Aging

The last step in the cheese making process has as much influence as any previous step with regard to the properties and qualities of the finished cheese. As noted in Chapter 1, it is a fine line that separates the production of a perfectly flavored, three-year old Cheddar cheese and a bitter, rancid, sour Cheddar cheese that is quickly rejected by any discerning consumer. Although the distinctly different properties of both of these two cheese are the result of microbial and enzymatic activities, there is one clear distinguishing factor. The key difference is that the gourmet cheese is produced when aging occurs under controlled conditions, whereas the rejected cheese occurs when control is absent or lost. As a general rule, any cheese that is intended for aging must be manufactured, from the very start, differently than an unaged cheese. The handling of the milk, the cheese pH, the moisture and salt content, and the water/salt ratio, in particular, all are important determinants that influence aged cheese quality.

In addition to its impact on the finished cheese, aging or ripening is also one of the most complex and most variable of all cheese making steps.This is due largely to the enzymes and microorganisms that are primarily responsible for flavor and texture changes that occur during ripening.The enzymes in cheese may occur naturally in the milk or be added directly in the form of rennet, chymosin, or lipase extracts. Enzymes are also derived from starter culture bacteria, adjunct organisms, or endogenous milkborne organisms. Furthermore, the availability of substrates and the pH and Eh conditions in the cheese influence the activity of these enzymes and the types and amounts of products that are formed. Similarly, microorganisms in cheese originate from the milk, the environment, and the starter culture.Although the temperature in aging rooms is generally low (usually around 3°C to 7°C, but sometimes much higher), and the cheese milieu is not particularly conducive for growth (as noted above), metabolism of the various substrates in cheese by intact organisms still occurs. A ripening cheese represents a rather vibrant ecosystem.

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