DUMB CHEESE QUESTIONS
cheesemaker Steve Bechel gives smart answers to our dumb questions
Wisconsinites might be cheeseheads, but we’re not all cheesemeisters. When it comes to the real questions about our state snack, it might be best to call in an expert. Thankfully, no question was too silly for our hero.
Steve Bechel, cheesemaker-in-chief at Eau Galle Cheese Factory, was raised right. His mother taught him that if he didn’t have anything nice to say, he shouldn’t say anything at all. That’s probably why he avoided our questions about Cheese Whiz ...
Q. What IS cheese, exactly?
A. Cheese is a way to preserve the nutrients from milk and extend the shelf life, which is otherwise very short. It utilizes the casein protein and fat from cheese to form a coagulum that is formed by adding cultures and rennet to acidify the milk. After the coagulum is cut into pieces, it is stirred out to allow syneresis (shrinking to expel water) of the curd. The liquid that is expelled is the whey. The curd is then pressed in a form to take shape. There are so many different ways of doing this depending upon the cheese you are trying to make, all of which influence the flavor and body of the cheese as it ages.
Q. Can you make cheese out of ANY kind of milk?
A. Lots of cheese is being made out of a variety of milk today; i.e. goat, sheep, buffalo, yak, camel, etc. Holstein milk is 3.5% fat, 3.2% protein, and 5.7% other solids for a total of about 12.5% total solids. With these components you will yield about 1 pound of cheese per 10 pounds of milk, if you’re making a cheddar. Cheese is primarily made up of the protein, specifically the casein protein, and fat, but there are also some other minerals, including calcium, remaining in the cheese. With other types of milk, components will vary tremendously and so will yields and flavor, but you can certainly make cheese from them.
Q. What is “cheese product”?
A. It is a product that contains some cheese but also many other ingredients that wouldn’t meet the standard of identity of traditional cheese. These products normally contain other ingredients like whey protein concentrate, vegetable oils, or sugar, and will typically use emulsifiers to keep the products mixed and also aid holding additional moistures. Some of these cheeses can exceed 65% water. Examples are processed cheeses like American slices and some cheese sauces. If you look at the ingredient statement, traditional cheese will only have a few ingredients: milk (pasteurized or raw), cultures, and salt are what are typically found. You might also see annatto for colored cheeses, which is an orange-red dye obtained naturally from the pulp of a tropical fruit.
Q. When is it OK to use American cheese?
A. American cheese is great on a hamburger.
Q. Is expensive cheese worth the money?
A. Absolutely, I appreciate fresh cheeses for their clean, dairy taste, but a specialty cheese aged to perfection is something of an entirely different experience. Typically those cheeses have a long-lasting flavor that sticks around after you’ve eaten it, so a little piece can go along way. Going to a specialty store and trying new cheeses is a hobby for me. I’ve been disappointed a few times, but normally it is a great experience! It’s like craft beer or wine tasting.
Q. How can you tell the difference between edible mold and inedible mold?
A. Edible mold is present only on cheeses that are specifically produced utilizing mold as a flavor enhancer, which include Bleu Cheese, Gorgonzola, Stilton, and many others. Mold can also assist in adding a protective layer to keep other unwanted bacteria out. For example, on Brie or Camembert, the outside mold is penicillium and adds the flavor characteristic that the cheese is known for, but it also makes a protective layer that keeps unwanted bacteria or other microorganisms out. The outside layer of mold is edible and when eaten together with the creamy inside makes the balanced flavor we love. If you haven’t had brie smeared on a piece of French bread you are really missing out!
Q. Can you eat cheese that’s caught non-edible mold?
A. Unwanted mold generally can’t penetrate far enough into hard and semisoft cheeses, like Cheddar, Colby, Parmesan, and others. So it’s no problem to cut off the moldy outside and eat the rest of the cheese. These molds are still safe to eat for normal, healthy adults, but I wouldn’t recommend it; plus they will not taste good. If you have a cheese that is excessively moldy you can still get an “off” flavor after the mold is cut away.
Q. What is the fastest cheese in a cheese wheel race?
A. Definitely Parmesan wheels: they are like a fine Italian sports car. That’s why you should only buy Parmesan in a wheel form like we make at Eau Galle Cheese! Most parmesan is made in 40-lb. blocks today, and they do not match the flavor and body characteristics of traditionally made wheels. Our process is significantly slower and much more labor intensive, but if you taste the difference it is worth all the effort!
Q. Why do some cheeses melt and not others?
A. Melting of cheese is influenced by many different factors. Higher-moisture cheese melts better than lower-moisture cheese. Higher-fat cheese melts better, but then produces more oil than lower-fat cheese. The age of the cheese makes a big difference. Fresh cheese, like cheese curds, tend to hold shape when melted and older cheese flows very easy. Age also influences the stretch of cheese when melted. Older cheese will have a “weak” body and therefore will flow very easily but will also not stretch. These are big factors when using mozzarella on pizzas; it’s critical to use the mozzarella in the window when it functions the best, typically this is from two to sixweeks of age. Younger and you will get a hash-brown look on the pizza, older and the cheese will want to flow off the pizza without any body or stretch.
Q. Is there an ideal local cracker for cheese snacking?
A. We carry Rustic Bakery Organic Sourdough Flatbread in our retail store. They are made in Petaluma, California, so they aren’t local, but they are incredible paired with any of our 100-plus cheeses. My favorite cracker …
Q. What’s the worst cheese you’ve ever eaten?
A. Only cheeses that have off flavors that aren’t there intentionally, or cheese that is overaged that wasn’t intended to be aged. Limburger and German Brick are both very good when eaten at the proper age, but if overaged or have temperature abuse they can get pretty ripe. Or cheddar at too high of a moisture level or improper pH isn’t intended to be aged, so they get very acidy which is a flavor that can be a pretty common defect in cheese.
Q. What’s the best cheese you’ve ever eaten?
A. A few years back I found a wheel of our Asiago in aging that had gotten missed and was about 4 years old. When I cut it, the body was extremely creamy and the flavor was great. I gave a piece to a chef friend of mine to try, the next time I saw him he gave me pieces of the cheese dipped in balsamic reduction. It was an eye-opening experience how pairing different flavors can produce amazing flavors. I will never forget that.