - 476 AD), cheesemaking had spread across Europe and the Middle East. There is also a robust history of cheesemaking in China during the Ming Dynasty (starting in 1368 AD), as well as by Tibetans using yak milk. The first cheese factory in the United States was built in 1851 by Jesse Williams in New York. Want more? We love this brief Ted video from food historian and scientist Paul Kindstedt. There are also some great stories about the discovery of specific kinds of cheeses, like folklore about a shepherd who left his lunch in a cave to chase a girl (or wolf?) and, upon his return weeks later, found his cheese had developed mold. And thus Roquefort was “discovered.” (Isn’t cheese science cool?!)

Despite the hundreds of styles of cheese (and even more flavor profiles), all real cheese is made of the same, simple ingredients: milk, salt, rennet, and cultures. A famous Charles de Gaulle quote comes to mind: “How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?” And he was just speaking of France! Similar to the world of wine, it’s amazing that you can get such variety in styles and build flavors to create unique cheeses with the same ingredients. That’s why they say cheese is a mix of art and science! So what makes a cheese taste different from one to the next, and how can cheesemakers coax flavor out of their cheese? It all starts with the milk. Milk is composed of predominantly water (87%) and solids (13% - a combo of fat, protein, and minerals). You’ll learn more in the next section, but it’s worth noting that the best cheeses are made from the best quality milk, no matter what type of milk is used. Good animal husbandry practices and diet, as well length of time for fresh milk to be turned into cheese, are all the initial building blocks of a delicious cheese.

Milk Types
Cheese can and is commonly made from the milk of mammals like cows, goats, sheep, and water buffalo. Lesser known in the Western world, cheese is also made from the milk of yaks, horses, and even camels depending where you are in the world. Each has its own unique flavor and can be used to make any style of cheese. Here are some typical flavor profiles and characteristics of milk types commonly used to make cheese in the United States.

  • Cow Milk: abundant and available; grassy, buttery; most versatile flavors in cheese (ie Cheddar)
  • Goat Milk: tangy, acidic, minerally, bright; lowest in fat; easiest to digest for protein sensitivity (ie Fresh Chevre)
  • Sheep Milk: decadent, nutty; richer in fat; lower yield for shorter season, so often more expensive (ie Roquefort)
  • Water Buffalo Milk: wet hay, cellar-like, rich, sweet; richest in good fat and lower cholesterol (ie Mozzarella di Bufala)

What Affects Flavor?
So what affects flavor in cheese?

(1) Now you know the #1 contributing factor is the species’ milk (ie cow, goat, sheep, etc.).

(2) Also important is the specific breed type! Whether it’s Holstein or Jersey cow milk, Alpine or Nubian goat milk, or Lacaune or Friesian sheep milk (to name a few), there are variations within a species amongst breeds.

(3) Seasonality impacts flavor: what’s growing at that time of the year that the animals are munching on? Where are the ladies at in their lactation cycle? The time of year will impact the milk as well.

(4) And finally, the age of the cheese (or process of affinage or cheese maturation) can bring out different flavors in cheese, depending on temperature, humidity, length of time in maturation rooms, and care during that time (like regular cheese flipping).

Where Can Off Flavors Develop?
Anywhere in the process! Starting with poor or dirty milk quality, letting milk sit too

long before turning it into cheese, during the cheesemaking process, during aging, and the handling process throughout (from the maker to the distributor to the cheese case). It can get more science-based than this, but just know that it takes a lot of intentional decisions and hard work to make a really great tasting cheese. Dare we call it a true Labor of Love?! Yes!

To Learn More About Cheese
Come into the shop for a complimentary tasting, take a Cheese Tasting Class in our 100-year old Cheese House, or order any cheese class in a box to experience the differences in flavor. We work to include diverse styles of cheeses made from all milk types so you can get the most variety in your tasting experience.

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