With over one-third of all milk in the US being used to produce it, it is safe to say that Americans have a love and an appetite for cheese. Since it was first made over 4,000 years ago, cheese has been an important part of the diets of many cultures. Cheese can be made from the milk of many mammals, with each type of milk producing a different flavor and consistency. Milk can come from cows, sheep, goats, buffalo, yak, reindeer, or camels, with 10 pounds of milk yielding about one pound of cheese.

Cheese is rich in calcium, protein, phosphorous, zinc, and vitamins A and B12. Contrary to popular belief, some cheeses may be eaten by people with lactose intolerance, as aged cheeses often have little to no lactose present. Most cheese is made with pasteurized milk in order to protect against dangers like tuberculosis and salmonella.

Cheese is formed through the coagulation of the milk protein casein, caused by adding an acid or starter culture to milk followed by the addition of rennet, a milk-clotting enzyme. Rennet is found in the stomachs of ruminant animals, though certain vegetables and molds can be sources of natural vegetarian rennet. However, much of the rennet used in cheese making today is now produced artificially. In this process, the genes responsible for rennet production are extracted from animal stomachs and inserted into bacteria, fungi, or yeast, which then produce the necessary enzyme, chymosin, during fermentation. This fermentation-produced chymosin (FPC) is then separated out and used in place of animal, vegetable, or microbial rennet to coagulate the casein in milk.

Coagulation causes a separation of semi-solids (curds) and liquids (whey). The curds are then removed from the whey and pressed into their final shape. The kind of cheese produced depends on a number of variables in this basic process: the type of starter culture used, the amount of whey remaining in the curds, how the curds are worked after separation, the amount of pressure applied to the curds, and whether the cheese is packaged fresh or aged.

The aging and culturing process, or lack thereof, is key in determining the flavor and consistency of the final cheese product. For soft cheese, production is often complete after curdling; the curds are simply drained, salted (optional), and packaged. Hard cheese has a few more steps after curdling. It is drained, sometimes heated to eliminate more whey, and then pressed into a mold, driving out even more moisture. Next begins the aging, or ripening, process. The cheese is left to rest in controlled conditions for a length of time ranging from days to years. As it ages, microbes and enzymes in the environment change the texture, body, and flavor of the cheese. Traditionally, cheeses were ripened in cellars or caves and the bacteria naturally present created flavors unique to those environments. Some cheeses are encouraged to ripen from the outside inwards through the introduction of mold to the surface, as in the case of Brie. Other cheeses, like Stilton, are ripened by mold from the inside.

Most cheeses today are no longer made in caves and cellars, but are instead produced on a large scale in factories. Industrially made cheese is subject to strict standardization and regulation and is as much a science as it is a craft, aided by modern computers and technology. The results of industrial cheese making are generally very consistent, with the quality depending entirely on the producers and manufacturers. However, factory-made cheeses may contain ingredients that are not added by smaller scale producers, such as coloring, anti-caking agents, preservatives, and stabilizers.

While many consumers value the consistency of industrially produced cheese, others prefer the variations and inconsistencies born of smaller scale operations. Farmstead cheese, for example, is cheese made with milk from the farmer’s own herd, on the farm where the animals are raised, with no additional milk from outside sources, which gives that cheese a flavor found nowhere else.

Cheese is incredibly versatile and varied, and there are many types available at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Typically classified based on moisture content, cheese can also be categorized based on fat content or curing or ripening methods. Here are some of the common classifications you might see when picking out cheeses.

  • Fresh cheese: Cheese is either not aged at all or only slightly cured and therefore retains a high moisture content. These cheeses generally have a mild, creamy taste and a soft, often spreadable, texture. In the US, these cheeses are always made with pasteurized milk but are still highly perishable. Examples of fresh cheeses include mascarpone and ricotta.
  • Soft-ripened cheese: These cheeses are ripened from the outside in by spraying the surface with mold before aging, producing an edible rind on the exterior and a softer, sometimes runny, interior. The flavor is usually mild when young and gets much stronger with age. Examples of soft-ripened cheeses include Brie and Camembert.
  • Semi-soft cheese: These cheeses are very diverse, with flavors ranging from mild to very strong. The texture is generally smooth, with a creamy interior, little to no rind, and a higher moisture content. Depending on the length of time the cheese is aged, either pasteurized or raw milk can be used. Examples include Havarti and many blue cheeses. Many washed rind cheeses also fall into this category.
  • Firm or hard cheese: This type encompasses a broad range of cheeses with flavors from mild to quite pungent. Typically aged longer than other cheeses, they have textures varying from elastic to hard to crumbly, a result of the lower moisture content. Examples of this kind of cheese include Gouda and Parmesan.
  • Blue cheese: Blue cheeses are easily recognized by their blue or green veining, produced by the introduction of different types of the Penicillium bacteria during production. Flavors vary but these cheeses are often sharp and salty and are accompanied by a very distinct odor. Examples include Roquefort and Gorgonzola.
  • Natural rind cheese: These cheeses have a self-formed rind that develops during aging, which usually takes place without adding mold or washing. Many of these cheeses are aged longer to develop the flavor and the rind and can therefore be made with raw milk. Stilton is an example of this type of cheese.
  • Washed rind cheese: This popular cheese is surface-ripened, with a rind produced by regularly washing the cheese in saltwater brine, beer, cider, wine, brandy, or some combination thereof. This washing encourages the growth of mold that forms a sticky, moist, bright orange to brown rind. Flavors and smell are often strong and the texture semi-soft or even creamy. Examples of washed rind cheeses are Limburger and Taleggio. Within this category are smear-ripened cheeses, made by smearing bacteria, fungi, or even pieces of old cheese directly onto the new cheese. In the case of these cheeses, the rind is washed to discourage the growth of undesirable bacteria. Munster is an example of smear-ripened cheese.
  • Brined cheese: These cheeses, common in the Mediterranean and Middle East, are matured in a solution of brine (salt water) to stop bacterial growth. Flavor varies widely as does consistency. Examples of brined cheeses include feta and halloumi.