what to know about cheese
If you are a home cheese maker or a cheese lover, here are a few facts you will want to know about cheese. If you are interested in making your own cheese at home, check out our instructional post How to Make cheese at Home. You can also check out our favourite cheese recipes on our Cheese Making Recipes page.
We review and suggest cheese making kits and the products you need to make cheese. Visit our Cheese Making Kit and Reviews page for more info.
For more information about cheese ingredients, check out our Ingredients in Cheese post.
Milk from cows and goats consists of about 3.5% fat, 3.3% protein, 4.8% lactose, 0.5% minerals and vitamins and 88% water. The protein consists of 88% casein and 12% whey proteins ( albumin and globulin). The milk of sheep , water buffalo and camel is significantly higher in fat.
Cheese quality is directly affected by milk quality since milk is the main ingredient. The milk must be collected in a sanitary manner from healthy animals. The quality of milk is determined by 5 factors:
- Smell and taste. Milk should have a rich fresh smell and taste
- Appearance. Clean, white cow milk can be slightly yellow during the summer months.
- Total aerobic bacteria count: how many oxygen dependent bacteria colonies are present in the milk
- Somatic cells: these are dead cells produced in the udder. A healthy animal, which was milked in a proper fashion will have a low count.
- The complete absence of antibiotics or cleaning chemicals.
The principle is the same as with apple juice. Bad apples will make a bad apple juice, same with milk and any product derived from it.
Good cheese starts with good milk. Good milk comes from healthy animals that are well housed and well taken care of. Good milk comes from clean facilities and is collected in a sanitary fashion and is cooled immediately.
Cheese is a fermented milk product. Carefully selected bacteria convert the lactose (which is a form of sugar) into lactic acid within the first 20 hours of the cheese making process. During the aging process the bacteria break down the protein, which gives the cheese its typical flavor. Further an enzyme called Lipase breaks down the fat, which also has a big influence on the development of flavor and taste.
These complicated processes are influenced by:
- The milk components (how much fat, for instance, was originally in the milk.)
- The type of bacteria added to the milk, or in the case of a raw milk cheese, what kind of bacteria were originally in the milk.
- Aging conditions: how the temperature and moisture of the aging room are selected.
- Treatment or non-treatment of the aging cheese: is the cheese being washed for rind development, or is it waxed, or vacuum packed.
I think it’s amazing that all the different cheeses in the world come from Milk. They all derive from a fairly simple process that is thousands of years old, yet involves a highly complex chemical process.
Nutritional Value of Cheese
Moisture and Fat Content in Cheese
Looking at a cheese label in North America, it will indicate the Fat% and the Moisture%. In Europe, a lot of cheese labels also indicate FIT, which is Fat in Dry Matter.
Basically, the more water the cheese contains, the softer it is and the lower the total dry matter content is. Cheeses with high water content, for example, are Brie, Chevre, Cream Cheese or Fresh Mozzarella. These cheeses are typically aged less and also expire faster, which means the breakdown of the protein happens faster and the taste will get stronger to the point where it is barely consumable.
On the other end of the scale would be the extra hard cheeses like Parmesan, Grana Padano or Pecorino, mostly used as grating cheeses. These cheeses have a low moisture a higher dry matter content and are aged a long time, some well over a year. Due to the low water content, the aging process is slow, and these cheeses can be kept for a very long time; as long as they don’t get mouldy.
In between we have the semi hard cheeses like Gouda, Pizza Mozzarella1, or Havarti, and the hard cheeses like Cheddar, Swiss or Gruyere.
Only industrially produced cheeses have an exact consistent fat and moisture content. Artisan cheeses are made with milk as it comes in, which means the components differ according to the season. The moisture content varies slightly as well. Typically government authorities allow a 10% variation from the label.
The FIT, the fat content in dry matter, is not dependent on the moisture content of the cheese. It tells us how much fat is in the dry matter of the cheese and directly correlates to the amount of fat coming from the milk. For consumers this parameter is not of much interest, however, for the cheese maker this is an important number and tells him how much milk fat he needs in the milk in order to reach the correct FIT.
Carbs in Cheese
Most cheeses have hardly any carbs left. The main carb in milk is lactose, which gets completely fermented during the cheese making process. Some fresh cheeses like cottage cheese contain carbs, but it’s an exception. Other fermented milk products like Yogurt or Sour Cream have very little carbs lefts as well. Only milk and milk drinks that are not fermented have lactose and therefore carbs in them.
Proteins in Cheese
All cheeses are a good source of protein. The more aged a cheese is, the more proteins are broken down and it makes the cheese easy to digest. The protein in cheese is called casein. Casein comes in different types ( α-s1, α-s2 , ß, and 6). The whey proteins, which are present in the milk, do not make it into the cheese. These two proteins are called Albumin and Globulin and are very high value proteins and are used in protein powders, hence the name ‘whey powders’.
Minerals in cheese
If we burned a piece of cheese, what would be left is ash, which ultimately are the minerals. Minerals in small amounts are essential for our health. The two biggest minerals in cheese are Calcium and Phosphorus. Both are important for our bones, teeth, hair and nails. Other minerals in cheese are Potassium, Sodium and Magnesium.
The most important mineral for the cheese maker is Calcium. Calcium in the milk helps to coagulate the milk which is the first step in the cheese making process.
Vitamins in Cheese
There are two groups of Vitamins. The water based ones (C, B,) and the fat based ones (A,D,E,K). Milk contains all these Vitamins in various amounts. Cheese has a good amount of fat based vitamins, especially Vitamin A, but not a lot of water based ones. Vitamin D is produced in the body according to exposure to sunlight, so typically pastured animals produce milk with higher amounts of Vitamin D. Also, summer milk contains more Vitamin D than winter milk.
Enzymes in Cheese
Enzymes also play a very important role in our nutrition. There are 2 types of enzymes:
The enzymes the body produces:
These are enzymes that we would typically find in milk. Enzymes like Protease, which breaks down Proteins, Lipase which breaks down fats. Phosphatase is an enzyme that gets destroyed through pasteurization and is therefore used to confirm if milk has been properly pasteurized.
Phosphatase modulates the activities of the proteins in a cell. Another milk enzyme is Peroxidase. It breaks down hydrogen peroxide which is a toxin produced as a byproduct of using oxygen for respiration. Peroxidase survives pasteurization, but not Ultra Pasteurization, which makes milk shelf stable.
The enzymes produced by bacteria:
Unwanted bacteria in milk can produce an enzyme that can alter the taste of the milk, however, the cheese maker can add enzymes to the milk to create a typical flavor. The most commonly used enzyme in cheese making is Lipase, which breaks down fat. Unwanted production of Lipase makes a rancid milk. Controlled use of Lipase creates the typical flavor in Feta or Parmesan cheese.
The most important enzyme for the cheese maker is Chymase, or also known as Rennet. It is not found in milk, but is produced in baby ruminant stomach and curdles the milk. Today, most cheese is made with rennet that was produced by microorganisms and not by the extract from a calf’s stomach. Often you will see the claim on the label as “ microbial enzyme” which refers to rennet. The original rennet derived from a calf’s stomach is not accepted among vegetarians.
holes in cheese
The most famous holes in cheese come from the Swiss Emmental cheese. Large round holes, also called eyes. The cheese maker adds a bacteria called Propionic Acid Bacteria to the milk. This bacteria produces a lot of CO2, which expands in the crevices of the young cheese and creates the holes. This bacteria also adds to the typical ‘nutty” taste of Swiss Cheese.
There are a lot of other cheeses that show small eyes, like Havarti or Tilsit. These holes also come from expanding CO2, which the wanted bacteria produce during the aging process. The cheese maker can enhance eye production by purposely creating crevices in the fresh cheese, where the CO2 has room to expand. Cheeses with no holes are typically pressed in a way so no crevices are present.
Unwanted bacteria like e.coli, produce a crazy amount of gas and can bloat a cheese until it bursts, typically with a very bad smell.
Please let me know in a comment below if you have any questions regarding cheese and its components. How well do you think our food labels inform the consumer?