The basic ingredients to make cheese are simple and easy to obtain. If you are interested in making your own cheese, check out our post about How to Make Cheese at Home. You can also find information on everything you need to make cheese in our review page about Cheese Making Kits, and where to find and buy them.
What are the main ingredients in cheese and what do they do? Ingredient lists are often not fully understood by the consumer. We are used to reading words like “Pasteurized” or “modified”, but what do these terms mean?
Fortunately, regular cheese (not processed) has a few simple ingredients that are easy to explain. I will dedicate a separate blog to processed cheese, as this is completely different than cheese made from fresh milk.
Ingredients are typically listed on the label in order of the amount used. Ingredients are listed by quantity, the highest to the lowest amount in the product. I am using the same method to list the ingredients in this post. You might find some, or all of the following ingredients in your cheese. The items with an asterix (*) beside them are the ones that are essential for the process of cheese making. The below list does not apply to processed cheese or industrial cream cheeses (like Philadelphia).
1. milk *
You might find the main ingredient “Milk”, listed on the label in several different ways.
The majority of dairy products, including cheeses, in North America are made from pasteurized milk. Pasteurization was invented by the French scientist Louis Pasteur in 1864. Pasteurization kills off all pathogenic organisms, which are the ones that can make us sick.
Back then, one of the big problems was Tuberculosis. Cows can carry TB, transfer it into the milk, and pass it to humans. Coliform bacteria, which are often found in non pasteurized milk, can cause a number of diseases. Other bacteria are Listeria or Salmonella. All of them get eliminated through pasteurization. The process is fairly simple and has two main types:
Mild pasteurization machine
Low temperature, long time pasteurization (vat pasteurization)
Milk is heated in a vat to 63C/146F and kept at that temperature for 30 minutes, then slowly cooled. This method is labour and energy intensive, but is very gentle on the milk.
High temperature, short time pasteurization (HTST)
Milk is pumped through plates and heated very quickly to 72C/163F and kept there for 16 seconds, then cooled immediately. This method is very labour and energy efficient, but a lot of pumping of the milk is required.
The end product is the same, no pathogen bacteria are present. There is an enzyme in milk called Phosphatase, which modulates cell activity. It gets destroyed through the process. Milk that is tested phosphatase negative is proven to be pasteurized.
The milk is considered raw when it’s not pasteurized. In North America and Europe raw milk can be used for cheese making, but not for other dairy products. This is due to aging. Through the cheese aging process, possible pathogen bacteria get eliminated. Government agencies ask milk processors for strict quality assurance procedures that guarantee the safety of the dairy product for the consumer. Regulations don’t allow the use of raw milk other than for aged cheese.
Heat Treated Milk
Heat treated milk is still raw because it is not pasteurized. It’s an in-between procedure often used to produce raw milk cheese. Heat treatment typically heats the milk from 55 to 60 degrees for about 1 minute, which starts to kill off Coliform bacteria. Cheese from heat treated milk can still be sold as a raw milk cheese, but it gives the cheese maker a tool to control the quality. Heat treatment does not eliminate any enzymes in the milk.
Whole Milk, Partially Skimmed Milk, or Skimmed Milk
Depending on the desired fat content of the cheese, the cheese maker takes fat out of the milk before starting the cheese making process. Cheese can be made with whole milk (full cream milk), or skim milk (no fat milk), or anything in between. The fat is taken from the milk with a cream separator.
A cream separator takes in account that fat is lighter than water and it separates the cream from the milk via centrifugal force. It’s a mechanical process and does not alter the milk. In the past, milk was often stored overnight in a big trough or vat. By morning, a good portion of the cream would have risen to the top of the milk (due to it being lighter). The cheese maker would then scooped off the cream. The cream separator basically does the same thing, only quicker.
Homogenization means to make the milk homogeneous. Fat is the one component in milk that doesn’t mix with the other water based components. In non-homogenized milk, the fat will start to rise to the top, because it is lighter than water. Non-homogenized milk would clog the bottleneck of a milk bottle, or would leave white streaks in coffee or tea. In refrigerated milk, the fat hardens and leaves chunks. Most dairy products are made with homogenized milk, except for most cheeses.
A homogenizer prevents the fat from separating from the milk
How does a homogenizer work?
The fat consists of globules, which are round balls that are distributed throughout the milk. The homogenizer is a big pump that squeezes the milk through a tiny orifice which breaks the milk globules apart.
In the second stage, the homogenizer pumps the milk against a steel plate where the fat globules shatter. Similar to smashing a light bulb to the ground. The fat globules are torn and smashed into tiny pieces that no longer rise to the top of the milk. The milk is now homogenized. It’s a mechanical process and there is controversy that homogenized milk is less healthy than non homogenized milk. These are theories that have not been proven.
Most soft, semi hard, and hard cheeses are made with non-homogenized milk. Fresh cheese, cream cheese, cottage cheese and cheese spreads are made with homogenized milk.
2. Pasteurized Cream
Cheeses with a high fat content, like Double or Triple Cream Brie, require the milk to be enhanced with extra cream. The cheese maker adds cream to the milk in order to get the fat content to a level that will make a high fat cheese. Usually this is not done with raw milk cheeses, therefore; cream as an ingredient is always pasteurized.
3. Modified Milk Ingredients
Modified Milk Ingredients are milk ingredients that have been altered from the original state of milk through a process. If you see this ingredient on a cheese label it usually refers to Milk Powder.
In industrial type cheeses, milk powder is often added to the milk to lower the production cost. It is unfortunate that the term “modified milk ingredients” doesn’t need to be specified because it could also refer to whey powder, protein powder, or protein concentrate. Milk powder is dried milk and is still a natural product with no other ingredients. The drying process alters the fresh milk, hence the term “modified”.
4. Salt *
Most cheeses contain salt. Exceptions are some brands that market specifically a ‘no salt’ cheese. Salt enhances the flavor and helps preserve the product. Salt is also needed in rind ripened cheeses.
Sodium in Cheese
The big concern in a lot of diets is the sodium content which directly correlates with the salt in the product; However, in cheese, the salt content influences enzyme and bacterial activity, which again influences the final sodium content. The various types of cheese show a huge variance in sodium content.
Examples of low sodium cheese would be Swiss Emmental and Cottage Cheese. Higher sodium cheeses are Blue Cheese and grating cheese like Parmesan. The highest sodium content would be processed cheese. In a larger food comparison, cheese is higher on the sodium scale, comparable to ham, cornflakes, or baked goods.
Cheese is being salted in a saturated salty solution, called brine
5. Orange Colour or Annatto
Measuring the exact amount of Annatto to give the cheddar its orange colour.
This ingredient is used in coloured cheeses only, which typically are orange or marble cheddars. Annatto is a food colouring extracted from the seeds of a tropical tree called Achiote. Orange cheese originates in England and goes back hundreds of years.
The milk of pastured cows is naturally yellow due to the high carotene content. During the winter months the milk would lose that tinted yellow colour, and in order to have a consistent yellow cheese, Annatto was added. Annatto is declared a natural food colouring, but there are some people who can have allergic reactions to it. Annatto is added to the milk before the cheese making process begins.
6. Bacterial Culture *
Cheese is a fermented product, which means bacteria convert the lactose into lactic acid. Bacteria are present in raw milk, but we don’t know which strains. After pasteurization there is hardly any bacteria left. So in the case of both raw and pasteurized milk used for cheese, the cheese maker adds specific bacteria.
The origin of these bacteria go back hundreds of years and have been unknowingly separated by cheese makers over centuries. Once science discovered how to isolate bacteria strains, the dairy industry made a leap. Bacteria from specific cheese plants, from specific regions, were isolated and made available for the production of these local specialties.
Freeze dried bacteria culture, ready to be added to the milk.
Freeze dried cheese culture
Nowadays, a huge variety of bacteria are available in freeze dried form. The cheese maker can experiment and create a cheese with bacteria that will give the cheese certain characteristics, or have health benefits like probiotics. In Switzerland, for example, the typical bacteria used in the traditional Swiss cheeses are produced and regulated through a government facility. Only approved plants can access these bacteria cultures that have been used for centuries. Typical bacteria used in cheese production are: Lb Lactis, LB helveticus, Lb bulgaricus, Sc Thermophilus, and Sc Cremoris.
Cheeses like Brie or Blue use special mold spores added to the milk. These are mold cultures not bacteria cultures. Sometimes they are listed separately on the label. Typical cultures used in Brie are Penicilium Candidum and Geotrichum Candidum. A typical culture for Blue Cheese is Penicilium Roqueforti.
Edible mould is an ingredient in some cheeses, like Brie or Blue.
7. Rennet or Microbial Enzyme *
Rennet is an enzyme called Chymase, which creates the coagulation process in the milk.
Here’s how it works:
The main protein in milk is casein. Imagine this protein looks like a ball with a handle on it. The handle part makes casein dissolve in water, it’s a solution where casein is uniformly distributed within the milk.
Chymase attacks casein and cuts off the water soluble handle. Now it’s not a solution anymore and the milk becomes curd. The milk starts to firm like a pudding as it coagulates. When the cheese maker cuts the curd into small pieces, the curds then separate from the water, which is called whey.
The exact amount of rennet needed is measured.
Chymase is found in the stomachs of small ruminants (ungulates that chew cud) and, in the past, rennet was taken from the calf’s stomach. Today the rennet enzyme is produced by microorganisms in a lab. There are also plants that produce a rennet enzyme.
Calcium is an important component in this process, so it is often added to the milk.
8. Calcium Chloride
Calcium is naturally present in milk. It is a vital ingredient for the cheese maker because it helps “build” the casein curd. Pasteurization of the milk affects the calcium, so often cheese makers add calcium back into the milk before starting the cheese making process. The term “chloride” means that calcium is added in a form of salt.
Colour is an important aspect of food. The colour of milk can vary a lot depending on the animal that produced it (cow or goat), the season, and the type of feed used. Cows who eat grass take in beta carotene, which will make the milk yellowish. Goats on the other hand convert the beta carotene into vitamin A; therefore, they always produce a very white milk.
In order to keep the colour of cow milk cheese the same white during the year, some industrial producers add colour to the cows milk. Often this ingredient in North America is not specified. In Europe all colour ingredients have codes that are publicly accessible.
Natamycin is not used often as an ingredient, more as a coating, and therefore it is not often seen on ingredient labels. Natamycin is an antifungal preservative. It prevents the cheese from getting mouldy. It is derived from bacteria and is considered a natural ingredient.
11. Guar Gum, Xantham Gum, Carrageenan and Locust Bean Gum
These stabilizers and emulsifiers are often found in cream cheese and cottage cheese, never in a sliceable, aged soft, semi-soft or hard cheese. Guar gum comes from the Guar bean. Xantham gum is produced by a bacteria in fermented sugar. Locust Bean Gum comes from the seeds of the carob tree, and Carrageenans are produced by a seaweed. All are considered natural ingredients; however, all of them have allergenic properties.
In order to make cheese, and probably the very best cheese in my opinion, we only need the following ingredients:
- Good quality milk, either raw or pasteurized
- Bacteria Culture
- Rennet or an equivalent microbial enzyme
That’s all that’s needed. Artisan cheeses have been made with these simple ingredients for hundreds of years. Industrial Cheese caters to a broader consumer audience, needs to be more cost effective with a longer shelf life, and convenient packaging. But even most industrially made cheeses follow the same process cheese makers have used for centuries.
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